Life as a female Continental rider: Paid and professional?

Making it onto a UCI-registered team is a goal for many young riders. Once they get there though, the reality isn't always so glamorous.

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Since 2020, women’s professional road racing teams have been divided into two groups: top-tier Women’s WorldTeams (nine teams in 2021), and second-tier Continental teams (more than 50). There are differences between the two levels in terms of budget and professionalism, but even within the Continental ranks there are huge differences. A nominally Continental squad like Team Jumbo-Visma – one of the world’s most successful teams – technically operates at the same level as much smaller teams who don’t pay riders.

In this first article in a series, South African racer Kerry Jonker shares the reality of racing for one of the sport’s smaller Continental outfits.

Most of the articles covering women’s cycling in the media are naturally about the Women’s WorldTour. I want to try and give some attention to the Continental scene and the realities some teams and riders face. While some Women’s Continental teams run similarly to men’s Pro Team (second-tier) standards – riders receive a living wage and no out-of-pocket costs – many run on a much smaller budget comparable to the lower end of the men’s Continental scene.

From 2018-2020 I rode for an established Belgian club team, Isorex No-Aqua, who participated in many UCI races. Even though I was racing UCI riders often (there was only one tier then) I still looked up to and idolised them with my goal being to join that club as soon as possible.

In 2020, despite the crazy year we had, I managed to do enough to prove myself and score a ride on the Canadian-French UCI Continental team Macogep Tornatech Girondins de Bordeaux (yes, quite the name). I always thought that when I made it onto a UCI team I would be a “bigger fish” and see myself differently, but that could not have been further from the truth.

Pay and equipment

I’ll start by addressing the elephant in the room: “Did you get paid?” I was lucky enough to get paid by my team but it was not a significant wage. Based on data from The Cyclists’ Alliance, I knew I was in the top 50% of earners in the women’s peloton, which was quite a scary fact and shows the true state of women’s professional cycling.

The pay did not come without consequence, however, as my contract only ran from the start of January through to the end of October, rather than the usual full year. This was so the team would not have to pay me for the last couple months of the year.

I decided that even if it had run through to December, it likely would have made no difference as the total amount would have been the same – it would just have been less per month. I ended up having to wait until December anyway as my manager wanted the team-issued equipment back in Canada before I was fully paid out.

This meant I was left without a bike while I returned my old one and awaited my team bike for 2022. Fortunately, this happened to be during my off-season, but it still wasn’t something I wanted to have to worry about. It also left me quite confused in November as to which kit to wear. I had been given a kit by my 2022 team but technically wasn’t riding for them yet.

Talking about the bike, we were lucky enough to be supported by Specialized Canada. We were provided with fantastic bikes, shoes, helmets, and race wheels for the year and, compared to some other teams, it was a really good setup.

To help minimise costs, the team had us running rim-brake frames as they already had a large stock of rim-brake wheels from past years. This is a common occurrence in the men’s Continental scene as well as it can be incredibly expensive for a team to find 12 sets of new race wheels for disc-brake bikes. It did mean we were all on different frames as Specialized is moving away from rim-brake bikes. It was the first time in a while that I was actively concerned about the UCI minimum bike weight rule (6.8 kg), which certainly helped in the hilly races.

Unfortunately, some Continental teams still don’t pay riders and even make them cover race costs such as transport and COVID tests. I realise I am extremely lucky that my team covered most costs and had some extra money for a salary. Although the wage wasn’t huge, it certainly helped, and it is nice to see more female teams make a point of paying riders. Hopefully these wages will reflect the growth that women’s cycling has taken over the past few years and will allow the sport to expand in a more professional way.

Race logistics

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the women’s Continental scene is the uncertainty of race days. The COVID pandemic forced more race cancellations at the start of 2021 which left every team wanting to do the few races that were still on.

At the higher level of racing, the first 15 spots are taken up by the nine WorldTour teams with the six best-ranked Continental teams also receiving an automatic invite. This leaves 1-9 spots for the rest of the Continental teams with these races being hugely important as they are often the only ones broadcast live on television.

Race invites can come down to anything from how well your team manager knows the race director, to if you have a star rider or a larger presence on social media. The calendar you are given at the start of the year is never a certainty, so you are often training without a clear goal in mind and may get called up to races at the very last second.

There were a couple of instances where I actually ran some of the logistics for the team. In one case there was a UCI .2-level race in Serbia which a few of the riders wanted to go to but the team said the budget didn’t allow for. I was very keen to race because of the lack of race days we had had this year, so I actually paid for some of my teammates to come and helped organise the logistics for it.

We arrived at the race with no staff and the commissaires laughed at me when I had to say I was not only a rider, but also the team director for the stage race. Fortunately, they let us race and other teams helped us out with feeding and mechanical assistance. 

On other occasions, I have personally contacted race organisers to gain the team entry to races as there was no “plan B” if we didn’t get into a race we applied for. This is definitely a result of my driven nature and not due to a lack of effort by team staff. Most staff on the team were incredibly caring and would go to great lengths for us to be able to race as well as we could, with the time and resources we did have. 

Differences in professionalism

Sometimes the lack of professionalism in some Continental teams really sets you apart from the Women’s WorldTour riders. This was never more evident than when we had a sponsor decide he wanted to come along to a race in place of a soigneur. He refused to help us with our washing at a stage race because “it’s a women’s job” and then did not want to give us coins for the washing machine as he had already contributed the team budget. The next day he emptied one of our race bidons and filled it with wine to take into the convoy with him. I really hope he was not driving but I was too afraid to ask.

Needless to say, he did not come to any more races with us and was quickly distanced from the team. This led to the team losing a significant amount of money for the rest of the year. It does show that in women’s cycling, you cannot be too picky with sponsors as there are still only a handful of people who support the sport.

Another staff member emailed me and another rider before Tour de Suisse and asked us to purchase 800 cigarettes for him. This was because cigarettes are a lot cheaper in Spain than France where he lived. I have never bought a cigarette and was certainly not going to start off with a bulk order of 800 so pretended I did not receive the email when he asked me at the race. Fortunately, my teammate overheard the conversation and very directly gave him a piece of their mind on the matter.

Compared to some of the horror stories that have been told over the years, these were two minor issues. Our team manager had his heart in the right place and did his absolute best to ensure we were looked after. However, geographically, this was never going to be easy managing from another continent. Similarly our French director went to great lengths to fill the gaps when we were struggling with other staff. 

I realise that some of the above might come across negatively but honestly this is the reality in one way or another for the majority of riders on the Continental scene. This the best job and one I never even dreamed was possible. I genuinely love my life. Women’s cycling is only growing from here and it is amazing to see the changes firsthand. I am still torn between my professional corporate ambitions and my newfound cycling ambitions but I know this will not last forever so I might as well make the most of it now.

If you’re considering giving racing a go in Europe I can highly recommend getting yourself to Belgium or the Netherlands and absolutely going for it. Racing at a club level is an incredible experience and if you like it enough and progress to a Continental team it’s certainly a step up (in most cases). 

I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities I had with Macogep Tornatech who allowed me to find my feet in the Continental scene. In 2022 I will be riding for a different team: Andy Schleck CP NVST Immo Losch. The team is based out of Luxembourg and is extremely professionally run for a Continental team. I am super excited to be part of it and hope to share more of my adventures and experiences with you as the year unfolds.