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Connor Fields, the multi-time Olympian BMX racer, recently found himself in a situation that any women who’s involved in the cycling industry is familiar with.
During the first Zoom call for USA Cycling’s newly-formed Athlete Advisory Council, Fields looked around the virtual ‘room’ to see that he was the lone man in a sea of female faces — nine of them, to be exact.
“There I was sitting awkwardly in the corner, like, ‘hey, hello,'” Fields recounted.
Fields knows it’s a ‘sorry, not sorry’ type of situation. Cycling is not a sport known for parity — not at the professional athletic level nor in representation at the industry level — although things are changing. From youth programming targeting girls to gravel’s valiant effort to make events inclusive for all, the face of cycling is slowly becoming less white and male.
Recent changes to the makeup of USAC’s board of directors and its Athlete Advisory Council illustrate this fact.
Fields is the only man on the 10-member Athlete Advisory Council, and USAC’s board is, for the first time, majority women. Its new chair is Cari Higgins, who is also an athlete.
However, the emergence of more women in leadership and decision-making roles at USAC doesn’t appear to be an initiative, or an effort to satisfy DEI requirements. In fact, Fields observed, it’s moreso an indication of who wants to get the jobs done.
“Obviously there were more women that put their hands up and said ‘I’m interested in doing this,'” he said. “For whatever reason that is that’s how it turned out. Those are the people you want regardless. If they’re putting their hands up to do it, it means they’re passionate and they care.”
Chairwoman, councilwomen, and the c-suite
Cari Higgins knows that it’s significant that she’s the first chairwoman of USAC’s board of directors, but she’s not making a huge deal out of it. In fact, she’d rather call attention to the fact that she — as well as four of the other women on the board — is an ‘athlete representative,’ which means she competed on the national team at the Olympics, World Championships, or Pan Ams within the past ten years.
In that way, Higgins is a real anomaly: not only is she a female chair, she’s only one of two chairpeople of the board of directors of a national governing body who is an athlete representative (Joel Rosinbum, chair of USA Triathlon, is the other).
For Brendan Quirk, who joined USA Cycling as CEO in December of 2021, the changes at the organization have been both rapid and a long time coming. The board’s makeup went from male-dominated to majority female in his first year at USAC.
Quirk believes that Higgins’ new position is indicative of a larger movement afoot at the organization.
“When I think about Cari, I think about two things,” Quirk said. “One, there is a women’s revolution’ happening at USAC. You can see it in a lot places. One, our board is majority women.
“Two, look at our athlete representatives. For national governing bodies, you’re required to have 1/3 10-year athlete representation on board. So, for 11 members, four need to be athletes. All four of ours, who were selected by fellow athletes, are women, which means we have 100 percent women’s representation.”
Sounds good, but what does this actually mean for the future of the governing body?
Quirk is hopeful that having more women on USAC’s board will address a chronic issue — a lack of engagement by board members.
“People get elected and in the heat of moment it sounds great, but then when you have to do some work it’s a different story,” he said. “My gut is that women are better at, if they’re going to commit to something, they’re actually going to own it, be engaged, take ownership, and be responsible.”
Higgins takes it a step further.
“Women are used to working for what they want and working hard,” she said. “They’re not used to having the path paved for them, and I think that’s really important. Name a sport where the path has been paved for women. Women are used to standing up and saying, ‘this is what I see, this is what I want, this is the work I’m putting in to get there.'”
A perfect example of this is the fact that nine of the 10 representatives of the Athlete Advisory Council (AAC), the newly formed group tasked with broadening communication between USAC and current athletes, are women.
Notably, five of them — Clara Honsinger, Kate Courtney, Maddie Godby, and Lily Williams, and Cory Coffey — are racing full-time with Olympic aspirations. The others — Alison Tetrick, Meredith Miller, and Andrea Dvorak, and Fields— have retired yet all still have careers in the sport.
The AAC is the “voice of all athletes for all disciplines,” Higgins said. And with women providing the bulk of Team USA’s world championship and Olympic medals, it makes sense then that they should also have representation within the organization.
“BMX, ‘cross, road, MTB, track — all the disciplines are represented in the AAC, and these are the athletes that come back to USAC and say ‘this is what we’re hearing, this is what we’re asking for, these are improvements we want,'” Higgins said. “Now we have checks and balances, and the athlete’s voice is part of decision making.”
Alternately, having women in c-suite positions is another way to ensure that the decisions that are made have women athletes best interest in mind.
Take Erika Lehman for example. USAC’s first female Chief Marketing Officer, Lehman was instrumental in creating Level Up Your Ride, a nationwide program for women focused on crit racing. “It would not have happened with a guy as CMO,” Quirk said.
While no one can deny that growing women within the sport of cycling is existentially imperative, the impact is exponentially greater when women, especially those who are or have been athletes, are also involved at leadership levels at an organization like USAC.
“More engaged, progressive, forward thinking,” Quirk said. “That’s what having women involved does for us.”