The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic is an iconic event that has brought men and women from around the world to Durango each May to compete against each other and the train. Until 2019, the 48th edition of the race, the professional men and women in the road race haven’t competed for the same prize.
In an organized effort led by Durango’s own Kaylee Blevins and Emily Schaldach, a letter was prepared to be sent to race organizers to ask for equal payouts for the pro men and women who compete in the road race from Durango to Silverton. With a huge backing from a younger generation of the Durango cycling community, the IHBC agreed to raise the women’s prize purse to $3,000 to match the men’s purse this year. Previously, the women’s purse was $2,550.
“It was a pretty big effort from a lot of people,” said Blevins, who is now the research and programs coordinator for The Specialized Foundation. “It was a community effort, and Emily Schaldach was kind of the instigating factor with all this. I’ve known her since I was 6 years old, and it was cool to work with her on something like this that’s so close to home, literally and figuratively, for the two of us.”
IHBC race director Gaige Sippy said the payout for the pro men’s and women’s mountain bike races has been equal since 2011. The road race prize payout had followed a long-used model based on rider turnout. He said in any given year, roughly 70 pro men compete in the IHBC road race to only 15 or 20 pro women.
“The old prize money model used to be that you paid based on how many people registered,” Sippy said. “We took a percentage of that and gave it out as prize money. We’ve always been within a few hundred dollars. It’s not a huge amount of money in the change. There’s a paradigm shift that goes along with this, but the number of dollars we’re talking about is only a few hundred dollars.”
For the women who race, it wasn’t about the $450, it was about being equal.
“It’s actually not about the money. It’s kind of what it represents,” said Sarah Sturm, a Durango-based pro cyclist who finished second in the IHBC road race last year. “It’s just the equal sign we’re after and not the dollar sign.
“Oftentimes, it’s a numbers game, but in 2019, we kind of all believe that the numbers game can be easily sorted out. ... It’s the same distance, it’s the same race, we all train the same, we all race the same, and the women deserve to have the same payout when we finish the same bicycle race.”
Schaldach, a former collegiate national champion, is still a pro cyclocross and mountain bike racer now based in Boulder. During the last decade, she said she knows of five women who had approached the IHBC committee about making the payout equal.
“I talked to them two years ago and was very shut down about that idea,” Schaldach said. “We had pushback until we had the larger community of support. I think having men and women on board in Durango made it a much more convincing argument. It wasn’t just one woman who felt it was unequal; it was a whole community of people who supported what we were doing.
“We are in a town that is a leading location and destination for cyclists all over the world. Durango Devo has as many girls as boys, and people in town, I hope, believe people deserve to be treated equally.”
Blevins drafted the letter to the IHBC and Schaldach mobilized to gain signatures that included Durango’s biggest names in the sport. Levi Kurlander of Durango Devo then drafted another letter on behalf of the organization to also send to the IHBC. Cycling superstar Christopher Blevins, Kaylee’s younger brother, also drafted a letter of his own. Blevins said Durango Devo co-founder Sarah Tescher and Durango’s own pro cyclist Teal Stetson-Lee also served as key advisers during the effort.
When Schaldach approached Kenny Wehn, the sponsorship coordinator of Stan’s NoTubes, Wehn reached out to Sippy and said the company would offer to pay the difference in prize purses if the IHBC wouldn’t. The IHBC agreed to equal the payouts, and the letter from Blevins and Schaldach was then changed to thank Wehn for his support.
“For us as a company, Stan’s has kind of always been invested in women’s cycling,” said Wehn, who lives in Durango and travels the country to professional races. “The top women pros I work with train just has hard as the top men. I don’t think they should be penalized because only 30 women race compared to 100 men. That’s always the argument is strength of field, but I don’t think the top women should be penalized for that.”
Wehn said Stan’s has a history in helping races make up the pay discrepancy thanks to owner Stan Koziatek and his wife and co-owner Cindy Koziatek. Many of Stan’s original programs weighed heavily on women’s racing, and Cindy has long been a force in advocating for equal pay for women in cycling.
“(Blevins) used to race on our original Stan’s minor team, so I’ve had a relationship with her,” Wehn said. “This year, she sent me a written letter and told me the backstory about that, and that’s when I made a call to suggest that if there was financial reasoning behind it, Stan’s would pay the difference. Iron Horse somehow got the funds to follow suit, and I think more promoters will follow suit with that and offer equal pay.”
Still, Sippy said he has had feedback speaking out against equal prize purses, and it all goes back to argument of fewer women competing than men. What Sippy hopes is that an equal prize purse will help encourage more women to sign up to race.
“Bike races have to be economics, too,” he said. “We see so many go out of business because they make decisions that don’t make sense. We have to factor that in like any event does. We’re happy to do it, and it’s a good thing. I hope it encourages more women to participate. I don’t know if it will. Our mountain bike numbers didn’t come up when we created equal pay, but there’s been a paradigm shift in the equality of it.”
The $3,000 purse will be dispersed among the top-10 finishers in the men’s and women’s road races. There is an additional $700 purse for both fields to be split among the top-five riders who have the best combined finish in the Saturday road race and Sunday mountain bike race.
“We pay out pretty deep,” Sippy said. “And we always pay cash to amateur categories except juniors. We’re not giving away old socks and stuff that we can’t get off the shelf; we give out real money.”
Schaldach said that even five years ago, she doesn’t think the argument would have been taken as seriously. With a larger push in the U.S. and internationally to support women in sports, she said more people have had their minds opened.
“The U.S. women’s soccer team is kind of paving the way for things like this to happen,” Schaldach said. “I definitely don’t think this would be possible without external forces and a global movement to help support women in sports. It’s getting harder and harder for race organizers to justify why it’s reasonable to not have equal payout. Kids growing up should know they have a place in sport and not be undervalued. At the start of the race, you should give them equal opportunity and not make someone feel undervalued before they even start.”