Changing the Game: A chat with race director Sean Petty on putting women first
By Anne-Marije Rook
The Colorado ClassicⓇ presented by VF Corporation made international headlines at the end of last year when organizers announced the event would proceed as a standalone women's race, foregoing the men's event in favor of raising the bar for women’s cycling with a quadrupled prize purse, international calendar status, increased team support, live streaming and longer, more challenging routes.
In doing so, the Colorado Classic is the only standalone UCI women’s stage race in North America with the coveted 2.1 category designation. It will, once again, be included in USA Cycling’s Pro Road Tour.
Of course this is not the first time the Colorado Classic did right by the women. In 2017, the Colorado Classic was the first major USA cycling men’s and women’s races to go without podium hostesses, opting instead for cycling legends as presenters. In its second year, the women’s race expanded from two to four stages and routes similar in difficulty to the men's.
Now in its third year, the Colorado Classic is making its boldest statement yet, creating a world-class women’s-only event with unprecedented financial support, a live streaming and international exposure package, and a unique opportunity for collegiate racers to compete with the world’s best riders.
We chatted with race director Sean Petty about how this women-first approach came to be.
In planning the 2019 Colorado Classic, why did you and RPM Events Group decide to continue with only a women's race?
Sean Petty: It’s a good question because usually when a race is cut, it’s the women's race that goes away. So, it was nice to flip the script on this one and focus on the women.
There were a lot of reasons that came into the decision, and Ken Gart and David Koff of RPM Events Group certainly deserve credit for the support and vision to do this. But it basically came down to money. It's a big cost and logistical challenge to do both men’s and women’s races, and somehow, no matter how hard you try, both races felt compromised. The stages were shorter than either the men or the women would have liked, the start times weren’t ideal and the impact on the local communities was significant.
Looking at 2019, we realized that if we pooled that money, we could have a really great impact on women’s cycling if we focused on just the women’s event, whereas that same budget wouldn't have had nearly that kind of an impact on the men's side.
So taking that budget and making the Colorado Classic a world-class women's event made a lot of sense and gave us some flexibility to do some things that we hadn't been able to do before. Things like increasing the race distances, have better start times for the women, and more importantly, put money into the television package, the streaming package as well as a very, very significant prize purse.
We’re very excited to be able to support and showcase women’s cycling in this way.
Supporting women’s sports makes financial sense: that’s a very bold and very encouraging message…
Sean: Hopefully. The momentum, effort and support has really been moving in that direction over the past few years. I think [former UCI President] Brian Cookson did a nice job at the UCI level in putting an emphasis and support behind women's racing with the creation of a women's commission and a Women’s WorldTour. And I think that David Lappartient is certainly continuing that so we're seeing a bigger emphasis on women's racing internationally. With it, the live television or online streaming; media coverage and publicity have grown as have the sponsorship opportunities. Of course, it’s still not as much as we’d like to see but it’s getting better. There’s definitely a trend that has been growing, and now we're in a position to really take advantage of that and put the women front and center, and showcase what will be some great racing.
Also, having VF Corporation as a title sponsor is huge. This is the first time we have a title sponsor and to get one in its first year as a standalone women’s event is tremendous. Knowing that sponsorship support came when it became a women's-only event is pretty special.
Do you have aspirations for this to be a bigger UCI event —WorldTour perhaps?
Sean: Earning UCI 2.1 category status in its first year of a stand-alone women’s event is already pretty significant. There are only 13 UCI 2.1 events in the world so the Colorado Classic will be really important, especially for U.S.-based pros, in terms of earning points. These UCI points are critical for rankings as well as Olympic qualification. As we’re leading up to the Olympic Games in Tokyo, getting that UCI 2.1 designation is significant.
We’re a young event, but we have already proven that we can put on a world-class event for the women. Making the leap onto the WorldTour calendar would be tremendous, but that's a really big step and being where we are today is already a pretty big jump. We went from being just a domestic USA Cycling event to a Pro Road Tour event to now being on the world circuit — all in just a couple short years!
What do you think this will do for the turnout?
Sean: Anyone who’s been paying attention and has been watching the women's races over these past years knows that it's really, really exciting. It's great to watch. It's tactical, aggressive racing and the race will attract a fiercely competitive field of world-class competitors including WorldTour race winners, Olympians as well as up-and-coming collegiate stars.
The Colorado Classic will be a great showcase and we hope people will come out to watch and support it.
Additionally, if you can’t make it to Colorado, we’ll have live streaming and on-demand replays that will be syndicated to fans around the world through cycling and partner websites, tracker apps and social media.
Tell us about the decision to invite a collegiate all-star* team.
Sean: The USA Cycling collegiate program has produced a lot of the top women that have gone on to win World Championships and Olympic fame and success over the years. So we decided to create an opportunity for the top collegiate riders to come and compete with some of the best riders in the world.
It’s a chance to showcase the collegiate program while also focusing on talent identification and development in the United States.
And that goes for most U.S. domestic teams as well. We have very few UCI races in North America and the Colorado Classic provides a chance to compete in a world-class level race without having to go outside the United States, which is always good for development regionally and domestically.
*The collegiate all-star team will be made up of the top six finalist at the USA Cycling Collegiate National Road Championships later this spring.
What makes Colorado the perfect backdrop and host of this event?
Sean: Colorado has a tremendous history in cycling, going back to the Red Zinger and, of course, the Coors Classic.Those were pretty groundbreaking races for women. Certainly the Coors Classic days when the best women in the world came here and really grew cycling in Colorado and beyond. Connie Carpenter, Inga Thompson, Jeannie Longo — all the best riders back in the day came here on a regular basis to compete, so the legacy is there and it's nice to continue that at a high level for the women here.
We're grateful for the vision and support of Ken Gart and RPM, as well as the state of Colorado and the host cities with which we work. Everyone has been so supportive.