“I was racing road (cycling) in NorCal and I was very frustrated with the lack of opportunities and the lack of support that women are getting,” said Bay Area-based professional cyclist Helena Gilbert-Snyder. “And I really just decided that I wanted to try to change that. So I talked to local sponsors and organizations that I knew and over the next six to eight months I put the team together.”
The result of this effort is a brand new women’s cycling team here in Northern California. Monarch Racing will debut on April 8 as NorCal’s newest domestic elite women’s road cycling team, “which, in normal people words means that it’s a women’s team that races at the pro level in the U.S. in road racing,” said founder and team member Gilbert-Snyder.
Previously, there “was not any opportunity for women to race at the professional level in the U.S. In NorCal, there just … weren’t any pathways,” Gilbert-Snyder said. “So you either had to be a professional cyclist living in Europe, or, you know, a hyper talented cyclist since day one who was already identified by professional level teams.”
In road cycling, “you can’t just register as an individual at a professional level road race, because you need to be on a team to do so,” Gilbert-Snyder said. This means that without elite teams to compete with, promising young female riders do not have access to the races they need to create a career for themselves.
One glaring example of gender disparity in the cycling world, and potentially a cause of the scarcity of professional women’s teams, is the fact that the world’s most prestigious cycling race only added a women’s race last year. The Tour de France Femmes is only about one third of the length of the men’s Tour de France, and despite being advertised as the largest prize purse in women’s cycling, it is only a tenth of the prize money for men. In other prestigious tours of both Italy and Spain, women’s races are also significantly shorter than men’s.
This gender gap in elite races is a crucial issue because “without those venues, if you did put together an elite team at the World Tour level, they couldn’t go to the biggest events, right? So there’s less interest in doing that if you can’t be part of the biggest events,” said Gregory Kennedy. Kennedy is a board member at KaiVelo, a California based cycling foundation that now owns Monarch Racing.
Annie Whalen, one of seven riders on the team, has seen this lack of opportunity for female cyclists play out in her own career. She first met Gilbert-Snyder at a race in 2021, backstage before the podium ceremony, and “then we just got along immediately,” Whalen said. They became friends and ended up as the only two women on a domestic elite cycling team last season, where they were not entirely happy with their experience.
“It was really just a lack of attention on us when we were the only women and we also had different goals than the guys did,” Whalen said.
Gilbert-Snyder explained some of the barriers to anyone interested in racing at a high level, especially women. Races “require a lot more money and a lot more equipment. … So that’s a barrier right there,” she said.
Another barrier is the need for a team. “It’s like, okay, how do you find a team?” Gilbert-Snyder asked. “What if there aren’t any teams in your area? And right now, that’s a big issue here.”
While there are some women’s teams in Northern California, according to Gilbert-Snyder, they may not go to national level events or if they do, they may not have the funding to cover the costs of these events for their riders.
Because of this lack of opportunities and resources, “women are going to gravel or into mountain biking if they want to chase those really elite level opportunities. … And that’s what makes it really obvious that there’s this massive hole in road racing,” Gilbert-Snyder said. “NorCal is full of really talented cyclists of all ages, of all levels. There’s no reason that there shouldn’t be options for women in road racing when we see that there are options for men.”
Monarch racing is one step in the direction of creating more road racing opportunities for women. The team will race together but not train together regularly. Most riders work individually with a coach who is separate from the team, and have a day job or are still in school.
It would be “amazing if we get to a place where not only were they full time, but they were world class athletes that were able to compete in the top events and cycling around the world but we’re far from being able to do that,” Kennedy said. “Not that they’re not great athletes, it just takes a lot of money to be able to send somebody to top races like the Tour de France.”
Gilbert-Snyder shares these goals, saying, “I would love to see a team that has both an elite team … and then a team of development riders. … We would have sponsors who are able to provide equipment for riders so that riders aren’t paying out of pocket to go after these opportunities.”
Giving back to the community is another goal of the team. Gilbert-Snyder hopes to do this through skills clinics, community group rides, trail work, and trash clean-ups to encourage and support biking in her community.
“I think that everyone in cycling, and especially on this team this year, have been privileged in some way,” Gilbert-Snyder said. “So the more we can give back and bring more riders into this sport and support them the same way that we were supported at some point is super important and really ties into the core of what this team is about.”