The Ms. Q&A: Kathryn Bertine on Gender Equality in Cycling

The Ms. Q&A: Kathryn Bertine on Gender Equality in Cycling
“Cycling was the medium and the way to tell it, but really it’s a book about activism,” Bertine told Ms. (@KathrynBertine / Twitter)

In 2009, Kathryn Bertine pressed send on an email that would in many ways dictate the course of her life for years to come. In it she asked a simple question: “Why is there no women’s race in the Tour de France?”

This led the former figure skater, ESPN columnist and professional cyclist on a journey of continual lobbying of sports organizers Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) and cycling governing body Union Cicliste Internationale (UCI), financial insecurity often as a result of pay disparity in sports, and a documentary on cycling equality. Personally she was also on a journey of love, depression and recovery.

This forms her new and fourth book, STAND: A memoir on activism. A manual for progress. What really happens when we stand on the front lines of change.

Ahead of its release on Monday, Feb. 1, Ms. writer Natasha Turner sat down with Bertine on Zoom to talk about vulnerability, picking yourself up, and when we might finally see a women’s Tour de France.

Natasha Turner: Your new book recounts races all over the world, as well as the ongoing struggle for a women’s Tour de France, but it’s not really a book about cycling…

Kathryn Bertine: Cycling was the medium and the way to tell it, but really it’s a book about activism. If you look out the window at the political climate at the moment, a story of social impact, activism and women standing up is hopefully one we can tell more. 

Turner: You’re very open in the book, both about your personal life and how the events leading up to the 2014 petition to the ASO and beyond unfolded. What do you hope the response will be?

Bertine: If we’re going to put any book out there about what it takes to stand up and fight for change it has to have an element of authenticity and vulnerability to it because I don’t think that’s talked about enough in activism.

Activism does criss-cross all your personal boundaries and your work boundaries. Putting all that out there I hope some readers will appreciate the vulnerability and they’ll say ‘OK, I get it, and I’ve felt this way too’ or ‘I’ve experienced things in life that have made me feel really shitty so I know I’m not alone.’ The first draft of this book I started in 2017, maybe earlier, without any of the vulnerability at all, just ‘here’s how to be an activist’ and it was awful, it was dry and boring. 

Turner: Are we moving in the right direction when it comes to conversations about vulnerability, and about equality?

Bertine: Mental health has seen a wonderful turn—it’s a topic that’s out there now, journalists are covering it, people are willing to speak about it.

That said, we still need a lot more knowledge and education. I talk about that a little in the book: I thought I couldn’t possibly be depressed in the time after my divorce because that’s not the definition of depression I had. And it took educating myself to realize, ‘Oh, this is a thing and we’re all susceptible to this when we go through certain hardships in life.’

I’m seeing more talk about equality, which makes me very happy, but I also feel I don’t see it out there enough. I personally do in cycling because it’s all I talk about but I think there are still so many areas we need to shine a light on. Of course one of the great victories in the U.S. is our vice-president to be—Kamala Harris—coming in. That’s amazing, but if anything that’s where we need to dig deeper into where inequity still exists.

Turner: One of the themes running through the book is the ‘power of human kindness’; tell me a bit about that.

Bertine: Kindness is part and parcel with the element of teamwork. For example, the wonderful woman who leant me her family’s second car so I could get back to work. A year after that we opened [athlete financial discrepancy non-profit] Homestretch Foundation – my partner and I, not the car lady and I – and then I was able to help other people. You don’t necessarily pay back the person that helped you but you pay it forward.

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Turner: The athletes’ mentality of restarting every time you’re knocked back seems particularly relevant in the time of Covid-19, can you talk about ‘keeping going’?

Bertine: Maybe I’m hardwired to believe you do have to keep getting up, that if other people or other circumstances keep us down, that’s not the end of the story.

I was, and still am, very much in love with the sport of cycling. The basis of sport is to make us feel alive and healthy and good in whatever respect that is for someone. So to be facing all these challenges [of inequity] along the way, there was something that resonated with me that this is not what sport or life is supposed to be. It has to be better than this and I’m not going to stop until it is.

When we’re talking about equal rights for women or minorities I just knew in my heart and soul the fight has to be worth it. And same with cycling, I wasn’t done yet; I wasn’t ready to retire until I was. 

Turner: What’s next for women’s cycling? Is a women’s Tour de France in 2022 looking possible?

Bertine: I’m happy the ASO and UCI have suggested there will be a women’s Tour de France of at least 10 days in 2022. However, I have also seen both say things but not stick to it. I won’t personally believe it until I see it on the actual calendar but with the facts too: who are the sponsors, when is it happening, are the courses laid out? So we have an actual tangible thing we can see. Are they working on this behind the scenes? I absolutely hope so. Have they called me to help? No. But I hope it’s happening. It’s 100% possible. But also it was possible in 2014. We need them to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk.

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Natasha Turner is a freelance journalist and editor based in London and a former Ms. editorial intern.