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Forum Spotlight: Karen Bliss

We often divide the world of bicycling into three realms: the sport of racing, the business of the bike industry and the multi-faceted fronts of bicycle advocacy. With a pedal in all three areas, Karen Bliss is a leader with truly unique perspective. And we couldn’t be more excited to hear from her at the 2015 National Forum on Women & Bicycling on March 10.

A former U.S. professional cyclist, Bliss earned the title “Winningest Cyclist in North America” during her career — and has continued to push for gender equity as a member of the USA Cycling and UCI women’s committees. A veteran of the bike industry, she’s currently the Vice President of Marketing for Advanced Sports International and sits on the board of the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition. And, as the chair of the new Philadelphia Bicycle Advocacy Board, she’s catalyzing efforts to make biking better in the City of Brotherly Love.

I had a chance to chat with Bliss about her background in bicycling and how that’s informed her perspective on women’s leadership in the movement. But this quick interview is just a prelude. At the Forum, Bliss will join us in a panel discussion about the value of examining bicycling through a gender lens. We hope to uncover where discussing issues in bicycling through a gender lens has expanded our thinking, and talk candidly about where it may limit us.

Read more from Bliss below and register for the National Forum on Women & Bicycling today!

You’ve spoken in the past about how, during your racing career, there wasn’t the same support system for women as there was for men. I think there’s an analogy there for a lot of women in bicycling, whether it’s racing or retail or advocacy — we don’t yet have that same sense of solidarity, community or external valuing of our opinions or leadership. How did your experience as a racer shape your personal and career development?

Cycling certainly reinforced a lot of things I believe in, like discipline and perseverance. My undergrad was in social work but I became bike racer instead. [Laugh] I joked that it paid better, but that’s not true. It’s interesting, though, that I took my self-righteous 20-something self into the sport of bike racing and took on, in some ways, the disparities there. I remember boycotting a race because the price list was so ridiculously skewed. It was the little triumphs.

That’s how I handled it back when I was a racer, but I don’t think that really translated to me as a business person much at all. In terms of making change, I learned that there’s that way to do it but also a more analytical or a business approach to making change. It’s not that I was relearning but approaching it differently. It seems like the women in the sport now have less of that self-righteous pounding on their chest feeling than I had. They’re more grown up, if you will, looking at it a little differently. Though, you’re really hamstrung to “fight the man” or “fight the system” when you’re riding a bike and traveling so much.

I was talking to Nicole Freedman (the current Bicycle Coordinator for the City of Boston, and former bike racer), who I know from racing, about how we got to where we are. Can you believe we actually raced? She lived out of her car; I slept on more couches and floors of people I don’t know than I can count. And the really interesting thing is that now I ride with Lisa Nutter — the wife of our mayor, Michael Nutter — who’s been training to do her first race next summer. She’s 50 years old and I was telling Nicole this woman could have been a world champion had she started when she was younger. And Nicole said, “It’s the lifestyle.” She and I would not have done as well as we did had we not accepted the lifestyle. There are potentially so many great racers but the lifestyle is so harsh and discouraging that you have to accept that first even before you get into the training.

You’ve been a catalyst for change on the part of the governing bodies, like UCI [international governing body for the sport of cycling]. In 2012, you suggested five things the UCI could do. Now that they (and USA Cycling) have a women’s committee, how much progress has been made? Being part of that group, has your perspective changed at all on what will have the biggest impact? 

There is no mandating. That’s not going to happen. You can’t tell a privately held team what to do and not to do. At this point, we’re not even close to having any equity whatsoever so to mandate that would disrupt what’s already in place in way that wouldn’t be positive and would just make people angry. I think the other things they can do and are a priority for the UCI commission are to promote women cycling and highlight it and show the world how amazing it is. Do a good PR job, like the Tour de France. We have all these incredible visuals around it but hardly anything like that for women. The UCI this past year has started doing that: Every world cup for women has been covered and they’re packaging it now. They’re taking it very seriously and I think that’s the way to go: build and they will come, rather than putting mandates on struggling teams.

You’re also involved with local bike advocacy in Philadelphia, which is just a phenomenal example of incredible women doing amazing work to get more people on bikes. How does the racing world tie into the advocacy realm? Where are the intersection and what lessons can we (advocates) learn from the progress toward parity in the racing world?

I think one of the things I’ve learned is don’t shout at the wind. Talk to the people that matter. Talk to the change maker. And encourage people to come on board. It’s almost easier for some people to “take to the streets” than it is honestly to engage one-on-one with people. For me it was. I think having conversations is a huge, huge part of anything changing — literally getting out of your chair and having a conversation with somebody. That’s something that I’ve learned and that I communicate when I bring people together in groups…

The Philadelphia Bicycle Advocacy Board [that Bliss chairs] is made up of so many different types of people interested in cycling — interests that can be very niche. There are 18 of us, with people who could could care less about the sport, people who could care less about bike share or building a velodrome. If people looked at us from the outside they’d think, “Oh, they all like bikes; they all get along” but we’re actually all very different. One of my goals is to get together as much as we can and talk about our priorities and work to help each other for the greater good of biking in general and to attract bike businesses to the city. So far we’ve been able to do that. Just a couple of months ago they were discussing building a velodrome here in Philadelphia and some vocal people are against it — but everyone on the board showed up for the public meeting whether they truly believe in it or not. They put their priority aside to help support bicycling — and I was really proud of them.

I think that’s something we should all think about between advocacy and sport. I’m new to advocacy and I’m on the Women’s Committee of USA Cycling and talking to them about how we shouldn’t be adversaries here. Advocacy is something we all need to do. And vice versa: Advocates need to do more understanding about racing. We really do want the same things: access to roads, people not yelling at you while you’re riding.

For people like me, who are still relatively new to any sort of organized aspect of the bike movement, this conversation about women and bicycling seems… new. But, as you’ve experienced, it’s certainly not. What do you think the tipping point can or will be toward real progress and gender parity? How does leadership development play into that — which is the focus of this year’s Forum?

I really do feel there’s some movement happening and I don’t know where exactly the tipping point is, but I see it coming down the pike. I didn’t two or three years ago. People are talking about it a lot more — men and women. And that’s a big part of it: women can’t be talking amongst ourselves…

I think part of it is education. The old guard, the older guys probably wanted to do the right thing but didn’t know exactly what the right thing was. Seriously! [Laugh] A lot of people still think to themselves, ‘What is it that women want?’ Giving people the words to use and the permission to say that — men and women — is something I see changing. And more people, mostly women, using their voice, like Liz Jones (League Women Bike Manager), and Elysa Walk (General Manager of Giant Bicycles USA) in the bike industry. Tons and tons of people are really feeling empowered to speak up and be leaders and organize groups. For a while I thought, “Is it just me?” No, it’s not. It really has caught on.

When it comes to bicycling in a bigger sense, there’s the sport, the industry and advocacy. In the sport and the industry there are huge, huge disparities. But looking to potential leadership for bicycling, while it’s male dominated now, my experience in the advocacy world is that making social change and pushing for that isn’t as competitive — and there’s more opportunity for women to emerge as leaders in advocacy in the current climate.

A lot of people push back against women’s specific efforts by saying “Why can’t we just promote biking for everyone?” or by implying that such efforts do a disservice by conflating gender and skill (i.e. female = novice). What do you see as the opportunities — and the challenges — when we include a gender lens in this conversation?

I’m on the UCI committee, which is led by Tracy Gaudrey, a super-smart, powerful woman I used to race against. When they were forming this committee we were looking to her: Why are we here? What’s this about? And she said her hope is that this commission won’t be here in 5 or 10 years. We won’t have to be talking about equal prize money or parity in other ways. I liked that a lot. I bring that to work all the time. There has been a women-specific bike movement and when I first got here, I came from racing and I had never ridden on a women’s specific bike. I thought, “You don’t need this; it’s ridiculous. You got along just fine.” Then I got on one and I got it: This bike fits. But I think I might be stepping back from that again.

I believe that we make enough different road bikes that some are going to fit women and some will fit men and there will be some cross-over. The women-specific bikes we make, our Asian distributor asked to take the “Made for women” stickers off of them, because shorter guys wanted to ride them and were embarrassed. But on the flip side, that doesn’t mean women don’t want to be marketed to or catered to as women. That’s hard and it’s not about who likes pink and flowers versus who likes black. We need to be respectful of the fact that everyone’s different.

Register today for the National Forum on Women & Bicycling — early-bird rates end January 31!