In our latest blog post we caught up with Kathryn Bertine, ex pro and women’s cycling activist.
You have the most unorthodox way of getting into cycling – your ESPN editor challenged you to find a sport to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games in. Why did you choose cycling?
I was asked by ESPN–from 2006 to 2008, with the odds massively stacked against me–to become an Olympian in a sport. I came from a triathlon background and my strongest discipline was on the bike, but before I directly went to cycling I tried some other sports, like team handball or open water swimming. I tried a bunch of sports, but really in the back of my mind I thought ‘this isn’t what you do, do what you know, and what you know is how to ride a bike’. And I really love riding, so let’s see what road cycling is all about. I did not make the Olympics, having only been on a road bike for about 18 months, but I was at the point where I was so in love with the sport of cycling that I wanted to keep going for myself. It was no longer a journalism assignment, it was something I wanted to do.
You soon became an advocate for women’s cycling. This season has seen the UCI Women’s World Tour. What improvements have you seen and what more can be done?
I love the inclusion of a Women’s World Tour, it is fantastic to see that the UCI has recognised the women at that level. But what we need to do now is tackle the other things that are still unequal. Like salary, equity and prize money. If we have a World Tour, then it needs to be held at the same level of equality as men’s World Tour events. We have to ask the question we asked of the Tour de France: How come we don’t have women at Paris Roubaix and some of the other classics? We still don’t have access to those events, and that opportunity needs to be created.
Let’s capitalise on that momentum and get ourselves to the point where we can be equal and have better access to financial support of sponsors, prize money and especially salaries within our own teams.
Your documentary Half the Road delves deep into the gender inequality in cycling – what did you find out and how frustrating was it learning more about the injustices?
The most frustrating part for me was to interview people in high places who couldn’t grasp the concept of equality. So many rule makers, race directors and federation presidents just accepted the tradition of cycling for what it was: a “men’s only” environment. It’s as if they are saying “There aren’t any women here, so why do there need to be?” and “Why do we need to consider building an opportunity for women – it’s always been the way it’s been.”
So many people just went with that flow when I interviewed them. Those philosophies are mind-blowing to me. They never considered that the social impact of women’s equality and the economic growth would be tipped in their favour if they included women.
That was the gift of coming from the sport of triathlon – across the board women are racing the same races as men, the same distance, the same prize money. It’s a no-brainer. If you look at the triathlon community, and who caters to that sport – the impact is in favour of both genders; which brings more sponsors, more equity, more financial impact for everyone involved.
La Course is now in its third year – is it what you hoped it would be? Are you still striving for a three-week Tour for women?
Personally, absolutely, it is still a goal to make this race what it can and should be: Three weeks. If the men can do it, so can women. (Not to mention, physiologists are the first explain that women excel in both distance and endurance. Three weeks is not impossible.) I very much appreciate that La Course, the one-day race, has gained exposure and it’s gained support and that is fantastic. But now it’s time for the UCI and ASO to step up and realise that one day is not enough.
We need to implement and grow this race to its full potential. As much as I am going to push for that, ASO, UCI and mainstream media have to realise they need to build it on their end too. There’s no reason why next year we shouldn’t have a five to seven day event. And after that is in place, then we’ll show them 10 days. And then two weeks. And then three weeks. That potential for growth is there and we can make it all happen, but ASO needs to pick up the slack and say ‘three years of a one day race was a great starting point, but isn’t enough now. Let’s move it forward.’
In 2014, you went through devastating personal issues, like divorce. You had become an activist for women’s cycling, but at what cost?
That was very difficult time for me in my personal life. It was devastating, absolutely devastating. Half The Road was gaining traction, La Course was happening, my activism and writing was in full swing, and in that moment when I most needed encouragement, support, love and someone to believe in me, the very opposite happened. One day, my marriage, home, car, pets, finances… it was just gone. Out of nowhere. I didn’t understand what was happening. It nearly destroyed me. And in the middle of this unexpected, sudden upheaval, I put on a strong, fearless face for the public because the press & media for the film, La Course and equality were in full swing. It’s a bizarre thing to be focused, strong, scared and lost all at the same time. I knew that being an activist could help change the world, but I didn’t know my own personal world could change to such a devastating extent. Not everyone can see the big picture of what it means to change the system and make it better for everyone. While I don’t regret one moment of fighting for what I believe in, it took a lot of hardship, healing and two full years to find my way back to myself.
You suffered periods of depression after your divorce. How low did you feel and how did you pick yourself back up?
I was so low. The only way I could try to get through my public life as an activist and the demise of my personal life was to separate the two. I carried on the momentum of what I was doing with Half The Road and La Course, but behind the scenes, I was devastated. In my role as a public speaker, there were more than a few screenings of Half the Road where people would be watching the film and I would have to leave the theatre, find a private place to weep, and then recompose myself to give a speech at the end of the film on power, passion, strength and equality. It was so hard.
How has the experience of depression, and contemplating suicide, changed you?
I can tell you that now, over two years later, the hardship changed me for the better after I was able to reach out and ask for help. That was my only option – either I ask for help or it’s all over.
Asking for help was life-changing moment. It took to years to feel stable and happy again… and then, the crash! The second part of this emotional awakening was six months ago when I sustained a crazy head injury from a bike race crash in Mexico, and I almost died again. In a different way.
I was able to grasp what it was to go through that injury and wake up and realise I have been physically saved by that accident. I could finally see there were people who reached out and were so supportive of me just being alive. I couldn’t see that in the devastation and depression over the two years leading up to that moment. I couldn’t see that I had had any effect on anything or anyone at all until I came close to death on a bike. That crash and the support that followed changed my life. It’s one thing when a loved one expresses their love and concern and it’s quite another fascinating, interesting, beautiful thing when a total stranger whose followed our journey reaches out and says, “We’re glad you’re here, we’re glad you’re alive”. I didn’t know how powerful that could be and it’s changed my life. Now I am alive, I am happy and stable.
What have you learnt from your experiences, especially a near death crash?
A great question. I no longer take for granted the basic things our health and our life gives us. Being able to live normally from a neurological and physical standpoint – that’s amazing. And having friends and family who see the bigger picture – that’s amazing. That’s all that matters. So when all the small things in life that stress us out start to add up, it’s easier for me now to say ‘wait a minute, count my blessings.’ We are so lucky to have what we have. That’s the gift of this journey of almost dying. And I’d love to make sure everyone remembers that when they’re going through the hard stuff in life. Hopefully we don’t all have to hit our heads in a road race to realise we are really lucky to be here and be in good health. Physically and emotionally, it’s such a gift to be able to do anything at all.
What next for Kathryn Bertine?
We’ll have to do another interview to go in depth for this, but I have a new exciting project launching mid-October. When I retire from cycling in the near future, I will continue with activism and continue to help women’s pro cycling. I’ve got a foundation that is underway we are launching this fall and I am excited to tell you all about it… but for now let’s just say, I am looking forward to helping build this legacy of equality in women’s cycling.
By Laura Winter