Requiem for the ‘podium girls’

In the Tour of California, a tradition borrowed from the Tour de France is coming to an end

Photo courtesy Amgen Tour of California

When the Amgen Tour of California launched its quest to become a major professional bike race, it was earnest in its efforts to get the balance right—telling the story of California to the rest of the world with exciting and scenic racing while adhering to a few cheesy European sporting traditions.

California was ready for the big time and eager to make it a show.

That first day 12 years ago was a short individual time trial—a race against the clock, one rider after another, through the streets of San Francisco and up the brutally steep hill to the iconic Coit Tower. Thousands of fans pressed against the barriers, shouting, waving banners and cheering on their favorite riders.

The fastest man that day was Levi Leipheimer, practically a hometown hero who resided in Santa Rosa and was still a few years away from being ensnared in the Lance Armstrong doping scandal that would drum him out of the sport for good.

I was there and remember it well. A grimacing Leipheimer punched the air as he crossed the finish line, promptly got off his bike and, within minutes, climbed the steps of the podium to get his prize—the leader’s gold jersey and kisses from the “podium girls.”

It was 2006 in progressive California, where powerful women held both U. S. Senate seats, but if you wanted to land the job of presenting the prizes to the winners after each stage, you had to be young, female, good-looking, wear a clingy dress, and be willing to plant a big kiss on a sweaty cheek.

Thus began years of wonderful racing, huge crowds, big stars, global attention and just enough cringe-worthy awkwardness to make many of us wonder when the podium would actually reflect that 21st century women were into bike racing, too.

In recent years, the gender issue would be part of the race itself, with a separate, significantly shorter women’s event gaining a foothold.

Like many longtime cycling fans, I have mixed emotions about podium girls. For years, we watched Armstrong and others claim their prizes at the Tour de France, which always included TV time with the female podium presenters and those multiple air kisses that don’t really translate over here. The scene was mostly wholesome, slightly odd, mildly sexist, entirely outdated, and very French.

Emily Kachorek, a professional cyclist who a few years ago co-founded Sacramento-based Squid Bikes, has never been a fan but also rarely complained about it. Her view is pretty standard when it comes to women in cycling.

“It’s kind of like, ’Give me a break.’ I personally don’t get that worked up about it because that’s how it’s been my entire career,” said Kachorek, a former road racer who now focuses on cyclocross and running her popular bike business. “It’s just silly to me. I mean, are we really still having this conversation?”

Indeed, there are signs the debate is coming to a close. Following the lead of the Tour Down Under in Australia and the Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain), this year’s Amgen Tour will dramatically tone down the glamour on stage. The Tour de France has signaled it, too, is ready for a tweak to its closely watched podiums.

The Union Cycliste International (UCI) has indicated it will create new award ceremony guidelines to insure the podium practices “are respectful to all.” Formula 1 auto racing has already scrapped its longstanding “grid girls” in favor of “grid kids.”

“This year, because of everything else going on in the world and how we feel as a company, we decided to make a change,” said Michael Roth, vice president of communications at Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), which is the world’s largest owner of sports teams and sports events.

The glamour will be largely absent during the Amgen podium presentations this year, according to Roth, who had yet to make the details public at the time he was interviewed for this story. The clingy dresses and high heels will be replaced by khakis and polo shirts—the same outfit other AEG staffers wear at the race.

That’s right—a sexist tradition has been supplanted by a relatively benign crime against fashion.

While the podium girls may soon be history, it’s instructive to see how we got to this point—and how the idea lasted this long.

Way back when AEG embarked on the Amgen Tour of California project, organizers looked to France for inspiration. The routes for each stage would be challenging and, just as importantly, look good on TV. When it came to figuring out what to do on the podium each day, the easiest solution was to mimic Le Tour and go with the flow.

“We always modeled ourselves after the Tour de France,” said Roth.

To seasoned observers, the podium presenters had a dual role. They had to look good on camera and they had to make things run on time. They guided the riders to their specific marks onstage so the TV cameras and journalists could get their shots. They ushered the riders away and brought the next ones aboard. And every photo showed the girls planting a kiss on each cheek of the winner.

It may have been a feel-good, triumphant image to some, but it was entirely the wrong message for many others—the men were the heroes who were rewarded for their skill and bravery, while the women were the admirers, dressed to the nines in attire that did not fit the occasion.

“As a racer, I ignored it a little bit, but the more I got involved in the sport, the more I saw it as sending the wrong message,” says Kathryn Bertine, a former pro cyclist and activist for gender equality in pro cycling. “It’s not a fair representation of women in our time.”

It went on like that for 12 years. The Tour of California was a big hit and, even if you weren’t into bike racing, there was no denying the race brought millions of dollars to host cities including Sacramento and, much like the race in France, was an effective way to promote tourism and showcase sponsors. Armstrong once had his time trial bike stolen in Sacramento, a heist that made national news.

The reworking of the podium experience didn’t happen because of the #MeToo movement, but it’s a good fit within the prism of sexual harassment and heightened awareness, nonetheless. Some fans saw podium girls as an invitation to embrace their inner douchebag.

“In the VIP tents, men would get tipsy and go up to the women and ask for a kiss for a Facebook photo. Those guys suck. It happened every five minutes. That’s America,” said Dave Towle, the high-energy cycling announcer who has been a fixture at major races for years.

Peter Sagan, now the biggest name in the sport and beloved for both his antics and winning ways, was a talented young star on the rise in 2013 when he thought it would be funny during the Tour of Flanders presentation to pinch the podium girl’s buttocks as she leaned in to kiss winner Fabian Cancellara. The photo of a smirking Sagan went viral. The woman, Maja Leye, later told the media she came close to slapping the Slovakian rider.

“I really thought about it,” she said at the time. “I had to stay professional. If I had reacted, the incident would have escalated. There were millions of TV viewers in front of their screens.”

Some bike races have tried podium boys—muscular young men, sometimes wearing white T-shirts and jeans as if they were cast in a Broadway musical—who flirt with female winners as they get their prize.

“You think you’re cringing when there are podium girls,” Towle told me. “Podium boys are always worse.”

Part of the problem with podium girls is that the concept seems increasingly out of sync with the movement to banish the last vestiges of sexism in cycling and, in doing so, invite more girls and women into the sport. Big hair and high heels are not part of that effort.

To make it as a pro cyclist, you have to be fierce. No matter how good you are, you will eventually crash at high speed—and the pavement always wins. You break bones. You lose skin. You heal up and get back on your bike. Even without mishaps, racing is torturous, humbling, exhausting. The word “suffering” is routinely held up as a badge of honor. To suffer is to reach for glory.

In America, women pros are arguably achieving glory in far greater numbers than American men, who have gone through a prolonged drought since the Armstrong debacle.

At some major one-day races in Europe like Paris-Roubaix, it is not uncommon to have only one or two American men entered in a field of 175 pros. Meanwhile, American women like Chloe Dygert Owen, Coryn Rivera and Megan Guarnier are winning big races, breaking records and gaining worldwide acclaim. And activists like Bertine continue to push for men and women to race the same routes and receive equal prize money.

The recent shift in approach is important because it suggests the sport is beginning to listen to input beyond the male power structure that created these traditions decades ago and then lobbied for their permanence. The race president for Amgen Tour of California is actually a woman, Kristin Klein, an AEG executive, who had been supportive of the podium ambassadors.

In Spain, the three-week Vuelta a España went smoothly last September with toned-down podium presentations. Same with the Tour Down Under in January in Australia, which also awarded men and women equal prize money.

In some ways, muses Kachorek, the half-measures at the Tour of California is even worse. She says the models should be replaced, not just dressed differently.

Says Bertine, whose documentary, Half The Road, made a major push for gender equality in pro cycling, “I’m glad the podium girls are going away, but now we have to ask what are you doing next for the proper inclusion of women in races?”