Women cyclists create space on the track

Anna Schwinn wants to change the face of competitive track cycling in Minnesota.

She's a descendant of the iconic bike company founder. And she's carrying on the family legacy by helping to found the only all-women's track cycling team in the state.

The group of women who started Koochella said there wasn't really a place for them in the track community.

Competitive track cycling — racing bikes around a circular track — is governed by USA Cycling. According to the organization's statistics, men — who make up 85 percent of participants — have always dominated the field.

Local cyclists like Schwinn and her Koochella co-founders want more women to try their legs at the sport.

Schwinn said she used to show up at race nights only to find that the women's races had been canceled because so few female racers showed up.

She started to recruit women who were interested in biking, but had never tried competing.

"These were inexperienced women who were really passionate, but just didn't have any support," she said, like transportation to the track, access to affordable bikes, and basic training.

Tiana Johnson, was one of Schwinn's first recruits. She had been working at a bike shop and participating in informal races around the Twin Cities.

But Johnson was hesitant to try track racing — so Schwinn persuaded her to try an introductory track clinic.

Now, Johnson's fiercely dedicated to her team, and to the sport.

"After the first time getting on the track, it's really scary," she said. "It looks like a wall. And the faster you go, the more comfortable you are. It's just a riot; it's the funnest thing I've ever done."

To compete, cyclists travel to Minnesota's only velodrome, part of the National Sports Center complex in Blaine.

Cycling in a velodrome is like racing around a giant wooden bowl. You you might go so fast and so high up the walls that you're almost parallel to the ground — and you don't have any brakes.

But for a lot of women, joining the sport isn't as simple as just trying out the track. Many are put off by the cost: A special bike, clothing and shoes can easily add up to $1,000 or more.

Experienced racers are trying to break down that barrier, too. The Blaine velodrome holds women-specific track clinics and offers bikes to rent.

The Koochella team also offers to pay entrance fees for women on their first night of racing.

So far, the incentives are working.

Since Koochella formed three years ago, other teams have also added women to their ranks, and the number of regular female competitors has gone from six to around 20.

As teams bring on more women, they're also bringing in more fans.

Organizers are already talking about partnering with local high schools to bring a younger, more diverse crowd to try out a new indoor track planned for Northeast Minneapolis.

But for now, Anna Schwinn is just excited about the number of women she saw during this track season, which wrapped up last month. And she's thrilled about her ranking — and what it says about the number of people competing.

"I finished sixth overall last season. I will finish so far down the ranking this year," she said. Her ranking has gone down because there are so many more women in the field.

"And I think that's awesome."

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