Kim Ciolli buzzes around the track at Driveway Austin, tucked in an all-female pack of cyclists 36 strong.
They surge and flow like a high-speed school of fish, notching lap after lap on the twisty course at an average speed of about 25 miles per hour.
When the race ends, Ciolli stands at the top of the podium, alongside two other women from the all-female team she created, RCM Hit Squad presented by Crush Fitness.
Things have changed since Ciolli, 48, started racing here more than a decade ago. Back then, she competed as part of a male-dominated coed team. So few women participated that organizers lumped them into men’s races. Prize purses for women — if there were any — amounted to a fraction of those for men.
She did it anyway, and the experience apparently steeled the nerves of the former intensive care nurse, whose braided pigtails and sparkly earrings peak out from beneath her bike helmet. She races because she loves the speed and strategy of the sport. “It’s chess, not checkers. You think three or four moves down the road, not just what’s going to happen next,” she says.
Now she’s working to bring more women to the highest levels of the sport.
“You can see why it’s intimidating to women,” she says. “But this is the level I want girls to get to. It takes fitness and skill.”
She recruited some of the top local riders to her team, which numbers 19 women and includes a police officer, bike messenger, arborist, engineer and entrepreneur.
“Our goal was to be highly competitive,” Ciolli says. “But the underlying theme has always been to get more women into it.”
She’s not alone.
The Driveway Series started in 1987, at another location. Since it moved to Driveway Austin in 2009, the weekly races have grown into the largest bike criterium series in the country — one with a whole social scene that unfolds around it.
Every Thursday from March through October, cyclists flock to the closed circuit track. Music blares from speakers. Kids wobble around on tiny bikes under their parents’ watchful eyes. Vendors peddle T-shirts and cycling gear. Food trucks and beer carts do brisk business.
When Andrew and Holly Willis of Holland Racing took over the event in 2009, an average of about five women per week lined up to race. By last year, that number had climbed to 29. So far this year, it’s averaging 34.
“Of course, (that’s) nowhere near the several hundred men each week, but that’s almost 600 percent growth for the women’s field,” Andrew Willis says.
Those numbers aren’t surprising. Nationally, about 85 percent of cyclists licensed to race at USA Cycling events are male. Determined to grow the sport in Austin, Andrew Willis started polling female cyclists, asking what he could do to draw more into the sport.
“It seems like there’s an intimidation factor that comes with racing,” Andrew Willis says. “It’s perceived as very dangerous. What I hear is men seem to be more aggressive and willing to get hurt or take a risk, and women are more inclined to not put themselves in that situation.”
Armed with that information, he began to make changes.
Early on, the few female cyclists who participated had to race in the men’s races. Eventually, a separate women’s race was created, but even then, female riders of all skill levels raced at the same time. Now the series includes separate races for the different categories, or skill levels, of female cyclists. Andrew Willis also switched the lineup, moving some of the women’s races to primetime instead of holding all of them first, before the crowds arrived.
Then, with funding from donors like Ciolli and Deb Bailey, who also races for Hit Squad, Willis instituted equal weekly prize purses for men’s and women’s races. That drew criticism from some riders, who felt the money would be better spent funding more masters races.
“It’s equal effort, equal dedication to the sport to win, so why not give equal prizes?” Andrew Willis says. “From a promoter’s perspective, how do you pay for it, especially if women’s turnout doesn’t generate as much as men’s races? We’re fortunate enough to have a huge participation base over 32 weeks that insulates us and allows us budget flexibility.”
Then, last year, Andrew Willis instituted a mentor program. Veteran riders wearing safety vests and radios pedal at the back of the pack during races. They’re there to call in accidents as they happen, but also to provide in-the-moment coaching to beginner and intermediate cyclists.
“We encourage people who may be feeling a little out of place or uncomfortable or having a hard time with cornering to drop back and ride with the mentors and let them coach them through it,” Andrew Willis says.
The Driveway also hosts a series of skills clinics for beginner racers. Each clinic, led by members of Bicycle Sport Shop’s elite racing team Super Squadra, focuses on a separate skill, from cornering to pack positioning and pacelining.
The changes seem to be making a difference. Andrew Willis says more new women are racing the Driveway Series, and some are competing at the national level, traveling to races around the country.
“I love it. It’s really, really challenging, but that’s one of the best things about it,” says Samantha Wipff, a 25-year-old student and preschool teacher from Austin who started racing this year. Her cycling career began as a delivery cyclist for a sandwich shop. From there she started joining group rides. Eventually she came to Driveway Austin to watch her friends race.
“The first time you race is really scary,” Wipff says. “The nerves don’t ever really go away, either.”
With three races under her Lycra cycling kit, though, she’s ready for more. “It’s very empowering,” she says.
Austin police officer Rheannon Cunningham, 38, started racing a decade ago. She encourages other women to race, but also understands the hesitation of making the leap from recreational riding to racing. Do it anyway, she says.
“First because it’s fun, and second because it’s challenging and pushes you beyond the limits of what you think you can do,” she says.
Deb Bailey, 51, calls bike racing an adrenalin rush. “It’s like driving your car around town, then being a guest driver in the F1 races at Circuit of the Americas,” she says.
After years of running and swimming, Anne Flanagan turned to cycling four years ago. Now she thinks she’s the oldest female cyclist at the weekly crits.
“The first time scared me to death,” she says. “I stayed in the back.”
She raced for a few years, and even considered retiring after last season. Then spring arrived and she found herself back at the Driveway, enjoying the camaraderie and the scene. Once again, she wanted to race.
“I can’t quit,” she says. “It’s too much fun.”
IF YOU GO
The crit series at Driveway Austin runs from March through October, with races starting at 5 p.m. every Thursday. Entry fee is $27 online or $35 at the event or $675 for a season pass.
Want to read more about women and cycling? Check out these two books:
- “Ride the Revolution: The Inside Stories from Women in Cycling,” edited by Suze Clemitson (Bloomsbury Publishing, $20). In 1908, Marie Marvingt was told she couldn’t ride the Tour de France. Instead, she rode each stage 15 minutes after the official racers finished. This collection of stories from women in cycling examines what it’s like to be a top female rider and looks at the future of the sport.
- “Urban Revolutions: A Woman’s Guide to Two-Wheeled Transportation,” by Emilie Bahr (Microcosm Publishing). Former Austin resident and University of Texas alumna Bahr looks at the disparity between the sexes when it comes to riding a bicycle and addresses the barriers that keep women from cycling.