Philadelphia’s bike race stands out for its gender parity

 (Photo courtesy of Advanced Sports International)

(Photo courtesy of Advanced Sports International)

The 2015 Philadelphia International Cycling Classic is just days away. Now in its 31st year, the “Bike Race” is nothing new to the city of Philadelphia or to professional cyclists across the world. Yet despite the race’s storied history, the 2015 iteration of the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic is a year of firsts — at least when it comes to the women’s race.

For the first time since 2001, the women’s race has been given a prestigious World Cup designation, and for the first time ever, the women’s race will be the featured race of the 2015 Philadelphia International Cycling Classic. The race also awards equal prize money to men and women. 

It’s a giant leaps forward for both the city of Philadelphia and for the sport of professional cycling as a whole, where gender equity has been an ongoing battle. These firsts are largely in part due to the unyielding advocacy efforts of former U.S. pro cyclist, Vice President of Marketing for Advanced Sports International, and Chair of the Philadelphia Bicycle Advocacy Board, Karen Bliss.

Growing up in Quakertown, Bliss fell in love with biking at a young age. Riding to school and friends’ houses and various sport practices, her high school health teacher sold her first sport bike — a Kumaki — and after riding her first century (a 100-mile bike ride within 12 hours) with her father at the age of 15, Bliss said she was hooked.

When she was at Penn State University, she joined the PSU Cycling Club. “It was a great group of people and I really found my place there,” she said.

It wasn’t long before Bliss went pro.

Throughout her career, Bliss was named the “Winningest Cyclist in North America” and she tackled the notorious “Manayunk Wall” for five consecutive years in the early 90s, making it to third place in 1994.

“I was actually disappointed in that race,” Bliss recalled. “I was out to win it that year; I wanted to win it — especially in my hometown.”

Though she is now retired from professional cycling, Bliss could never sever ties from the industry. She is the Vice President of Marketing for Advanced Sports International, is a member of the USA Cycling and UCI women’s committees, sits on the board of the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition and serves as chair for the newly formed Philadelphia Bicycle Advocacy Board.

As chair of the board, Bliss has worked tirelessly to be a catalyst for change for cycling in Philadelphia and around the world. And this year, she is proud to say she has made some strides. During last year’s Tour de France, Bliss encouraged Mayor Michael Nutter to travel to France to witness the event.

“I wanted the Mayor to experience the power of this race,” she said “And I wanted him to see what the Philadelphia race could be.”

While in France, Nutter met with Union Cycliste International’s (UCI) President Brian Cookson to discuss adding the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic back into the UCI World Cup series. “It was a surreal experience to be even sitting there with Cookson, and then to have him agree… It was a major win,” Bliss recalled.

Bliss says she can’t help but feel a particular sense of excitement for this year’s bike race.

“This Philadelphia race is one of the best metropolitan races in the world — and I’m not just saying that because it’s my home race,” she said. “The people, the drama, it just elevates the racing to another level… Women have been shafted in the sport of cycling since the very beginning. But in Philadelphia they are treated well; they’re given equal stature, and you just can’t help but feel a sense of pride.”

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