The first thing you notice about Kendall Ryan (TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank) is an indelible smile. Quick to laugh and dance, she is the consummate teammate keeping everyone relaxed before the race. Once inside the barricades, however, her smile belies a competitive streak that speaks less to her elation but rather to a sense that she intends to devour her competition. Kendall’s love of racing was fostered early on alongside her brother and sister on the local BMX circuit. She would rise to national attention at the age of 15 when she was chosen to take part in USA Cycling’s Development Program in Belgium. In 2014, Kendall took part in the Team Time Trial at the UCI Road World Championships and subsequently pulled on the Stars and Stripes a year later at the USA Cycling Pro Criterium National Championships. The American sprinter would experience her most significant win to date at the 2018 Amgen Tour of California Women’s Race Empowered With SRAM, besting a World Class field, which included her sister, Alexis, in Elk Grove, California.
In my conversation with the Ventura, California native, we discuss her recent stint on the track for USA Cycling, the opening of the 2019 Amgen Tour of California Women’s Race Empowered with SRAM in her backyard, and the overall state of women’s cycling.
Leonard Basobas (LB): Having your victory salute from last year’s Amgen Tour of California plastered on a billboard must have been a huge honor, how does it feel to literally be a cause of slower or more LA traffic?
Kendall Ryan (KR): [Laughing/crying] Being on a billboard is a first for me! I would hope it’s not adding to the traffic or accidents that would make me feel terrible! I am very honored that Amgen Tour of California has used my screaming/winning face as their advertising art. As a proud California resident having that image on a larger than life screen is a very special thing for me. It is a win that I’m very proud of and moment I will never forget.
LB: Looking back at that win in Elk Grove, you were more than overcome afterwards. How special was that win?
KR: It’s the biggest win of my career. My lead out train was burnt up before we went through the last corner. I had to navigate the sprint finish alone against some of the best sprint trains and powerful sprinters in the Women’s World Tour. I had put so much hard work into my sprint and my coach, Joanne Kiesanowski, a 3-time Olympian on the road and track from New Zealand, kept assuring me my 30 second power is really good, so I was confident that if I had a clear road ahead of me I had a really good chance. Crossing the line first with daylight behind my back wheel was one of those Magic moments. Screaming, goosebumps, celebrating over the line, realizing what I just did. All the hard work, monotonous training days, repeating routines day in and day out, it all paid off for that moment. First time wearing yellow and the green jersey was exceptional. Honestly the best part was having my family, friends, coaches, teammates all there to share it with and for them to be so proud of me.
LB: Let’s fast forward to the opening stage of the 2019 edition of the Amgen Tour of California Women’s Race Empowered with SRAM. During the kickoff press conference, you mentioned that you know every inch and pothole of the roads in Ventura. How special would a victory in front of friends and family be in your proverbial backyard?
KR: Honestly, I would be amazed with myself if I pull that off with the rosters showing up for this race. The current Olympic champion, the UCI Women’s World Tour Leader, to name a few, will be on the start line. I certainly have home court advantage, but I am humble and realistic and also wanting to be there for the team efforts towards the General Classification (GC). Of course, I would like to see myself or my sister win the first ever [UCI Women’s] World Tour home town race. I however do think home crowd, familiar roads, and the built-up tension for this race will give me some extra gas in the tank. I’ve surprised myself before I guess [laughing]. The first stage is said to be a sprinters’ stage, but it still has a lot of climbing with a short steep climb up to the Ventura cross in the last 5km with a fast-technical finish. The second stage is all about the pure climbers punching each other’s lights out on Mt. Baldy and then the 3rd Stage finishing down at the Rose Bowl is a little less climbing than Stage 2 but more elevation gain than Stage 1.
LB: You mentioned your sister Alexis, it’s a bit of a tired question, but is there any sense of the stereotypical sibling rivalry in your relationship? What cycling or personal trait(s) or attribute(s), if any, do you admire or think would be beneficial to pull from your sister?
KR: No, we don’t show up to the same races trying to beat each other if that’s what you’re asking [laughing]. We are both pretty intense people; I think you have to be to do what we do. We both have sprinting capabilities, but I’d say I’m more of a pure sprinter and she’s more of a hybrid. Her capacity to be able to climb and sprint is really impressive and she’s an all-around great bike rider. I admire her confidence on and off the bike, especially how well spoken and methodical she is. I know she’s disappointed with her Spring Classics campaign. We are similarly disappointed, probably her more than me because she was so successful last year early on; where I wanted to see what I could do after some intense track training and racing World Cups. But that’s the thing, we do the same races every year, but they don’t always play out the same and it’s incredibly difficult to repeat successes especially at this level. I’d say she’s hungry for a win and she’s pretty savage when she gets like that [laughing].
LB: TIBCO – Silicon Valley Bank is coming off a big win at Tour of the Gila, who is the team looking/working for in the overall classification?
KR: Brodie Chapman our Aussie who just won Gila. She’s riding really well and is super keen for this race, and I am extremely confident in her capabilities.
LB: The finish of Stage 2 on Mt. Baldy presents its own challenges. Despite those parcours not being your strength, are you excited or nervous for that experience?
KR: I am nervous for the Baldy stage because I think that is a key race for GC standings and I hope I can do as much as I can to support and to contribute to saving my teammates energy that day.
LB: You spent a great deal of time on the track and racing for USA Cycling. What have you taken away from the track to help you on the road?
KR: The track season was a wonderful experience with USA Cycling. I spent a lot of time at the Olympic Training Center and went to World Cups for the Madison and was a backup rider for the Team pursuit at World Champs. I thought I was going to come into the Spring Classics hot from all the track racing, but I actually felt it burnt me out a little bit. I think not taking a break was more of a mental block than a physical one. I could certainly see the benefits of doing road on the track though, my endurance helps a lot and the transition to the double sessions on the track weren’t too bad for me either. I also really like all the gym work that is paired with my training on the track. I raced track and road as a junior but it’s a different kind of load on the body at this level. I’m finally excited to race again and I’m looking forward to the next block of races coming up on the road.
LB: Do you perceive yourself as a roadie or trackie? Do you always want to ride both, or do you ultimately see yourself choosing one over the othe
KR: I perceive myself as a bike racer and a very competitive person. My dad calls me a “hammer head,” [because] I always go after what I want with an unrelenting determination. I have a dream that started when I was 6 years old to be an Olympian and I want to see it through. I think both the road and the track can complement each other with the right training and race schedule. I think I see more potential to make the Olympic team on the track and the events I want to do are with teammates, I know how to be a good teammate and for me experiences in racing are more enjoyable when they are shared with others. In road cycling they like to put those nasty climbs in our races, and well, I just don’t defy gravity like some of my competitors can.
LB: Let’s switch gears a little bit, the Amgen Tour of California recently announced equal pay for the men’s and women’s fields, and now there is push for parity in the distance and number of stages. If this happens, would you welcome a longer stage race? Do you feel there has been enough progress in women’s cycling or are we still worlds away as it’s still difficult for women to make a living out of racing by comparison to men?
KR: Oh man, the loaded question…I would most definitely welcome more days of racing. I think the Amgen Tour of California has stepped it up for us to have a 3 days race, World Tour level, equal prize money payout, equal accommodations, and live streaming our races. It comes down to fan base, sponsorship, and TV time to grow for us. And that’s just going to take time and having the big races such as the Amgen Tour of California to give us a platform where we can showcase our racing. I have been a pro for 9 years and the progression has been slow. I’m 26 years old and I still live with my dad because I can’t afford to buy my own place or pay rent in the State of California on the salary I earn. It is not an easy life. It affects my personal life as well. I can’t expect the men in my life to support me financially the rest of my professional racing career. At some point I will have to stop, and move onto the next chapter to make a living and not live paycheck to paycheck.
LB: Having looked at the same issue for some time now, and trying to be a consistent proponent for women’s cycling, the slowness of the progression unfortunately seems to be central to the issue, as some individuals don’t want to rock the boat, so to speak, and therefore aren’t as outspoken about the inequities.
KR: Yeah, it’s hard to speak up about it because I don’t want to set people off. I don’t want people to be irritated about things I say, especially because everyone is so sensitive now a days. But honestly you wouldn’t want to compare my salary to a world tour men’s sprinter, it’s a disgusting difference. I don’t think I get paid like a professional athlete. I didn’t start out in the sport of cycling for anything other than the love of it, but now money has become a necessity and it’s at the point where I don’t know if I can continue with this lifestyle much longer. I have goals in cycling still but I’m constantly asking if it’s worth it to keep putting up with the hardships. I think the sport is hard enough, the time I spend on the road, the injuries, the crashes, the risks we take in races, it’s a lot with little reward.
LB: Given the current climate of women feeling empowered enough to speak up, whether it be the Times-Up organization socially, or even the USWNT in soccer speaking up for fair pay, your comment about not wanting to set people off is interesting. Do you feel that women’s cycling still suffers from patriarchy?
KR: Yes, but it’s gotten to the point of ridiculousness. I am all for equal rights, but I believe in equal pay for equal work. If we were doing the same miles, the same days of racing, the same pace, the same amount of crowd draw. I would be making so much noise about the pay gap. But the thing is we aren’t doing equal work as the men. How do we change that? How do we get to the point where we can do equal work to get equal pay?
This is something that can’t simply change overnight. It seems the activists that are trying to stand up for women’s rights are now using the tactic of interfering with the men’s racing. Saying that the men shouldn’t be allowed the use of the roads during the Tour of California because the women’s race isn’t as long and it’s a violation of our civil rights by not being treated as equals. I think that’s a bit of a reach. It’s not the men’s pelotons fault for the discrepancies. I don’t think that’s the answer, I’m not saying that I am unappreciative of their efforts to fight for equality in sport, but I’m sure they could go about it a different way.
LB: As far as equal work, haven’t most, if not all, of the distances for races been based on the assumption that women are not as strong or as fast and therefore should not cover the same distances? If the assumption is true, is the disparity in distances on the race organizers and sponsors, or is it on the women?
KR: Yes I believe that is what they say. We don’t have the same distances in any races that I know of. We don’t even race Crits for the same amount of time as the men do. Our World Tour races are far from slow, on average a couple kilometers slower than the men’s which is not much…but bike racing is bike racing. Do women tennis players hit the tennis balls as hard or as fast as the men? Do the women soccer players run as fast or kick the ball as hard as the men? I don’t know, but it’s still tennis and it’s still soccer and I enjoy watching both. I think if our races were shown on TV people would enjoy watching because it’s cycling no matter if it’s a woman or man on the bike.
You can follow Kendall on Instagram or Twitter @kendall_ryan92.