Last Friday, Cycling Canada announced a 51-rider team
for World Champs in Val di Sole later this month. The team included both cross country and downhill riders from juniors to elites. The catch? There were no elite downhill women.
The outrage was exactly what you'd expect when a sport governing body for one of the most MTB-rich nations on the planet announces a team — Canada's most fully-funded World Champs downhill team in several years — that doesn't include any elite women.
Cycling Canada explained that it had offered spots on the team to the top three riders based on its selection criteria, but all declined due to scheduling conflicts. Those riders were Casey Brown, who is running the Dark Horse Invitational freeride event then heading to Audi Nines, and Miranda Miller and Georgia Astle, who will both be racing the next EWS double-header the week after World Champs. The selection criteria didn't specify what would happen if the riders selected declined.
The main point of confusion is that the communication from Cycling Canada hasn't been entirely consistent. As many riders did not have the opportunities in 2020 and 2021 to race internationally and thus earn points to qualify for the team, the selection essentially came down to the Canadian National Championships results, where the top three riders would make the team. Vaea Verbeeck knew that and reached out to Cycling Canada in July to ask whether the selection would roll down the Nationals results list if the first riders named to the team couldn't go. She planned to race Nationals, but she knew she couldn't attend World Champs if she qualified, so she wanted to make sure she wouldn't be taking a spot from another qualified rider if she happened to place in the top three. In short, although she ultimately placed fourth at Nationals so wasn't one of the initial riders named to the team, she anticipated and hoped to avoid almost the exact situation that played out.
The person she reached out to at Cycling Canada was in charge of travel logistics, but had no involvement in the selection process, so the answer Vaea received was a guess that turned out to be incorrect. "Hey Vaea, that's super considerate of you!" the Cycling Canada representative wrote. "You would not be taking someone's spot, we would simply ask the next person in the results and keep going down the list as long as they finished within the top 8."
In reality, the DH working group in charge of writing the team selection criteria
simply hadn't considered that the three women selected wouldn't be able to go. There was no plan to roll down the results list; no backup plan at all, really.
Will the selection criteria change for 2021? Almost definitely. The selection criteria aren't fixed, Cycling Canada's Chief Sport Officer Scott Kelly said, and are written each year by a volunteer group from the downhill world. Unlike all the other disciplines, downhill has a set of criteria written by people within the racing world. While they were written this year to be clear and objective, they clearly left something to be desired in terms of flexibility. "For people who write criteria for a living, you put a little asterisk in there. You put a roll-down or you do something that doesn't put you with your back against the wall," Kelly said. "But the way this is written, it was just, top three, no provision for roll-down, just super, super strict. The downhill working group did nothing wrong, it's just they wrote tough criteria that they couldn't back out of."
Given that Cycling Canada says it aims to improve diversity and representation within racing, there's clearly some work to be done and there's a fine balancing act between setting objective standards and having enough flexibility to make the right decisions when unforeseen circumstances arise.
In light of the backlash to the original team selection, Cycling Canada decided to roll down the list of eligible women to the next three riders: Vaea Verbeeck, Jennifer McHugh, and Rachel Pageau. The organization has also added to the junior roster Gracey Hemstreet, who sat out of Nationals with an injury but has shown that she can clearly compete at the top level. She was the fifth-fastest junior woman down the course at Maribor, her first World Cup, and is on the rider list for Proving Grounds.
Pageau, who has been racing World Cups this season, finished 6th at Canadian Nationals, and is already over in Europe for Maribor, said she has mixed feelings about the whole situation but is thankful to have been named to the team.
Cycling Canada does take accountability for the misstep and said that the conversations that came from this are the necessary ones. "Mistakes were made, obviously, but it was not vindictive or meant to fuel all this outrage," Kelly said. "I mean the discussion that people are having is the proper one, for sure. How do we get more elite women at a World Cup level?" He emphasized that Cycling Canada has focused on providing opportunities for juniors and improving funding for the team as a whole, but missed the mark on just how to make sure that equity was extended to elite women.
"[Cycling Canada] is really made up of a lot of people from the off-road community that are actually trying to make a difference," Kelly continued. "It sucks when there are little bureaucratic missteps like this that can be remedied. It takes things like this where you learn and you regroup and you move forward. There's always a solution, but it's good to have the discussion."