The High Price of Advocacy
Interview of Nicole Mertz by Anna Schwinn
Nicole Mertz came to cycling as an adult. Having grown up playing hockey in her home state of Minnesota and Lacrosse in high school and college, she found herself needing a new challenge after school. “I did my first triathlon on a mountain bike. I came in dead last place, but I loved it.” But triathlon quickly segued into bike racing. “Bike racing is just more competitive. I’m a very competitive person.”
Within four years of racing, Nicole was dominant within the local race community, a member of a behemoth Midwest women’s pro race team, and a National Champion in cyclocross. Within her home community of Minneapolis, she is a walking, talking advertisement for the sport. She makes racing and training hard look fun; her love the the sport is infectious. With Nicole’s eyes on a podium placing at cyclocross Nationals this year and a form that’s never looked better, the Minnesota racing community was poised to see their local hero on the podium again.
But that was put at risk last week when Nicole was suddenly dropped from sponsorship with less than two months until season start. How a National Champion and popular figure within the community lost her sponsorship is a story about the tenuous line women sometimes walk with support in the sport.
ANNA: How did you lose your team sponsorship? Describe it.
NICOLE: There was an Instagram account that was called ToADiumgirls. It featured the “podium girls” at Tour of America’s Dairyland with headshots. It talked about who they were, like a whole page on who these girls were, how they got to where they are, all their accomplishments. Some other racer sent it to one of my teammates, who showed me.
I was like, “That’s ridiculous.”
I really don’t have anything against the podium girls themselves. I don’t care if you want to do that. If this is how you can support cycling or how you want to get involved, fine. That’s not what I was bringing up.
They were highlighting the podium girls instead of the racers who spend a ton of time and money to train and travel - you sacrifice tons of time around your friends and family, you know? Meanwhile, the podium girls are standing on a stage and they’re getting all this stuff written about them.
This coming from a race that has always talked about how much they support women’s cycling. I just commented on my Facebook page that, you know, they should be talking about the women racing rather than the women there giving awards to the men.
ANNA: It’s only to the men’s field, too.
NICOLE: Yeah, and then someone said, apparently, this account wasn’t created by the race. But Tour of America’s Dairyland used the hashtag on their own Instagram event and did the same exact thing. They were reposting the podium girls’ headshots and talking about how much they were doing for the sport which-
ANNA: There was more exposure for those women than the women actually in the race.
NICOLE: Yeah. Again, the podium girls- I’m not trying to attack them or anything. It’s great that they want to help out - But there is no reason that they should be getting more attention than the women racing.
The reason why I was so mad about it and shocked was because it was ToAD. I don’t think it would have bothered me so much if it wasn’t a race that I had such a strong connection to. It’s my favorite race. I’ve done it every single year I’ve been into racing. I know a lot of the promoters and owners of ToAD. I think that’s why it was such a big deal for me.
ANNA: You made a comment on your personal page, but you weren’t the only one commenting. I remember hearing about it from several women racers before event. Then there was a lot of online feedback all at once.
Within several days of the @ToADiumgirls account being circulated within the Midwest racing community, there was massive backlash. When the account was deleted, scrutiny moved to the event itself. It was revealed the purses were, in actuality, not equal despite the event’s claims. Questionable responses from the event’s public relations continued to escalate backlash against ToAD. Nicole soon found herself and her sole comment the focus of ToAD organizers, several of whom also sat on the board of her team.
NICOLE: It got taken to a whole other level, I didn’t expect it to.
ANNA: Well, a public Instagram account isn’t a secret.
NICOLE: It was on social media. Obviously, you want people to see it or else you don’t put it up on social media. Then one of the race promoters for ToAD, who was also on the board of my team, kept calling me during the North Star Grand Prix. I called him back right away after his first call. Left a message. “If you want to talk, we can talk. I simply made a comment regarding the instagram account.” I don’t think it was attacking the race.
Literally what the post was about was that they were highlighting the podium girls and not athletes. Now, I think the tradition of podium girls is a little old school. I mean, you have to have someone up there handing out awards, but why does it have to be a woman in a short dress? We had police officers for the women’s podiums.
ANNA: You make this comment and then the race organizer is texting you throughout the race. What happens after the race?
NICOLE: I was sick so I only did one race at ToAD, but I came to the races and supported the race and people racing. When I got home a few days later, I got an email that said the board of directors has voted and decided to not sponsor individual riders. If you have any questions, contact us. Good luck with your cyclocross season.
ANNA: A month and a half from ‘cross starting.
NICOLE: Yeah. And I’ve always had a good relationship with the owners of [my team]. I always had such a good relationship with them, knew their kids, I considered them actually friends. And then they just kind of screwed me over, leaving me with no time to get on a new team. So I was texting them and emailing them for five or six days with no response- even though in their email they said if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact us.
I eventually started re-sending the same email over and over until they finally responded. [Team owners] scheduled a time to have a conference call with me- three of them and me just to tell me that the board voted, they didn’t want to sponsor individual riders. Exactly what the email said. “Well why? I’m not trying to argue against this. I just want to understand why. We had this agreement. This is out of the blue. This was 100% not happening a couple weeks ago.”
They don’t want to sponsor individual riders. They want to focus more on a pro team instead.
ANNA: You’re a defending national champion. I don’t understand what pro looks like when it doesn’t look like stars and stripes.
NICOLE: I was like, alright, I think it’s unprofessional and rude of you to just tell me this now. You could have done this a long time ago.
Ten minutes later, they called back and were like, and I’m paraphrasing, “We just wanted to clarify something. Actually, this was because of a comment that was made during Tour of America’s Dairyland by you. You were bad-mouthing the race promoters. You signed a contract saying you wouldn’t say anything negative about race promoters on social media. You created this shitstorm for us this whole race. We had to work on this the whole race, we had to fix this shitstorm. Everyone was pissed. There was all this negative feedback.”
ANNA: You were, by far, not the only racer commenting on this.
NICOLE: I made one comment, but because I was the one they had access to, it was easy to use me as the example.
ANNA: When you get dropped from a team like that, it’s like losing a job. You have to explain why you got fired from a prestigious team.
NICOLE: And the only people I knew to approach for sponsorship were people that I knew through association with [my former team]. I’m sure they didn’t want to touch me. I am definitely in the process of trying to find a team for road next year.
I’m worried I am being blackballed for voicing legitimate concerns as a female pro cyclist. If a male teammate commented on social media saying he could see where there could be improvements to a race, would he be so swiftly retaliated against? I am in the process of trying to find a team for road next year. I have serious concerns this retaliation will affect the way potential teams see me. Which overall can effect my racing career in the future.
And now I’m part of this discussion. I have to choose if I want to continue to support this discussion that I was a big part of, apparently, or just say no, I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
I feel like if I were to apologize for it all that it would mean I wasn’t supporting women’s cycling, that I’m okay with the huge disparity between men and women. Because I was singled out and punished for voicing my opinion, which was clearly mirrored by many other cyclists, I feel like I have this responsibility to continue the conversation.
ANNA: Why discuss it? You could quietly find your way back onto a team and “learn the lesson…”
NICOLE: Because then I feel like I’m sending the message that I’m fine with this disparity between men’s and women’s cycling. I didn’t even think I was really starting this huge discussion on sexism, but that’s what it turned into. It wasn’t my intention to start this discussion, but I did and I intend to stand by it.
If I would just be quiet, it would send the message other cyclists to just sit back, and don’t say anything. I feel like once you get to a certain point you have a responsibility to defend the integrity of your sport and stand up. It’s something you should do. It’s like equal payout. A few years ago, there wasn’t equal payout in many races, but now it’s required for Pro Road Tour races, and it’s because women were pissed about it, started a discussion and fought for it.
ANNA: Yeah. It’s an open discussion in the larger racing community. I hear it all the time.
NICOLE: They are basically saying that if you have an opinion on something we don’t like, we’re not going to sponsor you. Which I get, because the whole point of sponsorship is representing your sponsors in a positive light and promoting them the way they want.
ANNA: But how is that disparity in representation something they don’t agree with?
NICOLE: That’s what I want to know… but it’s because the owners of ToAD were pissed. They are also on the board of directors at [my previous team]. You’d think that being such big supporters of women’s cycling and having one of the biggest, most successful women’s teams in the country that they would want to support this, or at least not go against it. Not only are they withdrawing support but they are saying that it’s wrong, and that what ToAD was doing was fine.
I had the least abrasive comment out of all the comments I saw. Their reasoning was that I signed a contract saying that I couldn’t say anything negative about race promoters or sponsors on social media. Which I don’t think I did. This was not my intention.
ANNA: I’m not sure the comment is a negative thing.
NICOLE: This comment- I’m not saying the fact that they have podium girls is ridiculous. That’s a different conversation. It doesn’t seem very negative at all. I went back to look at it, thinking maybe it was a little harsh or unreasonable, but it wasn’t. I did tag them though, so, I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t have done that?
ANNA: But the other thing worth noting, is that the people affiliated with the team have deleted their comments from your page. There were a couple people affiliated with the team that engaged and were openly trying to debate with you, although you never responded to their comments.
NICOLE: They deleted their comments, but they didn’t do anything wrong. They’re entitled to their own opinion. That’s why I didn’t delete mine. I’m sorry that my sponsors got the impression that I was attacking them, and I’m sorry that they had to deal with some of the backlash, but I still stand by my comment, which was simply that the race coverage should focus on highlighting the athletes on social media, rather than the podium girls.
As news spread about Nicole’s loss of sponsorship through the community, a group of women from the local racing community formed to raise money to support her season.
ANNA: What are you going to do? You have a month and a half before you start competing. You’ve got to find a team for next season.
NICOLE: I had planned on doing the full pro CX calendar that was all the American CX races. Yeah, I was freaking out for a day and pissed that this was the reason.
After the backlash I got from my own team, I wasn’t expecting the support from the community. I knew that some friends would be like, “that’s unreasonable, that’s ridiculous.” But I wasn’t expecting… an awesome group of women in Minneapolis- Minneapolis does have a really really great women’s cycling scene.
The community that was commenting on ToAD stepped up and said, “We’ll figure something out.” I was like, “Okay, cool. Something might happen.”
I was just mind blown. When we had a meeting, they had it all planned. And Podiumwear jumped on board right away as my apparel sponsor. We’ll see what happens, but all I can say is that I am so thankful for all the support I’ve received from Minneapolis and cyclists who feel the same way as I do.