Chattanooga cyclist Stephanie Rynas knows she’s an underdog in today’s USA Cycling Road Race Professional Championship, but something felt wrong about not participating in the prestigious event that her city is hosting.
“I might not be capable of winning it; I might be in the back and I might be struggling, but … everybody talks about Chattanooga being this huge outdoor city, and I just think it would be a shame not to give credit to the teams that are here,” Rynas said. “If everybody waited until they were ready and felt prepared for something, nothing would ever get done.”
Rynas, who is on the Taco Mamacita team, is one of two local women competing in today’s road races. Amy Phillips, who also competed last year and came in 33rd, is the other Chattanooga resident competing in the road race. She’s racing for the Pepper Palace Pro Cycling team.
Both women are eligible to compete because they hold either a category 1 or 2 international cycling license.
Rynas grew up in Pasadena, California, and then moved to North Carolina to take advantage of a track and cross-country scholarship at Pfeiffer University. But those programs got cut, and the school added a cycling team.
“So I just sort of meandered to that, just to try it out,” she said.
She did two years of collegiate cycling and found her niche in racing, she said.
After getting her undergraduate degree in exercise science, she moved to Chattanooga to get her master’s in sports medicine.
She found that local women here were looking to develop cycling teams.
“The years I moved here, there was a big women’s movement [in cycling],” she said.
Some women were creating groups focused on road racing; others were building teams that were more mountain biking-focused. There were also recreational and social cycling groups evolving, she said.
Now, she’s been riding competitively for six seasons, and today will be her first time competing in an event of this magnitude. She and Phillips will be racing alongside some of the nation’s top athletes.
“This race is going to bring all these women out of the woodwork and bring them all to one location,” she said. “These are going to be the women that live and breathe this; they have dedicated themselves to this. I can compete with women around here, but [this event] is a completely different level.”
Last year was the first time in the event’s 29-year history that women competed for professional national titles. It was the first time they competed on the same days, on the same courses and for the same prizes as their male counterparts.
That’s happening again this year.
Rynas said she hopes that people come out to support and cheer for the women’s races, even though they might not seem as “glamorous” as the men’s races.
There are several different theories about why women’s cycling doesn’t get the same attention and varying ideas about solutions to that problem, Rynas also said.
Her personal opinion is that, in part, women often take time off to have children, which means a setback on training. She also said it can be difficult to move up and improve because all women are grouped together, and it can be disheartening to work up to the top levels.
“I think it’s a combination of women having other priorities and maybe having a little bit of a softer shell,” she said.
But it would mean a lot to her to be able to experience large crowds cheering on the women, she said.
Phillips, who grew up in northern Kentucky and has been in Chattanooga nearly eight years, came here for the outdoor recreation, the weather, the community and all the amenities the city has to offer, she said.
While Rynas’ team is made up mostly of locals, Phillips’ team has riders from all over the United States.
Her team sponsor, Pepper Palace (which sells items such as hot sauce and seasonings), just opened a store in Hamilton Place Mall, she said.
Phillips said she is excited to be able to compete on the roads where she rides, and she’s thrilled that her city gets to host the event.
“You have the top riders from all over the United States coming to race on the course,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for people locally to get a firsthand look at competitive cycling.”