Towson alum pedaling to get a women's version of the Tour de France

Melissa Otterbein, 26, competes in the Triathlon World Championships Sunday in Las Vegas

  • Melissa Otterbein, of Hamden, trained with a local bicycle racing club to prepare for the 70.3 Ironman World Championship in Las Vegas.
Melissa Otterbein, of Hamden, trained with a local bicycle… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
September 08, 2013|By Don Markus | The Baltimore Sun

Melissa Otterbein never has thought of herself as a world-class athlete, just someone who was persistent and worked hard to achieve her goals.

At Towson University, where she was a member of the swimming team, Otterbein made the Colonial Athletic Association championships twice in her four years.

Otterbein, who grew up outside Philadelphia and has remained in Baltimore after graduating four years ago, has another goal that appears a little more challenging: She is trying to get the Tour de France to hold a race for women.

When Otterbein, 26, competes today in the Ironman 70.3 Triathlon World Championships in Las Vegas — an event consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run — she will inscribe her singlet with the same words she wore when she qualified for the event this summer in Boulder, Colo.

“Until We All Can Race” it will read.

Otterbein's biceps will marked with the letters “TDF.”

The inspiration first came when Otterbein read an article on in which Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme casually dismissed a proposal made public by British Labor Party deputy secretary Harriet Harman to have the iconic bicycle race include a separate event for women.

That led to a petition signed by more than 70,000 supporting Harman's proposal.

Prudhomme was described as rejecting the proposal “with a wave of the hand.”

Otterbein was incensed.

“When I read that, I thought, ‘How can a man, with the wave of his hand, prevent women from competing internationally?'” she said recently. “I was very encouraged to see that I wasn't the only woman to feel that way. I was excited to see their activism. That's when it hit me that I could dedicate the race that I'm training for to women participating in the Tour de France.”

In addition to the petition they helped write, former Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington of Great Britain and Kathryn Bertine, a former professional ice skater turned triathlete, have put together a documentary, “Half the Road,” depicting the inequality between the sexes in the world of professional cycling.

“One of the things they shared in the trailer [was that] professional male cyclists have a mandated minimum salary of $29,000. Women have no mandated pay and often earn less than $11,000, which is below the poverty line,” Otterbein said.

Otterbein is trying to get the word out locally about the petition through her affiliation with the Baltimore Area Triathlon Club, which she joined in February 2012. She posted a link to the petition and the documentary on Facebook.

Otterbein said a number of spectators and competitors at the 70.3-mile triathlon in Boulder asked her, “What race are you talking about?” when they saw what was written on her singlet. Others, mostly women, said, “I like your shirt.” Otterbein said their interest motivated her.

“It was encouraging to hear that while I was biking all those miles,” she recalled.

The inspiration led to Otterbein finishing 12th in her age group (25-29) in her first attempt at an Ironman triathlon. While only the top-three finishers are guaranteed spots in the 70.3 Ironman World Championships, a volunteer at the Boulder event told her she should hang around the awards ceremony in case some who qualified didn't show up to claim their spots in Las Vegas.

Only one claimed a spot, giving Otterbein a place in today's event.

“I kind of look back and think that opportunities don't always come for the most blessed but for those who are ready and looking — certainly looking,” she said.

Otterbein, who competed in her first sprint triathlon (typically a half-mile swim, 16-mile bike ride and 5-kilometer run) before starting at Towson, credits two members of the local triathlon club, Linda Anders and Sheryl Savage, for guiding her through the grueling training sessions required to run and swim and bike the longer distances.

“Having that companionship has been very inspiring,” Otterbein said.

Despite a 20-year difference in their ages, Otterbein's cause has had the same effect on Anders. The mother of two girls, ages 9 and 6, Anders said she was watching this year's Tour de France when one of her daughters asked whether Anders ever considered competing herself.

When Anders explained that the event was open only to men, the girls were dumbfounded.

“They were shocked that women weren't invited to it. They were like, ‘Whaaaat?'” Anders said Friday.

When Anders later saw Otterbein's Facebook post about the Tour de France flap, she pointed out to her children that “this is a very good friend of mine, and she's protesting the very thing that we were speaking about. It just really hit home.”

Otterbein said the idea of competing in a 70.3 Ironman has been “an ongoing journey. … Something kept tugging at my heart.”

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