The boss who bridges the gender gap

Cycling team directors tend to be male, but Rachel Heal has bucking the trend in her role with the American team UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling. The former Commonwealth Games bronze medallist has found herself fully accepted in the world of elite racing, as she tells The Mixed Zone’s Laura Winter

The OVO Energy Women’s Tour came to a thrilling conclusion on Sunday, bringing the heart of London to a standstill as the very best female cyclists battled it out on an iconic circuit based around Regent Street. Victory went to Polish champion Kasia Niewiadoma, who claimed her first UCI Women’s World Tour title after a solo break that began, unusually, as early as the first stage of the five-day event.

However, while Niewiadoma took the laurels for the WM3 team, it is a truth that behind every rider there is a veritable phalanx of helpers. Each day, a convoy of team cars follow the peloton, mechanics ready to leap out to fix problems and get their riders back in the saddle after crashes, while the team directors bark orders down the radio. Team directors are predominantly men. But one woman well and truly bucks the trend.

Rachel Heal is the directeur sportif of UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling, an American men’s and women’s team who have spent much of the year racing – and winning – in the States and Australia. As one of the only women directing in the testosterone-fuelled world of elite sport, one might expect stories of discrimination and disrespect that Heal has suffered because she is a woman. Actually, not in this case. Refreshingly, Heal has nothing but positive experiences to tell. In short, she firmly believes her gender is irrelevant.

“I really haven’t experienced any negativity,” the former bike racer insists, suggesting that the world of team management is not beyond women’s reach. “There aren’t many female DSs, but that has not been an issue for me. Before I raced I was an engineer. Even in school I was one of three girls in a science or maths class of 20. I have spent most of my time in male-dominated environments, so it doesn’t faze me.

“Of course, I’ve had people mistake me for the soigneur [the team assistant who looks after the riders’ every needs]. But I’ve never had anybody be disparaging about what I have chosen to do. We want more women to take on DS roles within the sport. We have a different perspective, which is a good thing. There is no reason why women cannot direct men or women’s teams.”

Most importantly, male riders and staff pay Heal the same respect they would a man. Indeed, even her fiancé, mechanic Adrian Hedderman, has to call her “boss” (although he likes to believe that’s not the case, according to Heal). Her words bring to mind how world number one tennis player Andy Murray reacted to criticism of his former coach Amalie Mauresmo: “Have I become a feminist? Well, if being a feminist is about fighting so that a woman is treated like a man then, yes, I suppose I have.”

Heal said: “On the road, in the car, the riders are looking for support, tactics and instruction from us. It’s irrelevant who that support is coming from. Men’s and women’s racing is, of course, different. In men’s racing, 99 per cent of the time there will be a breakaway. But women’s races are shorter, and there isn’t always the time for a break to establish. Women’s racing is a lot less predictable.

“There are things I have to learn about working in the men’s sport. But that would be the same for any DS, regardless of gender. Riders themselves are different – of the 10 women racing for United Healthcare, none of them are the same. And you have to learn what motivates them all as individuals.”

Heal, 44, hails from Chester and spent most of her childhood playing sport, where it was hockey, netball, cross-country running or rugby. She didn’t start cycling until she went to Birmingham University, juggling her love for competition alongside a demanding degree in chemical engineering. She began racing at weekends in 2001, picking up some promising results in national series. Before long, she had been offered a place in the world-class performance squad and began racing in Europe and America, ultimately competing at the Commonwealth Games, finishing third in the 2002 road race, the World Championships and the 2004 Olympic Games.

While many elite sportsmen and women struggle with the decision to retire, it was an organic process for Heal. “I rode full-time for nine years and was racing for Colavita Bianchi. Eventually I got to the point where I was older and slower and it all became a bit less fun. Our director at the time, Iona Wynter, was moving back to Jamaica and they were looking for someone to take over. As I was planning on retiring, along with teammate Tina Pic, we co-directed for a year.

“Towards the end of my career I had stopped getting really nervous before races, but my first experiences directing, I had butterflies every race. It showed how much I cared. I don’t tend to get nervous now, but if I know we have a chance of winning, I still get those butterflies.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.

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