Whether along the Rillito River Trail, up the 26-mile climb to Mt. Lemmon or at various other popular locales across the metro area, thousands of people in Tucson take to the road on a bicycle every day. Long known as a region friendly to the cycling community, the thousands of locals out on the road are joined in the winter by those looking to take advantage of Tucson’s favorable climate to keep to a consistent training schedule.
Lauren Hall, Emma Grant and Brad Huff have spent time in the Old Pueblo with several other professional or elite-level cyclists at the Homestretch Foundation, a home away from home. A vision several years in the making in the mind of founder and former professional cyclist Kathryn Bertine, the foundation is a spiritual extension and a continuation of the work Bertine has carried out on and off of her bike.
During her career as a cyclist, one thing became apparent to Bertine: women have not been given an equal chance at success in the sport. Suffering through her own monetary struggles as a professional, Bertine said she looked to help as many fellow female athletes as possible. The concept which would eventually become the foundation was then born: hosting women in her home.
“Inequity was rampant, and not improving in any way,” Bertine said. “So that’s when it really took hold that we need to make some changes, and how can I be part of changing that broken system? I admired these athletes and what they were willing to do in order to pursue their goals and their dreams of being professionals. At that time I just had a spare room available, so of course, I’ll help a sister out.”
While Bertine knew that salary issues was a widespread problem throughout women’s cycling – the sport’s governing body, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), does not require women to be paid a base salary like male athletes – she said she came to realize that the financial hardship was nearly universal.
Years later Bertine would retire from her own professional career, hanging up her jersey at the end of the 2016 season, though her desire to help other women in the sport was not sated. After years of thinking about the foundation and formulating business plans, Bertine put the wheels in motion alongside co-founder Tom Bailey, and the Homestretch Foundation became a reality last November.
Established near the grueling, 9,000 foot climb atop iconic Mt. Lemmon, the foundation houses up to ten professional female cycling or endurance sports athletes, all looking to take advantage of the desert winter - and the opportunity to take some pressure of their budget.
“Mentally it’s so much easier being around likeminded people living the same lifestyle,” said Grant, 25. Like several other athletes, Grant took quite a journey to the foundation, having travelled from Oxford, England. “A big part of this sport is the ability to not just train optimally, but also rest optimally. That can be a really hard part of it, but just being around all of these people that are resting and being disciplined makes it easier.”
Grant said that she first heard about the foundation and its mission through a teammate, and had ridden with Bertine in the past. With an opportunity to train in Tucson during prime conditions, Grant couldn’t help but take a chance, and applied for the program.
From making use of the environment, to accessing various trainers, chiropractors or doctors, the homestretch team has been making full use of their time in Tucson, though they have also grown as a family.
“I think that it’s great,” said Hall, 38, who along with her partner Brad Huff have also been residents at the foundation. “It’s just cool to ride with the girls and if there is anything, any knowledge I can give them, any fun that we can have together as a group
and work to give back as a group, that’s what I’ve really enjoyed about Homestretch.”
Bertine over the years and the mission of the foundation has also long held the attention of others within the cycling community, David McQuillen and The Sufferfest organization among them.
McQuillen, Sufferfest founder and chief suffering officer, said that the company was the first corporate sponsor of Bertine’s 2014 documentary, “Half the Road,” which details the passion and enthusiasm of the women of professional cycling, as well as the hardships of inequity faced many share. McQuillen said that Sufferfest has always supported women’s cycling, and that the movie was “a perfect fit for our efforts.”
Since first making contact, McQuillen said that the company has followed Bertine’s activism efforts. When the idea for the Homestretch Foundation first came into play, McQuillen said that The Sufferfest team “knew we had to be a part of it.”
By partnering with the foundation, athletes benefit from free use of The Sufferfest app, which includes riding videos and other helpful features. The app helps with indoor training, though the other benefit of the partnership has been the introduction of the Homestretch Foundation’s own motorpacing. Motorpacing is when riders ride behind a motor cycle or similar vehicle at high speeds to develop race-pace speed and strength they couldn’t otherwise develop riding alone.
“The Sufferfest has always supported underdogs; people who believe in themselves and are fighting against seemingly impossible odds to achieve a dream,” he said. “We believe that the athletes of the Homestretch Foundation are working to inspire change in the female cycling community -- something that can end up being a difficult task. However, it takes powerful women, like Kathryn, to start a movement inspired by personal experiences.”
Work at the foundation home doesn’t end on the roadway or in training sessions, however. Athletes staying in town are also required to donate at least two hours of every week to a cause, foundation or nonprofit close to their own hearts.
While the handful of athletes staying at the foundation every year see great benefit in their own careers, each – including Huff – know that more needs to be done to better the position of female cyclists in their sport.
“Women’s cycling still needs a lot of growth to happen,” Hall said. “We are professional athletes, but we aren’t treated as professionals. We’re not paid like professionals, so to have such a proper venue to grow as an athlete in a professional sense – hopefully that will make others step up as well.”
“There definitely needs to be more awareness in the Pelaton as a whole,” said Huff, who is staying at the house with his partner, Hall. “The [UCI] needs to be more strong-arm with teams, giving more support, more control to the women. A lot of these women are just hoping to find opportunities, yet they never actually come to fruition. The homestretch is such an amazing place for them to be able to stay grounded, and use it as a steppingstone. Hopefully, the federation and other teams will see the importance of this in an athlete’s progression, and take it into consideration.”
When not hosting athletes during training season (December through May) the Homestretch Foundation is available to local clubs, groups, think tanks or any other organization which may need use of a space. Money raised by hosting groups will not only go towards the foundation’s mission of hosting female athletes, but its ongoing mission to create gender equity throughout the world.
More information can be found at www.homestretchfoundation.org.