When ESPN said no to Kathryn Bertine ’00, her gut said yes — and she forged ahead, creating an award-winning documentary and support for women in professional cycling.
Bertine is no stranger to taking risks and trusting her instincts. When she came to Tucson, she thought she knew what her future would look like. Working toward an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona, she pictured herself moving back to her home state of New York after graduation and working in the publishing industry.
But when she discovered a passion for cycling as a student, she realized that her future held different opportunities.
Bertine never expected to take up cycling. She had grown up as a figure skater, but coming to Tucson pushed her to explore a new sport. “I noticed Tucson didn’t have many ice-skating rinks, so one of my friends suggested I get a bike, because everyone rides bikes in Arizona. So, I bought a bike off of Craigslist and joined the TriCats triathlon club,” she explains.
After taking a deep dive into the sport, her enjoyment of cycling blossomed, and she eventually became a professional cyclist. But as a pro, Bertine faced the overt gender discrimination in the sport. This led to her next passion: advocacy.
In 2012, while working as a columnist and senior editor for ESPN, she pitched the idea of a documentary on women’s pro cycling. Her idea was rejected. But instead of accepting defeat, Bertine followed her passions and created the film.
“I like to think that ESPN flipped the internal switch for me. When they said no, I truly believed in my gut that that was the wrong answer,” she says. “By that point, I had seen the worldwide effect of cycling, and I knew people would be interested in seeing the world of pro cycling, male or female.”
Her gut was correct. Her 2014 documentary, “Half the Road: The Passion, Pitfalls and Power of Women’s Professional Cycling,” won five film festivals, debuted in 16 nations and brought attention to corruption and sexism in the sport.
In 2016, Bertine established the Homestretch Foundation in Tucson, a nonprofit residence where female pro cyclists can live and train for free as the Homestretch team fights the gender pay gap behind the scenes. Her main goal is to help young women cyclists.
“I almost had to quit the sport because I couldn’t make ends meet — I was working two other jobs in addition to racing professionally,” Bertine says. “Trying to train 20 to 30 hours a week and then also carry a part-time or two part-time jobs on top of that was exhausting, strenuous and unfair. So, that’s where the Homestretch came to light.”
Over the past six years, Homestretch has directly supported 80 athletes from 17 countries.
As an active female cyclist, Bertine knew she could make a difference. “I advise all athletes to not just use their bodies, but their voice,” she says. “If something isn’t right in the sport, speak up and be the change that sport needs to see.”
Since retiring from pro cycling in 2017, Bertine has continued to advocate for equality. In 2020, Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s governing body, announced that professional women cyclists would finally have a base salary — but those salaries would be aligned with men competing at a lower level.
Bertine says that these small victories are worth celebrating but also are proof that there is still a long way to go. And she plans to be there every step of the way: “It’s not equal until it’s equal. And we’ll keep grinding until it is.”
Pick Up the Book
Bertine explores her journey as an activist in her 2021 memoir “Stand: A Memoir on Activism and a Manual for Progress.” She hopes her work to unpack the truth of gender discrimination in the sports industry will inspire others to become advocates for equality, whatever field they work in.