Dorothy Wong, Queen of Cyclocross
When I first met Dorothy Wong at the Kill Radio studio to be a guest on Bike Talk, I was blindsided. It was 10 a.m. on a Saturday. She was really, really excited about getting women on bikes and I was really, really hungover. I was under the impression that I was there to talk about the Bikery, a new bike collective that was opening in the San Fernando Valley; and about the latest misadventures of the local bike polo club (LABP)—but I had found myself in a small studio full of female cyclists in a conversation centered around making biking better for women and was pressed to share: What had gotten me so hung up on bikes?
“It’s very challenging, honestly, to get more women involved,” Wong, the longtime director of SoCalCross, would tell me years later, persisting in her mission. “There were many times I was the only woman racing cyclocross here in Southern California, so I had to race against the boys. There might be one or two or three other gals. A big field was five women. Now we’ve got maybe 50 women racing, 60 on a good day.”
Known to some as Dot, or even Dottie, these names hardly describe the woman who drives Cyclocross in Southern California. Others know her by a more accurate moniker: “The Tasmanian Devil.”
“In a good way,” she says, “because I just don’t stop.”
Before Dorothy was putting on races, she spent 20 years working in Hollywood, producing live events for television. She fell in step with the high-paced work and landed at Mad TV, where she spent 14 years as associate director.
“That just coincided with my bicycle habit that I picked up—one of the cameramen had said ‘Hey, you should try this mountain biking stuff. You’d love it.’”
Intrigued by a sport she’d never heard of before, she dove in at a two-day women’s mountain biking clinic in Big Bear. It was 1995 and mountain biking was gaining serious steam.
“It was an 8-mile race and I had gotten all this instruction from all these amazing women and I finished the race and I threw the bike on the ground and I screamed,” she says, recalling her moment of discovery.
Before coming to California, Dorothy spent her formative years in Oahu, Hawaii, riding BMX with the boys in her neighborhood, on the ridge two miles above Pearl Harbor. She competed in wheelie contests, but her dream was to be a pro basketball player. “But you know, girls weren’t playing professional sports,” she says. “That’s not what you did.”
When she moved to Southern California to study at Loyola Marymount, the waves helped her feel connected to home, and so she picked up surfing. It wasn’t until her first bike race that she finally found the level of sport she had always chased.
“Deep down inside I wanted to be a professional athlete,” Wong confesses. “Then I started biking and I ended up finishing in the top three in my first race and it just ignited my competitive bug. From there I just started racing like a madwoman.” Before long, Dorothy was racing pro mountain, elite road and elite cross, a racing career that has lasted 18 years and earned her seven national podium places 7 years in a row.
“All of those experiences drove me to want people to see the sport.” She credits her training in Hollywood for her taste for the frenzied pace that is intrinsic to cyclocross. “There’s not a lot of patience. That’s why I think I’ve just fallen into this frenetic role of race director who loves to race every race at the same time. Watching everybody come together and have the time of their lives is why I wanted to unify this sport and get sponsorship and show people in SoCal that this is the most awesome sport in the world.”
For Dorothy, it’s all connected: To get more people to care about the environment, more people have to get out and experience the environment, like on bikes. To get more people on bikes it needs to be fun, and bike races sure are fun. To get more people racing? Give them an opportunity and show them how. That’s why she always prefaces the ‘cross season with as many clinics as she can organize, incorporating feeder rides and bike demos, followed up with rental bikes and beginner’s races (and doggy ‘cross) throughout the season.
“I want the idea of racing and advocacy to come together,” she says. She envisions “bike festivals” that bring together various cycling sports competitions, clinics, advocacy groups—and unify the often segmented sub-communities in cycling. “They’re not separate,” she says.
“I’m such an environmental nerd, I want to see the birds of prey still having a place; deer, mountain lion, bear… I don’t want them to disappear. What a gem we have of these amazing mountains in Southern California. Next to millions of people. We have to find balance.”
Dorothy’s drive to seek balance has led her to found the TEAM (Eco Advocacy Mission), a cycling club whose riders support a three-pronged mission: Race, Recreate, Advocate. TEAM riders compete at all levels in Track, Mountain Bike, Road and Cyclocross.
“The idea with the TEAM is you don’t have to ‘sign a contract’ with the team. It’s a movement. The focus on the racing team is women and juniors. With the TEAM we have almost 300 people on this movement that’s just sort of evolved with everything that I’m doing. And of those 300 people, half are women, so we’ve been able to increase the opportunity. Sponsorship is huge in making things happen, but it’s not the bottom line.”
When planning began for the first National Women’s Bike Summit to take place in 2012 Dorothy was quick to connect the dots between the impact of Title IX, the landmark legislation that expanded access to sports for girls and women within schools, and the women who had become empowered embracing bicycle-based sports. The Women in the Sport of Cycling panel included Olympic Pursuit Silver medalist Dotsie Bausch, Race Across America record-setter Jill Gass, along with several other women competitive in other cycling disciplines. Widely attended and well-received, the session presented a unique perspective on how to motivate more women to ride, placing more emphasis on inspiring others through athleticism and providing opportunities to compete and be challenge rather than the more obvious aspect of making cycling easier and safer for the fairer sex.
“I would like to communicate the similarities of how sport and advocacy have the same issues and can really work together to make change,” she says. “The ‘can’ts’ have to get erased; and I think athletes do everything in their power to eliminate that word from their psyche.”
www.socalcross.org. All photos courtesy of Dorothy Wong.
About Krista Carlson
A regular contributor to the print edition of Urban Velo, Krista Carlson is a cyclist obsessed with bike polo, baking, pickles, and all things bike-y. She is a native Angeleno and is madly in love with the city and everything that makes it the beautiful, crazy place that it is.