In 2011, Robin Farina won the Women’s US National Road Cycling Championship. Earning the top prize in US Road Cycling was the result of a lifelong competitive spirit and growing up in an atmosphere where nothing was deemed impossible. As she contemplates the end of her professional racing career, Farina is refocusing that drive into elevating the profile of women’s cycling and sharing her passion with a whole new group of riders.
“She pushes people past where they thought they could go,” says Chris Sheehan, Farina’s business partner.
Farina has always been an athlete. Growing up in Nashville, TN, she played volleyball, basketball, tennis – a different sport every day. When studies and work led her away from sports for a few years in her early 20’s, Farina found she needed a competitive outlet. But a nagging knee injury limited her options.
“My doctor said I should ride a bike or get into a pool,” Farina recalls. “Swimming was one of those things I didn’t enjoy so I went to the local bike shop and bought a bike.”
That knee injury, and a dislike of swimming laps, would launch a career in professional cycling. Riding became her hobby. Then it became her obsession. When she wasn’t working, Farina was training in the hills of Tennessee. She was soon recruited by women’s professional teams. At 26, she moved to North Carolina and began coaching for Lees-McRae College.
Coaching would remain an important part of Farina’s career. As a professional racer, where the purse for women’s races isn't up to par with the men’s circuit, coaching was a way to help pay the bills for Farina. But sharing her enthusiasm for the sport she loves goes beyond a paycheck.
“I grew up with a super supportive dad,” says Farina. “I was never told ‘no, you can’t do that.’ My goal is to provide that (to other riders).”
Now Farina coaches riders across the country. She’s currently working with 2016 Olympic triathlon hopeful Lukas Verzbicas, and she coached Addyson Albershardt, who won the US Junior Time Trial Championship in 2012. She also trains everyday athletes who just want to use cycling as a way to stay healthy. In Farina's eyes, they’re all the same.
“I care just as much about the Olympian as the person getting in shape,” Farina says. “I want people to be healthy.”
Next year’s project for Farina is putting together a U23 women’s team, which will allow her to mentor a new group of competitive cyclists.
Farina also spends time coaching from Uptown Cycles, a shop she co-owns with Sheehan. Through her degree in sports marketing, Farina has learned about the business of sports, but her desire to fill a void in women’s cycling experience that inspired her to open a bike shop.
“All the things I saw that needed to happen for women – proper fitting, comfortable atmosphere – I wanted to provide,” Farina says.
November of 2008 wasn’t the best time to open a bike shop, jokes Sheehan, also a former pro cyclist. Like many consumers, Charlotte residents were nervous about spending in a recession. But he and Farina had faith in the product.
Their vision was a “total solution” for Charlotte’s bicycle community. A place where a new rider could feel comfortable dropping in for advice or an equipment tweak. An indoor studio where cyclists could use their own bikes for a fitness class. A gathering place for weekly rides and training sessions. And a truly technical shop where a world class triathlete could work with a Retul-trained professional for a diagnostic bike fitting.
Farina’s first experience in a bike shop was a valuable lesson in opening her own. The first bike she bought, after heeding her doctor’s advice, was an upright hybrid, not at all suited for the type of riding she hoped to do. She eventually returned the hybrid and bought both a proper road bike and a mountain bike.
“That bike shop didn’t really listen to what I wanted,” she says.
Now, her own shop is thriving, with most evening classes filled to capacity. The Retul sizing center – a motion capture fitting system complete with flat screens filled with enough biometric information to confuse Tony Stark – has expanded. And weekly rides, held on Monday nights in spring and summer and Saturday mornings in fall and winter, often see 50 or more participants.
Farina loves helping women make a successful purchase on their first bike, as well as promoting professional women’s cycling to an equal level with the men’s sport.
Farina began racing in 2006 and joined the Now-Novartis for MS team in 2010. During her three years with the team, she captained several tandem MS bike rides before taking the U.S. Women’s Road Cycling championship in 2011.
With that success came a world of opportunities. Farina competed in the Pan Am Games, raced in Italy, Belgium, Holland, and Mexico, was named to the women’s Long Team for the 2012 Olympics, and represented the United States at the World Championships. Farina says that the experiences opened her eyes to people, places, and cultures she may not have otherwise seen.
Being at the top of her sport, however, didn’t necessarily mean financial security.
“Many (professional women cyclists) are crashing on couches when they travel for races,” Sheehan says.
One of the toughest parts about being a female pro cyclist, says Farina, is finding jobs that can support the lifestyle. While their male counterparts are bringing in sizable winnings and minimum salaries, the front runners of the women’s peloton earn a fraction of those numbers.
“Growing up playing sports, no one ever told me that an opportunity wasn’t there,” says Farina. “I want to give women and girls in this sport an opportunity to thrive.”
The Women's Cycling Associationworks with the sport’s governing bodies to promote minimum salaries and greater media coverage as well as purses equal to those of similar men’s races. After decades of male domination, the process is slow. But the conversation is starting, Shaheen says.
Last year Farina rode as a freelancer for several teams, though she's uncertain how much time she’ll devote to professional riding next season. Whatever is on the horizon, however, don't expect her to be in the backdrop; she "doesn’t believe that second is good enough,” says Sheehan.