A post about being a female cyclist.
….“Ungry then boys?”…
Boomed the jovial café waiter as I inhaled a plate of cheesy beans on toast topped with 2 fried eggs immediately after devouring a rather large bacon butty. I fear the combination of my lack of ladylike decorum and the busy café being packed with mostly male and middle-aged cyclists meant the waiter assumed I was one of the same, if slightly more diminutive.
It’s a joke that keeps on trucking between my husband Stevie and I, but does make the point that you see what you expect to see and if every other person in the café is similarly dressed and male it was a reasonable assumption to make… Or was it?
Historically Audax has suffered from being linked to a specific demograph and infamously several years ago now ran the London-Wales-London audax with more participants that were called Dave than were female! I do feel the difference has shifting somewhat to be much more inclusive in general in terms of age, sex, race etc and people like Katie Kookaburra are doing a lot to promote broader participation. The fact still stands however that it is a majority of white older male riders who turn up to events.
The question why is potentially less straightforward than it seems: is it just that men on the brink of retirement can find nothing better to do then ride their bicycles exceptionally long distances while their wives cook dinner? Many do have a loved one at home, but there is certainly a fair share of solo riders too and arguably women of the same generation are equally likely to be retired and therefore free to ride their bicycles. Is it a generational issue related to women? This doesn’t quite seem to ring true to me as increasingly there are many great female endurance athletes competing at the highest levels of their sport: Mimi Anderson, Nikki Spinks and Rosie Swale-Pope are some of my favourites (see this article for more speculation why). And in terms of the culture of women riding bicycles there are plenty of strong female riders from the history books; Beryl Burton being an exceptional example and there are many stories from wartime Britain and earlier of female cyclists. There are certainly strong older and wiser female riders putting us whippersnappers to shame currently with Marcia Roberts (LeJogLe female WR holder) and Judith Swallow (Audaxer extraordinaire).
So, without a clear answer to why more women aren’t participating alongside their male compatriots, maybe clarity can come from why some women are…
I have always been a bit of a tomboy, more interested in climbing trees than playing with dolls and being part of my local Sea Scout group growing up allowed me to be as rough and ready as any of the boys, not afraid to pitch in and get a bit muddy on occasion! I have always felt like there are very few barriers to doing what the opposite sex can and have had a strong sense of pride and independence based on this. This did however make for a rather sudden reality check when all the boys hit puberty and I could no longer match them kayak racing (my sport of choice at the time).
I have always had plenty of male friends too and frequently find girly gossip about make up, fashion and celebrities confusing and not part of my world… and don’t even start me on what leggings to wear to go to the gym! I am much more interested in which waterproof is best, maps and how to fix my bike. So maybe it was no huge surprise I felt quite at home on my first audax rides and even with that case of mistaken (sex) identity have never felt particularly unusual, unwelcome or exceptional because I’m a girl. The only other acknowledgment I can recall is when organisers have been happy for me to have bunk in the male dorms so Stevie and I can stay together with our shared kit/alarms etc. One particularly gruff organiser showed his soft side by even dragging two airbeds together for us once!
Maybe it is ingrained in the self-sufficient nature of audax too that I am never offered unwelcome help or it assumed I need special treatment because I’m female, it may be that Stevie is often with me (although the one occasion I did have some chauvinistic interference on Paris-Brest-Paris, Stevie was there and failed to intervene!) but on the whole I am left to my own devices.
But as well there is an element that I don’t expect special treatment either. There obviously are differences between men and women and it is foolish and detrimental to pretend there are not, but I have always been determined to find my own way of adjusting, rather than expecting adjustments to be made for me. I know the limits of my own strength and speed, and therefore factor this in. There are some bonuses like I take a lot longer to “bonk” than Stevie and I have heard the theory this is due to women carrying more subcutaneous fat, which I could believe. I have times of the month I am ropier than others, but accept this and move on rather than whinging and moaning. I have perfected my super speed squat for a pee so that I can still modestly relieve myself without full facilities… only to be recently foiled by bib shorts very kindly donated by our sponsor Huub. But, adjusting again, I am working on becoming proficient at the standing she-wee –wee with these!
So, I feel a big part of being accepted, is by not making myself the exception.
Sport should be inclusive for all but sometimes I feel the need for “changes” to make sport inclusive for women is overblown and actually we just need to get out there and do it. After all men have their own challenges too (where do they put all those bits to avoid saddle sores!)
The biggest factor is seeing, hearing and watching other women get involved and I have been really lucky to speak to and meet so many super inspiring women recently from the wonderful Jessie Stevens (14yr old riding 500miles to COP26) to Emily Chappell.
There is so much negativity in the media at the moment surrounding women, exercise and the outdoors and undoubtedly some truly horrendous things have happened but I believe it is important to have a “can do” attitude and to get out there! When Stevie told a female friend I was wild bivvying last Summer they were horrified saying they would never let their daughter do that… I found this quite confounding as there are less boogie men in the bushes on a remote hillside in the Peak District than in Derby city centre and with being prepared and sensible, I felt quite safe. Why would you consider denying your daughter than opportunity if that’s what she wanted to do? Is it really riskier than a night out in a city?
I hate to think that women are now too scared to venture out alone- I often ride the back roads and run off road by myself at night (with Stevie knowing my route and eta) and rarely see anyone else and can rarely be seen with my headlight dazzling anyone I do see. I worry that some of the commotion about the recent awful events is segregating and scaring women when these mindless acts of the deranged are in fact few and far between and sadly unpredictable.
Maybe I have been exceptionally lucky in my life, but I have no “me too” story here, just many years of feeling included, safe and welcome in the sport of my choice. I hope this will be increasingly the case for women, and everyone, who wants to get involved in sport and the outdoors, but in the meantime just get out there and give it a go!
If you are looking for female inspiration the Tough Girl Podcast and the multitude of groups on facebook such as Peak Brevettes are great places to start. Remember: you don’t have to be a woman to be inspired by one either 😉