Beyond beginnerism: building an inclusive cycling cultureMarch 12, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Posted in cycling | 23 Comments
Tags: beginner, biking, cycling, racing, training, women
I read Collyn Ahart’s piece on beginnerism, and got a bit confused. I found things I agreed with, and things I didn’t, and things I didn’t understand. I may have the wrong end of the stick entirely but I wanted to respond.
I agree that a lot of stuff that’s aimed at women is aimed at beginners. This seems to be to be because there’s a genuine appetite for it. Women want it. Not all women, of course. But the success of Breeze rides and women-only initiatives of all sorts suggests that there’s a substantial number of women who *do* want this kind of stuff. I know women who want to ride without feeling that they are holding everyone up, who’d like to learn to adjust their gears without feeling patronised by the blokey atmosphere of most bike shops, who feel more comfortable taking what are to them challenging steps in the company of other women. This is how they feel. How can we tell them that’s wrong?
Personally, I’m not tempted to go out riding by the promise of cupcakes and girls-only giggles and a glimpse of Vicky Pendleton. Here in Yorkshire, the women scare me more than the men do. In ‘cross races, I’m generally battling it out with Mesh Insert Man at the back of the field; my female competitors have left me for dead in the first lap. Going out riding with a bunch of women here doesn’t generally involve much gossiping.
So I’m not the target market, maybe. But there are beginners, and beginners. What about the next steps? What if you think you might like to race, for example?
If you read cycling magazine advice, they tell you to go out on the club run to develop bunch riding skills. I know women who do this, who go out with their local club, but they are very strong and very fast, fast enough to keep up with the lads sprinting for signs. I’m not that fast, and my self-belief is fragile; what doesn’t kill me, instead of making me stronger, mostly makes me weep and think I’ll just give up biking and take up crochet instead. I don’t seek out women-only events; I like men, I like racing and training for ‘cross with men, and some of the most helpful, encouraging and unpatronising advice I’ve had has been from men.
But I went to women-only road race training, and it was brilliant. The reason it was brilliant was not because it was full of women; it was because I was among peers. People at roughly my level. People who were a bit better than me at some stuff, and not as good as me at other stuff. I fitted in. I’m sure there are men out there who are at the same level as me, who I could ride with happily. But, just as ‘men who think they might like to have a go at racing’ are probably at a similar level to each other, so are ‘women who think they might like to have a go at racing’. We all need to find our level, and this is a simple way of judging it.
I’m bothered by the lack of opportunities to progress beyond the Breeze rides-and-cupcakes stage. I’m bothered by how difficult it still seems to be to find support and training for women in a sport that is so dominated by men’s racing. But I can see the green shoots appearing. The first CDNW women’s cat 2/3/4 road race this year had 64 finishers. SIXTY-FOUR. That’s nearly twice as many as last year, mostly because of road race training events like the one I attended. Last year I attended a BC women’s velodrome session that was bursting at the seams with good road riders keen to have a go at something new. Where were all these women the year before? What were they doing? Perhaps it does take a women-only session to make people think ‘Well, maybe I WILL have a bash at that’. At the moment, the culture of cycling is overwhelmingly male. Paying attention to women’s participation at all levels of the sport – not just beginners, and not just elites – will help to build a cycling culture that’s about all of us. But I don’t think this will happen without a clear focus on opportunities for women to progress, and this means (almost by default) that we end up defining ‘women’s cycling’ as something separate, something different.
In order to create a cycling culture that is inclusive of men and women, we need to define what is missing. Otherwise we are just assimilating women into the existing culture. That’s where people like @_pigeons_ and @Cyclopunk and @festinagirl come in, detailing and documenting and ranting and raving about the inequalities that still exist, and the fantastic, thrilling contribution that women’s cycling can make to cycling culture in general. We need to rewrite cycling culture, and to do that we need to recognise clearly what is absent from it. Then (I’ve argued this before) we can progress to a place where women’s-specific magazines and advice and events are redundant, and we define ourselves by the kinds of bikers we are. And our newsstands will be filled with these publications instead: