Beyond beginnerism: building an inclusive cycling culture

March 12, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Posted in cycling | 23 Comments
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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.

Me on the start line

The author, about to watch the rest of the women’s field disappear in a cloud of dust

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:

alt mags


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  1. Good article. I’ve enjoyed watching a recent uptake in interest in the novice ladies category in the Welsh Cyclo-Cross League. What this novice cartegory does is achieve what you describe in ladies-only racing more widely; be amongst like-minded and eager people who are roughly similar in terms of experience. It’s great to see these riders move from dipping a toe-in-the-water in the novice category to having the confidence to enter – and enjoy – the ‘main’ race.

    When I wrote this piece about racing (link below), I was thinking of our young charges; mostly U8s, U10s and U12s, but they enjoy the racing mainly because they’re around the peers, sharing the experience. Instill this enjoyment at an early age and you’re likely to keep them for life:

    In our club – Cardiff JIF – we’re working hard to encourage all of our ladies out, at ladies only sessions and in local races. Judging by the response so far, I’m pretty convinced that is a real desire for it (race organisers take note!).

    Now where can I get a copy of Cycling Weakly? 🙂

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! It’s great to hear you’re having success encouraging all types of novices with racing, and that you’ve found peer-group support to be important – that was my gut feeling but it’s interesting to have it confirmed by your experience. Keep up the good work!

      • You too! Its important that there are lots of role models for my 7 year old daughter to look up to 🙂 Enjoy your racing (I’m already excited about this year’s cross season and the sun has barely set on the last one).

        • Ha, brilliant! I’m currently inspiring 7 year old girls not to worry about falling off a lot, I think… Yeah my ‘cross season was a bit of a washout but we have summer ‘cross here so I’m looking forward to that. Enjoy your racing too! 🙂

  2. i found myself agreeing with Collyn- i’m annoyed at all the focus on beginners. but this mainly because i’m not a beginner myself. i definitely find myself comforted by all female groups (because i’m generally intimidated by males), but am not interested in cupcake rides or slow beginner rides, which seem to be the norm now. i want intermediate rides. i’m probably never going to be fast an di have no interest in racing, but i want to go faster than a rambling pace and i want to be CHALLENGED- even if it means i’m going to be dropped. I do understand why there is so much beginner focus on women, because we’re starting from scratch. but perhaps once cycling is more gender balanced, the focus will move from beginners to intermediates. and i agree, that women’s cycling only grows when ALL levels of the sport are focused on.

    • Yes, I agree that the ‘beyond-beginner’ stage isn’t really catered for at the moment. I guess it’s a critical mass thing – all those cupcake ride graduates have to go somewhere…

  3. A very interesting article. What I really felt Collyn had missed in her analysis was a recognition that there are different kinds of riding, as well as different kinds of riders.

    If, for example, you’re interested in mountain biking, or BMX, while they’re still broadly ‘cycling’, you’re not necessarily going to be interested in who won the Tour de France. If you’ve decided to start cycling to work, you might find an article on how to adjust your gears or fix a flat helpful. Statistically, women coming to cycling and wanting to learn more about the basics of cycling for transport outnumber intermediate or experienced women interested in cycling as sport. It’s no surprise that companies are going to throw the weight of their marketing budget at the first group, as they represent a large share of the target market.

    It makes about as much sense to argue about companies making products and promoting events that don’t speak to what your idea of a homogenous cycle culture is, as it does to complain that some people buy trainers and never run ultra-marathons in them. Or that some people might catch trains but never stand on a platform writing down engine numbers. How does a cupcake ride, or an article on the best kind of pannier for commuting affect your sportive riding?

    To me it seems obvious that rather than railing against ‘beginnerism’ being a hindrance to furthering the quest of cycle sport is entirely missing the point. Companies don’t have a responsibility to support cycle sport (by which she only means road racing) if they don’t want to. The only thing they have in common is riding a bicycle. And that’s fine.

    • Very good points. I steered clear of the whole marketing/ branding aspect because it’s not something I know much about. I think there *are* people who are only interested in a particular aspect of cycling (BMX, commuting, cycle touring, whatever) and who would like to see types of ‘cycling culture’ clearly defined and delimited. But for me, the terrific thing about cycling is its very diversity – the fact that you can come into it from one angle and gradually be seduced by all sorts of other possibilities that only really have ‘riding a bicycle’ in common with one another. I started out as a commuter and occasional cycle tourist, got interested in watching road racing because I went out with someone who was obsessed with it, and have gradually become more and more interested in cycling’s multifarious expressions. And I think that’s rather lovely!

      • Indeed – it’s not so much that I think different kinds of cycling culture should be delimited, more that because cycling’s such a broad church, we should understand and respect our differences. It’s just that I feel Collyn’s argument was ‘appreciating pro cycling is, or should be, an essential part of cycling culture’, and that just doesn’t make sense to me. She makes some excellent points about the gendering of cycle gear, but cycling does not equal cycle sport, cycle sport is not exclusively road racing, and marketing is not the same as activism.

        TL;DR – I think we’re in agreement here. Cycling means lots of things to lots of people, and there’s no wrong answers. Go ride your bike!

  4. I like the post and I also shouted a big ‘hear hear’ to Liz’s response about all the different types of riders. I’m a runner (fellrunning and roads too) and I go wild when I’m targetted as a woman runner. Don’t stop reading – i own a bike which I ride to work and torture myself in the Peak District occasionally with 🙂
    One thing which I have found missing as a competitive female runner is coverage and noise about the female finishers in the races which my clubmates and I take part in. Many times the twitter feeds and updates focus on the male winners and not the female results. Is it a similar case in competitive club-level cycling? I know that races are segregated but I understand they are often on the same day or weekend, and there are a load of feeds out there like @velowijf, @womenscyclingmcr and all the briliant fan-girls which report on the ladies racing but it’s getting it up there alongside the male results which seems to need some work. For my part I respond to all reports which only give men’s results with a stern ‘what about the ladies’..

    • Thanks for commenting! I do a bit of running too so don’t worry… Yes, I think getting recognition for the women’s results is problematic in cycling too. I mostly look at cyclocross race reports, and often these focus on the men’s results (though both local reporters and outlets like Cycling Weekly, who do a ‘racing up and down the country’ feature, have recently been getting better at talking about the women’s races too). As you suggest, making a noise about it does seem to make a difference, if slowly.

  5. I like many of your arguments here – I also have been to women-only training events and I loved everything about them.

    There is no way in hell I would have gone if they weren’t women-only. That may well be a fault in my personality, character or sense of self but it is what it is. I don’t want to be tailing around last in a field of men and the ‘token girl’. I want to be surrounded by peers and I want the whole experience – I want to be competitive on the track or course or wherever, then I want to admire the jersey of the woman who’s arse I’ve just kicked* and have a chat and some cake with her afterwards.

    I would say whilst I’m obviously all for an inclusive culture, I don’t think it’s a bad thing if a market for women-only content remains. As the author of a book on cycling for women this is not a surprising statement for me to make of course! For me it’s all about choice, and I think to have the choice of a women’s specific option or media or book or website or whatever, is an addition, not ‘patronising’ or offensive to my intellect, taste in clothing or possession of a vagina.

    Some of us will always choose women’s-specific. I always will and I don’t apologise for it. I have no interest in the pro men’s cycling scene. I’m not one of the boys, I will happily cycle with whoever but hand on heart, I prefer to do so with women. I am well up for racing and taking my cycling to the next level but I only want to do so with women and around women. That’s a choice I’m glad I can make.

    I do like the debate that’s ensued from Collyn’s piece but thought the piece itself was a fairly badly-argued bitch about brands Collyn clearly doesn’t personally like, and something of a ‘look at me’ plug for her new enterprise. Which is fine, everybody’s got to make a living. But I don’t think I’ll be going cycling with Collyn any time soon.

    (I’m sure she’ll be heartbroken by this)

    *tailed in woefully behind

    • Thanks for that! A very well-articulated view. I know you are not alone (as I hinted in the piece) and I think it’s important to realise that women who prefer to ride with women (this is starting to sound a bit like one of those earnest descriptions of sexual preference) aren’t always scaredy-cat wallflowers – they might have very good reasons for this, and even if they haven’t, why shouldn’t they be able to choose? I don’t feel that way myself, as I say, but I totally understand people who do.
      I didn’t really get the ‘brands’ arguments but this is probably because I don’t have a clue about brands. I’m trying to get the boyf to write a post on that because he does. He’s going to quote Adorno, at length. Watch this space…

    • “I don’t want to be tailing around last in a field of men and the ‘token girl’.”

      I’m not a cyclist, but for me, whatever skill I want to master, I just don’t want to get even an inkling that any unremarkable novice bumbling will somehow be used as an excuse to conclude that I might as well just give up right now because a permanent inability to do the job has been woven into my DNA, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Like Cathy I’ll admit that this may be some sort of *F*A*I*L*I*N*G* in me, something horribly *W*R*O*N*G*, but you know what? I don’t give a fuck. If I want to learn to master a skill, I’m going to do whatever it takes for me to do so, and if that means starting out in a female space, then so be it. I’d rather succeed at mastery than fail, however I may bring that about. Maybe someone else’s path to mastery doesn’t go through the same thicket mine does. So what? I’m taking my path.

      Baseball players have their stupid, senseless little rituals of spitting, scratching, and testicle-yanking that comforts no one but themselves before they get out of the damn dugout, and nobody tells them that they’re illogical need for the reassurance they provide means they aren’t cut out for their sport. For women who don’t find that useful, don’t do it. For women who do find it useful, then do it.

      Anyhow, IAWTC.

  6. I wish I could start our very own biking club in my community!

  7. Lots of sports are defined as a certain thing and then there’s the “undergroup” for women. For some reason people always think they have to change the sport in order to get women interested.

    • That’s interesting. I don’t know much about other sports, to be honest. My experience in cycling is it depends, a bit. In cyclocross, women and veteran men race together, and this mostly seems to work (at least at the races I’ve taken part in). But in road racing there seems to be more of a demand for women-specific events. It’s been suggested to me (by a woman who has road-raced with both men and women for years) that the ‘rhythm’ of women’s road racing is different from men’s: women’s races tend to have bursts of speed, then everyone sits up for a bit, then there’s a burst of speed again. This kind of difference (wherever it comes from) might justify separating women from men – no-one’s suggesting women’s racing is in any way ‘less good’ than men’s, just different. And if you didn’t split the field, you wouldn’t realise this.

  8. Simply loved it! Great honest reading material well appreciated by another Breeze rider

  9. I just ‘Liked’ this post because I love people in cycling kit. You’re all so yummmmiiieeeeee!

  10. Reblogged this on mybycicle and commented:
    great blog!!

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