Developing A Nation Of Women Cyclists

This blog post was actually meant to be a talk at the Women’s Cycle Forum Pecha Caka event this year. I was gutted to not be able to make it. I blame the kids for passing on their lurgies at inopportune moments. 

People sometimes talk of the distinction between those who ride bikes and those who consider themselves cyclists. The former tend to be those who get on their bike when they want to get somewhere. They wear ‘normal’ clothes and to all intents and purposes, seem to be ‘normal’ people. In contrast, those who consider themselves cyclists tend to get on their bikes for fitness or sport. They may seem to be ‘normal’ people in their day to day lives, but they frequently have a huge stash of lycra in their cupboards and are always contemplating the new bike they ‘need’.

Total stereotypes I know, but stereotypes are normally born from a grain of truth.

I am one of many who are both a cyclist and a person who rides bikes.

My brother and I in 1979

I have always ridden bikes. Many of us grew up riding bikes. Ask a child why they ride their bike and they are likely to look at you like you are mad. Either they will not know how to answer you or they will simply tell you that the bike is fun. Young children do not feel the need to justify their actions as adults do. Children do things for one of two reasons: (a) because someone (usually an adult) has told them they have to, or (b) because they enjoy it.

I have never heard a child who can cycle say that they do not enjoy riding their bike.

Drafting started young, in 1981

I have hung on to the love of riding a bike which I had as a child. I cannot imagine a life in which I am not someone who rides bikes.

I still have the child’s love of riding, but I am also now armed with an adult’s justifications for why I ride bikes:

  • It keeps me fit.
  • It is the quickest way for me to make most of my daily journeys.
  • I do not believe in polluting our environment.
  • It is the cheapest way to travel.
  • I never have to worry about parking.
  • I need to be outdoors for as much as the day as I can be.
  • I want to set an example of sustainable travel to my children.

I am also a cyclist. I ride bikes for the sake of it. I do indeed have an extensive collection of lycra clothing. There is always another bike which I ‘need’ (I really ‘need’ a tandem at the moment….).

I ride my road bikes for the love of it. I ride to get fit and get fitter. I ride to race and I ride to improve my skills. I ride because I absolutely love going really fast down hills. I am a cyclist because cycling is my meditation and my regrouping. My children know that Mummy is a better Mummy, after Mummy’s gone a cycle.

As someone who rides bikes and as a cyclist, I find myself in the minority as a woman. I have always just accepted this.

There are definite advantages to being in the minority.

When I rode the Etape Du Tour in France, I was regaled with cheers of “allez la fille!” all day long. It was a bit like being a celebrity.

When I raced time trials, other than National Championships, I never failed to finish in the top ten women. Because, other than National Championships, I never raced a time trial with ten women in it.

This year, after racing a handful of crit races, I have gained enough points to become a cat 3 rider. This has been largely due to staying upright to the finish in some races with small fields.

I never gave much thought to why women were in the minority as cyclists and to why this might matter.

Until I had children.

Having children has made me look at the world a bit differently. I have always had a concern about the environment and have dome my share of campaigning in the past. But when the next generation are your own flesh and blood, this brings concerns about the environment into even sharper focus.

Because of my conspicuous mode of transport on the school run, people chat to me in the playground about bikes. By people, I mean mostly women. There are playground dads, but the school run is dominated by the mums.

I find it frustrating how many times I hear “I would love for me and the kids to cycle to school but….”. The ‘buts’ are all the reasons that we already know stop women from cycling. Lack of infrastructure, lack of confidence, ferrying young children, onward journeys, concerns about appearance. All valid issues. But, there are ways around so many of these issues.

Somebody has to do something about this.

We have to do something about this.

That means me.

That means you.

We cannot necessarily build that cycle route that will make all the difference. But we can help others to build their confidence on a bike. We can show them how to transport their children by bike. We can share our tricks for avoiding helmet head. We can inspire others.

A wise friend said to me recently that women are unlikely to get the emotional support they need from men because men simply cannot comprehend the emotional support that we need. When it comes to cycling, it seems to me that lots of women get a bike and take up cycling because their new partner is a cyclist and has encouraged them. But few of them keep it up. Just look on Gumtree or Ebay at the number of bikes listed as ‘bought for my wife but she never rides it’. But when a woman has been encouraged to cycle by another woman, the enthusiasm starts to stick. As women who cycle (for whatever reason) we are the best people to get more women cycling.

If more people ride bikes, our society will change. People will be healthier, more connected to each other and happier, the air will be cleaner, the roads will be safer.

If more women ride bikes our society will change faster.

Women tend to do more of the childcare than men. That means that they spend more time influencing their children. I know from looking at photos of my childhood that what I do as a parent is what my mum did as a parent.

How to build the perfect sand boat. Life skills passed from mother…

…to daughter.

If children grow up seeing their primary caregivers cycling, they are far more likely to grow up cycling.

I have no idea why some of us hold onto that child’s love of riding bikes and some of us lose it. So many children grow up and stop riding bikes. How often have you heard “I’ve not been on a bike since I was a kid”. Those of us who have hung on to that love need to do all we can to help others to discover it again.

There are all sorts of ways you can enable more women to cycle. Get involved with Breeze. Get involved with Belles on Bikes. Offer to take your friend / neighbour / colleague for a cycle. Lend another playground mum your child seat / tagalong / cargo bike to try it.

What could you do?

2 Replies to “Developing A Nation Of Women Cyclists”

  1. Have them live in Portland, Oregon for a few months. I do get tired of the egotistical attitude of road bike cyclists versus any other kind of cyclist. If you ride ANY kind of bicycle, you’re a cyclist. It’s a very big ego that tries to own the word cyclist.

  2. I wonder to what extent the sport-cycling sex imbalance is not so much about cycling, as about an approach to hobbies in general. I don’t think it’s an accident that the phrase “boys with toys” (as applied to adults) is specifically sexed: Enthusiasts (with a capital-E) tend to be men, and I think this is just as much true of cycling as e.g. fishing and golf, neither of which have the usual list of excuses for not doing it that is typically applied to cycling.
    If we look at our usual lab, NL, we see a roughly 50/50 split amongst cycling numbers (though actually more women cycle overall), but while I don’t have figures for the mix of wielrenners (sports cyclists, “fietsers” are People On Bikes) my impression while riding there has been most chain gangs are men. I don’t know why so many outdoor hobbies are male-dominated and I won’t try and suggest trite reasons, but it *is* clearly the case (I variously do/did climbing, caving, hillwalking, ski touring, XC ski, canoeing and kayaking, orienteering as well as cycling and they’re all men-heavy), so I think it may be the case that trying to cure sport cycling particularly of its gender imbalance by looking at cycle-specific issues won’t necessarily help. Whatever the issue is it applies to all these other sports-based hobbies too.
    As for women riding bikes as utility vehicles, I think the issue there is (just like women driving cars) once it’s Normal you’ll have an equitable gender balance. Making it normal requires a benign environment, physically, psychologically and socially, and that will get lots more people, of both sexes, out on bikes because it isn’t really gender specific. So many people, as in NL, that the Enthusiasts will become unusual rather than a significant proportion, and the inherent male dominance of that group will cease to be much of an issue overall. And I think if that happens, even if you’re still in a small field compared to the men doing a TT, the field will get bigger (as it is in NL).

    In summary, as I see it the big step is normalising cycling for *everyone* (men, women, boys and girls) by making it practical and pleasant and obvious to (almost) everyone that it really is practical and pleasant Once you have that you’ll find a lot more sisters in arms. I suspect to do that needs the sort of thing we’re seeing in Manchester at the moment: a combination of political leadership, local political buy-in all backed up by Clue and quite a lot of money. Without all of those (witness the lack of local buy-in by Westminster derailing plans in London)

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