Sam and Tracy have asked me to contribute a few guest posts because I’m currently preparing for the biggest challenge of my career as a feminist amateur athlete. On 6 and 7 July 2013, I am going to (try my very best to) ride from London, England to Paris in just 24 hours, as part of a charity event organized by Scope. (Read about the event here; if you read my posts and get inspired to support me you can also find my team’s fundraising page here.)
I’ve been getting ready for what I call L2P24(2013) for some time now, but in the last couple of months training has kicked into high gear (figuratively and literally!). As part of our training (my husband Jarret and I are doing this event together, supporting each other at every stage along the way), Jarret and I are spending this weekend (20-23 June) on a cycle “holiday” (more on that in a minute) in Morzine, in the French alps. We are here with a UK-based company called RPM90; they provide us with food, accommodation, technical support, and support of many other, less tangible kinds. In fact, their motto is “you ride, we provide” (check them out here).
I’ve been nervous about this holiday; after all; riding about 100km a day in the mountains for two days, and then ending the weekend with the 2013 Morzine Sportive race, is relatively challenging, even for us; while there are perks at the chalet and some good food and drink, for our purposes this is a working weekend.
I’ve also been a bit worried about this holiday for another reason, one that came clearly into focus when we arrived in the Alps. Cycling is a very expensive sport – once you factor in a good bike, all the gear, and stuff like going to the Alps on a cycling holiday, you’re into the thousands of dollars/pounds, if not five figures – and I felt an immediate sense of class difference as soon as we got into our airport transfer van in Geneva. There are bankers on this trip, there are high-flying execs, and their bikes are worth, well, easily more than I make in a month. They are amateurs, but they are focused on their sport nevertheless, to the point that they seem willing to buy virtually anything (at pretty much any cost) that will help them to improve their performance. They are all decent, nice, friendly people (I gather, having known them for about 24 hours at the time of this writing), but they seem stunningly unaware of their privilege (economic as well as physical) in just being able to be here.
They are also all – with one exception plus me – men. Cycling is a very male sport in most nations where it rates; I probably don’t need to tell many of the readers of this blog how much sexism prevails in the sport (check out Sam’s recent post on podium girls, for example). So I wasn’t shocked to be surrounded by (more or less middle aged, pretty well off) men when we arrived. What did surprise me, though – and what has made all the difference to my riding experience so far (day one down!) – is that 50% of RPM90’s support team on this ride are women. And they are pros, and champions (Anja Rees Jones and Jo McRae).
This morning, starting out for our first ride, I was slightly panicked; the men in the group left a lot of testosterone on the floor during our first dinner and breakfast together (as well as in the airport van, sigh), and while I know this kind of banter is designed to be self-aggrandising and intimidating (and to cover insecurities, of course), it was, well, frankly intimidating to have to listen to. So it was a relief and also a thrill for me to get to ride quite a bit today with Jo, our female road bike pro; she put me at ease, encouraged me all along the way, made sure to note my strengths, and to remind me how strong I actually am at moments when I really needed that reminder. She also answered numerous questions and helped me to address some weaknesses: for example, I’ve never been a courageous descender, tending to brake a lot and not use my drops enough, but today she offered me observations, tips, and joined me on a couple of downhills, to the point where, by the end of the day, I was literally racing with her and Jarret down a mountain we had climbed in pretty freaking good time (this one – it’s actually slightly famous!). I felt incredibly strong, powerful, and free – and I have today’s mentorship from a really great female athlete to thank for that.
Even if the rest of the weekend turns out to be crap, I have had, thanks to Jo, an experience today that made the journey here (and all the boisterous bollocking this morning) worthwhile. It’s also an experience that I plan to pay forward. Like Sam and Tracy, I’m a teacher and researcher by profession and I write a lot about “activist” teaching on my own blog; with my larger life in mind I’ve also been broadly inspired by Jo today – reminded of how incredibly valuable positive reinforcement, coupled with useful, specific critique, and a willingness just to ride alongside, can be for students looking to up their game (and, of course, for students who don’t yet know that upping their game is their ultimate goal, or even a remote possibility). A great work lesson, a wonderful life lesson, and a fantastic sport lesson all rolled into one and wrapped in a mountain view. I feel privileged to be here, and thankful.
KIM SOLGA currently teaches theatre and performance theory and practice at Queen Mary, University of London. Catch her blog at www.theactivistclassroom.wordpress.com.
10 thoughts on “Supporting each other makes us all better! (Guest post)”
Great post! Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. Even though I hate hills (and mountains even more so) I’m almost jealous. There’s some fascinating class history and dynamics around road cycling, from a young working man’s sport to the recreational sport for wealthy middle aged men. See “Class And Competition: The Gentrification Of Sport Cycling,” http://www.academia.edu/267218/Class_And_Competition_The_Gentrification_Of_Sport_Cycling. I’ve been meaning to write something about it….
Anyway, thanks again, and I can’t wait to read how it all goes!
Terrific link, Sam – thanks! To be fair, I have to note that by the second day the guys had settled in and turned out, for the most part, to be hugely supportive and friendly. (I suspect Jo and Anja had a really positive influence on the team overall in this respect.) But the culture of road racing, especially at the amateur level, really seems to demand the bragging, at least at the beginning, and frankly I find myself falling into it too, to keep up, as it were. I find it urgent but also hard to stick to my feminist guns on the road; it’s incredible how easily the pack can drag one into some really bad habits where camaraderie and support are concerned. Jo’s example has reminded me that I need to find a women’s cycling club, stat!
Thank you so much, Kim, for sharing your experience. What an excellent post! I feel inspired by Jo just reading about her mentorship, and by YOU! I hope the rest of the weekend went well, and am on the edge of my seat to hear about the London to Paris in 24 hours ride!
It’s funny how when the trialthete vs cyclists debate (who is more unpleasant to be around and generally dickish) comes up, no one ever seems to bring up the gender dynamics in the two sports. Triathlon has much more women involved and hence has produced a culture that is more welcoming and much less elitist and dickish (despite both sports being geared largely toward the middle aged yuppie set). You can see it all in the reasons cyclists give for looking down on triathlon: that you can’t tell who is winning (or losing) at any given moment, that you often get medals just for finishing, that you haven’t specialized in any one sport sufficiently, that the means by which we travel isn’t a pack that leaves you behind and alone if you falter, etc. It all comes out to “your sport culture isn’t competitive enough [read: masculine, aggressive],” which I find obnoxious as hell. I love cycling and I love triathlons, it’s not a zero sum game unless you want it to be…
I am inspired reading how your interaction with a woman mentor really made your trip. Women– to generalize– know how to create a positive culture for each other, how to compete AND how to be friendly/welcoming. The smarts, skills, and creativity of women athletes is very underrated and this was a chance for that not only to shine but to shine “on” you, giving you a great experience. Super!
You’re more right than you know on this one, wonder! The best finisher in our event on Sunday was a young woman from Manchester, an accomplished triathlete. She and her partner were enormously supportive of one another, and although they competed the whole weekend, I noticed they finished very, very close together. Jarret and I did too: he slowed for me on the flats, where I’m less comfortable racing all-out, and I waited for him at the top of the killer final ascent. Could we have been faster, finishing closer to the middle of the pack? Hells ya. But this way we tested our individual strengths and still knew we were not going to be dropped for good. Maybe next time we will kick it up a notch, but for now it’s the endurance, not the bragging rights, that count. (Although yes, I have been bragging about wailing up the Col de Joux Plane. And Jarret has been a terrific sport about it.)
I note your qualifications about generalisations but I think this is particularly true here. I’m 5 -10 years older than your ‘almost 50’ and I’ve cycled my whole life, from getting to school as a kid in the 60’s to racing at elite level in Australia and Europe at various times in my 20s, 30s and 40s. Throughout that time I have had enormous support from men (other than my boyfriends) who taught me to race, to train, how to move up to the next level in whichever discipline. What they all had in common was security in their own achievements and a wish to pass on their knowledge and experience – sounds pretty much like your female road leaders. Often – especially when I was younger, the men were older, ex-racers who enjoyed bringing on a new talent. They weren’t bothered (and this was sexist 80’s Australia) that I was a girl and when I beat them in races, they didn’t need to knock my achievement to bolster their own egos. Unlike the women I raced against who complained that I ‘trained too much’, ‘was too fast to be racing in “their” races’, ‘was too competitive’ and, of course, ‘was too muscular to be a woman’.
I was brought up to believe that, with enough effort, I could do pretty much anything anyone else could do – gender didn’t come into it. So I’ve been a feminist as long as I’ve been a cyclist (it’s maybe worth noting also that I’m a) a scientist who’s worked in male-dominated fields for her whole career, b) previously a curvy blonde – age has withered the curves if not the blonde) and there have always been the stupid sexist comments from men who should know better. But for people actively running my accomplishments down and questioning my honesty (e.g. implying that a cycling anecdote is just fantasy), the ‘ladies’ take the prizes every time. They seemed to have the attitude that if they couldn’t do it, then no other woman could.
Nowadays, as I’ve got older and fatter, I find that younger women try to patronise me – at least until I come past them on the long climbs.
So give me a training camp with the guys any time
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