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On getting “chicked” – and why strong female cyclists need to have sympathy for the guys (Guest post)

Team Tuscany: ready for the big final day!
Team Tuscany: ready for the big final day!

It’s been almost a year since I guest-blogged in this space about my experience preparing for and riding Scope’s London-to-Paris-in-24-hours challenge, and a lot has happened in that time. I’ve become a stronger, more focused road cyclist. I’ve engaged a terrific female cycling coach, Jo McCrae, and she’s helped me to train my tempo zone and grow my climbing capacity. I’ve chalked up some serious personal bests, achieving a current PB of 7 minutes 51 seconds on Box Hill, the famous climb in the middle of the London 2012 Olympic road races. I knocked 24 minutes off my 2013 time in this year’s early-season “Puncheur” sportif in East Sussex, placing 6th out of 30 female riders. And just last weekend I kicked some serious ass on a cycling holiday in Tuscany.

Some of you may remember that, as part of our L2P24 training last summer, my husband Jarret and I rode the Morzine Cyclosportif in the French Alps, making the trip with the touring company RPM90. Run by Nick Miles and his team, RPM90 create cycling trips for serious riders: there’s usually about 300km of road in the plan for a weekend getaway, with lots of gorgeous but arduous hills in the mix. There’s plenty of excellent food and company, too, but the riding is front and centre on these journeys. Having really enjoyed Morzine, Jarret and I eagerly signed up for Nick’s spring Tuscany trip, which took place on the first weekend in May. At the centre of this trip lay the Strada Bianchi – the white gravel roads that connect the Tuscan hilltops, that frame the famous Eroica race, and that afford stunning views of the Chianti countryside – along with lots of rain, and a pounding 14,000 feet of climbing. That’s a hell of a lot, even for really strong riders, and all nine of us were totally cooked by the Sunday afternoon.

Last year’s journey in France featured a few pretty big egos in the group, and I was hugely intimidated by them; it didn’t help, of course, that I had never been on a cycling holiday before and was absolutely terrified at the prospect of the race on the final day. This year’s group was very different: while there were, once more, only two women (including me) on the trip, the men were on the whole pretty class acts, and included an enormously talented but also hugely supportive amateur racer (who should really turn pro!), a couple of very able triathletes (including an Ironman competitor), a fellow academic, and a pair of friends who, while blowsy and confident, were also really kind and lots of fun to ride alongside. And this year, of course, I was also much more ready for the roads ahead, more confident in my own abilities, and more familiar with the RPM90 set-up and with riding alongside the RPM90 crew. In short, we were almost immediately a happy team.

That did not mean we weren’t competitive, though. And it didn’t mean we were always humble. I, for one, was out to ride my very best, and to hold my own against even the strongest men in the group. And for the most part I did. While I’m not a confident descender (and in fact I crashed on a descent on day one, making things trickier for me emotionally as we approached the challenging Strada surfaces), I am a really strong climber, and I made my mark on the many rolling hills we attacked. I was up near the front on almost all the big climbs, and I cruised past quite a few of the men a couple of times. At the end of the last day, as we pushed out the final 20 of a gruelling 120km before getting ready for our flight home, I hung onto the lead group (which included my coach, Jo, the massively talented tall guy, and one of the other strong male riders), rotating tightly as we pushed over 30kph up to the final 6km climb (where they dropped me, and I’m totally ok with that). I finished ahead of all but two of the men, and I felt just amazing.

I am also aware, though, that a number of the men who finished behind me may have felt less amazing – both for themselves, because all strong athletes have personal goals that it sucks to miss, and because getting passed by a woman (what the cycling community calls “getting chicked“) can be disheartening.

Now, I absolutely hate the term “getting chicked”, and like many of my fellow feminist athletes (including Caitlin at Fit and Feminist, and Sam here) I consider it to be a significant indicator of cycling’s (and sport in general’s) gender problem, which stretches for us riders from the lack of a women’s Tour de France all the way down to the disrespect female riders sometimes get out on the road when male riders insist on passing us even if we are (and demonstrate ourselves over and over again to be) stronger and faster than they are. But I want here to advocate for some compassion for those male riders who are, in fact, on balance really respectful and generous, yet may feel like crap anyway when it turns out one of the women in their group is a better cyclist. Those feelings are real, and managing those feelings is part of the challenge of growing as a male athlete (and as a person).

Let’s think for a minute about how men and women are socialised in our culture. As a feminist scholar of theatre and performance, I’ve done a lot of reading in gender theory and cultural studies over the years, and I know that while men’s and women’s bodies are, of course, materially different in a number of ways (there are clear physiological reasons why men are on balance physically stronger than many women), the way we are socialised to experience our sexed and gendered bodies has a huge impact on the way we see our strengths and weaknesses relative to one another. Lots of women don’t imagine they can be as strong as men – they have always been told they should endeavour to be smaller, to be less muscular, in order to be pretty and attractive to men and in order to seem “normal” among other women. In the very same way, lots of men imagine that they should be stronger than the women around them, because “real” men are the stronger ones. This does not mean these same men haven’t been socialised also to respect women, or to treat their fellow women athletes fairly or celebrate their achievements; it does mean, however, that part of their self-image is based on being part of the “strong” and powerful gender, and when a woman shakes that image up out on the road or track or in the pool, it can have a powerful, destabilising emotional impact.

Are there lots of problems with these ingrained assumptions about what men and women “should be”? ABSOLUTELY. But they are nevertheless a social and emotional reality for many men and women, myself included. I’ve made a real push to become a strong climber in large part because I don’t look like one: I’m not a small person, and for a climber I’m fairly heavy. When I was a kid, I was reminded constantly that I lacked daintiness, and the knock-on insinuation was that I wasn’t “girlish” enough. For a long time that made me feel like less of a woman. Now, knowing better where those feelings came from, I insist that what I lack in daintiness I make up for in power, and that I’d much rather be powerful. And I’m proud of that.

The men who rode with us in Tuscany were all really good, very strong guys, and they were really generous in sharing tips and conversation as we covered the countryside. But I know it irked a bit when I rode by. On the last day, as we packed up our bikes, one asked me if I’d beaten any of the guys back to the hotel on our final climb; he may well have meant of the guys in the lead group, but the fact that he asked in the non-specific way he did made me wonder if he’d conveniently forgotten that I’d beaten him back by rather a good margin. Another made a point of telling me that the riders who had had to climb into the van for various reasons on the home stretch were remarking on how strong I was; this was a kind and supportive statement, but I also wondered if he made it because he thought I might warrant special praise for my strength, being a woman and all. (Am I imagining this? Possibly. The not-girl-enough woman who still lives in the back of my brain can’t help but ask.)

I want to be clear that none of these comments was made in a way I perceived as disrespectful, even as they bothered me a little – and in many ways that’s my point. If my fellow male riders were troubled that I “chicked” them a good few times, they never showed it to me. If they were managing anxiety about being passed by two strong women (and Jo!) on the Tuscan hills they did it well. In return, I want them to know that I have huge sympathy for any feelings of inadequacy they might experience as a woman passes them. After all, I have a lot of experience feeling inadequate as a woman, too.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do, in a mixed group of riders, is be open and free both with our praise for one another’s skills, and with our compassion for how one another might be feeling. When it comes to the perils of gendered expectation, after all, men and women are in this thing together.

The glorious Strada Bianchi
The glorious Strada Bianchi
 Three of our amazing male riders – too strong for me to pass!

Three of our amazing male riders – too strong for me to pass!

12 thoughts on “On getting “chicked” – and why strong female cyclists need to have sympathy for the guys (Guest post)

  1. Hi Sam. Can I share this article w my tri group? I will promote your blog w them of course! Lisa

    Lisa Widdifield 519 671 8434 “If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear.” – Joanna R. Macy


    1. Thanks for sharing, Lisa! Feel free also to take a look at my blog over at The Activist Classroom (also WordPress). Good luck with your training!

  2. Excellent post! I love hearing about how strong you’ve become as a cyclist and you’ve presented all sorts of good feminist reasons for having some sympathy for the guys who ‘get chicked.’ Once again, gender socialization has a negative impact in all those who are subjected to it (disproportionately worse on members of the ‘subordinate’ group of course, but nevertheless hard on everyone). What I can say is this: although I look forward to riding with you, it scares me!

    1. Tracy, I’m totally not scary. I’m also worried that I’ve ramped expectations up a bit high! Let’s just say I usually choke when things get exciting. You have nothing to worry about. 😉

  3. Great post. I had an experience when out on the road this week, when two guys passed me. I was doing an endurance ride and sticking in my power zones so I had to pass them again as they slowed on the down and flat. I apologised!! (not sure why) and said sorry I’m sticking to a power zone. The leader caught me up again, and we chatted. He was quick to point out that his power was much higher than mine, and then he dropped his friend, (who he was showing around a course) to catch me up again, then passed, waited and said “Oh I’m using power now I’d better wait for him he won’t be long” It was almost like he had to prove that if he was riding without his mate that he would have been faster than me. He probably was, but he felt this need to prove it to me. I hope I can show my 2 boys that women can be just as strong as men, and it’s not a sign of weakness if a woman is stronger than you. (she just probably trained more than you!!)

  4. That’s it, right – it’s about the training! My husband and I have this discussion a lot. He’s a really good rider but isn’t as committed to the training (at least, not when it ain’t sunny and gorgeous out…) as I have been; the results were felt in Tuscany, when I often finished segments ahead of him. Now he’s out there most days and loving the riding again, but it took the journey to Italy to remind him how important the training part of the equation is. (Training = getting better = having more fun riding in groups. Full stop.)

    This might be another gendered factor, actually: along with men’s conditioned self-image of being strong (or, “I *should* be strong…”) may come some notion that it’s just natural, not something you have to work at. Which is a shame, because every body needs help and support to be its best at sport, which is all about learned skills. Most men I pass on the roads could benefit from just a bit more training, coaching, or care: I can usually tell as I come up behind them where their stroke is failing them, or where they are wasting energy (by humping the handlebars, flailing from side to side, or spinning with wide knees). I would love to tell them what I’ve learned that can help them, but I know it’s not my place and won’t be welcomed. So I just ride by. Hmm.

  5. Really, you think that gender hurts men and women equally? And that women’s job is to nurse men through the negative personal feelings they havecinduced by our misogynistic culture?That is actually not feminist at all. No at all.

    Women fear being raped and beaten, sold into prostitution…. men have some self-esteem issues, an inability to cry, and an inability to lose gracefully to a female cyclist. Boo hoo.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this, but I don’t share them. For me, being a feminist means recognising that patriarchal culture damages men as well as women, by setting unreasonable expectations and keying them to sexual identity. I’m hardly suggesting here that men and women’s experiences of patriarchy are the same; nor are they the same for straight and queer-identified people, for example. But patriarchy is a system, not a guy; all of us who care about women’s strength, safety, and freedom of movement and of expression need to understand that.

      1. [Thank you for your response. I apologize for the typos and shortness of my previous comment– I was on a dreaded mobile phone. ]

        Where did I ever say that patriarchy was a guy? I did say that giving women the advice that their being strong means that they “need” to have sympathy for men whose misogyny starts showing when that strength gets its time to shine is not feminist.

        Being a feminist may mean recognizing that patriarchal culture damages men as well as women, which I also do recognize. However, your entire post was organized around the idea that to solve the problem (the gender problem, i.e. the sexism and patriarchy problem) of gender dynamics in cycling, women should be comforting men in the aftermath of their hurt feelings caused by their misogyny: “why strong female cyclists need to have sympathy for the guys.” It’s right there in the title.

        I get that you’re trying to foster a better cycling culture, and that is much needed because cycling culture is very male-oriented. I totally get that and wish that cycling culture would welcome women more.

        However, I guess my real bone of contention is that it is playing into patriarchy and the gender/sex roles patriarchy enforces to assume that when a problem arises, male feelings are very very important, and it is women’s job to give succour / do the emotional labor.

        And, yes, those male feelings of sadness / shame are real. And, yes, managing them is part of growing as a male athlete and person. But do women have to continue raising men and boys, even outside of their families (in which women disproportionately do unpaid “care” work, as I’m sure we agree), even outside of their workplaces (women work disproportionately in “care” sector jobs and are underpaid for it, as I’m sure you know), and even in their free time when they’re just trying to ride a freakin’ bicycle up a freakin’ steep hill? When do women get to rest from this mandatory emotional and care labor for men? When do women get to focus on their own goals and strengths and accomplishments, and their own feelings? Not when they are cycling, even?

  6. I see why women might notice that men have negative feelings when beat by “chicks”. Women might notice this for any number of reasons. Because, as you mentioned, women are “supposed to” lose or men are “supposed” to win. Or because women are socialized to notice and take into account everyone’s emotions.

    I, however, fail to see why -as the title suggests- female cyclists “need to” have sympathy for the guys. Why do we need to? Your article didn’t really tell me why. If the men are able to deal with these emotions themselves, why do we need to notice and sympathize?

    On and individual and community level we all agree cycling is a male dominated sport. The shame and disappointment doesn’t stop men from competing or being fit. As the title of this blog notes- fit is a *feminist* issue. The shame & disappointment induced by gender role expectations certainly do keep women from participating in cycling and many other sports. If you ask me women who want to compete “need” to enter male sports and demonstrate ‘masculine’ traits like physical power, willingness to lead, & single mindedness toward a goal. Women need to stop the emotional helicopter hover. Why? Not because emotions don’t matter but because to focus on them exclusively is a female role expectation just like physical weakness. It excludes the possibility of focus on…well anything else.

    On a larger scale, feminists don’t need to sympathize with men being “hurt too” to end patriarchy. We can if we choose. But we don’t need any argument or reason for ending patriarchy other than that we want to end men’s violence against us. Men who need more than that will be “dropped” 🙂

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