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.