Sam has been writing lately about the lack of a women’s Tour de France, and the general lack of visibility of women’s pro cycling (see here for more, and here for some great links). I share her frustration, as I’m sure most female cyclists, amateur or pro, do; I want to be inspired by amazing riders, and while Mark Cavendish and Nairo Quintana can do the trick sometimes, I also want to be inspired by amazing riders who look like me, and who experience similar challenges on the bike as me. (Yes, women who ride and men who ride are physically different – not always enormously different, but usually different enough to matter when it comes time to share advice and best practices.)
Back in 2012, I moved from London, Ontario to London, England; that’s when I first got seriously into road cycling. (I think the longest ride I’d done to that point, on my ex husband’s borrowed Trek, was about 30km along Toronto’s lakefront.) It was the summer of the London Olympics and Team GB were everywhere; Bradley Wiggins had just won the Tour de France, the team cleaned up on both road and track, and Lizzie Armitstead, the current women’s world champion, took the silver in her road race, in a massively gutsy ride through rain and cold that announced her presence on the world cycling stage. I watched that race on my computer, knowing Lizzie and her rival, the reigning champ Marianne Vos, were chasing each other through the big royal park just kilometres from my house in Balham, and I marvelled at their astonishing skill, strength, and talent.
The 2012 Olympic road races went out through West London, via Richmond Park (the aforementioned royal park, where wild deer roam and amateur cyclists race each other on a smooth 10km loop almost daily), to Box Hill in Surrey, a gorgeous national trust site with a terrific switchback climb called Zigzag Hill. Zigzag isn’t a big-time alpine climb like Ventoux or Avoriaz, but it is rated Category 4. It stretches for about a kilometre with an average gradient of 4%, maxing out around 13%. It takes both power and endurance to get to about the 3/4 mark in good time, when the grade levels out briefly; then, to make it to the top, you really need to push at the last turn. That’s where the steepest part of the hill appears, but because it’s short, it’s worth it to get up and sprint if you can. (This is my strategy, anyway.)
What happened after the Olympics? Box Hill became the place to ride to from London, the Surrey destination of choice for amateurs looking to test their skills against the pros. (Many of the pros are not on Strava, but some of the best amateur riders in England most certainly are.) Best of all, it became a major, badge-earning challenge for men and women alike. Jarret (my ex) and I certainly made it our challenge; we have done the Zigzag time trial multiple times, separately and together. My best time for the portion of the ride that begins at the turn onto Zigzag and ends at the cake stop at the first summit (technically the end of Zigzag, but not the end of the Box Hill climb) is 8:00, and in June 2014, when I hit that PR, that was good enough to land me #175 out of more than 2000 women on Strava who had completed the ride.
I go back to England two or three times a year and I bring my bike with me. (HINT: British Airways will not charge you to bring a bike as a piece of your luggage allowance on overseas flights.) I do Box Hill every time, sometimes more than once. This past journey (last month) I did it twice; I did not hit my PR, but when I uploaded my results I nevertheless peeked into Strava to see where my PR stood on the segment to date.
Here’s the amazing thing: I’m now at #333…
…out of 6392 women.
Let me say that again, a bit differently:
In the TWO years since I set my PR, the number of women who have ridden Zigzag, and uploaded that ride to Strava, has TRIPLED.
To what might we attribute this increase? First, there’s a terrific event that now happens every summer in London, called RideLondon 100, and it goes up Box Hill (as well as up the rival Leith Hill, also good and challenging); it’s a full century and increasingly popular with people of all genders and ages. That’s going to have added to the numbers for sure. But honestly, I think the rise comes primarily from the increased visibility of cycling as a sport in the UK post-2012; even in the city, on the big, wide blue lanes marked for cyclists, there’s been a huge increase in bodies over the last couple of years. Men still outnumber others by far (for ex: I am 13701 /57505 total athletes up the Zigzag – which means over 50,000 riders identified as men have recorded riding the climb, compared to 6400 women). But women are increasingly visible, on road bikes and in road gear, both on London roads and outside the capital. This is amazing to see – especially for new women out on the road. It’s a comfort (MAMIL culture is pretty macho, after all) and, yes, an inspiration.
I salute and celebrate every one of the women who has climbed Box Hill, and especially the amazing QOM, India Lee. I’m thrilled so many more women are on their bikes today, and I know, given the enduring popularity of cycling in Britain, even more will join the ranks of Surrey hill climbers this summer and autumn.
But I also cannot help but wonder what would happen to these already robust numbers if women’s pro cycling was as visible now as it was during that golden (well, soggy, but also amazing) summer of London 2012, when Lizzie showed us what an athlete is truly made of – and proved that women’s racing is every bit as chill-inducing as the other kind.