accessibility · cycling · equality · fitness

Sports and the public good

A couple of days ago Sam sent me a Facebook message with a link in it. The link was to an advert from Pinarello, the high-end Italian bike manufacturer, for its new motorized road bike. In the ad, a conventionally gorgeous white woman appears in portrait orientation, smiling slightly; she is identified as Emma, 24 years old, a “couple rider”. The text beside her image reads:

“I’ve always wanted to go cycling with my boyfriend but it seemed impossible. Soon everything will become possible.”

I rolled my eyes. I may have laughed at first, though I was pissed off pretty much immediately, for all the reasons readers of this blog can easily anticipate. But I also thought the ad was more or less sexism-as-usual.

A sporting goods company doing something sorta douchy? Shocked. I was shocked, I tell you.

Sam said: “you should blog about this!!” Sigh. Probably I should, I thought. Except I’d already planned my post for this Friday (though not yet written it). And except that I couldn’t think of anything I could say about this issue that wasn’t already being said, loudly and well, from all corners of the public sphere.

TBH, even thinking about it made me feel tired: sexism-induced narcolepsy. Yup.

I hummed and hawed.

Then, while I was in the shower after what I can only describe as a very, very cold late autumn training ride (because, Pinarello: I’m pretty fast for a reason), I realized that the two pieces – my original topic, and the annoying Pinarello story – actually shared an important point of convergence. I could write about them both, making the post about that point.

So here goes.

(This image includes the male and female ads, and the twitter feeds attached to them. Both the man and the woman in the images are white, young looking, and fit looking. Which provokes the question: why do they need an e-bike to “keep up”?) 

The Pinarello advert (which also includes a disparaging “male” version, in which the guy in the image claims he has no time for training rides but wants to keep up with friends at the weekend) is grounded in some pretty basic and also very, very wrong assumptions about women.

First, that women aren’t fast. Second, that women only want to ride because their boyfriends do. (Also: um, paging heteronormativity? Pinarello def doesn’t want the lucrative lesbian market, then…) Third, that women who ride wouldn’t want to, like, train to get faster; because that never happens, in any cycling club or women’s pro team, ever.

All of this is stupid and infuriating. But, for me, what’s most infuriating is that this grade-A sexist bullshit is coming from a bike company with a massive public profile, and whose bikes are ridden by BOTH pro men’s AND pro women’s teams on the World Tour circuit. For lots of people, Pinarello, like Castelli, or Cervelo, or Trek, IS high-level cycling; it represents in its brand not just its products, but a world of sports aspiration that criss-crosses gender lines.

With that kind of high profile in the cycling community comes, I believe, some public responsibility.

With this ad, though, Pinarello made pretty clear where its priorities lie – and it’s not with helping to promote cycling as a sport in which people of all genders (and colours) are welcome and respected for their talent and determination.

Quite apart from being RIDICULOUSLY retrograde in its representation of women and (older?) men, then, this ad works against the public good, where sports and fitness is concerned.

I’m not a philosopher like Sam and Tracy, but in this case I’m defining “the public good” as a set of values that support inclusivity and access for all, and that encourage the removal of barriers to access and inclusion, whether those are physical, emotional, financial, or otherwise. (It’s worth noting here that the Pinarello Nytro ain’t exactly cheap. No Pinarello bike is. Put a motor in one, and guess what?)

So Pinarello gave us this week a textbook example of working against the public good.

What might it look like, though, for an organization to promote sports and fitness as matters of the public good, and to get it, if not perfect, a great deal more right?

I’ve recently moved to Hamilton, Ontario, a city about 50km from Toronto (and 50km from Niagara Falls) at the western edge of Lake Ontario. The area is blessed with immense natural beauty, in the form of the Niagara Escarpment, and all kinds of woodland trails, rail trails, and mountain bike routes snake around and through the city.

Hamilton is in general incredibly green; there are parks everywhere, and the grounds of local heritage buildings are often free to access too.

Lately I’ve been noticing not just how pleasant all this well-cared-for green space is, but also how many subtle measures the city has put in place to help encourage citizens to get fitter and feel better while they are out and about in them.

For example, my local park, just up the street, features: a public swimming pool (a year-long pass to ALL Hamilton pools, all-you-can-swim, is just CDN$106, a massive bargain), tennis and badminton courts that are free to use, a bunch of outdoor, public access fitness equipment (again, free to use, and popular with the older residents of the area), a baseball diamond (you guessed it), plus well paved and maintained walking paths that are sympathetically laid out and are all wheelchair accessible. There’s a playground for the kids, a “paradise” butterfly garden maintained by students at the local elementary school, as well as a community garden – for a small fee local residents can rent a plot or garden table for their own use, or they can volunteer to assist with the butterfly garden if they’d prefer not taking on a larger garden project. (Ours is just one of many community gardens dotted around Hamilton.)

I can’t get over what an asset this space is; the community gets together here. There are always kids in the playground, folks on the fitness equipment, courts in use, and gardeners at their plots. Not to mention dog walkers.

Further up the road, about 1.5km away, my neighbourhood runs into the Niagara Escarpment, and access points for the (to central Canadians, anyway) famous Bruce Trail. Here, a radial trail for walkers and joggers links the mountainside trails, several sets of stairs up to Hamilton “mountain” (about 300 stairs each, and popular with cross-fit types and those looking for cross-training), a public golf course (through which we are invited to walk, while signs ask that golfers be aware of pedestrians!), and a bunch of signed stations where those jogging or otherwise exercising are invited to stop for squats, push-ups, lunges, etc along the route.


(These fours images feature the Dundurn, Chedoke, and Wentworth stairs from the top of Hamilton mountain. Two are from fall/winter, and two from summer. The two summer images include City of Hamilton statistics about the stairs’ annual use: the Chedoke stairs, wider than most and popular for exercise, log over 2300 trips a day, and more than 871,000 a year, according to the 2013-14 data.)

I’ve been going to the Chedoke and Dundurn stairs for about four weeks now, and they are a real pleasure. I realize they are not accessible to those without good lower body mobility, of course, but for anyone looking for cardio or leg-strength training at a bargain, they are a gift indeed. Safe, sturdy, and well lit (you can see the lit-up staircases from the freeway!), I would not hesitate to use them after dark, especially because both are very well used and are attached to well-lit traffic areas at their bottoms (a parking lot, and a bus loop).

Now, the City of Hamilton is not the same as Pinarello in any way. Its job is to support citizen well being by plowing the streets and paying the firefighters; Pinarello’s job is to sell expensive bikes and bike stuff to MAMILS (mostly). Hamilton is a not-for-profit civic organization that funnels income back into city costs and services. Pinarello is a successful capitalist, featuring the requisite bit of philanthropy on the side. Apples and apples this is not.

Still, what I want to emphasize here is how easy it is to act in the public interest, even when you don’t have to. Hamilton does not need to maintain a butterfly garden in my local park, where kids can get outside, play, breathe, and learn; it does not need to groom hundreds of kilometres of walking trails or keep thousands of mountainside steps safe in winter, so that even the poorest of our neighbours can get exercise and fresh air. It could just pay the firefighters and the cops and say the rest is too expensive; I’ve lived in plenty of places where that happens.

Similarly, Pinarello does not need to play the old “my boyfriend is so strong and fast!” card. Dozens of fantastic athletes ride their amazing machines every year; why not get a range of those people to promote the e-bike, de-stygmatizing it in the process?

That advert could have been easy, classy, and smile-inducing rather than tiny, shitty, and cringe-inducing. All it needed was some forethought about genuine inclusivity and diversity. In the name of the public good.

12 thoughts on “Sports and the public good

  1. Very interesting juxtaposition. Also, how wonderful your city sounds!

    This is the second time these ads have come up in my sporting community. And–beside the blatant sexism–I’m struck by how poor an approach it is! Based on the marketing work I’ve done with e-bike companies, those scenarios probably aren’t why they will sell e-bikes. It’s more likely to be older riders or commuters, for example.

    And, as you said, they could have advertised even to the young & fit audience in a way that’s affirming. I have no idea how the final idea made it through approvals within the company…

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment, and I so agree. It demonstrates a real problem in how marketing gets outsourced: companies without the ingrained expertise or lived experience of a sport are much less likely to get at the heart of a product’s potential value for a community of users. I have no idea who made the campaign (though it would be fairly easy to check), but I hope it prompts Pinarello to ask some hard questions about how they invest in advertising, and with whom.

      Thanks again!

  2. Thanks for your perspective on the public good and Pinarello’s lack of it! There was much outrage regarding this ad from the cycling community and Pinarello pulled it within 48 of first posting it. And offered apology. Many men and women have vowed not to purchase any kind of Pinarello bike.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mary! I’ve watched the fallout too. I’ve never bought Pinarello but largely because of the cost. This year, though, I invested in a low end cervelo and I love it. A good alternative. 😉

  3. Thanks, Kim, for such an important point about how sports really is a public good. I will use this example in my public health ethics classes, and can have those great pictures, too! And Pinarello should be ashamed of themselves; I hope they learned something.

    Apart from the egregious offensiveness of their campaign, I’m guessing that the real market for the Pinarello e-bike is men who either were faster and are now slower, or men who were never fast but want to be. I suspect that they’re trying to claim it’s for women in order to save the egos of the men who are the real customers– they aren’t getting identified as the real market. What do you think?

  4. Very interesting thought there, Catherine. I’m not sure. The thing I’ve noticed in my club (London Centennial Wheelers) is that there is scorn heaped on e-bike ‘cheaters’. I don’t think any of the guys in my club would buy one, even when they are poorly trained and slow. Often they just cover the poor training with humour or bravado. Kudos to them for making the effort to get out, though I get grumpy when I have to pull all the time. 🙂

    My guess was, like Lyse, that buyers will be commuters with money and a desire for the status the brand confers, especially in the uk where riding one instantly aligns you with team Sky and a certain kind of British sports nationalism, one that is upper rather than working class (football, for ex). I doubt they will sell many outside the uk or even Europe. In fact, I think they will sell the vast majority to bankers in the City of London. (Which would, actually, support your argument quite nicely.)

    Alternately, though, they may sell to those going on cycling holidays who aren’t trained enough to keep up long distances in unusual terrain but want to enjoy the trip – my first time in France on a trip for which I’d paid a company, I realised how much training you have to do in order to really enjoy the trip and not always get left behind (and have to be rescued by a ride leader). So commuters and the folks who want to go on road cycling trips in the mountains but aren’t sure they can prepare properly (or don’t want to bother): two great markets.

  5. Great thoughts, Kim.

    I wish people would truly understand how their property tax for their municipality is used to benefit all in the area of outdoor public spaces, parks, pathways. It seems to me when it’s “free”, they sometimes forget when it’s all wonderful in good weather vs. bad weather.

  6. Great post. I know two people with e-assist on their road bikes who would go for this. The first is a serious road cycling academic who faces big hills on his way to work and wants to arrive non-sweaty. He likes nice bikes and I can see him using/not using the assist circumstances depending. The other is a friend’s father who is a road cyclist but is now in his 80s and can’t do the hills. He lives somewhere with big hills and rather than not ride he uses e-assist. I think they’ll make bike tourism way more accessible. I would have loved one for the hills on some of my trips. I think it’s great to have more people out there. It’ll get them riding which overall is a good thing.

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