cycling · equality · femalestrength · stereotypes

On being underestimated

Many of you will have heard about this already:

A female cyclist (Nicole Hanselmann) is forced to stop after nearly catching the men’s pro race that had begun 10 minutes ahead of her women’s race. Hanselmann wears black and light blue-striped kit and rides a white road bike with blue bar tape; also in the photo we see part of the peloton’s motorcycle convoy, which has stopped Hanselmann and is speaking to her on the pavement. She looks annoyed. (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Swiss cyclist Nicole Hanselmann was competing for her Bigla Pro team at a race in Belgium; the men’s race had a 10-minute start, and Hanselmann made that up pretty quickly after grabbing an early lead. Her race was stopped so the men could get ahead again; she was given a head start once the women’s race resumed, but the wind had left her sails by then. (UM: DUH.) She finished 74th. Later she instagrammed the incident: “awkward” was her photo caption.

A female cyclist (Hanselmann), wearing her black and light blue-striped Bigla kit and helmet, leans on her right gloved hand while smiling into the camera through her cycling glasses. You can see this image on her instagram feed here.

Why did this happen? I’ve been looking around for an explanation for the last day or so and have no clear one to offer you. It sounds like the officials made a wrong call on the race gap: 10 minutes was not long enough. (Is this a standard gap for this type of race? I can’t tell – I haven’t been able to find this information out. If you know, please say in the comments!) It also sounds like Hanselmann had GREAT legs going into the race, and really took advantage. (There are structural reasons why this might be the case; women’s race lengths are often not long enough to capitalize on women’s peak fitness, which means early attacks happen. Go here for more.)

But “why” on this day, in this place, is not really the point; there are a lot of culturally-embedded, fairly obvious reasons why this incident is newsworthy. And if you’re a strong female cyclist, you already know the why.

We get underestimated. This is true of pretty much ALL female athletes, but it’s definitely the case for female athletes in male-dominant sports. Snoop around on our blog for lots of qualitative evidence, most recently this fantastic guest post from just a few days ago, about trying to lift around men at the gym.

I’ve been riding road bikes since 2012; I learned early (from a hugely inspiring female coach) that I was strong and suited to the sport. I drop a lot of guys. I’m faster than a lot of guys. And I love riding with folks who are faster than me, because they make me get faster.

But fast guys also tend to misunderstand what it means to have women on their ride.

(And here, let me specify: I’m talking largely about CLUB rides. When I go on organized rides with guys I know and trust and train with, we are all good and the adventure is ace. #notallmaleriders, of course. But still plenty.)

How this misunderstanding? Step one: mansplaining.

If I’m on a high-end bike that fits my body, the bike is kitted out with all the gear, and I demonstrate clear road- and club-riding skills, chances are I do not need you to tell me basic things about the sport, my bike, or anything else to do with what we are doing at the minute. Keep it to yourself, unless you see me in obvious need of assistance. And if that happens, maybe ask first if I need any.

Step two: aggressive off-showing. Yes, I’m on your ride because I’m fast enough for the posted ride pace. This should not be an invitation to you to attempt to ride significantly faster than the posted ride pace, just because you can. Or maybe you’re trying hard to show off to the other dudes on the ride? (I see this A LOT. God, it must be exhausting to be a male club rider.) At any rate, 38kph on a posted 32-34kph ride is too fast for me. You are going to drop me. And quite possibly you’ll drop the other, less fast, guys on the ride too. Is that really what you want? (And if so, ask yourself: WHY DO YOU WANT THIS?)

Step three: excessive complimenting. I pulled that pace line for two minutes and it was a strong, effective pull? We held a good pace? Yup, that’s what happens when you pull, after resting inside the pace line for a bit. I pulled the peloton with another woman at the front, and it was a strong, effective pull? Whadaya know. We have #madbikeskillz. GET OVER IT.

If you’re not going to say “hey! Great pull! Way to go!” to the guys on the ride, when you say it to me the message is clear. You didn’t think I could do it. You underestimated me. Thanks for sharing.

It’s not just guys who underestimate women riders, though. Many women I know have no idea how strong they are. Many of the women in my club think they are too slow for the two faster groups the club runs; even the amazing mountain biker I train with in winter (like, PODIUM MB-er, peeps) isn’t sure she can hold the faster lines. (Spoiler alert: she really can.)

I know these women are stronger than they let themselves think. They don’t believe it, and that’s because they have been taught, over years of aggressive gendered socialization, that women aren’t fast or good enough when it comes to sports like cycling. There’s tonnes of external reinforcement of this idea, too: just ask Hanselmann. All around us the messages normalize the notion that women can’t do it, not really, no matter what Nike says as it tries to sell us things.

I know this post sounds cranky, but I’m fed up. Being underestimated is exhausting; it makes it hard to want to go on the rides, to try to get faster, to deal with all the noise while ALSO trying to ride the ride. Cycling is hard enough work; I don’t need to be doing extra emotional labour on the damn bike, too.

A delighted woman, circa 1950s, in white shirt-sleeves and a skirt on an upright bike, huge smile plastered on her face. The caption reads, “He said a woman’s place is in the kitchen. So I dropped him.”

What’s your experience on the bike? Do you have supportive ride-mates, or do you experience unnecessary gender blow-back on your usual club dates? Do you have race experiences you’d like to share?

12 thoughts on “On being underestimated

    1. CATE: YER NOT POKEY. I love riding with you! You are strong! (See post for more. 😉

  1. What I have yet to find in reading about this is why the men’s support vehicles just couldn’t MOVE OUT OF THE WAY and let her ride? I’m sorry for Nicole. Hopefully this will lead to some rule changes across the board.

    As for complimenting – I’m not familiar with the culture of competitive cycling, but if you’re ever out trail running, and you charge past me on a tough stretch of singletrack, you’re going to get a “Good job!” or similar from me, regardless of your gender. That’s what we do. So just FYI it’s not always about underestimating.

    1. I also wondered why they didn’t just move aside – my guess is that the “rules” (which we internalize, of course, as well as enforce when required by the situation) stopped them. “Men’s race and women’s race separate. Must keep them separate.” In fact, I was just musing to friends last night that it would have been amazing if they HAD just let Nicole catch the men, and hold on for as long as possible – what a fabulous object lesson in how sport affects performance by gendering competitors. But of course, had that happened, Nicole would have had an unfair advantage over the other women she was officially competing against – she would have caught one hell of a draft.

      RE: complimenting, of course a situation like the one you describe is fantastic, but I’m referring to something else: a “pat on the back” from fellow male riders that smacks of, “hey! you did it! Look at you!” It’s not a we’re-all-in-this-together note; whatever the intention, it comes across as patronizing if the male riders only do this for women on the ride, and do it in a way that conveys a certain level of *surprise*.

      Thanks for commenting!

    2. I read a fantastic explanation to this on reddit after the event. Men’s race is 200km at 42-45kph. Women’s race is … this user actually follows professional cycling and understands the logistics and tactics involved their repeated attempts at explaining how a pro bike race works effectively explain why Hanselmann couldn’t just keep racing. Omloop is a rare example of a televised women’s race that covers all the interesting terrain the men’s does and one organisational mishap does not a equality battleground make.

      1. Thanks for this comment and the link – it was informative to read. Your author is absolutely right that the cogs here are complicated, and when running men’s and women’s races together the logistics are tricky for a range of reasons. They (the Reddit author) are also not alone among those close to women’s pro cycling to suggest on social media that complaining about Omloop itself is not the solution here – and with this I really agree.

        The Omloop mistake (and it was a mistake – the organizers will, and should, learn from it and address it) is an example of a STRUCTURAL problem with gender discrimination in pro cycling – something that women inside the sport have extraordinary experience of, and speak eloquently of all the time. (Ellen Noble [@ellenlikesbikes] is a prime example here; check out her Twitter for her Omloop thread, and for her “bunnyhopping the patriarchy” fame. She is amazing.)

        It’s this structural problem I’m pointing to in this post, although of course on a very different scale, at the level of club riding. But it’s all of a piece: women’s pro races get a fraction of the media coverage of men’s, and women racers compete for a fraction of the purses that men do. This difference is largely down to stereotypes about their racing style and skill being taken for “fact.” The same assumptions undergird women’s treatment at club level, and explain to a large extent why women are reticent to join the sport.

        Change is afoot! And hopefully the folks at Omloop will help further it next year. But for now we need to keep pointing to the structural issues, because one organizational mishap is, in fact, a key example of the equality battleground at stake.

        Thanks again for commenting.

  2. Kim, thanks for writing about Nicole Hanselmann catching up to the men’s race! If this had happened at a USA Cycling race, the men’s race would have been “neutralized” and the entire women’s field (Nicole, breakaway, and everyone else 90 seconds behind her) would have been allowed to pass. That is, the slower group (men) would have to stop or slow down, and let the faster group (women) pass. This is standard in USAC sanctioned events. USAC events must accommodate many fields in one day: juniors, pros, Category races (1 -4), and age groups. And male and female groups in each of those categories. Sometimes fields are combined. Usually, there is AT LEAST 15 minutes between start time, more often 30 minutes. Mixing fields is dangerous, and gives unfair advantage sometimes. Of course, USAC amateur events have 0 to 2 cars following them, not 20 like the Euro pro race had.

    In short, the Belgian organizers were totally SEXIST in leaving only 10 minutes between the races.

    As you described, we still have a long way to go for equity in amateur and pro cycling!

    1. What helpful context, Mary! I know little of the USA scene so was keen to read this. Solidarity!

  3. Hey, thank you for the shout out! And I’m so sorry to hear that you see similar kinds of behaviors in cycling as I do in lifting. In the States, we’ve had legally required equal access to athletics for 60 years. Clearly, access isn’t enough–we need to actively create safe spaces for girls and women to excel. I suspect none of us yet know what we are capable of, and we can’t as long as we’re being underestimated.

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