I transitioned from triathlon to cycling about 18 months ago. I made the switch after completing an Ironman, wanting a change, and enjoying my time in the saddle more than the time spent running or swimming. Over the past few years, I’ve seen the field of triathlon working to recruit and retain more women in the sport (as evidenced by the hugely popular Facebook group, Women for Tri). I hoped for a similar dynamic with cycling, but had just moved across the country for a new job and was not sure where to find a community of rad cyclists. I started by searching for groups online, found one with similar speed and distance to fit my training, and was launched into what became a new norm for my next year: being one of the only women on a group ride surrounded by several men. I’ve generally been treated really well and I can’t thank many of them enough for making me who I am today. I’m a much stronger cyclist thanks to their challenging group rides and much of their ongoing support. But we’ve got work to do.
Reflecting back on my transition to cycling, I think I expected to find similar dynamics to triathlon—plenty of women at races, large Facebook groups for women to share advice and experiences, and plenty of group rides and teams to train with or race for without the fear of getting dropped. Unfortunately, I think I was naive and mistaken in a few ways. Field sizes for women in many of the events I’ve done are only about 15%—especially gravel, cyclocross, and fat biking. Women and gender diverse athletes are sorely underrepresented in this sport. I’ve scoured the literature to identify potential reasons for the gap. Some say it’s a lack of confidence or skill with mechanical abilities. Others say lack of time to train due to childcare and domestic responsibilities. Some note a lack of navigation skills needed for gravel or discomfort being in the middle of nowhere. Others reflect on a lack of safety, whether due to car traffic, crashing, or sexual harassment.
Many of those factors, however, are specific to one discipline or one community, have small sample sizes, are published by men, and/or completely exclude cyclists who do not identify as cisgender men or women. And while I appreciate the important work on these issues, I think the gender gaps go a lot deeper than what the literature has said thus far. I believe we need a more comprehensive understanding of the experiences of women and gender diverse cyclists in order to decrease disparities in the field. I believe it’s time to share our stories.
My experiences as a white cisgender woman in cycling over the past year have been exciting, nerve wracking, challenging, and empowering. They have also been colored by microaggressions, sexist comments, harassment, and exclusion. I love this sport and so many aspects of this community. I want to stay engaged. But I also know we can do better by stepping up our game and working hard to understand the experiences of that 15%. After identifying what has helped and hurt us over the years, we can work to shift our culture to one with more diversity and representation.
Aside from my identity as a cyclist, I am a feminist, a sport psychologist, a professor, and a researcher. As a feminist, it’s important for me to 1) own my biases that stem from my own experiences; and 2) recognize that the personal is political. I’m doing this project because of my own experiences and because I want our community to do better. The disheartening moments I’ve had over the past year have lit a fire inside of me and have motivated me to take on a piece of this puzzle.
This past week, I launched an international research project for women, trans*, femme, non-binary, genderqueer, and two spirit cyclists who have raced over the past 5 years. The survey asks about factors that have increased and decreased participation in competitive cycling, as well as motivations and experiences in daily living. I ask for stories of exclusion, harassment, and sexism—in addition to times cyclists have felt valued.
As an incentive, I’ve secured money to donate $2/person to charity for the first 250 participants. (It’s not much, but it’s something.) I’ll present the findings in my community, at conferences, and to anyone who wants to listen. I’ll also write up the findings for publication to help us shed some light on gender gaps and increase retention of women and gender diverse cyclists throughout the world.
If you are a woman and/or a gender diverse cyclist who has raced in the last 5 yrs, I’d love to hear your story. What has pushed you away? What helps you to keep going strong? I’ll share mine in a post to come.
Erin is a professor, psychologist, researcher, feminist, spouse, and cyclist. When she is not working, she spends her time training for new cycling adventures, eating, laughing, and spending time with loved ones.
I’d like us to ditch all talk of BMI as a meaningful measure when it comes to individuals. And please don’t say it’s better than weight because it’s just weight + height taken into account. So insofar as weight is a problematic measure and BMI relies on weight, so too is BMI problematic. I’ve long loved Kate Harding’s project BMI Illustrated over at Shapely Prose. She describes it this way, “I put together a slideshow to demonstrate just how ridiculous the BMI standards are.” This isn’t to deny that BMI talk is useful about populations and big picture trends, it’s just that I think it’s misleading and harmful when it comes to individuals.
Lots of thin people are falsely reassured by their BMI, while lots of people with BMIs in the overweight/obese categories might be worrying with no good reason. Fit and fat are linked but not in the ways most people think. I worry that lots of fat people don’t exercise because they worry what people will think especially if you exercise and don’t get any smaller. Yet fat and fit people can be very healthy. “People can be obese yet physically healthy and fit and at no greater risk of heart disease or cancer than normal weight people, say researchers.The key is being “metabolically fit”, meaning no high blood pressure, cholesterol or raised blood sugar, and exercising, according to experts. Looking at data from over 43,000 US people they found that being overweight per se did not pose a big health risk.” reports the BBC.
I love my family doctor who cheered me up immensely when she looked at my chart and said, “This is the part of the visit when, given your weight, I should warn you about the health problems associated with overweight and obesity. However, given that you’ve got low to normal blood pressure, no sugar issues, and the best ratio of good to bad cholesterol we’ve ever seen at this clinic, I can’t in good conscience do that. You’re extremely healthy. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”
A few years ago I tried Weight Watchers–for probably the 6th time in my life, will I never learn?–and I was shocked at their weight range for my height. Weights I haven’t seen since Grade 6. And to give you some perspective they were also weights I never weighed even when at 5’7 I wore size 8 clothing. The so called “healthy” or “normal” weight range for me has never seemed plausible. I had an interesting experience recently. This summer I was measured in the BodPod at the Fowler Kennedy Sports Medicine Clinic which tells you exactly how much of your body is fat and how much is muscle, bone etc. I was happy to see that to weigh what Weight Watchers thought of as my ideal, I’d be allowed a mere 20 lbs of body fat. I won’t discuss exact weights today but I will tell you that I’m 122 lbs not fat. It’s my goal as part of my ‘fittest at fifty’ plan to improve my ratio of lean body mass. You can read more about the difference between the BMI approach and the lean body mass approach here. I plan to both develop my muscles and lose some body fat. I’d also like to lose pounds in absolute numbers too, mostly though to make running easier on my joints and to make it easier to get up hills faster on the bike! Hill climbing on the bike is all about power to weight ratio and so I’ll never be a climber but I hate to get dropped on hills on a regular basis. According to BMI, I’ll likely always be overweight or obese and I’ve made my peace with that. (I’ll write more about my ambivalence around ‘fat’ as a label for me later.)
Marc Perry notes in Get Lean that according to BMI most American football players count as obese. So too do many Olympic athletes. There is list here of all of the Gold medal athletes from the 2004 Olympics in Athens who count as overweight or obese according to BMI. We need to change our image of what athletes look like. Usually they don’t look like fitness models. See Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein: The Different Body Types of Olympic Athletes.