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Women’s cycling and a pandemic

Words by Rebecca Charlton

 

(c) John Wilson 

 

I was proudly the tallest in my class when I was about 12 or 13 but I think that was my last growth spurt. At just over 5ft tall as an adult, I would barely be able to see over the bar in nightclubs when I was trying to get a round in, left standing there for ages hopelessly waving at the bartender while less vertically challenged party-goers walked away clutching their pints of beer, oblivious to my predicament.

 

My wheels were left to gather dust for a little while as I got distracted by the nightlife that came with studying away from home for a journalism degree, but I’d always ridden and raced bicycles. It was in my blood from the age of about seven or eight when I first experienced the thrill of a velodrome and never looked back. 

 

I may have never looked back in the proverbial sense but I was always looking over my shoulder. That small woman jumping to get attention at the bar is often the one that feels vulnerable on the road, and I’d spent many years learning ways to try and combat that feeling. Safety is a valid concern for all of us taking to two wheels and of course this isn’t just about height or physical presence. I gradually became very used to the inevitable grind of darting traffic, the reality for so many of us. 

 

Meanwhile, learning to race on the velodrome gave me confidence in my bike handling ability, away from cars. I could sit in a bunch on the track and stop on a dime, getting back in the saddle after accepting crashes were part and parcel of this world, something I learnt early on with a touch of wheels at speed, in fact I think I kept it in the family and crashed into my dad. 

 

This increasing confidence that came with riding my bike transcended sport, I got very used to embracing whatever kit allowed me to leave it all out on the race circuit. I stopped worrying so much about what people thought and beating the local boys gave me a spring in my step and made me stand a little taller. Cycling wasn’t deemed cool in my school days so I rarely spoke of it, occasionally turning up with hideous looking road rash and trying to dismiss it in PE lessons and the obligatory short shorts. But within cycling circles I embraced every facet of this alternative world and it brought a huge network of opportunity with it.

 

But as my ability grew on the bike there was something missing. I became starkly aware that there were no other girls in the area for me to ride and race with, or against, and that my confidence on a bike was not universal. It’s something I accepted when I was younger but in adult life I’ve wanted to see as many people on bikes as possible and started to explore the reasons why this hasn’t always been the case and there were of course a plethora of explanations. I wanted more people to be armed with the information and experience to feel as comfortable and as safe as possible to ride in different environments.

 

***

 

During the challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic I started to see a more positive movement emerging among the global sadness. My friends were asking me about bikes for them, their children, their partners, colleagues and friends. Bikes and accessories were selling out faster than anyone in the cycling industry had ever seen before and more people than ever were either starting to ride for the first time as an adult, or retuning to it after a very long time. Old and new bicycles became like gold dust to get hold of and although I’d seen a huge spike in interest in the years following the London 2012 Olympic Games and the UK became a cycling nation in many ways, things definitely switched up a notch. 

 

Here in the UK, during the various lockdowns the roads were quieter, key workers were able to get to their employment by bike and not have to fight so much traffic. Initiatives were being introduced by brands such as Brompton to facilitate more doctors and nurses to ride to work when everything else was shut down. The British folding bike company raised over £340K to provide bikes for NHS key workers during the COVID-19 Pandemic through the ‘Wheels for Heroes’ campaign. Just one example of the ways cyclists were being supported more.

 

On the social side, well, there were times where the only legal way to see anyone outside of essential work was to include an exercise ‘plus one’ and I believe it made us more active. There was no opportunity to head to a crowded pub and shout at a barman or woman so people took to the great outdoors. The barriers to riding outdoors were coming down and people felt happier out there on roads that were much lighter in traffic than usual, with ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes appearing for many too.

 

The other discipline of cycling that was seeing a huge peak in participation was e-sports platforms such as Zwift - virtual world gaming combined with huge fitness and social gains, all from the comfort of your own home. And in particular it was the women’s contingent that was growing, with more females jumping on a turbo trainer than ever before. The women’s Zwift Academy eight-week training programme saw the highest number of female participants in its most recent edition, spanning all levels from beginner to UCI World Tour hopefuls.

 

 

Ex-pro cyclist and now Senior Marketing manager Kate Verroneau is a driving force at Zwift when it comes to women’s cycling: “20,500 women enrolled for Zwift Academy in 2020, a huge step from 1,200 in 2016, when it all began.” She says. 

 

The community aspect has been huge, especially since we were all staying home, she explains. “I think being able to go on the Facebook Ladies Only group and ask questions that you might be too intimidated to go into a local bike shop and ask is key to its popularity. A lot of women don’t live in areas where there are a lot of other women to ride with, so the ability to ride with other women at all times of the day is pretty awesome. You can kind of find your tribe.” 

 

Kate also notes the convenience of indoor training for many women. “Women are busy,” she continues. “We’ve got so much going on between work and families and interests and our workouts have got to fit into our schedules. I think that the efficiency of Zwift where you can just be ready to jump on your bike and maybe your child is right next to you is pretty awesome. It’s definitely friendly to busy women.” 

 

Whether it’s online at home, via quiet towpaths or out in the thick of a city, how do we continue this movement? New bikes can easily gather dust or be banished to the shed if we don’t continue to enjoy it. 

 

Journalists like me will continue to support and push for improved infrastructure in the UK, looking to places like Holland for inspiration on how the bike can be a priority and I think the communities created are here to stay. Talking of which, brings me conveniently onto the topic of clothing because the Dutch are not only known for their prowess in top level racing but for their casual approach to the bicycle and the fashion that comes with it. Unlike my school days, I very much want to display my proud love for the cycling fraternity and I’m a firm rejector of any rules. Whether it’s casual clothing, head to toe Lycra or a mix of all of the above, playing with your cycling style has never been so much fun. I like to mix new items with retro and above all, we now have a choice! 

 

When I was growing up, my mum and I spent most of our time on the bike uncomfortable. We’d hunt high and low in the back corners of every bike shop we could find for anything small enough to accommodate us, but I mostly ended up in an almost knee-length men’s jersey and uncomfortable ill-fitting shorts - it was quite a picture! The fact we now have beautiful cycling-specific clothing available for all shapes and sizes is a far cry from those days and something I embrace with such joy. 

 

The most important thing for me is that there’s no judgement when it comes to hopping on a bicycle and no prerequisite to make you worthy. And there are no medals for doing something you’re not comfortable with, so whether you opt for indoor cycling, gravel riding, pottering along a tow path or hammering the pedals in a time trial, this community embraces us all. 

 

 

In recent months riders have been able to explore what makes them most happy on two wheels. That could look very different for every person and it’s diversifying more than ever. I think the cycling world has become a much more open, welcoming and inspiring place to be. Our role models transcend racing and we can see ourselves represented on a bike. Social media allows us to see all ages, all abilities and all body shapes enjoying the various disciplines of bike riding and I think it’s simply wonderful.  

 

I may ride an XS frame size but cycling makes me feel 10 feet tall and I hope the number of people who get to experience that feeling keeps growing and growing. 

 

Rebecca Charlton

 

As a TV presenter, Rebecca works for Eurosport, ITV, Channel 4 and various online shows such as The Bunnyhop which focuses on the women’s pro peloton. She has written two books about cycling and several articles for international sports publications. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.