Does women's cycling actually exist?
This article was written for Volume 5 of Far Ride Magazine
When I was asked to write up my personal view on women's cycling, I had to give it some thought. Is there even such a thing as women’s cycling? Isn’t it just cycling, period? I guess the question itself proves a point. There is obviously still a distinction, at least in the pro racing scene. But that isn't exactly my background. And I do wonder what that distinction is based on. Don’t we all get the same out of cycling? Or do men and women differ in their goals, their ambitions and the way they experience their life on two wheels? Does women’s cycling actually exist?
If we look at the numbers, more and more women have been taking up cycling in the last few years. In cycling hubs like the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands and Japan you see a huge increase of female riders both in the competitive and amateur scene. Big and small brands are catering more to female cyclists and data released by Strava showed an 82 percent increase in the number of women cycling the UK in 2015. With La Course, the racing scene even saw its first female stage as a prologue to the final stage of the Tour the France. That doesn't compare but it does show a shift is taking place.
As a new Strongher.cc ambassador, I recently became part of that movement myself. Strongher is a platform that was set up by legendary Dutch rider Marianne Vos and is driven by professional cyclists and a diverse network of ambassadors who want to connect the professional and grassroots worlds of women’s cycling. Strongher is giving women a stage to show themselves and help inspire more women to get on bikes.
I have to admit: when they asked me to become an ambassador, I was a bit apprehensive. Promoting women's cycling felt a bit contradictory. I mostly cycle with men or in mixed groups. I've always been a bit tomboyish and don't specifically felt drawn to some female group dynamics I experienced in the past. The what-you-see-is-what-you-get cliché does hold its ground with men. Most male riders I know are always up for a challenge, don't complain when the elements start playing up, have each other's backs when it comes to serious stuff, but do enjoy a bit of competitive banter when the time is right (which is almost all the time). But I'm also the first to admit this stereotype is way too heavy-handed. As with men, women come in all grades of hardiness, resilience and camaraderie.
I have met many like-minded girls on and off the bike and there are plenty of good examples around, not in the least on the Strongher platform, and not exclusive to the pro racing scene. A great example is Danish ultra-cyclist Eva Synnestvedt Hansen, who knocked off 1385 km just over three days in the Race Across the West. And there's Marianne Vos herself, who held her own in the male peloton of the 2012 Amstel Curacao Race and managed a great 12th position right after sprinter Marcel Kittel. There's also no denying that the numbers of female pro riders are increasing every year. It is great to witness a sport historically dominated by men become more gender balanced.
Women's Final at Red Hook Crit London 2016
So things are obviously changing. But why now? I believe one of the main reasons is that the last years have seen a different approach to cycling, at least in cycle-minded countries. Cycling in general is becoming less of a niche sport, which opens up the sport for women as well. There’s also more to choose from. What started as a competition-focused sport has developed into many different varieties. And that’s the beauty of it: it offers up something for everyone. Whether you are looking for endurance, competition, friendship, fitness or adventure, it’s there. You will find it in cycling.
A while ago I attended a fixed-gear clinic for women, hosted by Strongher × Dutch Crit Cup. The fixed scene is definitely a place where the amount of female riders is growing fast. It is also a scene where there isn’t such a strict distinction between genders, as far as I can tell. The fact that it is a relatively young discipline might have something to do with it. Although originally dominated by a pretty masculine crowd of tough-as-nails bike messengers it has a very generous and inclusive vibe, wherever you’re from and however you ride.
Red Hook Crit Milano 2016
That vibe was again present at both the clinic and the official crit afterwards. Boys and girls hanging out as one big family, teaching each other what they know to become better riders and encourage newcomers to try out their sport. Which doesn't mean they aren't competitive to the bone when it comes to the race itself, but it does stop at the finish line. Of course, the lack of big business and sponsorship might help. But what stands out in this scene is that there’s seemingly no difference in how men or women experience their sport.
When I talked about this with two women who have been part of the fixed world for a while now, it seemed to match up with my thoughts. Dutch rider Nathalie Simoens was a track cyclist before she stumbled upon the fixed scene on a stay in Australia and decided to shift her focus. And she has been successful in doing so: she managed a top seven position in the Milano Red Hook Crit in 2014 and finished 11th the Red Hook Crit London in 2015, the preeminent fixed crit series. She agrees that there isn’t much of a distinction between genders in the fixed world:
@Nathalie Simoens at Ronde van Katendrecht 2015
“It’s a coming together of a broad variety of people from all over the planet who share the same spirit and interests. We have loads of fun prior to the race, give it our all during the crit, and finish it off with more fun. It actually feels like one big family. The only difference I see is that the women’s crit is still a bit more compact both in numbers and race distance. But the field is definitely growing each year. I don't think there is such a thing as women’s cycling. There isn’t men’s cycling either, is there? To be honest, I even find it a bit patronizing to look at it that way: in the end, aren’t we all in it with the same attitude and for the same goals? Have a blast, ride hard and win if possible? I do think it is a good thing to promote women’s races a bit more, as it just isn’t balanced in the media and elsewhere. But not as a separate subject.”
Charlotte Sieradzka, fixed gear racer since 2014 and one of the owners of Warsaw Cycling, a company for cycling apparel, shares a similar view of the fixed scene: “It’s like being home far away from home. Seeing familiar faces, talking, having fun, riding. It’s like a mini family holiday. For me, the fun and atmosphere of the races might be even more important than the race itself. There is no particular distinction between men and women, as far as I can tell. Maybe the girls are more taken care of, as there are still less of us. I completely agree that "women’s cycling" is just a term in the end. We all get the same out of it, man or woman. But I do think it’s good the term exists. It’s about showing that there is something going on that’s worth the attention. We unfortunately still need to show this sport is equally suitable for women. But I think it’s just a matter of time.”
This belief also shines through in the Warsaw Cycling apparel which, apart from fit, is designed as a unisex brand: “It’s most definitely a conscious choice. I would never imagine designing something specific for a woman and something else for a man (we are talking about patterns not the cut, of course). I see no point in categorizing like this. Originally, it came from the fact that I always found men’s kits more appealing but they never came in my size, which I found deeply unfair! So with Warsaw Cycling we decided to take a different approach.”
Charlotte Sieradzka at Rad Race Rotterdam 2015
Both Nathalie and Charlotte's stories touch upon another development: the growing importance of the social aspect of cycling. Cycling clubs are no longer the bastions only competitive racers can join. Everywhere you see more informal groups being initiated. With the help of social media, cyclists form local communities that get together on a regular basis, both planned and on a whim. Brands like Rapha even took this to a worldwide scale by setting up an international club with local hubs in cities around the globe and an online community to connect club members. The social ride has become a widespread phenomenon.
But the popularity of cycling also seems to relate to a broader movement. The hectic and frantic lives of people in urban environments start taking their toll. The ever-increasing flood of external stimuli fills our days from early morning till late at night, leaving us too little time to reflect on our actions and thoughts. City life offers us plenty of fun and distractions, but it is all set in concrete and stone. From this comes a growing collective desire to get out. To get back in touch with nature, back to the simpler things in life. In its relatively low-tech, human-powered manner cycling answers that call. It provides freedom on a daily basis, turns a few spare hours into a mini-escape from urban life, back to nature where human superiority doesn't exist. In a way cycling is becoming more than a sport, it's becoming a lifestyle.
So the question remains: is there such a thing as women's cycling?
I guess there is, when it comes to cycling as a competitive sport. Women are built differently, stronger than men in some aspects, less in others. There will always be a distinction between the sexes. And let's be pleased with that too: they say opposites attract, right? But there is more to cycling than racing and competition alone, even more so in recent times.
Women's starting grid at Red Hook Crit Milano 2016
It seems a whole new generation of cyclists has sprung up in the last few years, riders who are in it more for fun and adventure than solely for competitive racing. This way of cycling is a different game, and brings other things to the table. It still holds a huge challenge and it can most definitely be a tough workout. But it is also about seeing new places, being outdoors, developing friendships and getting out of your comfort zone. These are universal assets to whomever is up for new experiences. In that aspect cycling is equally attractive and open to both men and women. It is also the essence of what I get out of cycling.
It's basically adventuring on a small scale. You don't know where the journey will take you, what will happen along the way, or who you will meet. You might end up all wet and shivery in a roadside cafe with elderly couples having their afternoon tea, somewhat appalled by the muddy puddles you leave under your chair, and the drenched jackets and gloves occupying the heaters. You might encounter strangers on the same route that tag along for a while and become lifelong friends. You might do your first 200 km ride that leaves you feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, but proud. You might decide to take a bib dip in the ocean on a hot summer's ride, and end up drinking beers with locals on the beach. All that, in one day.
In the end, that is why I did become an ambassador for Strongher - to share what cycling brought me, and might bring others: a way to challenge myself, like-minded cycling friends from all over the globe, a healthy body and mind and, most importantly, an escape from regular life on any given moment.
Cycling equals freedom. And - man or woman - I guess we all need a bit of that in our busy lives. It's up to you if you want to grab it.
Like to read more on women's cycling? Check out the views of @the5thfloor rider Sophie Edmondson and @prettydamnedfast's Anna Maria Diaz-Balart, in Far Ride Magazine Volume 5, or visit the Strongher.cc platform