The reactions I got from my friends when I told them about my plan to cycle around Europe were, for the most part, positive and encouraging. Many were envious of the freedom I had to leave and tramp about Europe but, particularly among my female friends, the envy would swiftly turn to pity when I explained some of the compromises that would have to be made for my travels. A conversation with one of my friends went a little like this:
Friend: (with a genuine sense of curiosity) “How will you carry all your clothes then?”
Me: “In bags on the side of my bike; I won’t be taking many clothes. Probably just a couple of pairs of shorts, one light summer dress, a pair of trousers, a couple of tops and a few changes of underwear. Oh and possibly one bikini as a luxury item.”
Friend: (with a look I can only describe as disbelief verging on disgust) “What about shoes?!”
Me: “I’ll be wearing trainers and I’ll take a pair of flip flops in my bag.”
Friend: “Seriously? Is that all you’re taking?”
Friend: (now completely incredulous) “What about toiletries and make up?”
Me: “I’ll just take a small mascara, an eye liner pencil, a lip gloss and a bottle of shampoo.”
Friend: “You are ACTUALLY insane. There’s no way I’d do that.”
Forget the physical and mental endurance that will be required to cycle thousands of miles on a fully laden bike, the main stumbling block for my friend was the fact that I wouldn’t be able to take a mountain of clothes, shoes, accessories, toiletries, wipes, moisturisers, foundations, night creams, day creams and all the other pointless products that most girls seem to rely on for confidence these days.
To varying degrees, similar concerns were raised by most of my other female friends too. This got me thinking about girls and cycling.
Sadly, in Britain, cycling has historically been a male dominated pursuit. According to the National Transport Survey, men are almost 3 times as likely to cycle than women. Why?
My friends’ reactions reminded me of a conversation I had previously with a female colleague. Her complaints about cycling did a good job of summing up why, in my experience, women generally aren’t as keen to cycle as men.
The lady’s husband was a keen cyclist and she tried to get involved but no matter how hard she tried, she said she just couldn’t ‘get into it’. Whilst her husband would get up in the early hours of the morning to cycle come rain or shine, she would only get on her bike if it wasn’t raining and/or dark. She said that she struggled to keep up pace with her husband and felt like she was holding him back. I also got the impression she didn’t feel very attractive on her bike. She was quite a glamorous lady by all accounts and I once heard her complaining that during a cycle, the group she was cycling with stopped at an outdoor market for a drink and she felt embarrassed to be out without any make up on, all sweaty and wearing unflattering lycra.
To a certain extent, I can see where she’s coming from.
Cycling can be uncomfortable. You get cold and wet if it’s rainy (in the UK it usually is) and you will almost always get red and sweaty.
It’s nigh on impossible to look glamorous whilst cycling. Make up is pointless, comfortable cycling clothes aren’t exactly flattering – and don’t get me started on the helmet hair issues we ladies have to deal with.
It’s difficult. Cycling isn’t always easy, particularly if you live in a hilly area of Yorkshire, like me. It can also be discouraging when cycling with men as they are typically stronger and will therefore tend to pedal faster, especially if you’re just starting out.
But, the fact is, these are all complete non-issues. When I see a woman cycling past me on the road in the bracing wind and rain (even if she is a few paces behind her male counterpart), I don’t see the bedraggled hair and unflattering clothes, or the sweaty pangs of pain showing in her face, I see the sexiness of an independent woman taking charge of her fitness and the bold (and seemingly rare) inspirational quality of a woman having the confidence to go out in all weathers in what is predominately a male-oriented activity.
Like a true feminist, I’d like to attribute at least some blame for the lack of female cycling enthusiasm to the media. We appear to be suffering from a drought of admirable female role models of late and women seem all too ready to live up to the western female stereotype imposed on us.
I realise we’ve just seen a summer filled with truly inspirational women performing at the Olympics but I know I can’t be the only one that felt a twinge of disappointment seeing Victoria Pendelton looking all glossy in an advert for hair products after her Olympic success. She is such a great icon for women and I’m sure that could be harnessed in a more positive way than promoting the importance of obtaining shiny, bouncy hair after a workout.
Frankly, I think it’s time women stopped being such worry pots and embraced the feminine side of cycling. We are capable of keeping up with the boys and are strong enough to train extra hard to do that if we need to.
Personally, I feel the most free when I’m on my bike and the energy boost I get from challenging my mind and body makes me feel happier, sexier and more empowered than any lipstick or hair product ever could.