The merits of women-only rides
Gender-specific activities, it seems, will never be without controversy. A BBC East Midlands video promoting British Cycling’s women-only ‘Breeze’ rides has drawn a fair amount of comment, not all of it positive: ‘why are these even necessary?’; ‘inclusion by exclusion is not inclusive.’
I once took part in an overnight bike ride organised by the Fridays, from Hyde Park in London to Felpham on the south coast. The distance and nature of the ride would already exclude a certain group of cyclists, but even so, there were promises on the website that no one would be left behind, everyone was welcome, and please ride whatever bike you have (as long as it’s not crap). On arrival, I instantly felt out of place: almost everyone was male and wearing Lycra. Nevertheless, I started chatting to a few riders as we spun away through the midnight hours, and had a few pleasant exchanges. Then one particular man turned to me and said, ‘You might want to choose an easier gear.’ I was stumped. Just that simple phrase was weighted with, ‘Listen to my advice, young lady, because I know better than you.’ ‘Why?’ I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. ‘There’s a steep hill around the corner.’ ‘Thanks,’ I said, waiting until I could see the hill with my own eyes, at which point I selected an appropriate gear and cruised up that hill, leaving my companion standing. My indignation ran deep. I might not look like a ‘serious’ cyclist, but I have thousands of miles of experience under my wheels. I know how to use my gears, and I certainly know how to climb hills. Your advice, Mr Lycra Man, is unnecessary, unwanted and frankly, insulting.
This exchange was enough to make me not go on another of these rides. I would far rather cycle with friends, or even by myself, than subject myself to male ‘advice.’ Some of you reading might think, but that man was only trying to be helpful – I don’t understand the problem. There was nothing wrong per se with a little friendly helpful hint, but at the same time, it was trapped beneath the weight of its wrongness. It implies I won’t be able to do something without help, and yes, I’m talking about male help. For my entire life, I have been ‘helped’ by men. Some of my male friends, while sympathetic, don’t understand the depths to which it is a problem. And that’s simply because they are men; they have never had the patronising mansplaining, the unsolicited advice, the infuriating ‘let me just help you with this, you poor weak woman.’ In every corner of my life. All the time.
This is the reason Breeze rides exist: an easy, no-pressure, no-judgement ride with other like-minded people. For many women, this is the only situation in which they feel comfortable, and that should be applauded, not criticised. If you are the kind of cyclist who is able to just get on a bike and go for a ride, then good for you. Not all people are like that.
Of course, these rides do not tell the whole story. Yes, there might well be men who are nervous about getting back on their bike after several years, or who don’t demonstrate the confidence needed to tackle our unforgiving roads, or who simply would enjoy an easy jaunt around the local countryside. Neither does it illustrate the female who is more than happy heading off on her bicycle by herself, whether that be long distance exploration or weekly shop. But statistically, fewer women than men cycle, whether that be commuting, leisure or club rides, which is why there is a focus on group rides for women. Anything that gets people riding is a good thing: the more people who ride bikes, the better. And that is something to be celebrated.