Friday 25 January 2019

Women of Colour cycling group - is it necessary?

Look Mum No Hands! Cafe in London holds various types of events and regular meet-ups. One group they have formed is a Women of Colour meet-up. The first meeting was held in December of last year, and another meeting took place a few days ago. It will now become a monthly event.

First Women of Colour cycling group at Look Mum No Hands

I went to the first one, as I was a little curious to see how the meet-up went, and as someone who likes to meet different people in cycling I was looking forward to meeting new folks. Also, being an experienced bike rider and someone quite involved in the cycling community I was looking forward to sharing lots of information about the cycling scene and giving tips to anyone wanting advice.

This group was an initiative borne out of an article written by a woman who bemoaned the fact that she hardly saw any women of colour when she took part in the Ride London 100 last summer. She also claimed to have encountered white MAMILS (middle-aged men in lycra) who gave her "uncomfortable gazes" at the cycle event, or "microagressions" from white males as they overtook her when commuting.

This was then picked up on by the likes of Jools Walker (aka Lady Velo), Jenni Gwiazdowski and Ayesha McGowan, an Afro-American bidding to become the first black female professional racer, who felt that there was a need to group together black women who don't feel that they can get into cycling because they don't see anyone who looks like them.

As someone who has known Jools since 2011, when I interviewed her at the Tweed Run cycle ride for Cycling Weekly magazine, I felt I would support her cause, so I attended the event. (I arrived a bit late as I had been at fitness class that evening.)

There were quite a few women, including Ayesha McGowan who linked up to the meeting from her home in the United States via Skype. Although I missed the early part of the meeting it seemed that a lot of the women talked about how they never received encouragement to get into cycle riding, and felt uncomfortable when they did group rides because they didn't feel they identified with anyone.

Some felt they were ignored, and didn't feel confident about getting involved; others talked about being passed over by marketing companies to become brand ambassadors, or that black women cycling are not represented in the media.

While I believe every word of what the women say, I still find it hard to say that there is a racial or discrimination problem, or even that black women are excluded from getting into cycling.

That has not been my experience at all, and I have never perceived any barriers to entry or discrimination.

No one in my family was particularly into cycling apart from me. My dad bought a Peugeot bike in the 80s and I had a go on it a few times, but generally my parents didn't like me cycling. I have two sisters, neither of whom ride a bike and have never shown a particular interest in doing so even though they are aware of all the activity I do on two wheels.

I grew up in an area where we were the only black family. There were local people who were happy for me to join their cycling groups, however I didn't have the means to join in as they would meet up far from where I lived.

My dad wouldn't let me use his bike, and in any case living in a remote village in Yorkshire with no public transport, where the nearest cycling group was 10 miles away, meant I couldn't join in. My parents were certainly not going to let me cycle all the way there. And there was no way they would encourage me, as a teenager to ride on public roads. They were quite against the idea of "serious cycling".

Over the years I did bits and pieces of cycling, as described in my 52 Cycling Voices, and eventually got into regular club cycling almost 20 years ago and have really enjoyed it since. Various people have given me support and encouragement with my cycling - men, women, black people, white people, including MAMILS!

Through cycling I got into journalism and testing out kit for brands. It is true that I have only seen a few black men out cycling, and practically no black women, but I never saw it as a problem and I assumed that if they were interested in cycling they would have come along to the different activities. After all, I was taking part - and if I could take part, anyone can. The number of black women in cycling is slowly increasing now though.

The thing is, I still can't say that the lack of black people cycling should be a barrier to entry.

In fact the biggest barriers I have faced were from my own folks! My parents did not want me to ride, thinking it was too dangerous. My dad always used to say people who cycle on public roads just want to kill themselves!

My mum couldn't understand why anyone would want to ride more than a few miles if they could travel around by car. Black women that I met when I moved to London found it a bit strange that I would like to ride a bike. At dinner parties, mentioning bike riding was more of a conversation stopper!

Dinner party host: "Did you find the place okay?"
Me: "Yes, I cycled over - it was quite straightforward."
Dinner party host: "Hmm.... I never understand cyclists - they always get in the way on the road."

When I was growing up, getting around by bicycle was seen as something you did because you didn't have access to a car. Doing recreational bike riding as a child is fair enough. But cycling around as an adult was just a sign of failure - that you hadn't managed to find a job that paid you enough to buy a car! Moreover, people wanted to show off their wealth by having a decent car. Not a Ford or a Hyundai - an Audi or BMW at least!
My parents just didn't understand the concept of cycling as a sport, and they were not the only black people to think like that. It just seemed to be a cultural thing to not specifically opt to ride a bike as a mode of transport or for leisure. Some black men would consider it - my dad was among those since he did buy a racing bike - but black women would never dream of doing it.

I would say this cultural tendency was a bigger barrier to entry for me, than any white MAMIL! I too have done the Ride London 100 a few times, and never got any strange looks from anyone. In fact for a while I joined a chain of guys who didn't mind me being there and I hung on until my legs turned to lead after Leith Hill!

Finish line of the 2017 Ride London 100 
People have been saying "if you can't see it, you can't be it," meaning that you can't become something if you don't see people who look like you doing it. I can't say I identify with that phrase at all.

Fair enough, if I had seen other black women cycling I may or may not have found it inspiring. In any case, there were no such sights when I was a child. (If there had been, what is there to say that another black woman is "like me". Just because we are both black doesn't mean that we are the same, or have anything in common!)

How would a white man feel if they were told that they looked like Nigel Farage or Prince William or Brad Pitt! Or white woman being told she looks like Katie Price, or Adele or Fiona Bruce. No one would ever lump all these people into one unit and say that they look like each other. So why folks refer to black people in similar terms just has me at a loss. Anyone who says black people all look like each other would be accused of being racist, but yet this is the premise that is being used when discussing getting into cycling. And as for forming a group based on people's colour - really?

I still got inspired into bike riding when I saw a few of the young local men on road bikes around South Yorkshire, or the men on TV riding the Tour de France.

These Italians, Spanish or Irish guys who looked nothing like me still made me dream of riding up a mountain pass in Europe - and I eventually did so for the first time on a Graham Baxter Sports Tours training camp in Spain in 2000. I was the only black person in the party of around 60 participants, but it didn't bother me one jot. And I had fun on that trip.

At no point did I ever feel that I should join a group of other black female cyclists, or black cyclists. I have only ever been interested in joining groups of pleasant people I can get on with, who have similar interests to mine. I find it hard to see how being black and female would be the basis for forming any group.

There are various statistics around cycling. According to Cycling UK, in 2017 4% of the population rode their bike more than once a week, and 5% rode between two and five times a week.

White people were three times more likely than people of South Asian and Chinese origin to cycle more than three times a week, rising to four times more likely than people of black origin.

Another Cycling UK survey reported 8% of women in the UK describe themselves as regular cyclists (compared with 20% of men). So the figures for black women who cycle, will naturally be very low.

There are various explanations for the low number of women cyclists; it can be because of such issues around confidence and negative experiences on the road from motorists - things which aren't race-specific.

A survey by Transport for London did cite family responsibilities such as caring for children and other family members as a barrier to cycling for some ethnic minority women.

I am not querying these statistics, but for me the bottom line is and will always be about not allowing reports and statistics to bog me down, and just getting out there and doing the thing I want to do.

As for the other points around representation, brand ambassadors or finding cycling groups where one can feel comfortable, there are various responses to that.

Transport for London marketing photo

On representation: Many years ago, when I first got into racing, British Cycling published a full-page photograph of me in action in their events calendar. I was wearing full club kit, with my race face on. It was quite a shock to see my mug plastered next to "March", but one can't say I was invisible!

Some years after that I was photographed along with a few others as part of a marketing campaign for the old Sky Rides. I regularly see photos of black women in Transport for London's marketing materials on cycling.

Plus, as a writer for the former Time Inc magazine, Cycling Active I was regularly featured in photo shoots to accompany the feature articles I wrote.

So I find it hard to say there is no representation. In fact, considering that black people make up only 5% of the UK population, and black women represent an even lower number than that, it wouldn't be realistic to expect to see loads of women of colour in a campaign - particularly as so few ride a bike anyway.

If black women would want to see themselves represented more in cycling campaigns, then more black women need to get out on their bikes. The facilities are available for them to take up cycling.

There are Breeze Rides, Cycling UK rides, Regional women's cycling groups on-line forums, and a Velovixen forum specifically for women cyclists. There is no reason for any woman to say there are no opportunities to cycle - regardless of race.

I, myself set up a women's local cycle racing group with some other women in 2010. We appealed to women of all levels to join, and we organised rides for beginners too. We marketed this on-line and through the cycling media, but no black women turned up. Now I was racing at the time, and was regularly photographed racing, as well as writing updates about the races in the cycling media; therefore one can't say I was invisible.

So much for "If you can't see it, you can't be it"! There was every possibility for those black women who wanted to try cycling, to have a go - particularly as we had groups for beginners.

As for ambassador programmes - that is extremely competitive for anyone who applies. With hundreds of applicants, the odds of being selected are always going to be stacked against you, particularly as marketing managers want to see specific evidence that an individual's cycling activity fits with the essence of their brand, as well as them having a social media following. There are plenty of white people whose applications are rejected!

Getting into club cycling and doing it regularly is not especially easy for anyone, regardless of gender, race or the level people would like to achieve. You may well have to go out of your comfort zone at times, as well as reading and researching around the subject.

That is just part and parcel of trying any new physically demanding activity. I am not saying that prejudices and issues don't exist in society, but I am inclined first to remember that we have a responsibility to put in the effort if we want to achieve an outcome, and we shouldn't be so quick to attribute difficulties in progressing, to society somehow excluding groups of people.

So from a personal standpoint, a specific cycling group for black women isn't really necessary. Such groups that set me apart because of my colour give me a feeling at best that I have some sort of special need because I'm not like other folks (which I don't believe is the case), and at worst someone is trying to bring back Apartheid!

I won't completely rule out going along to these meet-ups if there are specific people I would like to talk to there.

However, I am not interested in joining a moan-fest of people talking about being downtrodden, excluded, second class citizens, the struggle, blah blah blah.

At the meet-up there was talk of organising rides, and I would be happy to do some - though my rides will be defined by the terrain, route and level/speed, and not by people of a particular race or colour. They will be open to any woman (or man even) who wants to come along.

Related Posts
52 Cycling Voices: Jenni Gwiazdowski

52 Cycling Voices: Ayesha McGowan

52 Cycling Voices: Maria David

Photo shoot in the Chilterns

London women's circuit racing


Unknown said...
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Phil said...

This is an interesting piece but I don't agree with you on the "you can't be what you can't see" issue.

Marketing is a great tool signal to a community what they should be doing, what the are doing and who their community is.
Seeing a single image of a person of colour in calendar is great and may a been an inspiration to a young black girl somewhere, assuming they were exposed to it. We are told that POC can be footballers, dancers and rappers, hardly ever elite level cyclists.
There are tons of kids able to do one handed manuals in and out of traffic while on their mobiles though I've yet to see a bike brand reach out to this talent and see if they could get them on road or MTN bikes. There is to me an apathy in the bike industry to diversity which is why Women of Colour Cycle Group and BCN have been born and grow. I don't believe it's racism but it seems to me as though as a whole they don't seem too fussed about the situation.
Over 40% of London residents define themselves as BAME yet you don't see that represented on the streets with cyclists, it's always a surprise that the industry doesn't see this as great opportunity to grow their business.
You are lucky to be able to feel comfortable in a community that is predominantly white, not everyone is, and this is why these types of groups are so important if we want our black friends and family to get serious about cycling.


Anonymous said...

Your article and it's comments exceeded my expectations. Your closing remarks blew me away because of its fair and objective and I unexpected summary. Please find ways to publish your article in as many cycling media outlets and others. Much needed to counter balance commonly held views.....amongst men and women of colour.

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