Some of you will know that I am currently working with a team on a European Commission project researching gender equality in national level sports boards (GESPORT, see here for a brief in interested). We will soon be at the 6-month stage of a 36-month project and from the UK side, that means I am knee deep in developing a database documenting every single sports board member across 58 National Governing Bodies. I have spoken already about the closeness of this project in relation to my athletic pursuits in that I have never researched something in which I am actually involved before and I am still working out myself how those notions interrelate. I suppose that is for two reasons. One is I suspect subconsciously trying to maintain some level of objectivity in my research and the second is that I am so heavily engaged in the being of an athlete, that I don’t often spend all that much time reflecting on what else goes around me in that sphere, or what it means to be said athlete.
Of course, I do not need to know much more than a layman about the UK sport governance code to understand that some parts of cycling and to an extent triathlon, has a tainted history and that traditionally both have taken on a very macho culture. Although I will say in their defence that times are definitely changing there, and especially in triathlon with the GoTri female programme initiative.
But, a few weeks ago I couldn’t help but think more about the gendered nature of cycling racing more prevalently given what I was part of and witnessed. For years I have been the only female standing at 5 feet 3 in a pack of 6 feet plus men looking down at me in their wetsuits at the start line of a triathlon. Definitely thinking as they barge past me “What’s she doing so near the front, surely she can’t swim as fast as us”. “Guess what, she can. And will. And will also definitely be out of the lake and into transition one before you”. Generally, we laugh at these photos as it all seems harmless enough banter.
However, this small notion inkles towards some much bigger problems. My point thus far in the project has always been that in addition to reaching equality on top level boards, there are additionally very significant grassroots levels problems that need addressing in sport equality. This is the gendered perceptions and attitudes of the public (nationally and internationally), and especially those regarding spectatorship (see Insure 4 sport, 2018). In summary, the older generations of men are far less believing that females have the potential to be better than any men at any sport. It would seem very sadly that as my story goes on to suggest, that it is not just the public and those self-labelled as “sports fans”, it is some of the largest sporting organisations in the world as well who hold such ideas precious.
On the morning of the 3rd of June, I travelled to Peterborough showground for the UCI Tour of Cambridge Gran Fondo. Apologies but I will need to just give a brief bit of detail about this kind of race as it’s quite unusual. It is the only chance in the UK to qualify to cycle for the Great Britain Age Group team at the World Championships in Varese in Autumn of this year. To qualify, you need to be within the top 25% of your age group (e.g. in my case F19-34). Up until this last year the majority of people who qualify have done so from a Race Pen and this is where I qualified last year. The difference with being in a Race Pen as opposed to a Sportive Pen is that you are solely within your age group, you need to have a full race license and generally obey the rules of any cycle race, the biggest namely, if you get dropped, you stay dropped. If you are in a Sportive Pen then you self-select your estimated speed. I selected the Sportive Pen this year and the top average speed (21mph). A lot of us were encouraged to go in the Sportive Pen and not the race one this year, although no reason was really given but you can still qualify from there.
Anyway, so I am heading to the start line of my 21mph gate (this takes a while, there are several thousand riders) and I notice some very angry looking ladies whose race number tells me they are female 19-34 racers who should be in the Race Pen and not the Sportive Pen. I hear one of them say “they are starting us behind the men’s over-60 race and 15 minutes after the fastest sportive riders” (i.e. my 21mph pen) and this has been confirmed elsewhere. I can see why they are mad. Year on year the females are getting faster in this race and quite frankly it is a demotion behind the men’s over 60 race who will ride slower than them.
The race gets going, I started out very fast, but all seems well. I then settled and road along nicely in a pack in the 21mph group for a couple of hours. Time wise I am looking at a pretty big personal best on last year at the 50-mile stage and well within a qualification chance. I’d originally thought that if I stayed in that group then I would end up with a qualification place provided they stuck to 21mph till the finish line. Whilst I was tight in the pack and getting the full benefit of all drafting and protection from the other riders, conserving energy nicely, at the 60 mile point I noticed the legs were wanting to go more and I couldn’t ignore them given there were only 78 miles to ride in total. Ignite the rocket, I broke away, by myself, from a pack of 40 mostly men (again, little me, more comical pictures were taken). I had nothing to lose, if they get me, they get me, and I am back in the big group.
What happens next, I did not expect! And definitely hadn’t thought through.
A couple of minutes after my break away which I was holding very fine (thank you very much), a moto marshal comes past and shouts “Lead female, go go go”. “Eh, how the hell can I be the lead female of the whole race of thousands? Let me work this out for a few seconds whilst I pedal at 22mph+ in baking sun, several thousand calories down after circa 65 miles”.
And then it dawned on me. I had managed to ride well enough to stay in front of the female Race Pen which were actually stupidly started 15 minutes behind my Sportive Pen. Not just speculation then. Right. This isn’t good.
When cycling, it is generally quiet around you, so much so that you would be shocked, until one thing happens. A pack of riders is approaching which just sounds like a mighty whirlwind of whoosh and whirring. I can handle a bike reasonably well and I would like to think I am pretty solid still. That is until 30 females in the Race Pen come at you at 23mph+ mixed in with the other group I had just left who they had swooped up en route.
This is dog eat dog amongst two genders and groups of competitors. I’m all for genders racing against each other but above anything else this is DANGEROUS because of the different agendas at stake.
Evidently the laws of speed don’t bode well here. We have 23mph females under race conditions trying to fight through 21mph riders not in a race situation, but wait for it, one rider in that second pack is the male over 60 race leader, evidently with a purpose of maintaining his lead.
What then follows is jostling everywhere, people riding up banks (on road bikes), people barging each other, dangerous riding trying to make passes, carving people up, accidents everywhere. This wasn’t a normal cycle race where we expect some jostling, this is dangerous because we have double the amount of bikes in the same space leaving no room for maneuver, moving at different speeds, all with different agendas. I was utterly shocked that this was allowed to happen. Other than gender discrimination, what is the reason for putting females behind the slower men? I certainly can’t see one. Safety definitely wasn’t on the agenda any more than equality. Carnage was however. I can’t help but wonder “what on earth is wrong with letting 40 years younger females finish first and faster”.
If sport is to be equal, it has to be equal on all accounts. And especially the doing of sport, not just the managing of it.
I haven’t said much about my own performance on that day but whilst I was moving fast enough to stay onto the female race pen pack, the rules wouldn’t have let me because I didn’t start with them. I therefore had to hold back a bit, which was probably safer anyway! I rode solidly, and far better than I have done recently anywhere else, but I came in 52nd and missed out on qualification by two places and 79 seconds. I will almost certainly be offered a GB roll-down place, but I won’t be taking it. Athlete stuff is generally not so good and happy at the moment (more later) and I only really raced because I wanted to see what I was capable of and to get some racing under my belt so to speak.
And a last anecdote which I think sums things up nicely. After I let the female race pack go ahead I pushed on as fast I could to the end whilst maintaining a few minutes gap. There was just enough left in my tank for a sprint down the finish line. Which I did. And when I crossed the line I heard: “Don’t ever do that to me again, you have totally embarrassed me. Stop smiling. You started the same time and have just beaten me over the line”. Those were the words of a man, perhaps 40 or so who I didn’t know and who I had just taken easily in the finishing straight.
Wow. From another rider. A male. Never had that before. It would seem gendered perceptions do have that far to go amongst fellow competitors too.
The hardy of you will remember my explicit moaning about the shortened nature of female cycle races and so in part two of this theme I will share another case of gender equality that is equally shocking and is currently becoming a more prevalent issue within the cycling world.
Please feel free to share this post where you might like. I am also very interested in building up a portfolio of these types of cases, so please get in touch if you have something or would like to talk more. I am happy for these to remain anonymous if that is preferred.
Until next time.