A recent survey carried out by Women in Sport for British Cycling told us that negative thoughts on the bike are one of the key things holding women back.
In this case the survey referred to women avoiding challenge events and organised rides. Low confidence and self esteem were presented via a fear of not fitting in (not being lycra enough or skinny enough), fear of what would happen on the day (letting people down by being too slow) and simple 'lack of confidence' had its own category.
We don't really need to carry out a survey to know women in cycling have a tendency to put themselves down. It might be an unpopular comment to make, but nestle into a group of female cyclists before a ride and it doesn't take too long before you hear some overt self-depreciation. Organising group ride outs with women, I'll usually hear "I'm really slow up the hills, will that be ok? Will I hold everyone up?" in the lead up, followed by reinforcement of the same before we set off.
I'm perfectly happy to admit that the 'I'm not fast enough' Gremlin has haunted me plenty of times. Speaking to Performance in Mind Sports Psychology Consultant Dr Josephine Perry for a recent article on battling the mental side of racing, she really struck a chord with me when she said: “The key element to help you overcome some of the mental barriers in racing is building confidence. If you are on the start line thinking: ‘I shouldn’t be here. I’m not as good as these girls’ then you will never feel like you have the right to chase them down when they make a break for it. You need to convince yourself you have just as much right to be racing and you are good enough to be there."
So no, I'm not a pot calling the kettle black - I'm a pot noting my own shortcomings and suggesting we all stop being so damn pot-like. Whatever level we're cycling it, it's important that we embrace and love our cycling bodies and minds without feeling the need to constantly criticise and compare. And if we must compare, we should do so in a way that encourages us to look to reach new levels, instead of putting a ceiling on what we think we can achieve.
Here's a look at the kinds of things we say in different scenarios, and how to make them more progressive...
Before a group ride
Don't say: "I'm too slow"
Say: "I'm usually riding about X far at X speed, will I be be ok with you guys?"
Calling yourself 'slow' is not helpful for anyone. If you're genuinely worried that you're going to struggle - speak to the organiser before the ride and give them an idea how far you usually ride on your own, and approximately how fast. Then they can tell you if you're more than capable of joining in, or suggest an alternative group that might help you to progress and become stronger and faster.
If you feel out of place on a group ride
Don't say: "I don't fit in"
Say: "We're all different, but we all love cycling. I'd love to hear about your approach and cycling life"
Perhaps you're still riding in trainers and don't yet feel ready to try clipping in, or you're on a hybrid whilst everyone else is aboard a road bike.
So what? You're all there because you like cycling. If you'd like to be 'part of the gang', ask for suggestions. Nobody popped out of the womb dressed head to toe in lycra, with matching socks and the right style of glasses. If you're more than happy with your own approach to cycling and kit, then just use the opportunity to chat about your differences and similarities - you'll probably all learn something from one another.
Before a challenge event
Don't say: "I'm too slow"
Say: "My goal is different to that of the fastest riders, and it will be a great feeling to achieve my own ambition"
Challenge events - or sportives - are mass participation cycling events. A course is laid out for you to follow, and everyone does so with their own goal in mind.
Each individual is 'competing' against their own aspirations. So instead of feeling that your finish time will be too slow, just make your objective completing the distance , or choose a time that will be a challenge for you.
If you feel the atmosphere is too speed orientated or testosterone heavy, check out a women's only event, plan to ride with a group of friends, or seek out a small group of those with similar goals on the event Facebook page or forum if there is one.
If you feel like an outsider at an event
Don't say: "I don't fit in"
Say: "I'm prepared for my own event in a way that I'm comfortable with"
Cycling specific kit will make you feel more comfortable over a long distance ride. However, it's not a requited uniform. As long as you know you can complete the event in comfort wearing your chosen get-up, on your chosen bike - then stick with it.
When you just can't get up that climb
Don't say: "I'm useless and can't climb"
Say: "I can't get up this climb, yet."
What's the worst that can happen? You walk. So what? Just because this climb has defeated you, it doesn't have to become a symbol of every ascent in the country. Just walk up this one, and ride up the next. Keep doing that and soon you'll find that you're defeating that original nemesis, not vice versa.
When hitting the 'wall'
Don't say: "I just can't ride any further"
Say: "Look how far I've come"
When it feels like you can't muster another pedal stroke, take some time to mentally celebrate your achievements so far. Your body gets stronger when you push it to the boundaries of what you're capable of - so if you're hitting the wall, then you're on your way to a stronger new you.
Then - feed that super strong body some food - since a sudden drop in energy often means you need more calories, and concentrate on breaking what's left of the distance down into manageable chunks. No doubt each one is much smaller than what you've already completed.
Before your first competitive race
Don't say: "Everyone is faster than me"
Say: "I've got a lot of potential, and a lot to learn"
Everyone has to start somewhere. Don't fret so much, relax, and remember that cycling is a hobby that you do because you enjoy it. Bike racing is a whole new world, there's loads to learn - but that means there's tons of opportunities to progress, too.
If you get dropped in a race
Don't say: "I'm useless and can't keep up"
Say: "I couldn't keep up today"
Being dropped can feel horrible, but just because it happened to you today, it doesn't mean you're a bad bike racer full stop. There are a million reasons this couple happen - maybe you missed a move and ended up on the wrong side of a bunch, maybe your legs are tired, maybe the girls who showed up today are just faster than you right now.
If you're with other riders, work together and practice your chasing skills. If you're alone, use the time to work on cornering skills or another area you struggle with. Use this time to prepare to come back stronger at the next race, not to chide yourself for not being good enough.
If you feel like you're not progressing
Don't say: "I'm not as good as so-and-so"
Say: "I am my own rider and I'm working towards my own goals"
Sorry to break it to you: there will always be someone faster than you. The hierarchy in your local riding community will no doubt ebb and flow - sometimes you'll be at the top of the tree, other times you might be one of the slower riders.
It can be helpful to look up to those who are faster than you, and to pick out things they do that you could learn from. However, ultimately it's best to remember what your own goals of the year are. Focus on self improvement, not what others are doing and achieving. Finally - remember for every cyclist who you hold on a pedestal, there's probably someone else doing the same with you.
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