Cyclerexic: body image in cycling

Cyclists obsess about weight, and society and the media puts lots of pressure on women to be slim. Collyn Ahart has found there’s more to life – and fitness – than the number on the scales. blogger Collyn Ahart rides for Rapha and makes her living as a brand strategist.

65 kilos. Sixty-fucking-five-kilos. I’ve never weighed this much in my entire life. And of course I’m obsessing about it. I’m supposed to be some sort of athlete. For Christ’s sake, I am given kit to ride a bicycle. Sometimes even paid.

In truth, I’m paid and given kit to write about riding a bike, not actually ride the thing. But, one goes with the other. My success on a bike is a moot point. It doesn’t matter if I cross the line first, or indeed if I cross the line at all. The brands want me to share “the experience”. For quite some time, failure was my MO.

But not so long ago, roughly a year ago, all of that changed. I wanted to be faster. I wanted to be more competitive. I didn’t want to just write about it.

The kit was making a mockery of me: looks good, but can she crank it?

I looked at the little girls on their little bikes with their cut leg muscles and 2-dimensional upper bodies. I was jealous of their speed up the hills, of how they could put out the same power as me, but about at twice the speed. I knew it was down to a power-to-weight ratio. If you weigh less, it takes less power to go fast.

I could watch my carbohydrate intake, but pushing 11 hours each weekend on the road, plus mid-week training sessions, there’s no way I can ride without some quantity of carbohydrate passing my lips. I could limit my total calories, but try telling me not to eat post-ride, standing in front of the fridge door, still in lycra, scoffing back tubs of hummus… yeah right.

My body needs me to eat. I’m only just becoming okay with this.

Like most women, my weight can fluctuate 2-3 kilos every month, mostly due to water retention. As a one-time lightweight rower, I grew accustomed to the early morning strip weight test. Wake up. Go to the bathroom. Wee. Strip totally naked and get on the scales. This test has the uncanny ability to tell me if the day is going to be a good or bad day. Under 60 kilos? Good day. Over 62? Bad day. But today, I step on the scales and it reads 65.2. That point-2 is important. It tells me I’m not just 65 kilos but well on my way to 66. And I’m pretty sure it’s not water weight. These are good old fashioned kilograms from muscle and fat.

But here’s the thing: I’ve never been in better shape. Just over a week ago I was hitting up to 600 watts in sprint training (that’s a lot, considering my 20 minute power averages about 230 watts). My quads are actually hard, not just when I flex, but all. the. time. I rode 250 kilometers this last Saturday and Sunday, almost half of which was on a mountain bike on singletrack. I am flying. I feel like a machine. If I ask my legs to do it, they do it. There are veins popping out on my inner thighs. I can see the veins on my calves. I feel unstoppable.

Until I step on the scales.

Bad day.

My conversations with most of my girlfriends who ride almost always go to body image. We cyclists are notoriously self-conscious, putting it all on show in lycra day-in, day-out. And all it takes to shake a seemingly confident self-image is a single ride with someone slightly smaller, lighter and faster. Splat. Straight back down to earth.

At 30, as professional working women, we share dieting tips like 19-year-old models. We hate our thighs. We hate our fatty arms, our unshapely ankles, our non-existent belly fat, which, we insist is the bane of our existence. And of course, we’re all relatively tiny.

I know, rationally, there will be people reading my “65 kilos” and think that is absurdly light. But I’m rarely a rational being when it comes to body image.

And it’s worse for guys too. I’ve dated three bike racers, all of whom have been borderline  anorexic. It’s no laughing matter. My friend James described to me the ideal male cyclist look is basically, “you look sick, if someone asks you if you’re feeling alright, you look sickly and gaunt, you’re over the moon […] no man in his right mind would want to look this way, and yet, that’s the ideal”. We even have a term for this body-weight-image obsession: “cyclerexic”.

I love cycling. It is my sport. But I just need to be honest about how it sometimes makes me (and many, many others) feel about our bodies. Cycling culture makes anorexic tendencies totally acceptable. You’re allowed to skip dinner, go to bed hungry, because it’s a good way to shed the pounds. We eat “rabbit food” diets for months at a time, living on salads, chicken breasts, steamed veg. And yet, we’ve got such warped relationships with food we’ll also chase down cake and chocolate like it’s the last food on earth. My body is a constant battlefield of frustration. When I ride, my body is an enemy, just as much as it is what makes me fast.

I have a terrible relationship with food.

It’s no wonder so many ex-pros pile on the weight, going from svelte whippets to lumbering balls of chub within a decade of retiring.

When I look at myself in the mirror, I rarely like what I see. But I know I’m not alone, so this body-loathing is acceptable. We all do it. We all encourage it. This is truly fucked up.

I’m not supposed to say stuff like this. I’m supposed to say that cycling is brilliant. That we should all do it. That’s why I get the kit I’m given. And yes, cycling does actually promote healthy lifestyles, and most people who get into it never encounter this extreme body-loathing. But it’s hard to ignore the way we talk and feel about our bodies. I know that I may never look in the mirror and see something I like. Actually, the last time that happened, I’d come off an 8-day stage race followed by a week of extreme stomach flu. I thought I looked brilliant then. I was gaunt, sickly, and rail thin. I hadn’t eating a proper meal in over a week on a stage-race metabolism. My bike-racer boyfriend said it suited me.

Of course, this sort of body-image issue is rife across most endurance sports. Distance runners have it pretty bad, too, but I know cycling.

I’d love to say I’m going to stop getting on the scales every morning. Or that I’m going to stop worrying about my body and suddenly become transformed into this body-confident goddess full of self-love. I’m not. I’m probably going to continue beating myself up about every dinner out, every sugar craving, every mid-morning snack. But at this rate, I’m also going to keep getting faster and stronger and my leg muscles will keep getting harder. I’ll just deal with it, and probably keep wishing I was 10 kilos lighter and continue to say how much I hate my thighs. The sad thing is, I love them. I do. I love my thighs. I wish more people loved my thighs as much as I love my thighs, just so I could tell them I love my thighs, and give them permission to love their thighs, calves, arms, butts, ankles too.

You can read more of Collyn over on her site and follow her on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Spikes + Heels.

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