This weekend a group of women will be riding a 500 mile time trial. Why? To prove they can, and to prove to other women that they can do things they thought they couldn't too, with a little bit of confidence and self belief (as well as lots of flapjacks).
I’ve found myself writing about cycling and confidence a lot lately. Often with a probably overzealous presumption that the two are intrinsically linked in the heads of most cyclists. Perhaps that’s not the case, but it’s certainly true that a lot of riders I’ve discussed the topic with draw a strong correlation between the two c's.
From an outsider’s perspective, I can understand why the invisible link might be difficult to see. What is it about swinging a leg over the saddle of a bicycle that could change a person’s mind set? The simple act of pedalling isn’t particularly masterful and though increased fitness might cause a person to hold their head a little higher, that can be found via many outlets.
There’s something about cycling however that has undoubtedly altered my personality, though – and the deeper I worm my way into its culture the more I feel the positive effects.
The first thing that cycling gave me was the realisation that I wasn’t as disastrous at sport as I’d always thought.
From the very beginning I cycled with racing as the incentive. In fact, for some absurd reason the third time I rode clipped in it was as part of a triathlon. The first thing that cycling gave me was the realisation that I wasn’t as disastrous at sport as I’d always thought.
Discovering time trials, I fell in love with the drive for self-improvement that racing the clock brings. Seeing the results of 6am turbo trainer sessions carried out when trying to ignore the smell of bacon drifting from the open plan kitchen in my spareroom.com flat was enough to make my heart swell with pride.
It wasn’t just about going faster, though. You can discover confidence through cycling without a stop watch of course. There’s something about hours spent rolling through leafy lanes, grunting up the inclines and letting the brakes off to freewheel down the seemingly endless fairground ride descents that just makes life feel so much more real and the trials and tribulations of everyday existence so very insignificant. People can be mean, work can be tough, money isn’t limitless - but what does it all matter with the wind whipping at your knees and the sound of a freewheeling hub ticking in your ears? That simple truth is the reason why the bike trade is such an excellent industry to work in, coincidentally.
From the top of a mountain, the world below and all its tiny complications look very small.
My first solo rides that somehow, remarkably, got me from A to B without too many map checks resulted in a growth in confidence, and moving on so did the first club rides where I could hold the wheels of riders I looked up to in more ways than one. Soon I was climbing with them in Mallorca and the Pyrenees – seeing new parts of the world from the saddle of a bicycle. From the top of a mountain, the world below and all its tiny complications look very small. And with the adrenaline coursing through my bloodstream at these moments I always find inhibitions and the shyness I’m mostly conscious of just dissipate and filter away with the wind.
A couple of years on, and despite major misgivings I entered my first 100 mile time trial – the first event I genuinely had misgivings over my ability to complete. Enter feverish long rides and a couple of sleepless nights, but in the end the race came and went and now it’s a memory of a thing I did that I never thought I could. Another time cycling has proved to me that I’m stronger than I once believed.
Another time cycling has proved to me that I’m stronger than I once believed.
My current preoccupation with confidence, however, is born of a new style of racing. Taking up track and crit racing this season, the importance of confidence has been impressed upon my mind now more than ever.
The first few races followed a fairly similar format: sit in the bunch, spend some time on the front, then let the peloton swarm around me in the final lap, largely out of fear of knocking anyone else off, knocking myself off, or somehow getting in the way and being the source of some other rider’s frustration. At first, I was happy to accept the learning curve, but after four fruitless races this acceptance began to give way to frustration and the temptation to retreat from bunch racing. Perhaps I wasn’t suited to it, wasn’t made for this.
It wasn’t until I raced with two good friends that I found the confidence to really take part in the race for the line with any genuine belief that I might cross it in the running for sought after British Cycling points. I got them too, and followed that up with points at the next three consecutive races.
I don’t believe my legs got stronger the instant I managed my first top ten, all that muscled up was my confidence. When the pace increased, and the surges happened, I stopped telling myself I couldn’t make it to the wheel in front and started telling myself I could.
Exactly as Josie Perry commented in our recent article on the topic: “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."
And so the journey continues – and that’s exactly what it is – a journey. So far I’ve looked only at the confidence givers: the longest rides, the achievements, and less so at the takers: ‘I’m not as fast as so-and-so’ and ‘I could never ride that far’. But they’re there. I'm not about to ride a 500 mile time trial, for example. The difference is that with every new milestone, I’m a little closer to ticking off one more. And with it, I'm just a little bit more confident.
But less of me, because I’m convinced it’s not just me that finds the sought after ‘c’ word via cycling
But less of me, because I’m convinced it’s not just me that finds the sought after ‘c’ word via cycling. Just look at the success of the ‘This Girl Can’ ads, with their focus on the discovery of internal strength. Look at the smiles of women as they cross the finish lines of sportives, and compare them with the twisted faces of concern and the self-doubt at the start line.
"The mind is such a vital part of being an athlete. It’s only recently that I’ve grasped that. And it’s almost like a decision, it’s almost like a flick of the switch."
On a whole other end of the scale, speaking to World Champion Lizzie Armitstead for a recent interview, I was stunned to enter into the topic of confidence with her, and discover it's a battle she's fought and won quite recently. Armitstead told me: “Confidence is vital. Since winning Richmond my confidence has become one of my assets. Before it was one of my weaknesses. And I see so many women that hold themselves back. They do everything right, but when it comes to the crunch time, they don’t have the confidence... The mind is such a vital part of being an athlete. It’s only recently that I’ve grasped that. And it’s almost like a decision, it’s almost like a flick of the switch."
From beginner riders getting on the bike for the very first time, right through to World Champions, we’ve all got the power to push through the boundaries we’ve placed on our abilities in our minds. And every time we do so, we grow a little bit more.