Words by Vicky Balfour
Sometimes all it takes is one person to sense a buzz in the air and you can start a movement.
Sitting amongst a crowd of women at Look Mum No Hands!, it really felt that we’re on the cusp of something. The inspiration behind the event is Adele Mitchell; award-winning cycling journalist, blogger and bike rider. She’s right when she says ‘older women are riding the crest of a wave: they are so interesting and have great stories’. What’s more is that women in their 50's and 60's have 60% more spending power than Millennials, so it’s worth paying attention to them!
Kicking off with an explanation of their cycling and industry backgrounds it became clear that though the panel was diverse, there was a common passion for enabling as many women as possible to enjoy cycling in whatever form they choose.
With a background in fashion, Alex Feechan started Findra out of frustration at not being able to find stylish yet practical women’s cycling gear that worked on the bike and in the rest of life. She looked at the ‘amazing women in their 30's, 40's and 50's who were making brave decisions and facing challenges on the trails’ and felt they ‘deserved better’.
It took redundancy from the city in 2008 for Belinda Scott to decide to make a career out of cycling rather than simply cycling for transport and recreation. Belinda approached her local bike shop and asked if they needed any help over the summer. She’s never looked back and now runs the hugely successful women's Bella Velo cycling group in South West London.
A leading figure within Cycling UK (formerly CTC), Julie Rand sat down a couple of years ago and asked herself what are the main barriers to women accessing cycling. After coming up with more than 30 off the top of her head she decided to do something about it and with the Cycling UK campaigns team established the Women’s Festival of Cycling and the Women’s 100 cyclists list. Her passion for cycling as a form of transport shines through with a tenacity that is helping to secure a real change in UK infrastructure.
Adele asked each member of the panel ‘do you feel invisible as a cyclist’? In the face of the somewhat despondent perception that after their 40's women become invisible in the UK there was a feisty sense of liberation and sticking two fingers up at the patriarchy.
"If cycling’s your thing, just go and do it!" - Belinda Scott
As Alex said ‘I don’t dwell on whether I feel invisible or not. I want to feel there are no barriers to me riding. I want to do it and enjoy it’. Years ago a younger male colleague informed Belinda ‘for her own benefit’ that ‘cycling to work was unfeminine’ to which she thanked him and proceeded to carry on cycling. In her words ‘if cycling’s your thing just go and do it!’. With the confident and authentic backdrop of Look Mum No Hands! I really wanted Annie Lenox to appear beside the panel and start singing ‘sisters are doin' it for themselves!’.
Once the floor opened up it was obvious that Adele’s theory about older female riders being a pretty awesome bunch was true – from the lady who pushes her bike up hills, but has cycled the world with her husband, to the younger woman about to embark on the same trip. From those who have completed hardcore sportives to the woman in her 60's who is a mountain bike enduro racer, and to the woman who felt the confidence to say she was struggling with mental health issues and subsequent apathy towards cycling.
In the relaxed and supportive environment, women did what they do best – shared their experiences and encouraged each other. The dichotomy of women-only groups which allow opposing views to be discussed without fear of recrimination or judgement and the bitchiness amongst girls and women in the face of competition and threat was raised.
The perennial debates of how we engender long-term change in the self-confidence of women and why do women blame themselves when men blame the bike when things go wrong were matched with the sense that actually doing what we love because we love it is the most important thing and the rest will follow.
Contrary to the expectations of some, the only mention of the menopause was the question of whether HRT is a form of doping?! However, continuing the theme of older women acting as role models, several agreed that the menopause and cycling is the kind of thing we need to discuss more openly. Are ‘power surges’ aka hot flushes (thanks Adele for introducing me to that gem) easier to bear when your body is used to a range of temperatures and sweating on the bike? Does menopause induced anxiety have an impact on your cycling?
It’s clear that older women are a growing presence in all areas of the cycling community and are providing fantastic role models for younger generations. Proving that cycling is viable for all and there’s a lot of fun to be had in, as Adele says, ‘letting ourselves go!’.
In the immortal words of the poster in the loo at Look Mum No Hands – ‘Ride as Much or as Little or as Long or as Short as You Feel but Ride!’.