Words by Jami Blythe
The word ‘sisterhood’ means many things to different people. To some, the bond between two biologically related sisters. To others, a collective of women who are passionate about equal rights and opportunities for women across the globe.
Perhaps upon hearing the word, an image of a habit-wearing nun is conjured – in peaceful prayer or even Whoopi Goldberg style dancing with her fellow ‘sisters’ in the film Sister Act. Perhaps, it’s not so much a word that you would associate with cycling.
Why ‘Women's Only’?
As more and more people take to transporting themselves from A to B by bicycle, logic dictates that the proportion of women turning to cycling increases too. It takes a fairly effortless search to find exclusively women’s cycling clubs, social rides and racing teams popping up around the country.
My experience of cycling with other women is something that is hard to put into words, and even harder to answer when male counterparts ask why are ‘women only’ events and rides necessary? I can only cast my mind to some examples which answer their queries for me...
I began cycling around four years ago, although having ridden as a child and teenager, my interest failed to stray past enjoying keeping fit. Returning to two wheels as an adult was a different story.
Fears of falling, hurting yourself, being left behind, not knowing how to mend a puncture and more importantly embarrassing yourself seem all the more over-inflated with mature age. My first social ride at the age of 37 contained a handful of women and I was encouraged along with the bunch, despite being less fit. During the first mile of that ride, thinking I was unclipped and wasn’t, I fell in front of everyone.
The knowing and unspoken looks of these cycling ‘sisters’ were evident to me. They had been there before. Of course, so too had the men, but the women just seemed to know how I felt. Working in a predominantly male-orientated professional environment, I had probably missed out on the bond that occurs between women. This was one of the first occasions I had experienced the shared cooperation between our variety and it kept me coming back to cycling for more.
Not long after this embarrassingly epic ride, I was persuaded to go along and try a time trial at my local cycling club. Terrified, I turned up with my aluminium stead, oversized helmet and borrowed cycle kit. My time was far slower than the other regular riders but I was never made to feel like I was less deserving to be there. Encouragement from the group of regular female riders as they took me under their wing got me back the following week. I’ve been going ever since and am now Chair of the club.
Choosing your battles – the ‘Go Race’
Now, there comes a time in every cyclist’s ‘career’ when the huge variety of disciplines becomes evident. Time trials, criterium racing, mountain biking, social riding, sportive, adventure challenges – the list goes on.
My own need to focus on a specific discipline within the sport led me to an interest in a criterium, or ‘crit’ racing – a closed circuit race consisting of laps around a course, usually flat and quick and lasting around 40 minutes.
"...and reminded myself that I deserved to be there as much as those with 12 points to their names"
Watching my brother and father taking part in crit races near Edinburgh was insightful – the pace was very fast and tempers were furious. It literally was every man for themselves. Crashes, shouting and swearing all made it a great spectator experience until someone suggested I had a go myself. My mind raced back to the images of gravel rashes, tight corners and rubbing shoulders across the finish line. Such is my want, I blew the whole memory out of proportion and decided there was as much chance of me winning a World title as there was entering a crit race.
Yet, having watched a female friend nurture herself to the start line of a crit race a few months earlier, I found myself signing on at a novice race on a small racing circuit near York with her. The ‘Go Race’ had been organised in tandem with an existing women’s crit in order to encourage female riders into the discipline. I lined up behind the faster ladies with three other amateurs who looked equally as terrified. I’d invested in a skin suit, borrowed some carbon wheels from my dad and reminded myself that I deserved to be there as much as those with 12 points to their names. I had no idea what was in store and resolved myself to mentally preparing for the trip past A&E on the way home to be patched up.
My expectations couldn’t have been further from the made-up truth I had invented in my over-sized imagination. I was lapped. Three times. The heartbreak was short-lived, however.
Each time I was about to be overtaken by the bunch, the riders forewarned me of their passing in gentle but clear tones, "you’re going well, dig in". On the second lap, one said, “get on our wheel and have a break". I settled into the ride and crossed the finish line with a huge smile.
My second crit race was equally as stress-free. The faster riders got off their bikes after crossing the finish line and stood at the side of the track, clapping and cheering as us novices took our last gasps across the line. Hell on earth it certainly was not. We cooled down together, went to the trackside and had a cuppa and cake.
The majority were younger than me, faster than me, and slimmer than me. I had looked with envy at their trained figures in their team skinsuits at the start line, but by the time I left to go home I had felt part of something, a kinship, an acceptance into a world where there was no requirement to sign an entry form. I had entered the religion known as the ‘Sisterhood of Cycling’.
I want to make it clear that I don’t decry the parallel universe of the male cyclist. Indeed, I am surrounded by males who offer me as much encouragement as my ‘sisters’ do. My father, brother, fiancé and club mates, all cyclists in their own right and whose drive and determination to succeed is inspiring. It’s just that they don’t quite, nor I think will ever, ‘get’ the bond that exists between women when we cycle together, no matter whether on the social or racing circuit.
The support is emotional, often unspoken, always nurturing, and offered with kindness and appreciation for the underlying and sometimes complex emotions that make us more unique than our men folk. And if it’s a biologically ingrained attitude to care and encourage others to join our fantastic sport, no matter what our ability or aspirations, I say ‘Amen’ to that.