the biggest challenge of my career as a feminist amateur athlete.
Kim joined a cycle holiday as part of her preparation. Here she shares her experience of how a supportive female mentor helped her progress while riding in a male-dominated, privileged environment
"I’ve been getting ready for what I call L2P24 for some time now, but in the last couple of months training has kicked into high gear, both figuratively and literally! My husband Jarret and I are doing the event together, supporting each other at every stage along the way.
As part of our training, we’re spending a weekend on a cycle ‘holiday’ in Morzine, in the French Alps. We travelled with a UK-based company called RPM90. They provide us with food, accommodation, technical support, and support of many other less tangible kinds. In fact, their motto is ‘you ride, we provide’.
I’ve been nervous about this holiday. Riding about 100km a day in the mountains for two days, and then ending the weekend with the 2013 Morzine Sportive race is relatively challenging, even for us. While there are perks at the chalet and some good food and drink, for our purposes this is a working weekend.
I’ve also been a bit worried about this holiday for another reason, one that came clearly into focus when we arrived in the Alps.
Cycling can be a very expensive sport. Once you factor in a good bike, all the gear, and stuff like going to the Alps on a cycling holiday, you’re into the thousands of pounds, if not five figures.
I felt an immediate sense of class difference as soon as we got into our airport transfer van in Geneva. There are bankers on this trip, there are high-flying execs, and their bikes are worth easily more than I make in a month.
They are amateurs, but they are focused on their sport to the point that they seem willing to buy virtually anything, at pretty much any cost, that will help them to improve their performance. They are all decent, nice, friendly people (I gather, having known them for about 24 hours at the time of writing). However, they seem stunningly unaware of their privilege, economic as well as physical, in just being able to be here.
They are also all – with one exception plus me – men.
Cycling is a very male sport in most nations where it rates. I probably don’t need to tell many of the readers how much sexism prevails in the sport. So I wasn’t shocked to be surrounded by more or less middle aged, pretty well off men when we arrived.
What did surprise me, though – and what has made all the difference to my riding experience – is that 50% of RPM90′s support team on this ride are women. They are pros and champions; Anja Rees and Jo McRae.
Starting out for our first ride, I was slightly panicked. The men in the group left a lot of testosterone on the floor during our first dinner and breakfast together, as well as in the airport transfer van. While I know this kind of banter is designed to be self-aggrandising and intimidating (and to cover insecurities, of course) it was, well, frankly intimidating to have to listen to.
So it was a relief and also a thrill for me to get to ride quite a bit with Jo McRae, our female road bike pro. She put me at ease, encouraged me all along the way, made sure to note my strengths, and to remind me how strong I actually am at moments when I really needed that reminder.
Jo also answered numerous questions and helped me to address some weaknesses. For example, I’ve never been a courageous descender, tending to brake a lot and not use my drops enough. She offered observations, tips, and joined me on a couple of downhills.
By the end of the day, I was literally racing with her and Jarret down a mountain we had climbed in pretty freaking good time (this one – it’s actually slightly famous!).
I felt incredibly strong, powerful, and free – and I have mentorship from a really great female athlete to thank for that.
Even if the rest of the weekend turns out to be crap I have had, thanks to Jo, an experience that made the journey here worthwhile; including all the boisterous bollocking this morning.
It’s also an experience that I plan to pay forward. I’m a teacher and researcher by profession and I write a lot about “activist" teaching on my own blog.
With my larger life in mind I’ve also been broadly inspired by Jo today. I’ve been reminded of how incredibly valuable positive reinforcement, coupled with useful, specific critique, and a willingness just to ride alongside can be for students looking to up their game. Also, of course, for students who don’t yet know that upping their game is their ultimate goal, or even a remote possibility.
A great work lesson, a wonderful life lesson, and a fantastic sport lesson all rolled into one and wrapped in a mountain view. I feel privileged to be here, and thankful."
KIM SOLGA currently teaches theatre and performance theory and practice at Queen Mary, University of London. This blog was first published in published in 'Fit, Feminist and (almost) Fifty' on June 24th 2013.
Headline image copyright M David Ford on Flickr