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Group riding dynamics and the “only-women syndrome”

In her monthly blog posts, Collyn Ahart delves into topics that are often emotive and divisive in the cycling world. Her recently published piece on body image gave our readers the opportunity to discuss openly their own issues, making them realise they weren’t the only ones struggling.

This month, Collyn looks at the dynamics of women on group rides. Whether we do actually want to ride with more women, or in fact whether we like being the lone wolf among a sea of men.

I believe cycling has what can only be described as “only-woman syndrome”. It’s a bit like “only-child syndrome”. Let me explain.

How many women (on average) were on the last 5 group rides you’ve ridden? My bet would be somewhere between 1.2-1.7. This would mean either you were the only woman on all but one or two rides. Now, there will be some exceptions. I know, I know, you always ride with a group of women and it’s amazing. Fair play. I have no statistical research to back up my claim, just over 20 years of riding and observing both my own and the other groups on the road.

Collyn (left) paired up with Rachel Fenton (right) for the ABSA Cape Epic earlier this year, enjoying the camaraderie that comes with cycling with another female.

The other weekend I rode with Rapha from Bordeaux to Paris; well, I rode over 400km out of the 600km total. And out of 60 riders, I was the only woman. There were plenty of women supporting the event, including three female physiotherapists who all looked capable of riding the route themselves. But I was the only one to clip my feet in and ride the distance.

Now, others were originally signed up, but one by one, they dropped out. This definitely wasn’t some form of tokenism on the part of Rapha; as a relay, the distance was perfectly surmountable, and the ride was open to anyone.

Group rides are dominated by men, but do women secretly enjoy this exclusivity?

It may be a pure numbers game: fewer women ride bicycles, so there are fewer women on group rides. But my point is not about numbers. My question is whether despite (like the only-child wishing she had a little sister or big brother) all our talk wishing there were other women to ride with, do many of us secretly enjoy being the only one?

As the only women, we get treated with a certain deference and respect. Like the early days of local racing in the UK, where there were only ever a handful of women. We laid claim to this space, and because there were so few of us, cycling brands latched on to even the most weekend of warriors. When more women showed up, we stopped feeling as special. Cycling stopped feeling quite as exclusive.

I know there are a lot of reasons fewer women ride for sport than men. The often-prohibitive cost of kit, events, and time are obvious examples, and I’m sure you’ll have a ton of other reasons to share in the comments. But let’s not dwell on this.

When we’re the “only-woman”, we momentarily get to escape being “female cyclists” and we are just cyclists. Like the parents who bring their only-child along to a fancy restaurant and speak to him like any other person: he escapes being a child for a moment. He’s just another person. But there’s something about a group of kids all hanging out that creates the need for a “kid’s table” at dinner.

I’m sensitive to the fact some people might think I’m making some sort of comparison between women and children and get upset. First, in culture today, this is not an uncommon (if totally incomprehensible) comparison to draw. Second, I’m not placing a value statement on women and children being “less” – purely about being the “other” (dialectic from men) in contemporary culture. The wonderful feminist and prolific ad-woman Cindy Gallop often says “Women challenge the status quo because we are never it.” This is what I mean.

When we ride alone with a group of men, we escape being on “a women’s ride” and are just on a ride. We are not “women cyclists”, we are just “cyclists”.

And cycling as a sport is culturally going through stressful growing pains. Many of us actually like being the only woman, despite our lip service to the contrary and the positive effect of riding with other women. When riding with women, we are less timid, often chat and laugh more (maybe because we’re not working quite as hard to keep up), we feel less embarrassed…. Now, I love riding with other women. I love the sense of camaraderie; I love the laughter and bonding. But, I also love the feeling of being the only woman out with the guys. I love riding with guys, they are a ton of fun too.

No matter how much I fight it, I like the way I feel and get treated as “the only woman”. On group rides where there is a closer 50/50 split, I don’t get quite the same feeling. I’m not usually the strongest woman. I’m not “special” for being able to hang on. No one waits for me. It’s a tougher mental challenge.

So, for all of us “only-women,” let’s maybe get over ourselves. No, it won’t feel special in the same way. We don’t get to unleash the selfish only-child. But we will get to ride with some awesome people, both men and women. Mix it up. Ride your speed, not just your gender. And if you genuinely think no women are as fast as you, get in touch with some teams and go have your ass handed to you with a number pinned on.

If you would like to catch up on Collyn’s previous blog posts, click the title of the article below:

1. Cyclerexic: Body image in cycling

2. How to: Cope with injury

3. Friendship and cycling

4. Training camp essentials: All you need to know

5. 2013 ABSA Cape Epic: Pain, injury and dispair

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