Time for another installment from What She Said – this time musing on the value of women-only rides.
For most of my cycling life, I’ve ridden either by myself, or with a group of dudes.
It’s probably safe to assume that most women who ride bikes have had a similar experience, and wouldn’t have a bad word to say about their riding buddies, much like I wouldn’t. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have ridden with a selection of great guys in my riding time, many of who I credit with helping me get better on bikes, and even some who became my best friends. It was my men-friends that got me into mountain biking, convincing me to forget about appropriate sock height and chamois cream, and reconnecting with my inner child’s desire to get dirty.
Being treated as ‘one of the guys’ wasn’t a particular objective I had when I started riding. Nor was it something I really thought about. It was a simple case of environmental factors. I didn’t know many women who rode bikes, and the ones that did weren’t part of my normal friend circles, or riding patterns. Sometimes they’d join the regular clans I’ve travelled with over the years. Most of the time, I was the only XX in a pack of XYs. The guys were just the people I had to ride with on a regular basis, and riding with them was completely natural to all of us.
I don’t remember when I did my first ride that consisted only of women. I don’t even know if it was a planned thing, or just accidental. Wait, let me think… Nope. Nothing. I remember doing a Dirt Series skills clinic in Whistler back in 2011, and we used to sponsor the Danskin Women’s Triathlon series, during which I was a bike marshal. But as for the first time I specifically did a ride with just women, that much I can’t recall.
What I do remember is immediately noticing the difference between a women’s ride, and a mixed group. I should be able to articulate exactly what that difference is, but it’s just not that easy to do so. The best way I can think to describe it is to say that there’s a ‘lightness’ about a women’s ride that doesn’t seem to exist in a mixed group, even with my beloved posse of male friends.
I’m sure I could break this down in scientific terms and remind you all about hormones, and how oestrogen and testosterone levels differ between men and women. Even at a base level of knowledge, it’s not hard to understand how the presence of those hormones impacts our lives in a variety of situations. Whether we like it or not, how we interact with members of the opposite sex is influenced to some degree by these floaty little chemicals being spat out by our gonads and circulating around our vasculature.
Riding with just women carries with it a sense of liberation. It’s not unlike a group of guys making plans to hang out. They can butt scratch and belch at will, without fear of judgment or embarrassment. If I’m on a ride with other women, it’s not because I don’t want to go fast or feel a bit of competitiveness. It’s not because I worry about how I look in Lycra. It’s not because I won’t make any mistakes and crash.
I can go fast. Or not.
I can feel a bit competitive. Or not.
I can feel like I look terrible in my riding kit. Or I could feel like I look amazing.
I might crash, or I might ride like a goddess and clear everything.
I might not totally understand my equipment. Or, I might be the one that fixes things for everyone else.
Either way, on a women’s ride I won’t feel weak, or silly if any of those things does or doesn’t happen. I won’t worry that the rest of the women will look down on me. I won’t feel like I’m holding people up who really just want to go faster and think I’m not capable of doing so because of my gender. I’ll feel a different type of support than the kind I’d get from the guys. I won’t have something mansplained to me. I won’t feel the same pressure that can exist in a mixed group.
A correlating anecdote for you: every year after the race season is over, Tracy Moseley gets all of her women friends together for a riding weekend. There’s nothing quite as intimidating as showing up on a trip that has three World Champions, a handful of National Champions, and a smattering of pioneering women in the UK racing scene. I am none of those things. Not even close.
Despite the pedigree of riders among the group, there wasn’t a single concern by anyone that being at the back was going to be an issue. Very few people of either gender can reasonably hope to keep up with Tracy Moseley and Manon Carpenter, even on one of their relaxed days. The point of the gathering isn’t for the pros to boost their egos by leaving everyone else in the dust. It’s to have a social weekend of riding with their like-minded female friends. And everyone who goes has a blast, even me at the back, carefully assessing every technical line that others have long since flown over.
Don’t think for one second that I’m advocating the idea that women should only ride with other women. If you’ve been paying attention so far, you’ll know that’s not the truth at all. I’m also not saying that there aren’t women who would prefer to ride with men. Sure. They’re out there. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
I am, however, suggesting that as a woman, there is a great deal of value to be had in sometimes just going out with the girls, as a supplement to other group rides. I have a problem with anyone who suggests otherwise, or that women secretly prefer being the only woman on a ride. That seems disingenuous, and dismisses the intrinsic and positive nature of same-gender herd/pack mentality. It also makes women sound pretty self-centered and attention-seeking. Like we don’t get enough of THOSE accusations in modern life!
In a perfect world, gender wouldn’t be an issue when it comes to riding bikes. We would all just be cyclists, with the same agenda of having fun. And in truth, there’s probably no situation in which we feel less pressure than when we ride on our own. Humans are social creatures though, and solo rides don’t fill the desire for being part of a group. Men and women are perfectly capable of being comfortable in groups with each other. And sometimes, they know being with other members of their gender will provide something different.