Does Mountain Biking have a Sexism Problem?

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Sexism is not just a hot topic, it’s a scorching one.

It’s a topic that won’t burn out until the problem itself disappears. Sadly it hasn’t, yet.

In parts, that’s still the case for mountain biking. There are true heroes of the sport – Rachel Atherton, Tracey Moseley, Manon Carpenter (to name a few) – leading the way and inspiring not just women, but all people who have ever thought about picking up a bike and throwing themselves down a dusty track. The evidence is there to suggest that this is being forgotten by some people in the industry.

Mountain biking does have a problem with equality, but what can be said is that the problem very rarely exists on the trails, or at least that’s what former “glossy mag” editor turned freelance bike journalist Adele Mitchell believes:

“Anybody that’s paying attention on the industry side of things knows that the growth of the sport will come from women”

I’ve been riding for quite a few years now and I would say mountain biking feels more inclusive than it used to be,” she said.

“Media and advertising still largely represents mountain biking as a ‘gentleman’s club’ and that means there’s often a focus on the danger and extreme elements of the sport, rather than the benefits to mental health or the opportunity to have an adventure with your friends in the great outdoors.

“I am mindful that women – at the moment – are very much in the minority of the sport. You can justify some of the decisions made by the brands when it comes to marketing their products to their biggest audience, but they should be doing more to grow the sport and the only way to do that is with women.”

This point is echoed by the former Trek UK Media and Communications Manager, Chris Garrison:

“From a participant level there are a lot of women riding bikes,” she said.

“Anybody that’s paying attention on the industry side of things knows that the growth of the sport will come from women and that will eventually become the driving force behind getting kids on bikes, which is sustaining the sport.”

Mitchell (centre left) and Garrison (right) are active campaigners in making the sport equal and better

Mitchell (centre left) and Garrison (right) are active campaigners in making the sport equal and better

There is no blame to be pointed. This is just the sport, which isn’t a bad thing, mostly, and there are so many positives to look at, as Adele Mitchell explains:

“It’s not all bad, of course not,” she said.

“Just look at the film Sealskinz produced back in January (which featured Trahan Chidley, a true ‘superwoman’ of sport, talking about why she rides). It is truly a thing of beauty which presents a moving, intelligently told story about one woman’s experience of the joys of mountain biking.

“It includes the positive roles played by some of the men in her life too, so everyone can take something from it.”

It’s easy to create a dividing competition between gender, but when is the easy way always the right way?

This is not man vs woman. This is just people being people. People being happy doing something they love. This is forgotten by some brands, in some instances.

Czech-based Superior Cycles fell foul to this in June 2015. To quote:

“Female cyclists do not generally need to push their limits, race against time and increase their adrenaline when riding rough downhill trails,” is what the description read for a women’s specific hardtail bike.

“They just want to enjoy the time spent in nature on the bike, and their expectations from the bike are completely different than men’s,” it continued.

“They look mainly for safe, easy and, of course, stylish bikes that have good and natural handling.”

Alienating, segregating and stereotyping. Are those the best ways to sell a product?

Then there was “Sockgate” at Interbike 2015, where visitors to the trade show were greeted with a “goodie bag” packed with all sorts of promotional material- and, of course, a singular pair of socks, featuring bikini clad, sun-kissed women. And guess what, they were not riding bikes.

(Courtesy of Surly)
(Courtesy of Surly)

Body armour company SixSixOne posted an image of a woman modelling a pair of knee pads. The woman was naked. That’s not only objectifying marketing, it’s just lazy marketing. In the defence of SixSixOne, they did remove the image quickly after a barrage of criticism. They also explained that it was a mistake stemming from a social media audit by a firm of consultants rather than any deliberate marketing strategy. They have since been contrite to the whole situation.

#protectfun was the tag on 661's Instagram page. What does that even mean?
#protectfun was the tag on 661’s Instagram page. What does that even mean?

The “Maxxis Babes Calendar” was perhaps the most talked about case. The name itself provides all the description you need.

Maxxis eventually scrapped the calendar and replaced it because most people did not like it, which is the singular silver lining that shone brightly and proudly following the mistake.

This not brand shaming. This is behaviour shaming. The industry is denying itself the prospect of a much greater and more diverse sport if it continues to, both subconsciously and in some cases purposefully, exclude half of the population.

There has been example after example and undoubtedly there will be more come, but at least, for now, most brands recognise when they are wrong and that brings some hope for the future.

“At the end of it all we don’t see men with next to no clothing showcasing body armour, we don’t see men in bathing suits on a pair of socks at the largest trading show in North America (Interbike), we just don’t see men in the same way we see women. How can the two genders ever be treated as equal when that’s the case?,” is what Garrison said, with sincerity, for perhaps the perfect summation.

Comments (17)

    Sexism is everywhere, challenge it every time you come across it. A lot of people say it’s banter, they are dicks.

    Well said, Kane.

    I’m not suggesting that the commercial element is in any way significant next to the moral vacuum displayed, but surely the only reason to run a marketing campaign is to enhance one’s business, one way or another. And it does seem bizarre that some marketing departments and/or consultants are pitching campaigns which will (at best) completely fail to attract such a huge potential market.

    To steal Anthony Quinn’s book title, it’s “half the human race” they’re failing to pitch to – or even acknowledge.

    Which makes it even harder to understand, or to give these campaigns any kind of benefit-of-the-doubt over their repugnant positioning.

    @zempy… “… They are dicks”.

    If we are going to move forward we need to look at everything, challenge everything, and we should now say ” they are dick/lady gardens”.

    Point being that you can get too PC and bland out the whole world with generic. There is a line that it’s unwise to cross, but where is that line? STW mag ran pictures of men’s chests in bib tights in a product review. Nothing wrong with that. But flip it to a review of ladies bibs and it all changes. But then how can that be “equal”?

    I’ve chatted with Surly Jules about sock gate, and I get it but don’t get. Don’t get where the line is. Vegas has thousands of pro dancing ladies, and they were depicted (somewhat pixilated) on a sock. Surely the problem, the real objectification is the clubs of dancing ladies, and stripers… And prostitution just around the corner from the bike show.

    I really dont get this at all. Why is it ok sometimes and objectifying other times? The 661 ad for example, a woman wearing knee pads, whats wrong with that? Everyone has assumed she is naked but you see women, by choice, wearing far less than that on a saturday night in clubs, are they objectifying themselves? the bib tights example above, do women not want to know how that article would look on them? Why not use a human to advertise those products? was there a cry of sexism with the Ford Kuga advert, the one with the guy wearing nothing but budgie smugglers but had his car key somewhere on his person. Things of beauty are things of beauty whether they be animal, mineral or vegetable and the use of any of these to advertise a product is fine when it is appropriate, the 661 lady is appropriate in my view as i already knew 661 made protection for blokes, now I know they make it for women too.
    I think I am on the same wavelength as charlie above, no-one forces people to get jobs as models, if we dont use humans to advertise things why would humans buy the product as there is no link to us as consumers. I like to see what products look like being used before I buy them.

    I accept this is my opinion and I hope others accept it as such rather than victimise me with vitriol of how wrong I am, after all isnt sexism a form of victimisation?

    I guess the difference is that the budgie smugglers were featured on a beach, the short skirts in a club. In this case, I don’t know many of my female riding buddies who would consider going riding in nothing but a pair of knee pads.

    When Assos advertise bib tights, the men are just stood there looking like they are just about to put on their riding jersey. The women are bra-less adopting what some might describe as a sexy pose. I hate to disappoint you but when I go riding, I tend to wear a bra and spend most of my time riding my bike not strutting my mud-covered stuff around in front of the mirror.

    It’s about context. I’ve got no problem showing women in underwear or swim wear or whatever if that is in context. Show women (and can we include other ethnic minorities in this debate) DOING stuff, not just as window dressing, that’s what fairy lights and tinsel are for. Check out the Trek sponsored women as a great example, there’s nothing bland or generic about them: great positive role models for men and women, interesting people, great with the media, promote their products by showing how great they are for riding.

    PS. 661 DO NOT make body armour for women. If you think this advert was to attract female riders then either 661 or you have it seriously wrong.

    As other people have said above, it’s about inclusivity. An advert showing a random model draping herself over a bike or tyre doesn’t suggest that women are welcome in the sport. Whereas Super Mario has his name on the bike.

    Whether either are good marketing is a moot point, but don’t pretend they are remotely similar apart from the amount of skin on display.

    Well the Cippo image isn’t even marketing… well not officially. It’s a personal image posted by Cippo in order to make a personal point to those who have recently had a pop at him for not wearing a helmet. It is effectively a middle finger delivered through the medium of a selfie.

    That context kind of makes all the difference. In fact it is always context that makes the difference.

    What my special ladyfriend has to say on the matter of breasts and bikes:

    ” What if the bikes were cycling *over* the tits? Imagine, a whole mystical looking woodland track paved with tits. Some pert enough to puncture, some kinda saggy and slippy, others that just bounce you right off track! That would surely be pretty challenging terrain.”

    Personally my reaction to sex used in any advertising is to question if the product is good enough to sell itself on merits alone.

    As for “no-one forces people to get jobs as models” the fact remains if a woman is incredibly attractive and also incredibly smart there’s a decent chance she will be able to make more money from displaying her wares than exercising them. More so than for men. This is a deeper problem than marketing – sex piques the interest of most folk. Susan Blackmore entitled a chapter in The Meme Machine ‘an orgasm saved my life’. IIRC the opening paragraph accuses the reader of having skipped straight to that page (I know I did).

    It’d be nice if marketing execs adopted more stringent morals but we’re all familiar with Bill Hicks, right?

    Ah, the classic ‘sex sells’ argument trundled out again. It is hard to know what sexism is if it has zero impact on your life.

    To quote the above, ‘the fact remains if a woman is incredibly attractive and also incredibly smart there’s a decent chance’…that she can get any other job she wanted, not have to ‘display her wares’, perhaps as a director of a corporate company where she will earn more than a model but on average 20% less than her male peers.

    This is an article of two halves and I don’t think we should lose focus on the first point.

    Such is my lot in life that I work in professional tennis, a long way from mountain biking I know, but not so far removed from this article. In terms of the evolution within women’s sport tennis has years on most others and yet still there is the argument that tennis is for men and women are just there to make up the numbers, despite the fact that arguably the greatest athlete in the sport, Serena Williams, is a woman. I think what needs to be taken away from this article is that all sport, not just mountain biking, is portrayed as a gentlemans club by the media and until this is changed then women will always struggle to have a voice.

    Mountain biking is much better than most sports on focussing on achievement rather than sex, professional sport is tough, much tougher than you think, and anyone, male or female who can sustain a living from it is a hero deserves all the acclaim they can get.

    I read an article fairly recently in which a female MTB journo loosed off loads of vitriol because a bloke who she’d met while out riding on the trail had made so bold as to say how good it was to see more women out on bikes. Her beef seemed to be that this was patronising and sexist. I couldn’t give you chapter and verse now, but I made a point of rereading it at the time because I was at a total loss as to why she was upset! All I was reading was that a bloke had tried to be friendly, welcoming and inclusive and he was getting SHIT for it! It was like being married again!!. I think she even said in the article that her hubby didn’t get it either! Charliethebikemonger is saying ‘fine but where is the line’? Well, I am often mystified myself on that one! Like he says, we should all try to be inclusive, but maybe ignore political correctness when it parts company with reality.

    661 announce new factory riders:

    Not calling their roster sexist at all, but just an interesting fact that all their riders are male.

    @Charlie: Your point about sex workers and exotic dancers is fair, in the context of those who are forced into those occupations because of trauma, coercion, and financial hardship. And the underlying problems that lead to women being in those situations are absolutely things that should be addressed. But many of the women in those trades in a city like Vegas are there because they’ve made a well-reasoned choice to do that occupation, and they are in control of their own agency.

    For the latter group, the main difference between what we see in cycling media, and what we see in Vegas (outside of Interbike), is the decision making process behind the front of house, and how it’s presented to the public. This is why strip clubs have blacked out -or no- windows, because there are limits to what kids should see. The people making decisions about how they sell cycling products are putting half naked women in the pages of cycling publications. There are not blacked out windows. There are no ratings to suggest that the material might not be suitable for kids.

    So it comes down to the messages it sends. I’ve expanded on this considerably in my column about Sockgate, if you are so inclined:

    I hope that helps clear things up a little, but if not please do let me know.

    @billyboy Without knowing the tone of voice that was used, or the rest of the situation, it’s ultimately hard to determine why the woman you mentioned had that reaction, but I know it happens.

    I think much of the problem is that sometimes, we are so constantly bombarded by being made to feel ‘less than’, that some develop a sensitivity to it that becomes so acute, they lose the ability to differentiate between a simple comment, and someone being a douche.

    I’m not attempting to justify this, and actually would rather see this attitude be challenged. A good friend, and a genuine advocate for women’s cycling made a comment about a pro racer about how awesome she was. A woman told him the only reason he though so was because he also thinks she hot. The last thing women in cycling need is for men trying to be part of the solution to get shouted down and accused of having ulterior motives.

    Pinnedtv is an example of the industry not moving on, old man sexism chat and half naked women in the background. Challenge a well known tog and get a response of a lady having an experience by herself.

    I guess on the other foot you ve not watched saturday prime time telly recently.. men encouraged to take their shirts off and show their chests.. to wear lycra and shake their the female hosts.. all sexism is wrong and cheapens everybody

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