For this month’s Inspiring Women interview we talk to Julie Rand, Cycling UK’s Volunteer Communications and Engagement Officer. Julie’s been mountain biking since before it was a thing, and her enthusiasm for women’s riding and mountain biking has helped steer one of the Britain’s key cycling organisations into supporting and promoting both.
Over to her colleague Sam Jones for an introduction:
“Julie is essentially our MTB guru at Cycling UK. I think I can honestly say that she’s the person who helped me make the shift off the road. I’d not have explored anywhere near as much of the south east without her and she’s been a great (and sympathetic) tutor to the beginner. She regularly leads our night rides out in the warren of the Surrey Hills, and such is her route finding her ability in the pitch black without modern tech, that I like to think who needs a GPS when you have a Julie Positioning System.
“More importantly, Julie is also the unsung driving force behind our annual Women’s Festival of Cycling and 100 Women in Cycling. She’s spent 15 years championing women’s cycling at what historically has been a fairly male orientated organisation and I can’t think of a better inspiration for heading off the beaten path.”
As it is usual with these things, I get Julie to start at the beginning:
JR: “I’ve been riding about 30 years now. I started with a cousin of mine who went and rode off road hills on very basic hybrid bikes. We didn’t even know the term mountain biking existed, this was late 80s / early 90s. Then I went to America and brought back at Schwinn hybrid and managed to ride around the Surrey hills, North Downs Way and other local tracks. I had no idea about what I was doing but it was really great fun to ride through the massive puddles and come back home covered in mud from head to toe.
“I’ve always been a cyclist and always ridden a bike at some point – from commuting as a student, to riding around cities – but I was new to taking it off road and that really gave me the bug. Not long after that I met my husband who had also started riding off road around about the same time. He had one of the first proper mountain bikes, a Muddy Fox, and he used to go out with a group of friends and do proper trails as they were back then. He insisted on getting me a proper mountain bike, a Raleigh M Trax.
“Now I don’t know how we did it. We had V-brakes which got clogged up with mud all the time, we didn’t have anywhere to clean it or do any maintenance, we just took it round the corner to the local bike shop and asked them to sort it out.
RS: You’re a huge champion of women’s cycling and mountain biking. What do you see as the selling points?
JR: “For mountain biking specifically I think there are loads of benefits for women. A lot of women won’t contemplate cycling on the road because they’re scared of traffic – getting off road removes that factor. Women are more likely to suffer from mental health difficulties so benefit exponentially from riding off road; the benefits of being in nature, away from responsibilities and so on.
“The challenge side is a positive too, they’re conquering challenges. It’s one of the things I really enjoy, there’s always part of a ride where you think “Oh, I managed to do that bit that I couldn’t do last time”. You get constant positive reinforcement and can give yourself a pat on the back. Women always seem to talk themselves down ‘I’m not very fast’, ‘I’m always at the back’, ‘Don’t wait for me’. You don’t get that with guys.”
RS: Confidence of women riding is something that keeps coming up in our interviews.
“You just need to have a welcoming environment. I know that’s not popular with some people, they don’t see why you need to have a separate events or groups, but in reality that’s what a lot of women enjoy. They like the social side of it and the camaraderie which they often feel they don’t get in a mixed group.
“It’s certainly true in my own experience. I rode with a group of guys for many, many years but I never felt like I was properly accepted into that group so for various reasons I ended up leaving it. It depends a lot on the group of course, there are lots of guys that are great to ride with.”
RS: Is that how the Women’s Festival of Cycling came about?
JR: “We really wanted to focus on the positives of women’s cycling rather than the barriers. You go to so many conferences and they just bang on about the barriers, we wanted to show the positives and show lots of role models.
“I came up with the idea of the Women’s Festival a couple of years ago as we didn’t really have a women’s offer at the time. We’d dabbled a bit in the past, doing a weekend of events and some shorter rides. That worked really well but we never followed it up.
“We thought that rather than doing it over a weekend we would extend to a month and encourage all our groups and clubs to put on rides aimed at women. They could be any type of ride, for example the Adventure Syndicate did a few 100 mile rides and several clubs did short easy road rides; the rides were anything the groups wanted to do. We had about 70 events throughout the month in that first year and it was the same concept this last year.
“For last year we came up with the idea of ‘100 Women’ which was to celebrate the contribution of lots of different people. It’s amazing how often women are overlooked. I recently read a book about the history of cycling and it was all about men. Women have been cycling since the 1880s but they’re just not mentioned. We were really keen to celebrate all the good things and inspirational people.”
RS: More and more we’re talking about needing to support more women into cycling. What should the industry do alongside work by Cycling UK and others to make this happen?
JR: “Having more visibility is really key. Seeing magazines and websites with women in them is really important, it’s certainly something that we’re trying to do here, have more women featured and test more women’s products.
“And, of course, not just the stereotypical woman with the flowery basket. That’s perfectly fine, lots of women do ride like that but why not have women in full face helmets and body armour too? There are plenty of women out there doing more radical stuff.
“We don’t see so much of it at events but they are there and it’s starting to grow. Having women there means that others are encouraged too. I think it’s a shame there aren’t as many women taking part in events like sportives. You can turn up to these things and it’s easily 90% men.
“It’s great that a lot of the time in mountain biking that the men and women tackle the same courses and same terrain. It means that people have a lot of respect for the riders whoever they are. But it’s also really important to give women equal credit too, for example to have equal categories and prizes at events. It’s often just one category for the women which means that someone like me in my 50s is pitted against others in their 20s. It means that there’s never any chance of us winning something or getting the recognition that the men get, it doesn’t help with confidence.”
Speaking to Julie it becomes really clear that in trying to remove and overcome the barriers that women experience in mountain biking we’re missing a great opportunity to encourage and inspire. Rather than focusing on what’s not right and what’s missing, we need spend more time celebrating what’s good. If you’re on for that, Cycling UK will be running the Women’s Festival of Cycling again this year as well as seeking nominations for the next 100 Women so watch this space …
We want to hear from you about who we should be talking to for next month’s Inspiring Women’s feature? Which female rider inspires you (whether you’re male or female), or which man or woman has done lots to support female riding? They could be a pro, a local coach or someone next door. Let us know in the comments below who we should be featuring and why.