Hannah charts the advance of women in the bike industry, as she sees it. Are you as optimistic? What changes have you seen?
Apparently I am now long in the tooth enough that people have started asking me about how the bike industry has changed since I joined it. Have I finally arrived, or just gotten old? Before I get into that, I recommend you step back a little further still in time, to 2004, when Singletrack ran a bike test of ‘women’s specific bikes’ along with a pair of columns on whether we really needed women’s bikes at all. It’s a time when ‘pink it and shrink it’ was still alive and well – perhaps even had yet to reach its full fluffy zenith.
I think things have changed in the 8 years since I joined the bike industry. The statistics published today by the Bicycle Association show that, with women still making up just a small part of the industry’s senior and technical workforce, there’s still plenty of work to be done. But I feel like change is on the way, and the momentum is there. What follows is my take on how I think the industry has shifted. Your experience may well differ, and you may have been inspired and influenced by other events and people. Feel free to head to the comments and share your perspective on how far we’ve come.
Today, women make up 49% of the UK workforce. Yet in the UK cycling industry, just 8% of workshop-based roles, and 19% of customer-facing roles, are occupied by women. Women hold 40% of the industry’s administrative roles, but only a small handful have progressed to senior leadership positions.Bicycle Association Diversity In Cycling Report
By the time I came to Singletrack in 2015, things were shifting away from ‘pink it and shrink it’. Women’s specific bikes were still very much a thing, and some were a bit short and shrunk, but the pink was beginning to be phased out, and was increasingly found throwing itself of and down stuff more in keeping with the kind of rad riding women that were actually out there. The ‘women’s specific’ market was splitting into two schools: ‘women are different and need different geometry’; and ‘women just need contact points to suit them’. The hard riding bike for the ‘hard riding woman’ had finally hit the market, as Adele Mitchell discussed here.
Women wearing few clothes and standing in the general proximity of bikes and bike accoutrements was not unheard of, but was at least firmly frowned upon. When Adele called out Maxxis for their ‘Maxxis Babes’ calendar, it felt like this was the final breaths of this kind of obvious sexist nonsense.
The beginning of the end of nonsense
By 2017, I think the bike industry had mostly woken up. Women’s bodies could no longer be used to sell bikes to men. What remained was a laziness – or a failure to recognise the issues – when it came to product design and serving the women’s market. Clothing and products for women often felt like an afterthought, rather than a serious attempt at making us part with our money. Women in the industry, or riders trying to find a community, often felt like rewards didn’t come easy. It was a fight for the ground breakers to make progress. Brands were still sitting back, waiting for the world to demonstrate that the market was worth their investment, rather than truly investing in creating the market.
And of course, society still had a way to go to catch up – especially as people got to grips with the power of social media, and the hunt for clicks. Social media gave the opportunity for some pretty unpleasant comments, but it also gave people a campaign platform and and opportunity to connect.
Kickstarting the new world order
I think that by the start of 2018, the industry had pretty much ‘got it’. Brands had realised that things needed to change, and that it wasn’t just a case of stopping treating women as an afterthought. Support – whether to help increase the number of female mechanics or to give female pro-riders more opportunities, was also needed – the gap needed to be closed, not just left sitting there. Suddenly things seemed to speed up. More and more female riders were out there, not just racing, but starting to make a career out of showcasing their riding skills. There were videos that made us ooh and ahhh at their skill. Women were advertising bikes again, but this time by showing just what the bikes could do, with them in control.
Casey Brown spent a bunch of time out in the Utah desert in 2018, sparking rumours that she might be the first woman to ride at Red Bull Rampage. In the end, that didn’t happen, but her sponsors giving her the support to get out there and experience the terrain had a few other women putting their hands in the air and saying ‘we reckon we could do that too’.
Another rider saying ‘I could do that’ was ‘Gravel_tryhard‘, who used her Instagram account to call out the influencer culture that still saw women improbably posing with bikes and bicycle components, in much the manner that Celeste Barber mocks celebrity culture today. Brands began to catch up, getting a better grip on how their products were displayed or promoted by influencers, and realising that not all clicks were good for their image.
Come 2019, Formation made riders’ Utah desert dreams happen, thanks to rider and event organiser Katie Holden. Suddenly, women’s Freeride was spreading like wildfire – pretty much exactly what Katie hoped would happen as a result of Formation. She deliberately avoided making it a competitive event, instead wanting riders to use it to learn and progress, then take that experience home and spread the love in their own ride communities.
Of course, in 2020 the spreading of anything was definitely undesirable, but riders continued to build their profiles and skill sets while travel was limited. People everywhere – including women and girls – took to their bikes, and all that practice was about to pay off. By the time Formation returned in 2021, the level of riding at the event had progressed massively. Women were invited to Audi Nines and Dark Fest – previously the preserve of men only.
By 2022, there were so many female Freeriders that we weren’t just seeing the same handful of names pop up. The Gowaan Gals held a sell out women’s event, Sisters of Send finally got to run their women’s MTB festival after two years of Covid hiatus, and Revolution Bike Park held their women’s Evolve Gravity Jam. Women were sending it, and egging each other on to send it some more, right down to grassroots level.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest the Freeride is the be all and end all of the bike industry, or even of mountain biking. But having riders that can throw shapes for the camera and make exciting videos is a big part of the mountain bike marketing machine. You can get away without the podium finishes if you can make great content and make bikes look good. And there’s no shortage of female riders there: follow the Women’s Freeride Movement Instagram feed and you’ll now see any number of teenage girls taking on the trickiest of tricks.
Are we nearly there yet?
Bike clothing design generally seems to have improved – apart from an outbreak of white trousers and white shoes at elite level, it’s finally feeling like there’s a choice of well designed clothing out there for a variety of tastes, whether you’re male or female. There are loud brands, and earth tone brands, there are wild designs, and understated ones. Men and women get a much better choice than ever before. Bike design has mostly shifted away from a male/female split, and instead is looking at fitting the person. Geometry is adjusted for smaller and taller riders, instead of just stretching or shrinking the design from the ‘average rider’ setting. Advertising has improved, and some brands are capitalising on this rich seam of exciting imagery potential. But I think we’ve yet to see it truly translate into parity at the level of the sponsored athlete roster. But we surely can’t be far off? There are now so many talented women riders out there, there’s really no excuse for not having one of them riding your brand’s bikes.
On the gravity racing side of things, it seems there’s still a lack of racers being given the team support that’s needed to take on a full season of racing. Dorval Commencal has been the only Downhill pro team with a 50/50 male/female split on the team until Nukeproof Continental joined them this year. Many teams are still entirely made up of men. Perhaps the financial and logistical pressures of elite racing make committing to signing up athletes more of a leap than it does on the ‘ambassador and content creator’ side of things. I hope we’ll see things shift under the new race organisation by ESO. Perhaps that new set up will also elevate XC and XCO riders to being more in the public eye?
Away from the public eye, in the bike brands and trade shows of the bike world, I can still feel like one of very few women in a very male world, and the data shows that’s still true. In some ways, I can understand that – there’s a natural rhythm to the turnover of staff, and recruitment practices and training schemes aimed at increasing the number of women in the industry are going to take time to filter through. But women are in the industry, and in increasing numbers, and in increasingly influential roles. As conscious efforts to diversify participation are made by events like Bespoked, so we get to meet each other more often. Connections are made, and while you might only have one or two women in your office, you know there are more out there. You can call them up and ask their advice, learn from their experience, and tap into their contacts. Gradually, the old boys’ network is moving aside for the new girls’ network.
I think things really started to shift once brands stopped sitting back and waiting for women to prove there was a market, and instead started investing in making the change happen. The seeds are sown, and we should be cautious of losing momentum in the name of cost cutting, or profit margin protection as the bike market experiences its post-covid correction. There is still work to be done, but there is momentum, and I hope that the industry has learnt that investment in closing the gap is necessary, and works.
Women in the bike industry are now looking round them and seeing who else isn’t there – look at the growing diversity you’re seeing in the gravel and bike packing scenes. In women-led spaces, we’re often seeing deliberate steps being taken to include others who may have felt excluded from the industry, or to take greater account of the environment that we rely on for our adventures. A great example of this is the New Forest Off Road Club, who invite people coming on their group rides to consider ‘Is this an additional space you get to be or the only space you get to be?’.
Personally, I love this attitude. It’s inclusive beyond just the interests of elevating women. I don’t want to replace the old boy’s club with the old girls’ club. I’d rather it was a We’re All Having Fun Here club, with free membership, no weird judgements-about-clothing entry rituals, and an emphasis on where you’re riding rather than what. I hope we’ll see the space that so many have women have fought to be in will now be opened up to many more people who have yet to feel that the bike world represents them.
Change has certainly been slow – the initiative launched by the Bicycle Association today is just starting to look at what many of us have been trying to get addressed for years. But I’m optimistic that the pace of change has accelerated. I’m hopeful that the bicycle industry has woken up – not just to the fact that things need to change, but also to how to bring change about.
Thank you to everyone who fought to get us this far, inspired us to try harder, and showed us the way.