Cycling has enabled us to start having different conversations as a family. We live in one of the most expensive parts of Exeter which enables my partner and step-daughter to walk to school and to work; and to avoid the hardcore traffic in and around the city.
Because we live in an expensive place, we have a tiny house. We’re starting to figure out where we can live that gives us more bang for our buck yet avoid the car, though are yet to come to any decisions around whether that will offset the convenience we have.
Cycling has enabled us to spread our net a little wider as my step-daughter loves riding her bike so much that she insists on cycling to school everyday. She’s just turned 6, and there’s nothing quite as joyous as seeing her legs go at warp speed on her single speed bike. She’s a 6 year old hipster! She’s become really confident really quickly, to the point where she recently cycled 7 miles without any fuss. What a legend.
We’re keen to capitalise on this enthusiasm as much as we can so that exercise becomes part of her day to day life and something that she enjoys doing. This is easy in terms of routine, but difficult in a world where expectations for girls are constantly curtailed. If we’re talking role models, it takes real work to find books where the heroes aren’t boys, aristocrats or bathed in a sea of pink and sparkles.
As such, I’ve purposely made an effort to keep on top of what’s happening in women’s cycling so that she can see that women can be professional cyclists too. Given that in and of itself cycling is a gender neutral activity, I wasn’t prepared for how difficult that would be.
There are boat loads of structural and systemic issues in the sport. It’s run by men for men. Team Sky have attracted criticism for their financial clout and subsequent dominance of the Grand Tours. The takeover by Ineos has made them even richer. Yet unlike Trek-Segafredo and Mitchelton-Scott, there’s still no women’s team.
The Cycling News Podcast have released a women’s episode on their feed. It’s worth listening to it as it perfectly illustrates the complex issues around women’s cycling. The authorities are looking to duplicate and legislate based on men’s cycling, which itself is based on unsustainable finance from fossil fuels and undemocratic states. It’s great to hear Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio question whether a female version of the male cycling ecosystem is even desirable.
“We are at a delicate point at the moment where there is a huge potential and scope for the sport really exploding and becoming super popular. But there is also potential that it could just go down the same road as men’s cycling and have all the same issues.”
Nicole Cooke’s autobiography, “The Breakaway” was the Sunday Times Sports Book of the year. It’s a scorching takedown of structural issues that allow this state of affairs to continue. It’s a fantastic, but depressing read. In this piece, she looked at the context of Jessica Varnish’s allegations about Shane Sutton.
“The men get all the glory and TV coverage as they are doing a ‘proper job’ while the girls are ‘allowed’ to be there on the day. The rewards would follow the coverage, so the men would get the prizes and the girls some token gifts. Welcome to the reality in the world of elite cycling where sexism is by design.”
The unconscious design of systems based on dominant characteristics is really problematic in any field. It’s why cycling continues to appeal to middle class men over anyone else, and its why inequality is rising in the UK. The default favours those who already benefit from the existing system, not those who are left out. These people are frequently described as “hard to reach,” but those voices are missing because they’ve been failed by existing structures. Many people I’ve worked with have instead used the term “seldom heard.”
There’s a lot of discussion around bias in data at the moment. In fact, I blogged about this a while back. What’s interesting is that this questioning is only being applied to new tech. What about existing systems that have been designed with biased assumptions? Bias isn’t a new problem, it’s just that it’s become that much more obvious and explicit in a digital world.
Systems as part of systems
Things start to get quite insidious when we start to think about involving people in wider questions and discussions through sport. In the Reasons to be Cheerful podcast on Englishness, Sunny Hundal talks about how football united large parts of England during the last World Cup. But if sport itself is designed for a section of society (this year was the first time that England’s women had a kit designed with them in mind), who are we ultimately leaving out of these discussions?
How can we go about identifying the basis of power and who benefits? We can’t go far wrong by starting with Tony Benn’s five questions on power:
“What power have you got?
“Where did you get it from?
“In whose interests do you use it?
“To whom are you accountable?
“How do we get rid of you?”
“Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”
In case any trolls have made it this far down the article who are questioning the entertainment on offer in women’s cycling, I give you La Course 2018. It was the race of the year according to the BBC’s Bespoke Podcast, which Tom Fordyce describes as “everything that’s great about bike racing.”
Caroline Criado-Perez’s book ‘Invisible Women’ is on my reading list, and I’m really looking forward to reading it to better understand the bias behind the design of the world that we live in, which is empirically a world designed for and by men.
I’m hoping that by sharing the exploits and success of female cyclists my step-daughter can grow up with an understanding that anything is possible, but also with the understanding that the current system is not working for everyone — by design — and that we all have to do something to recognise that, challenge it and change it.