How I started writing about women’s cycling (aka the Secret Origin of Sarah)
I’m coming to the end of my photography degree – it’s been a long road, because I’m part-time, and I took a step back from the career I had at the time to go back to university, so it’s a strange, transitional stage of my life. One of the things we have to do is a “Professional Practice” – which isn’t just about photography – it’s also about other work we do/careers we want. For example, I’ve been using my cycling writing. This is something for university, so I don’t expect you to read it – but if you want to, here it is!
In 2008, my partner and I were watching the Tour de France, and David Harmon mentioned the Track World Cup in Manchester in October, and on a whim, we bought tickets. We didn’t know much about track – my partner had a vague idea of the British riders, from the 2004 Olympics – but it sounded fun, and it was a way to watch some world class cycling in the UK. Then, of course, there was the 2008 Olympic Games, and we fell in love with the sport utterly, and went to the World Cup with massive enthusiasm – and that was even better, the sport just grabbed me, and that was it, I was a track cycling fan. We went back to the Track World Cup in 2009 and 2010, and are still disappointed we didn’t get to go to the 2012 World Cup in London, or get Olympics tickets.
I was lurking on the BBC 606 Cycling Forum (which no longer exists), and then contributing, and starting threads, under the name Pigeons in the Park – deliberately anonymous, because sometimes the sports fora there had strange characters, and a few who would refuse to respect any opinion from a woman. Every now and again, someone would come onto the Forum, and be very, very angry about how little coverage there was of women’s cycling, how sexist it was etc. That interested me, because I found that approach very off-putting, despite my feminism, and I was intrigued by my own internal responses, and got thinking about methods of persuasion etc.
But it was also a surprise to me that women’s cycling had so much less coverage than the men’s. The Olympic road race had been spectacular, really exciting – and in track cycling, men and women’s events run alongside each other, and I’d seen first hand that the crowds didn’t care whether it was a woman or a man racing, it was all about the personalities, and the rivalries. At Manchester, the crowd yelled for anyone British, and when one of the superstars of the sport came onto the track, like Australian Anna Meares, the velodrome went crazy.
Over 2009, I started writing more on 606, and a friend, Urlaub, and I, started asking questions about the women, and doing our own research into who the climbers were, what the races were etc. This fitted in nicely with university – for the 2009 Spring/Summer semester, I only had the “Discourse” module, writing about art theory, and I wanted a project to keep me interested. I wrote articles throughout the 2009 season, learning as I went and having a goal of seeing if I could build an audience. I wanted to be able to have an alternative argument to “No one covers it because they’re sexist” – I wanted to say “hey, if I can demonstrate that there’s interest and build an audience, when I work 30 hours a week, AND am at university, why can’t the mainstream cycling media?”. I wanted to find and tell interesting stories, from a fan perspective, being very honest about the fact I was learning as I went – and I wanted to use my research skills, especially about the international races and riders, to find things, for example, in other languages. It was fun learning with other online friends, and sharing information.
At the same time, I also got into twitter, and started “meeting” people who were into cycling too. One of these was my friend Simon Lamb, who had read things I wrote on 606, and asked me to write some pieces for a cycling blog he had. This was a real shock, and a real honour – I had never seen myself as doing anything public, just chatting on this one forum, and some one was asking me to contribute to his site. It was really scary – but there wasn’t a good reason not to, and it was really exciting. I will be forever grateful to Simon, because he changed the way I thought about myself, and what I was doing, and gave me a platform, and believed in me – and this from someone I knew virtually. If you want to know more about Simon, buy his amazing cycling oils, and have a look at his lovely site. I’d been following and lurking on Podium Café, an international cycling site, which was more articles with great conversation than 606, with a great women’s cycling section, and I signed up for an account there in 2010 – and I made up a cycling game that I ran across 606, Podium Café and twitter. (I’d seen how I had engaged with virtual cycling games, and learned so much more about the men’s side, so I ran a few in 2010, to see if the same thing would happen with the women’s side – and it worked, bringing in people who liked women’s cycling, and who used it as a way to find out more, and a fun exercise). In 2010, one of the Podium Café editors, Jen See, asked me if I wanted to start writing articles as part of the (unpaid) editorial team. this was another huge compliment and step for me, and again, changed how I saw what I was doing.
I loved writing for Podium Café, and getting to create my own content. I really wanted to find out more about some of the cyclists, and I couldn’t find my information about a lot of them, or find interviews where the things I wanted to know were asked – so I thought maybe I could interview riders and ask them myself. I started out by asking Helen Wyman, a super-friendly British cyclocross champion if I could interview her, after being in contact with her on twitter, and published my first interview in October 201o – and that lead to me approaching more riders, via their website and twitters etc. I especially wanted to interview the riders whose stories I was interested in, and who didn’t have much about them in English at the time – I did these sporadically, and since then have interviewed riders like Marijn de Vries (in 2010 and 2013), Kirsten Wild, Annemiek van Vleuten (part 1 and part 2) before she’d won the Road World Cup, Martine Bras, Sharon Laws and Loes Gunnewijk (and you can find more of my interviews on the Podium Café interview section) – I’ve really loved these, and I hope to do a lot more in the future.
In 2011 I was made redundant, and in the run-up to the redundancy, we were allowed to take paid work experience in other industries. Since the huge cycling website, Cyclingnews, were based just down the road, in Bath, it seemed like too good an opportunity to waste – so I got in touch and asked if I could do some work experience with them. It was such a scary move – risking rejection, risking having someone say “hell no, you can’t write for toffee” – but I took that risk, and they really kindly said yes, and I learned so much from them – Dan Benson, the editor, was especially kind to me, and I really appreciate that.
I also had got to know Helen Wyman’s husband Stef, who runs a small British cycling team, Matrix Fitness – and once I’d been made redundant, Stef took me to two 2011 stage races, where I took a lot of photos and wrote stories for Podium Café, race reports and “backstage” stories, talking about what it was like to be at the races, and also spending time with staff from different teams. (You can find these on Podium Café – the Elsy Jacobs races in Luxembourg and the Thüringen Rundfahrt in Germany.) I loved going to races, and combining my photography and writing, and I have a really big aim to do a lot more of this in the future. Again, I was stuck by how kind people were to me, and how generous with their time – and the interesting symbiotic relationships between riders and teams and the media, even the home-made media.
Alongside all of this, I’ve developed my presence on twitter, and my women’s cycling Tumblr, which are very much part of my cycling work. I use my twitter for my personal things, but also to share a lot of information, opinion and things I see – and my Tumblr is all about “content curation” – a posh way of saying sharing things I see. I’ve developed great networks, made really good friends, and had really exciting adventures, including going to Copenhagen to stay with Jens, who I know from Podium Café and twitter, to watch the 2011 Road World Championships.
In the winter of 2011 and spring of 2012 I did less writing about cycling, while I focussed on university for the first half of the year, but I kept up my articles, and did some freelance (paid) writing for Cyclingnews, and wrote some chapters for a book, Bike! A Tribute to the World’s Greatest Cycling Designers, edited by Richard Moore and Cyclingnews editor Daniel Benson (2012, Aurum Press).
In May 2012, Dan Wright, who I knew from Podium Café and twitter, got in touch and asked if I’d be interested in doing a women’s cycling podcast with him. This was a real left-field suggestion – I was practically phobic about the sound of my own voice (so shrill! My accent is so fake-posh, I hated listening to myself) and I was dubious that anyone would listen. But Dan said he’d do all the technological side, I just had to talk – the aim would be just to be two friends having a chat – sweary, informal, as if we were two mates in the pub, even though he’s in Australia and I’m in the UK – and if we had fun, that’s what was important. So there was no reason to say no, and that spawned our crazy-fabulous crowd-sourced prize for women’s cyclists who gave us great social media, the Unofficial, Unsanctioned Social Media Jersey (here’s the introductory post, here’s the results, and here’s everything else about it). It also lead to this website, where Dan writes as entendered, and I writ as Sarah Connolly. This site is for the things we want to write about – sweary, ranting, more simple than the other articles – and it’s been fun seeing how we’re changing over time. And Dan has become one of my very best friends – my Best-Friend-I’ve-Never-Met-Yet, who helps me in a hundred ways, through the magic medium of the internet.
Our women’s cycling podcast lead to the Velocast podcast team asking me to contribute to women’s cycling edition of the podcast – and then to contribute a weekly women’s cycling news section on their Eurosport Cycling podcast – and I’ve been doing that all year.
This year I’ve also started to write for the new British women’s cycling online magazine, Total Women’s Cycling, which started this year. I was introduced to them via Anna Glowinski, which came about via Stuart McLean, I think – I have a paid weekly racing column there, and write occasional other pieces for them – and I’m really excited about this, I can’t wait to see how the site develops.
Throughout all this, my principles and motivation have always been to do all I can to share and promote women’s cycling. It’s a sport I really, really love, and if I can do a bit to help grow the sport, I’ll be happy. What started out as contributing to a forum has got a bit out of hand – but I love this journey, I’m so excited that I can do my bit to help the riders, teams and sport I really love. I am so incredibly grateful to everyone who’s helped me along the way, whether it’s through giving me chances, or offering encouragement, or just telling me they like what I do – and I love the way the internet enables someone like me, a fan, to connect with riders at every level, and make my own “home-made media empire”.
So, what next?
Alongside all this, I’ve been temping, for the last year or so. I took the decision to not apply for a career job until my university degree is over – and once my course finishes, in June, I’ll need to find some more paid work, straight away. But I want to explore and increase my writing, and see if there are more opportunities within women’s cycling, as wel as continuing to do all the bloging here and on the Café. I want to expand into different forms of media, and try some new ideas. Dan and I REALLY need to get the
2012 2013 (thanks JimBob!) Social Media Jersey off the ground, and above all, I want to get to more races, to see this all close up. My writing is pretty much all based on what I find online, and I am dying to experience it in real life. I really need to earn some money to support myself (if you have any ideas…) and I want to continue to develop my photographic practice alongside the cycling work.
I’ve written a couple of series for Podium Café, which I wrote to provide some information about cyclists in a really simple format, that hopefully would interest people, and combine statistics and anecdotes – Top Trumps, which compared riders of different types; Olympic Dreams, looking at riders who wanted to get to the 2012 Olympics; and on this blog I started a Celebrating Social Media series, to showcase riders’ social media, because I love that; and posts on Equivalenting – finding people new to women’s cycling the female equivalents of their favourite male cyclists, to have people to cheer for at the World Championships – and I’m currently thinking about what the next series could be, because with the Olympics last year, there’s a real interest in women’s cycling at the moment, and I would love to be able to introduce more people to these fantastic characters, amazing stories and super-exciting sport.
One of the things I love about women’s cycling is ready about women like Marijn de Vries, Evie Stevens, Sharon Laws – women who had amazing careers that they gave up to follow their dreams into cycling. I am continually inspired by them – I can’t become a pro cyclist, but I can take risks, resist the urge to take another full-time, safe job, and see what I can do. I’m never going to earn the salary I used to, and it’s pretty scary, wondering how I’ll pay the bills come June – but it’s so rewarding, so exciting, and I can’t wait to see what happens next!