Why do I say “women’s cycling”?

Every now and then I’m asked – “why do you say ‘women’s cycling’? Surely it’s just ‘cycling’?”.  It come up in answers to the survey Dan and I ran, and sometimes I’m asked online and in real life, from people who just wonder, or sometimes from people who think I’m doing the sport damage, or restricting the growth, by adding gender into the mix when it’s unnecessary.  And today I was looking at this great twitter account, which turns things commonly said about women on their head, and these tweets especially:

So I want to talk about this a little bit.  Apologies if I get rambly, but I have a lot of thoughts at the same time.

Here are some of the comments that have got me thinking, answers from the “what do you like best about women’s cycling?” question:

I’m missing a point here.. Why does there have to be a specific genre of ‘women’s cycling’? Can’t we just have ‘cycling’.. For everyone? Irrespective of gender distinctions?


I just like riding my bike, despite being a woman I have never thought of it as ‘women’s cycling


I need to start by saying on one hand, yes, I absolutely agree.  I grew up racing and watching athletics, and I would have seen a description of “women’s athletics” as ludicrous, maybe insulting – it’s the same sport, over the same distances, in the same stadium, there’s no difference.  I went to Crystal Palace and cheered for different athletes in different events based on their performance, style, personality, all kinds of reasons, but it never occurred to me to support them (or not) based on gender.  And this is what I saw in Track Cycling, my gateway drug – at the Manchester Track World Cups people had their favourites, and you could always tell when it was a Brit on the track by the noise, but equally the cheers for Anna Meares, Gregory Baugé etc etc were huge.  If you believe people who say there’s no audience for women’s sports, you’d expect people to head out to get food/drinks/a toilet break when the women raced, but that didn’t happen – and you’d never be able to shut your eyes and know if it was a man or woman racing because the reception was the same, or if the match-up was Pendleton v Meares in the sprint, one of the key rivalries of the time, maybe even louder   And that’s what I dream of for road and cyclocross, a time when the term “women’s cycling” seems anachronistic.

BUT equally, we’re not there yet, and there are reasons for that.

First of all there’s the obvious fact that women’s road cycling ISN’T the same sport as the men’s.  This isn’t like athletics or triathlon or swimming etc where you rock up and the men and women race the same events for the same prize money.  This is a different beast entirely.  The fact is, the structure of the women’s sport is fundamentally different, with arbitrary rules that make no sense – women are limited to racing 100km less than the men, in smaller teams, in races that are limited to seven days with only two exceptions.  And it’s not because of any rationale, or women wouldn’t be able to race marathons, or things like the Absa Cape Epic.  It just is because it is – and in the same way, despite tv viewing figures from races like the 2012 Olympics, the Aviva Women’s Tour and Sporza viewing figures for cyclocross demonstrating that if you show women racing, people will watch (remember the much higher BBC Peak Viewing Figure for the women’s Olympic road race than for the men’s?), we don’t get to see so much of it on tv, because people in power have decided “no one would watch”.

So, the first reason I say “women’s cycling” is because it’s not equal with men’s, and it’s treated differently to their side of the sport.  I highlight the ‘women’s’ aspect because if I just said “cycling”, a lot of people would think the Tour de France, or the men’s Giro, in the same way I say “Track Cycling” or Cyclocross, or specify Downhill or Cross Country MTB.

The second reason is because I’m operating in a context where so often the cycling media use the term “cycling” as a short-hand for “men’s cycling”.  How many times have you seen articles that are labelled as “cyclist of the year” or “World Championships preview”, listing the best/worst of 2015’s cycling, or photos of the year, or talking about how to choose a saddle/getting a bike fit, or click on a “cycling podcast” or whatever, and they’re only about men’s cycling, without making that explicit?   I absolutely love that a lot of cycling media are upping their game on this and really working to change the landscape (for example, BikeBiz’s Women In Cycling list), but play the game of “How many women can you see in this cycling magazine?” and you can still come up with the answer of “1, in an advert” or none at all.  While so much of the world uses “cycling” as a default boys-own club, I use the terms “women’s cycling” and “men’s cycling” as reminders that yes we’re here, and yes we ride.

(I’m well-aware that it’s not just women who are affected by this – it’s also disabled people, older people, Black & Minority Ethnic communities etc etc who can be left out of discussions about “cycling” – with intersectional impacts as well.   It’s not just the media, either.  When I interviewed Dr Rachel Aldred on her academic research into cycling, she talked about how planners and transport bodies’ presumption that “cyclist” = young, able-bodied man can actively limit who rides a bike.  I very much recommend her work, head to her website to find out more.)

And the third reason is connected to the first two, because I really want people to be able to find what I write and more importantly, what I share about the sport.  The Tour de France, and big men’s teams like Sky are SO huge that to find out about any level below that – u23 men, or Continental-level races and teams, for example – you need to know how to refine your search.  When I first started looking into road cycling, years ago, I found it a really interesting challenge, trying to work out races via google translate, and to work out who were the climbers and who were the sprinters by finding stage and race profiles, and looking up the results on CQ Ranking to see if there were common names.  Things have changed since then, of course, and wonderfully so, but I do try to approach a lot of what I do thinking about a future-Sarah who doesn’t know much about the sport, but really wants to learn, so I try to make things as easy to find as possible, thinking about google hear and hashtags on twitter.  It’s also why I use tons and tons of links, and tags, and try to share as much as I see on my twitter and my tumblr as well as here, and cross-post, and sometimes double-tweet to hit different timezones, so that I can try to hit as wide an audience as possible, and make it easy for people to find content they like.  I’m a massive believer in cross-promotion, and think that it’s great that if people don’t like my “voice”, I can help them easily and quickly find someone they do like – or if someone comes across information that’s useful to them through my links, bookmarks it and never comes back to my blog, but is now following the sport more easily, that’s fabulous.  Using “women’s cycling” is a way to make things easier for people who are just coming into the sport.

(I should also say, in relation to the second tweet I referenced at the top of the thread, I definitely am not someone who thinks only women should write about/report on women’s cycling.  That should be obvious from the fact I podcast and share this site with a man, but just as I’d be horrified if anyone suggested women can’t talk about men’s racing, I love and support the men that do so much for the sport’s accessibility, whether as professional writers, photographers and editors, or fans who run websites, tweet links and add to the conversation. That’s probably a whole other blogpost on it’s own, but I hope I never imply that I’m women-only about covering the women’s racing).

So yeah, my TL:DR is that I do completely understand and empathise with people who don’t like the term, but I’ll keep using “women’s cycling” for now, and keep working to that wonderful future goal when the terms “cycling” and “bike racing” implicitly and explicitly include women, and I can stop with the gendering.  Here’s to that future – we’re getting closer and closer every day.



3 thoughts on “Why do I say “women’s cycling”?

  1. This is a great post. Re “I do try to approach a lot of what I do thinking about a future-Sarah who doesn’t know much about the sport, but really wants to learn, so I try to make things as easy to find as possible” – thank you for doing this. Everything I know about pro women’s cycling is because of what you write and tweet about. Thank you 🙂

    What’s the reason why there is still a 100km rule? You mentioned that there’s no rationale but what does the UCI say when questioned about this?


  2. 2002 was the last time both the Tour and Giro were two weeks, so I think the limits that came in from the UCI that both mimited days raced and length of stages both came in around then.
    I am not confident on quite the level of harassment Boue (organiser of the Tour) was coming under at the time from the UCI but I did contemporaneously speak to another race organiser who was well connected with both McQuiad and Verbruggen and he expressed the very clear view that the establishment view, revolving around the central pillar of the men’s Tour, was that they wanted to get Boue out of cycling. McQauid was at the time responsible at the UCI for developing women’s cycling. Boue ran a race that had under his guidance stood alone from the Men’s Tour and grown to 2 weeks and, very critically had a half hour slot on daily French TV. And so the rules came in limiting stage lengths and race lengths.

    Certainly Boue himself was vocal that the UCI were attempting to drive him and his race – the Women’s Tour from the sport. On several occasions he ran the race without UCI accreditation to avoid them engaging with him, but of course that then created problems for him when he sought road closures and co-operation of start finish locations because of course the provincial authorities referred to the French Cycling Federation. He was therefore, forced to re-engage with the UCI.

    It is difficult to comprehend exactly what women’s cycling lost around that time. But don’t think that such arbitrary and negative decisions are not connected to the regime currently in place at the UCI. In 2007 a lot of public money was sunk into paying for London to host the Grand Depart for the Tour. Boue naturally thought with a GB winner in 2006 and 2007 they would surely like to host the start of the Women’s Tour in 2008. The London Mayor’s office were all for it. They then consulted with Cookson’s British Cycling in Manchester. The message back to UK Sport and the Mayor’s office was that London should not entertain supporting the race. With the official “experts” offering condemnation, the project was dead.

    It didn’t stop Boue putting on a good but short race that year. The final stage with climbs over the Izoard (2,361m) the Montegenevre (1,850m) and then up to the ski station at Sestriere (2,035m) was a great way to sign off.

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