Sarah interviews… Isla Rowntree, on transforming cycling

Isla Rowntree is most well-known for starting IslaBikes, a company that transformed children’s bicycles, with all kinds of child-friendly innovations.  If you look up reviews, or ask online, they’re always the top recommendation and influencer, and right now there are kids everywhere loving cycling because of Rowntree’s work.

But she’s also helped transform women’s cycling before that, being a key figure in the fight to let women race cyclocross.  When Rowntree started, the GB National Championships were only for men, as were the World Cups and World Championships – and she was a major part of the fight to change that.

And she doesn’t stop taking risks and fighting for change.  Rowntree is currently working on the Imagine Project, to make children’s bikes sustainable, in a future where resources will become scarcer – through recycling, but also exciting new models of renting rather than buying bikes.  It’s a fascinating project – and as she says, a risky one personally and for her company.

We talk about all that, the challenges of effecting change – and you can listen to our conversation, or read the transcript below.

We didn’t get into the questions specifically about children’s bikes, because there are a lot of interviews with Rowntree about that out there.  A selection of interviews and articles:

And more about the Imagine ProjectBBC news item on the Circular Economy and on the project, and interviews on the Guardian and Cyclesprog – and watch the video:

Find out more about Islabikes on their website, twitter, facebook, instagram and YouTube – including their great articles on teaching a child to ride, cycling to school, and lots of ideas and tips including riding as a family, starting kids racing and more. And you can follow Isla Rowntree on her twitter too.

If you want your child to test-ride a bike, there are events all over the UK – including the Islabikes pop-up shop in Battersea, on 7-9th April 2017.

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ProWomensCycling:  Can you start by telling us a little bit about how you got into cycling?

Isla Rowntree:  I had my first bike for my fourth birthday.  It was a second-hand bike that my parents had got, and my dad cleaned it up and touched up the scratches, and it was the present that I received as a child that was the most memorable thing, and I think my love affair with cycling started right there.  I experienced all the regular clichés that people associate with their first experience of cycling – it’s freedom, it’s the first thing you have as a child that’s much more than a toy.  I wouldn’t even call it a toy, it’s transport, independence and freedom, and that’s where it all began for me.

But I also, from quite early on, engaged with it as a mechanical object – an object of interest that I wanted to tinker with, fix and modify, and I can remember doing that all through my childhood.  That lead to my first bicycle race, a local club Time Trial on a Wednesday evening when I was 12, and that’s how I got introduced to traditional cycling club life.  From there I took part in club runs, and some of those were “rough stuff” in the parlance of the day, but that would now be called off-road, but on the same bikes we rode on the road, that we toured on, that we went to school or work on, that we raced on – it was one bike that did everything in those days.

I participated in club life regularly, and then Mountain Bikes started to appear in Britain in the mid-80s – or that’s when they came into my consciousness.    And because I was already riding off-road a bit, and loving it, it was a natural thing for me to do.  Somebody lent me one of the very early Mountain Bikes in the UK when I was about 15 or 16, and I started riding that.

Because it was called a “Mountain Bike”, the first thing I did with it was try to take it up mountains – the Rhinogs in Wales – right to the top, because it was called a “mountain” bike, so why not?  And I quickly realised it was a better experience to ride among the mountains, rather than to try to go right to the top!

I got my first job in a bike shop when I was still in school, at about 16, working on Saturdays and in the school holidays, and by then cycling had become the dominant thing in my life – socially, in sport and as my first work experience.

PWC:  And you were involved in cyclocross before there were even World Cups and World Championships for women, and really helped it progress as a sport.

Rowntree:  There had been World Championships and World Cups for men, which had been going for years, but there weren’t any for women when I started, and there was no recognition of women in cyclocross at all.

I rode my first race at Wolverhampton when I was 19, and there were no other females there at all.  They put me, at 19, in the children’s race, called the Juvenile race at the time, which felt a bit odd as an adult, racing with children.

I loved it straight away, as a sport.  I was riding mountain bikes regularly as well, but I had a touring bike that I used for ‘cross, and very quickly, I wanted to do more of it, and I wanted to get better at it.  I really enjoyed the sensation of riding fast, off-road, on those types of courses, and the technical challenge as well as the physical challenge.

So I started riding cyclocross regularly, and persuaded the local organisers not to put women in with the children, but to put us in with the adults, and persuaded one or two other women that I knew were riding bikes to have a go.

There was a gentleman called Keith Edwards, who, with his wife Joan, was one of the founders of cyclocross in Britain.  He was in the West Midlands as well, and he saw me race, and I talked to him, and expressed my interest in the women’s National Championships.  Once he actually saw me ride, he very much supported me in that.  He was organising  the National Championships in Sutton Park and other areas at the time, and became an advocate.

We promoted an open Midlands Championships, which was a non-official National Championships, and I persuaded a lot of women to ride, and that made a big enough impression on British Cycling to convince them that they could introduce an official one, which they did in the subsequent year.  So then we had our National Championships, and were recognised within our National Trophy Series at around that time as well, and so a British scene emerged.

And then I turned my attention to the international scene, where there were women racing cyclocross in other countries.  We’d got our National Championships in the early 90s, I think, and then we found out that there were women racing in Holland, and they had a National Championships, and so we went to some races there – women’s races that were run alongside major international men’s races and World Cups.  From there I thought it would be good to try to persuade the UCI to introduce a Women’s World Championships.

That took a really long time, persuading organisers to put on international races for women, which happened in the late 90s, and World Cups started happening then too.  But it wasn’t until 2000 that we finally persuaded the UCI, via various international Federations that I helped lobby, to actually put on an official World Championships for women.  That happened in Sint-Michielsgestel, and in that race, Britain won their first ever senior elite cyclocross medal, Louise Robinson’s silver.

And it’s gone from strength to strength, and I think most people would agree that the most exciting race at this year’s World Championships in Luxembourg was the elite women’s race, in terms of the competitive spectacle.

PWC:  I showed it to my dad, and I know people who showed it to their friends who’ve never watched cyclocross, and it made them fall in love with the sport.  You must feel very proud, looking at that and at this season, where every major race was shown on TV, including some shown on TV in the UK, and knowing that traces back to your work.

Rowntree: Not just me, a lot of other people got on board at an early stage, and did a lot of work behind the scenes.  I don’t really think about it very often, but I have to say, when the World Championships weekend comes around each year, and I see the women’s race, and I see the standard of riding, and the standard of riding in the U23 – technically, as well as physically – I think that’s great, that’s where we’ve finally go to, but boy, did it take a long time!

PWC:  How did that happen?  Because there were some really significant barriers, and some people just didn’t believe women could ride, did they?

Rowntree:  I don’t recall the detail that well.  I remember that I wanted to do it, I wanted it to happen, and usually, if I’m in that mindset, I’m fairly dogged about going about it.    It’s a little bit of persuading, cajoling, and I think you need to be fired up by a little titchy bit of anger in there as well.

Nobody does a sport because they want to go to committee meetings, and AGMs – that’s not why we do it.  It’s something that needs to be done behind the scenes to make sport happen.  There are lots of really diligent and generous volunteers, across every sport, including ours, who make the sport happen, week-in, week-out – and those people are doing it for nothing, in their free time, because they love the sport.  So there’s a tension between needing to persuade those people to do something extra, something else that’s going to increase the amount of work they have, and the fairness, for providing something for all genders, rather than just one.

And you are perceived, particularly when you are a woman, when you’re trying to persuade people of the merits of making these changes, as…  you can become quite unpopular, you can be perceived as a trouble-maker, as “difficult”, or “pushy”.  And they’re adjectives that are often used around women who are trying to effect change.  I think it’s part of all of our gender conditioning, that we’ve had for so long, that we – and I say “we” meaning women as well as men – perceive women who push for something in often quite negative ways.  So it’s hard, and that’s why you need that little bit of anger, to give you a preparedness to put up with that, because it feels like you’re making yourself unpopular, when you’re trying to make these things happen.

PWC:  Of course, people can want you to feel like that, because it’s the social conditioning too – if they can make you feel like you’re stepping out of your lane, or being a terrible person, then maybe  you’ll shut up and they won’t have to deal with it.

Rowntree:  I don’t think very many people consciously behave like that when they’re pushing back at you trying to effect change, but that is actually what’s going on.  I’m not sure it’s as overt in people’s minds as that, but it’s a product of all of our social conditioning, and it makes it quite hard work.

It’s only two weekends ago that I attended the West Midlands Cyclocross League AGM, and they voted for a separate women’s race – and next season we will have a completely separate stand-alone women’s race at all the West Midlands races – and we’re the first League in the country to do that, and fair play to them, but it’s 28 years since I started off this journey, and that’s how long it’s taken!  It just gives you an idea – it’s a long way.

I stopped getting involved in administration of the sport quite a long time ago – I did it for a long time, I organised races, attended the meetings, and was part of the group of people that helped get the World Championships in 2000, and you do tire of it, partly because of how it feels while you’re doing it, so I did other things – not least setting up the business in the meantime.  But I’ve come back to it a little bit more, recently.

Maybe that fire has been a little bit re-ignited in me – maybe it’s partly linked to what’s gone on in world politics, in the last six months, and particularly in America, and the women’s demonstrations around the world.  You think sport can seem really trivial alongside that, but actually, it’s really important, because it’s the same thing.    If we accept inequality for women in our local grassroots sport, if we’re accepting it in that part of our lives, then we’re endorsing it in every other parts of our lives, that are perhaps more important, and I think maybe it’s part of the same thing.  So I think that’s maybe what’s re-motivated me to have another go.  And actually, all credit to the West Midlands, they were absolutely great at the meeting, and it’s gone through, and the organisers will have to do more work because of it, have embraced it, which is brilliant.

PWC:  There’s tons more about you, obviously.  You’re the world leader in children’s bikes, which is amazing, and you’ve got the incredible Imagine Project, looking at making bikes sustainable, in really exciting ways.  Where are you going next – or is that enough?

Rowntree:  That’s enough!  In fact, the Imagine Project is probably the most daunting thing I’ve ever taken on.  We’ve got a project within Islabikes, which I’m heading up with a group of three other colleagues, where we’re working out how to provide bicycles in a much more sustainable way in the future.  And this is because we believe that raw materials that we use for all our consumer products are a finite resource that will become scarce in the future.  And when a commodity becomes scarce, the price will go up, and we believe that this will make bicycles unaffordable for most families.

I’m a  passionate cyclist, and when you’re passionate about something, you’re an evangelist for it, and you want other people to like what you like – and the thought of lots of children not being able to access bicycles in the future is horrifying, for so many different reasons.

The bicycle is such a simple thing, but it can provide so much – transport at its most basic level, it solves transport issues in cities, in much less space, so it’s space utilisation; compared with cars, it’s very efficient.  And all the health benefits, and the social benefits, and the psychological well-being, and, and, and…  The thought that that might disappear for children, or be reduced in terms of the number of children who can access it, is really horrifying.

So we’re trying to work out how to do things differently, so when that time in the future comes, we have a solution in place.  We’re open sourcing that, because we want other businesses, in the cycling industry, but also in lots of other industries, to do similar things, because we believe it’s going to be essential for our well-being as a global society in the future.  There are lots of other benefits to it, it’s just it’s a better way of doing things, I think.

There are a lot of challenges – it all sounds so simple and utopian when I say it like that, but it’s not quite so simple when you actually try to do it, and it’s going to take us a few years to try to work it out.

PWC:  But I’m quite confident that if anyone can do it, you can!

Rowntree:  I don’t know.  I am quite scared about it, as well as very excited.  I’ve managed to pull a few things off thus far in my life, but it requires taking risks to do it – and when you take risks, you risk failure.  People say “We want people to take risks!”, as if though a great thing, and always works out, but the definition of risk is that sometimes it doesn’t work out – and I’m well aware that this time might be the time it doesn’t work out for me!

But I believe in it enough that it’s worth having a go – and if we fail, in that we don’t make it a commercial success at some point, that somebody else can take the learning that we take along the way, and we can hand the baton on, and maybe they can make a success of it.  So I think even if we don’t make it work, it’s still a worthwhile effort, as long as we can pass our learning on.  But hopefully it won’t come to that!

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Big thanks to my wonderful Patreon supporters, who fund me in my women’s cycling work – I really appreciate you all.

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