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Bike Talk: Will #METOO Shake Up Women's Cycling?

15 February, 2018

It's no surprise that sexism is endemic in cycling. It's one of the reason's I started this segment Bike Talk. When I first started commuting by bike in San Francisco, I didn't realize I would enter a lifestyle that would leave me with daily tales of being bullied, harassed, and mansplained about what I should wear when riding my bike. The more I got into cycling, the more I started seeing sexism in all areas of cycling, especially pro cycling. After some time, it started making sense to me that my experiences as a female cyclist was a reflection of the male dominated sport of cycling but no way was I going along with it. So much of my content is specifically created to appeal to women for that exact reason but while I've grown with women's cycling I have also seen cycling's growing pains, only now we are in the most interesting time of the #METOO movement, and I'm wondering how all this is going to shake up the cycling industry and sport in 2018. 

Before I go on, I do want to make clear that this is an opinion peace and this blog is monitored to give women a safe space to express their thoughts and ideas. The #MeToo movement has done the same in giving women a voice. We all have been collectively hit with stories that's make us reflect on our own uncomfortable experiences. Women are angry and hungry to break down sexism and cycling is going to have it's moment. 

We have seen it, there have been countless horrendous examples of misconduct by male pro-cyclists with podium girls, coaches, doctors and others abusing female athletes in their care. A handful of brave athletes have gone on the record about harassment, discrimination and abuse: Jess Varnish, Nicole Cooke, Marijn de Vries, Petra de Bruin, Tammy Thomas, Genevieve Jeanson, and, more recently, American track sprinter Missy Erickson, who shared her story of abuse as a junior to Bicycling Magazine. 

Thanks to social media and fans, the industry has not been able to ignore allegations of sexism, sexual misconduct and abuse against women in pro-cycling. Over years, pro-cycling has generated it's own backlash of sexual misconduct, abuse, and exploitation of female athletes and podium girls. The 2008 Olympic road race champion Nicole Cooke has repeatedly talked about female riders being treated far less well than their male counterparts. Pro-cycling's Lizzie Armitstead writes in her biography of sexism in the sport. Sprinter Jess Varnish alleged that the former British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton told her to “go away and have a baby” – claims he denies – after she was released from the elite program. He was suspended but is now back to the track at British Cycling. Where is the justice?

Pro women's cyclists, like Olympic silver medallist Lizzie Armitstead (now Deignan), have spoken out about the differences at the top, noting how male cyclists are paid far more and given far more support and media exposure than their female counterparts. British Cycling has pointed to the lack of female representation on its own board, pledging to recruit women board members to help even the playing field. But with years of male domination to contend with, despite the overwhelming success of female cyclists at a top level, it seems that women's moment in cycling could take some time before sexism is stamped out through all levels of the sport.
Still, women in sports aren’t the first to feel powerless in the face of their male superiors. Before #METOO, we have seen women in cycling band together to bring out allegations within the sport. We have seen women write about sexism in sport, being paid less, and above all, not having support to showcase women's cycling by the sports governing body, the UCI. 

While pro cycling will have it's moment in the spotlight, the industry and community will be impacted. Already, we see women's cycling groups ramping up in support of one another and while our small community has a way to grow, we speak often about which brands, shops, and websites don't have women's specific kit, content, gear and bikes. We share what social media outlets and accounts to avoid and call out, what men to avoid in our clubs, which men are overly and uncomfortably “affectionate,” and which men go out of their way to make women’s lives hell.

A few women have told me they believe pro-cycling, industry and the community will have its #MeToo moment too and soon. A few other women tell me that they have stopped supporting brands, IG accounts, and bike shops that only sell mens products or market with sexist ads. Some think the hostile sexist environment is so endemic to the industry there is no way to dislodge. Others believe women can’t come forward about harassment until more women are in positions of power in cycling sports and media. So while the #MeToo movement continues to topple powerful men in a multitude of industries, the women in cycling will watch, bide their time, and wait. Only this time, the language is strong and women are more empowered and united more than ever.

Is this the beginning of a long-overdue shake-up in the male-dominated UCI boardrooms, cycling industries, and back offices of pro cycling? “They’re coming,” says Michael Kimmel, founder of the Center for The Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University, who predicts that a wave of accusations against sports figures will emerge. “One big difference in 2017 is that women are being believed. Women are not on trial. Their credibility is not the issue. Men’s behavior is the issue. That is the biggest change right now.” 

I am hopeful that the broader #METOO movement will improve the culture of cycling. “There’s finally a feeling among women that it’s OK to talk about their experiences,” says Kimmel. “Watching the movement, the bravery of women coming forward, it emboldens others. The whole point is that the new generations shouldn’t have to deal with this.” As pro-cycling's road season comes to a start this Spring, I believe this will be the year we see big changes for women in cycling, hopefully in communities and industry too. Already, we've seen cycling ads include women,  some women's road media exposure, and equal prize money to it's winners, thanks Tour Down Under. Surely, this step will open the door for more women's participation in women's cycling. And if the Future Is Female, then pro-cycling has one hell of a reckoning to contend with in 2018.

Images: Sarah Reed/SATC 
Kevin Donovan said...

Hi Christina,
Wonderful post - I'm sorry I'm just coming across it now. We share the same mission and I hope you will join us by helping us get the word out about the Tour of America. We've got some great people behind us but we need more. I hope to connect with you soon! All the best - Kevin Donovan


christina said...

Will be in touch with you soon Kevin. Thank you for the work you guys are doing !!

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