Unlike some women who cycle, I just can’t keep up with the boys. I’ve been cycling my entire life, from using my bike for transport to long-distance racing and everything in between, but even though I ride my bike every day, I still don’t feel like a ‘proper’ cyclist. When I turn up for group rides and events I get this creeping feeling there’s a piece of the puzzle missing, that I don’t quite belong.
I’m that awkward thing: a woman cyclist who isn’t ‘one of the lads’. Whereas the blokes are called Middle Aged Men in Lycra, there isn’t an acronym for us. We’re on the margins of the road – quite literally in fact. In 2007, it was reported that an internal report for Transport for London looked into why there appeared to be a disproportionate amount of female cyclists dying in collisions with lorries, and concluded one reason was the position women adopt when riding.
Whereas men were more likely to take the ‘primary position’ – in the middle of the lane, slowing traffic from behind – women would hug the curb, inadvertently putting themselves in danger of turning vehicles. Perhaps it’s little wonder that, despite numerous campaigns and initiatives targeting women over the years, stats show men are still three times more likely to cycle than women.
How do you fix that gap? It’s a question the Government must answer if it is to fairly spend the £2bn it has earmarked to launch a cycling revolution in Britain. Boris Johnson wants to “shift gears” by offering free £50 services, introducing bikes prescribed on the NHS, and unleashing a peloton of new cycle lanes across the country. Which all sounds great – so long as women will benefit as well as men.
Road safety is the general scapegoat for low levels of cycling but it doesn’t explain the vast gender chasm. For female cyclists like me, another factor is clear: there’s a lack of representation at all levels, starting from the very top. We still don’t have a women’s equivalent of the Tour de France. Meanwhile, bike companies use male Olympians in their 50s and the occasional attractive blonde girl in head-to-toe Lycra for their marketing. It just won’t get Jane Public on her bike.
Women will only see bikes as being ‘for them’ when they see women like them cycling. Take artist Sharon Walters, 45, who learned to ride a bike for the first time last Thursday, inspired by her friend, the author Jools Walker, who was featured by high-end cycling brand Rapha. “I had never seen anybody who looked like me, a black female, on a bike so I just didn’t see myself in that space,” Walters tells me. “Since I posted on Instagram (@london_artist1) so many women have messaged me saying they can’t ride a bike and I’ve inspired them.”
How to become a cyclist, in five steps
Step one: Buying a bike
The array of models in a bike shop can be confusing. Simplify your choice by looking at the tyres. Most entry-level bikes can handle most surfaces at an everyday level, but if you live in a rural area or plan on going offroad frequently, you’ll want chunkier tyres. If you want to go faster, you’ll want thinner rubber.
Above all, buy a bike you really love the look of and can see yourself riding. If a beautifully curved Dutch bike in sunflower yellow with a basket at the front lifts your heart more than that sensible grey hybrid with all mod cons, go for it.
Step two: saddling up
Saddles are a major point of frustration for women, because we feel the market doesn’t cater for us as readily as men. Anatomically, we are all different, so the only way to find the right saddle for your shape is to try different kinds. Some bike shops will allow you to test-ride saddles and forward-thinking organisations like London Bike Kitchen have a 'saddle library'. You can buy gel-filled saddle covers for extra comfort and padded cycling shorts can also help.
Step three: Kitting up
The only truly essential kit you need to cycle is a bike, a set of lights (compulsory after dark) and a lock. Everything else – including a helmet – is optional. As for Lycra, don’t sweat it. You can cycle in old clothes, casual clothes, work clothes, your wedding dress – whatever gets you out on two wheels.
As a general rule, wear something you feel comfortable and can move freely in. Trainers with a bit of grip are the best option for flat pedals. But remember: people have been riding bikes for centuries; you don’t need all the mod cons to get from A to B on a bike.
Step four: Becoming cycle proficient
Cycling instruction is available through local authorities, often free. Check your local council’s website. Accessible cycling is also available through many local authorities or charities such as Wheels for Wellbeing.
To make friends or for a confidence boost, try a free, women-only Breeze ride: group events for all abilities.
Step five: Learning maintenance
Local bike shops are worth befriending but there’s a lot you can learn to do yourself. Search locally for DIY workshops or schemes like Dr Bike, where you can roll up and learn how to fix your own bike. Even if you don’t want to get into the technicalities, at the very least you need to know how to change an inner tube, for unexpected punctures on the go.
Three brilliant bikes for women
Pashley Britannia, from £755
Stylish, practical and built to last, this is the perfect entry-level or commuting bike. The Brooks saddle will mould to your shape, and the bike is full of thoughtful details like the chain guard to stop you getting splashed. For cruising round town the five-speed version is plenty.
Liv Brava SLR, £1,799
Designed for cyclocross or gravel riding, the Brava is a brilliant do-it-all bike that’s light, agile and nippy, meaning you can just grab it and go literally anywhere. It’s also seriously good fun to ride. As it’s women-specific, there’s less chance you’ll need to swap the saddle and stem and it looks pretty sleek too.
ISEN All Season, frameset from £1,999
A true dream bike designed, manufactured and built to your spec in the UK. It oozes tech credentials but I can’t get past the paint job. Having ogled one in the (steel) flesh, I can confirm this is a class above your average tourer, and then some.