Since I posted part 1, where I looked at how marketing messages might affect women’s choices about racing, there have been a lot of responses and discussion covering exactly what I was planning to write in part 2.
Still, a promise is a promise! First I want to explore some of the issues and then, because I’ve had a lot of questions and comments from event organisers and promoters, I also want to offer some advice based on what I’ve observed and felt over 14 years of racing.
Last week I talked about how alienating some of the marketing of MTB as gnarly and airborne might be for riders, and that leads me to one question that’s asked a lot:
Is it fear of the ‘technical’ – sometimes (let’s just say it) frightening – aspects of MTB that keep women away?
There’s a reasonable chance that if you take up mountain biking you’ll fall off every now and then and end up with bruises or a scrape or two, and if you’re really unlucky, a broken bone. But from my experience assisting on skills clinics, most women are pretty happy to give anything a try despite the risks, particularly when they’re in a supportive environment and have had it all explained and demonstrated. From what I’ve seen, time and again, women are more embarrassed than discouraged when they come off, which leads me to wonder whether it’s the ‘performative’ aspect of participating in public events that worries them most.
Does shyness about putting their skills on display, their fitness, their bodies, keep women away from mountain biking and other cycling events?
I realise I’ve been writing about women’s participation in MTB as ‘them’, as if I’m somehow different from other ladies who ride bikes. I’m not. So what am I afraid of? Well I’m not worried about Portaloos, but I am worried about failure, about making a fool of myself, about falling off, about slowing other riders down, and about coming last. That never changes no matter how good you get and judging on the comments and blogs that I read from other women, it’s nearly universal.
I learned a long time ago to stifle my reservations about gadding about in a skintight onesie with a nappy sewn in several years ago, but I certainly remember how uncomfortable it was before I got so used to it. I suspect (and here comes one of those generalisations) that men are less plagued by doubt and worry about what others think about their look, ability, and how much trouble they’ll cause on the track. They have to be: One of the ways I got comfortable in my cycling kit is by consoling myself with the knowledge that the boys looked sillier than I did in their Lycra, and I still think they do. Somehow they cope.
Then there’s the fact that women have to prioritise other things. That with families, work, and households to run there’s no time left to spend half a day at an event. But while this is certainly part of it, I think it doesn’t explain everything and is no reason to give up – just look at the participation rates in fun runs (which I’ve heard are up to 80 per cent women), and triathlons, where tonnes of mothers with careers and households get out and participate.
While all mountain bike events are incredibly family-friendly and a jolly good day out with a sausage sizzle and everything, that doesn’t make it easier for mothers who have little ones, sometimes two, three kids and a partner who wants to take part or need looking after (or both). I have endless admiration for some of my mountain-biking friends who’ve managed breastfeeding between laps and dragged themselves around race tracks in spite of having had no sleep, mountains of washing, and really sore boobs – but these are women who already have social ties and a deep interest in the sport: imagine how hard it is when you don’t have that – even if you are very interested in having a go.
Social ties are essential. There is no way I would have continued racing if I hadn’t made great friends in the MTB race world and enjoyed catching up with them at events.
There are a few ways women typically come to mountain biking. Some get into it young, introduced by a family member or friend – they often have strong social networks in the sport and don’t tend to worry about the issues above as much. Many women who come MTB later in life are introduced to the sport by a partner, or even by their kids. Regardless of the skill level these women have, a huge barrier to coming to races might be knowing that there are other women just like them there, too, and not only that, actually knowing some of these women.
So, what can race organisers do?
First of all I want to acknowledge the amazing job event organisers and promoters do and all their hard work. I don’t think anyone expects them to spend more money or take on tonnes and tonnes more labour trying to effect cultural change all on their own – women’s participation is a sport-wide (even broader socio-cultural) issue.
However! In an effort to be helpful! And as I am speaking in a webinar today on the topic! I have tried to think of some strategies that might fit into the types of things event organisers are already doing, and that won’t cost the earth or cause immense amounts of extra work.
So, considering that the barriers to racing I’ve identified above include: worries about technical skill and performance/fitting in at races; access to childcare and finding time to race with busy schedules, and lack of social networks within the racing scene, here’s what I think:
I’ve talked about images we put out there and I was very interested to hear from Jodie Willett’s blog in response to my first post that British Downhill have undertaken to present 50% images of women in their promotional material in order to balance out the sport’s participation rates. Showing average women riding and having a good time (which they always do) will help get your message across without a single word.
Remarkable skill from Rachel Atherton as she makes it two wins in seven days in the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup! (Video: UCI)http://po.st/AthertononFire
Posted by British Cycling on Monday, 15 June 2015
If, as I think they can be, women are worried about techy obstacles and passing opportunities on the track, the best thing you can possibly do is have a track open day, and either target women in your promotion of it or make it women’s-only. Gold standard might be registering women, separating into groups based on ability and taking them around, ‘sessioning’ the track, but it could simply be a matter of opening the track. I understand there are labour and insurance costs involved, but I’m actually quite sure women would be happy to pay for the opportunity and if it were promoted effectively, could get a good turn out.
This is still quite difficult (I know there are issues of getting land use permissions and all kinds of obstacles), but how about getting some information out about what technical features to expect, where to go to practise (‘If you want to practise your skills, similar tracks can be found at…’), and what passing opportunities there are. I’d also be posting some pretty firm reminders reinforcing correct MTB passing etiquette (which gives right of way to slower riders who are in front of faster riders), and making sure a good supportive culture is actively encouraged (and it almost always is, that’s why mountain biking is so much fun).
Where fitness, time, commitments and childcare are a barrier, I think there are some strategies around race format itself.
I’m talking about women in their first few years of racing here… I think elite or experienced racers will always be okay to take care of themselves and choose races that suit them within the normal schedule on offer.
Some races, notably the Hellfire Cup in Tassie, offer cost-recovery childcare to women. For $75, the racer can have their child in care from briefing through to when they finish – all on site. This is again, gold standard and an amazing step, but there are other strategies you could employ.
For women with other commitments or who are new to the sport, I think lap races based around teams work very well and mean women can wrangle kids with partners or other team members.
Sometimes big events like six-plus hour races can take up a huge chunk of the weekend, are unenjoyably long for many, and too exhausting for just about anyone with a day job. No matter what your event: XCO, marathon, lap endurance, gravity – there are going to be lots of women there who would have a go if they could just find a simple first step into the sport. I wonder if a shorter event (run while normal racing is on) just for women who want to do a lap or two or a simple ‘run’ and take part, just focusing on fun and participation would be possible.
For god’s sake, whatever you can do, give women a different start time. I still detest the scrum at the start of any race and I am sure it’s quite off-putting for women giving racing their first or second go to have some strange smelly guy’s elbow in their ribs in the first two minutes of a race.
As for social networks, I’d suggest taking your marketing and promotion where the women already are. The Chicks Who Ride Bikes Facebook pages for SE Queensland are already a force to be reckoned with and the most successful example I’ve seen of galvanising women cyclists.
Otherwise, think about clubs, influential women in the sport (especially those with blogs and strong social media presence), powerful women’s cycling websites like the CyclingTips Ella site. Women are AVID consumers of skills clinics – I’d strongly suggest contacting your local skills coaches and partnering with them, if possible, and possibly teaming up for an open track day as I suggested above (if you have any energy left!).
But there’s one more thing I want to acknowledge. Yes, a lot of women are there at the events… they’re just not riding bikes – they’re handing out bottles, volunteering, and watching from the sidelines.
As kids my family used to travel up to northern NSW every year and spend a couple of weeks on the coast. In spite of making the trip annually for about 15 years, I never once saw my mum get in the water at the beach. She’d stay on the shore, looking after whichever kid was sick of swimming, or cold, or was too little to go in alone. She’d make sandwiches and shake off towels and generally ensure everyone was having a good time.
This makes me wonder… Is it that we’re carrying a bit of a cultural legacy here, where women with families choose to support their husbands and kids instead of giving it a go themselves? But more than that, is there a part of us that sees active, daring, sporty behaviour in women as somehow risqué? And is there a part of women that feels selfish for doing something so fun and so adventurous that it’s really just a form of play? Is getting dirty, bruised, or scratched in public reserved for the young? Should we settle for netball? I hope not.
But before I concluded on this note – on how sad it was that women just couldn’t overcome a cultural expectation about their behaviour – I actually asked my mum why she never swam at the beach.
‘I hated getting wet,’ she said. ‘I just didn’t like going in the water.’
Why do we women ride? It’s a combination of wanting to get outdoors, improve our health and fitness, get in some social time and gain a sense of achievement. Can you get all these things out on a social ride without entering a race? Of course you can.
I think some people just aren’t competitive, don’t like the stress, and would rather not. I hope I’ve respected that, too, and avoided generalising and labelling what is really a huge range of experiences and needs… I hope I’ve respected it because there’s a bit of that spectrum in all of us. Even after 14 years and all the good times I’ve had, there are days when I certainly don’t want to jump in and race either. Some days I just prefer to keep my feet dry and watch.