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Pedal Through, by first-time film director and new mountain biker Analise. Follow her journey of self-healing and growth during a week-long bikepacking adventure through the Oregon backcountry.

Self-Deprecation and the Female Cyclist

I’ve been planning on writing this piece for a few weeks now, but struggled with finding the right way to go about it. Wouldn’t you know it, before I got my act together and sat down and finished the thing, badass mountain biker  Stacey, posted something very similar to the draft I had begun. I considered scrapping my piece altogether, but after more consideration, I thought maybe I could build off of what Stacey had started.

So what is this popular issue? I’m calling it self-deprecation. Stacey calls it our need to apologize. 

“I’d love to come, but you might be waiting for me at the top of the climbs…”
“I’m not sure I can handle that descent...”
“I’m racing, but my goal is just not to be last...”

We’ve all heard these disclaimers before. I know I am guilty of prefacing my ride with comments like these, and I also know I’ve heard them from women much stronger than me. 

What is it about joining in on a group activity that makes us feel it is necessary to give everyone a PSA regarding our potential performance? It’s important to note, also, that no one ever asks this of you when you show up to a new group ride. No scary gang of girls rushes up on you, demanding to know if you will slow them down on the hills. Rather, I often volunteer this information, uninvited, and in doing so, I believe I not only lower others’ expectations of me, but I certainly lower my actual capabilities as well. As Stacey points out, “say something a thousand times and you’ll start to believe it.” It will start to be true. 

I find this phenomenon especially baffling, considering that female athletes are often underestimated already. It’s like we’re taking this existing paradigm, owning it, and asking for more. 

I suppose, for myself at least, it’s a form of self-preservation. I don’t want people to expect more of me that I can give, so I try to make it so they expect very little or nothing at all. This doesn’t sit well with me though, because I am not generally a self-deprecator in other areas of my life. I am happy with my strengths, and practice confidence on a regular basis. This took me many years to master, but I would like to think that I have finally grasped the skill of self-assurance. So what is it about getting on the bike that turns me into someone else? Someone who feels the need to preface her attempts with a prediction of failure?

 I hesitate to venture this guess, because I know it will be met with friction. However, I do believe it might have something to do with how women have been regarded in the sport over time.

I recently attended and raced a USAC crit, my first of the season. I raced in the W3/4s (got my butt kicked) and was so stoked to watch the elite field race and see how they would tackle the same course. However, any excitement I felt almost immediately dissipated after hearing the announcer’s play by play of the elite field. A field, I might add, which was won by a six woman break almost an entire lap ahead of the field.

The announcer described how boring, safe, and slow women’s racing in general is. He suggested that the main field (behind the break) was not even racing at all, and might as well take themselves out. At one point, I’ll paraphrase:

“These are elite women. They are on sponsored teams, and riding ten, fifteen, twenty thousand dollar bikes. These are machines that are meant to go thirty, forty, even fifty miles per hour. And what are they doing? They’re riding them at 12 mph and still getting in crashes.”

This mysterious “crash-y” women’s field must have come from some dark recess of the announcer’s mind. He mentioned it repeatedly, as if it was a personal affront to him, and yet there were no crashes in either women’s field that day. There were, however, multiple crashes in various men’s races.

For this announcer to imply that an entire elite women’s field are a waste of their bikes and their sponsorships is frankly repugnant to me and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Later, the announcer defended himself (perhaps he heard my heckling of the commentary, as I was rather close to the officials’ booth). He claimed that he was not in general biased towards women’s racing, and in fact, once upon a time he had given a great compliment to a women’s field. He said he once witnessed a race where he was happy with the attacks and the moves made by the women, and said they were racing like a men’s field.

The day that the greatest compliment the female cyclist may receive is a comparison to a man, we’ve already lost.

Of course, I do not blame this announcer at all for any of my personal actions or the way I choose to approach group rides and race situations. I am also aware that there are many women who feel they do not fit the accepted mold of female cyclist, one who is often seen and portrayed as intimidated by the sport. However, I do not think it is too far to go to suggest that the reason some of us are unsure of ourselves is because we might have been told in one way or another, that we are a waste of our nice bikes, kits, and equipment. That we shouldn’t even enter races if we are not going to make bold attacks. I know there are some women out there, because I used to be one, who choose not to invest in decent kit until “they are good enough.” For years I wore bottom of the barrel shorts, with a chamois like a dog bed, because I felt I was not good enough at cycling to wear a well-respected brand. 

Even worse than these instances, though, is when someone allows these deprecative thoughts to actually stop her from going to an event or ride that she clearly wants to attend. It's amazing to me how many of us will let our fears actually hinder us from joining in. It's honestly like when I was growing up and I was terrified of dancing at parties and weddings. Remember when your mom told you, "Just get out and do it. What's the worst that can happen, you'll be a terrible dancer? Someone will say no if you ask them? You'll survive, and you'll be glad you did." If you're the girl on the sidelines who feels a desire to get out and dance, or to ride her damn bike, but does not, it's worse for you and it's worse for all of us who want to see everyone come out and experience the joys that we have felt. There is nothing like tackling a tough climb or fast descent with a group of women who love what you love. No one is going to look down on you or get mad at you. Everyone's just going to be happy there's more girls that showed up to the party. 

Photos courtesy of Tracy Chandler