Sexism as a Barrier to Entry into Cycling

Let me be clear: I don't think that sexism is anywhere near the top barrier to entry into cycling.

But it is a real barrier and worth examining.

The barriers that exist in the mind are powerful and persistent, not least because we choose them. They are immeasurable. They fill vaccuums. They defend themselves. If they are not imaginary, but based on observable realities, they easily are accepted not just as potential hazards, but truths.

The observable reality here is that women are used to hearing men describe themselves as the default and us as a subset. "Mountain bikers and mountain biker chicks." "Cyclists and women cyclists."

We are used to hearing ourselves described as "them." We are used to hearing "girl" as a insult to mean "weak."

There is plenty of barrier to the sport without having to fend off the reinforced notion that one is by default an outsider — unwelcome unless exceptional; or tolerated as a harmless oddity; or welcome primarily as a decorative or sexual element, and slightly perplexing otherwise.

This applies across not only most sports but in the culture at large. However, I think it may be more apparent in cycling because of cycling's tribal aspect. Amateur runners and multisport athletes are individualists. Team sports players have built-in groups based on gender.

However, a cyclist, to be able to appreciate and enjoy many aspects of the sport, may naturally want to ride with a group. Most groups are male or predominantly male. The voices in cycling are predominantly male. Men's cycling is highly fetishized. A tone set by men, who from their own conditioning perceive and project cycling as a male's activity in which women may also participate, becomes a barrier.

Over the years as more women participate, this dynamic seems likely to change. And of course, no one is stopping a woman from getting on a bike and riding. There are plenty of women riding. But a woman who wants to become serious about cycling learns quickly that she may be perceived and discussed as an adjunct to a man's world, in ways subtle or overt.

When I hear beginner women athletes talk about their discomfort participating in sports near men, it is usually not because of disparate abilities, but because of the unpleasantness of being judged inferior by men. Women feel that pressure keenly when merit-based proofs — being strong, having skill, being a cool person to ride with — are confounded with proofs that one is somehow transcending one's gender.

I know women who use those terms and who equate strength with being less like other women. (This astounds me.)

As for discomforts caused by sexual objectification, those are pandemic, on a spectrum from faint to extreme, and naturally have their reflections in sports.

On the EarthRiders' mountain bike group forums, there used to be an Earthgirls forum that was hidden from the general population. Only women could see the forum. Why? I am told that the women asked for it to be created so they could discuss riding without getting skeeved out by their depiction primarily as "hot trail scenery."

Now, only 1% of humanity registers as asexual. 99% of us are sexual creatures — athletes often emphatically so — and to maintain civil relationships of all sorts, we navigate the truth of those currents in a lot of interesting ways.

Are men objectified? You bet. Is the objectification of men tied in with the idea of physical domination? Not typically. Is it of women? Yes, often. To hear oneself objectified as a woman is to feel threatened, even when no harm is likely to happen. The ideas are that strongly bound.

This is why, while "I thought 'Booby Traps' meant something else" is funny (Straight men are always thinking about boobs!), "We need to see more boobs on the trail" can be unsettling (Who are "we" exactly? Mountain bikers, assumed male). For a lot of women, statements like this trigger an involuntary fight-or-flight response, however muted it may be. It's not based on thinking that something bad is going to happen or even thinking that the man is somehow wrong to say or think this. It's not based on a desire to censor or to curtail sexuality. (Dear God, no.)

The currents are tricky. Who gets to draw the lines between objectification, appreciation, desire, and pure sexuality — or what's enjoyable flirtation and what's creepy and predatory? There's no bright line. That's precisely why fight-or-flight both makes perfect sense and is a gigantic nuisance.

It's a barrier to entry, insofar as entry into cycling (or other sports) means being around men a lot, not knowing if you're going into an arena where you're going to have to deal with your physical fight-or-flight response more than you would in some other arena — say, book club or yoga or going for nature walks.

As in many things, it seems the longer women are exposed to the full realities and possibilities of participation, the less any of this matters. But we're talking about barriers to entry.

I'm more concerned about safe streets, distracted drivers, bike maintenance skills, and bike handling skills as barriers to entering the sport. But sexism's out there too. It can be a hurdle in the path, and as we know, beginners often don't see they can ignore the hurdles and ride on around.