On chasing men

Don’t ever get the impression I’ve got it all sorted. Just when you (I) think you’ve (I’ve) got life figured out, and it’s all plain sailing from here, you either discover something completely new that you have to get your head round, or simply realise that you’re not the master you thought you were.

Both of these things happened to me this weekend. As some of you are already well aware, since I got back from North America I’ve swapped the fatbike for a skinny carbon road bike (and it would be hard to think of two bicycles that are more different, so that was quite the transition), and I’ve started doing 400km training rides (not quite forgetting that the one time I got up to 200km on the fatbike, it took me 24 hours). And, for the first time ever, I’m starting to take my fitness seriously – rather than just considering it an enjoyable side effect of my cycling habit.

So I’ve joined a cycling club. Financially, it made a lot of sense – for £50 a month I get a bikefit, pedal stroke analysis, free servicing, all the yoga and pilates I can eat, and an open invitation to go out on club runs. And I was hoping for another, somewhat less tangible benefit. You see, I’m terrified of roadies. I joke about it, but I actually am. They are almost invariably male, older and musclier than me, dressed in immaculate team lycra (and the right sort of shoes and helmet), and riding bikes that cost more than I earn in a year. The few times I’ve walked through Cadence to buy an inner tube or go to a yoga class, I’ve felt like I was running the gauntlet of the Velominati, each of them casting a casually critical eye over me and my bike, and totting up the manifold ways in which we were failing to conform to The Rules. Or, worse still they’d glance briefly at me, decide that I wasn’t a real cyclist, and was therefore not worth bothering with, and go back to their espressos and race strategies. The man who signed me up seemed to hold the same view. He gazed intently over my head and out of the window as I asked him about membership, took my money without comment, and handed me a timetable of pilates classes.

This was all part of my plan though. The plan was to tackle my fear and their judgement head on – because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, over my years of adventuring, it’s that the only way to get over your fears is to face up to them; in fact, to charge bullheadedly straight through them, because once you’re on the other side it’ll all be fine, and you’ll wonder what you were ever afraid of. There will be a lot of roadies on this summer’s race. I might as well get used to them now. Also, it wouldn’t do me any harm to up my speed a bit. After all, the faster I can knock out my daily 300km, the more sleep I can get.

My first club run combined my roadie-phobia with a much older fear – that of walking up to a group of people I don’t know and introducing myself. It’s my least favourite kind of socialising, and one I’ve subconsciously rearranged my life to avoid. The night before, and over my porridge that morning, I kept wanting to back out, thinking that perhaps I could just go out on a ride on my own and that would be better, or that I could turn up at Cadence, walk past the roadies as usual, and go to a pilates class instead. It felt curiously like the first few days of my Alaska ride – I firmly wanted to stop, wait, rest, and not go on, but I also knew that the only way to get where I needed to be was to continue.

Along with the nervousness of meeting new people, and being judged on my (very old and worn-out) cycling kit, came the sudden realisation that I hadn’t been on a group ride (except one with a pub at the end of it) for several years. As a solo rider, I have nothing to follow but the rhythms of my own bicycle, body and inclination. What would I do if my cruising pace turned out to be 5mph lower than that of the other riders? What if I were hopelessly out of my depth?

When I’d checked the start time of the ride the day before, I’d also asked what the average speed might be like (“sixteen or seventeen” he said; “kilometres?” I asked; “miles” he said; “oh … ok” I said), and checked whether they had a ‘no man left behind’ policy, emphasising that I was happy to find my own way home if I got dropped. The man behind the desk was friendlier than the one I’d originally signed up with. “You’ll be fine”, he said.

When I arrived at the shop it was very clear that the bunch of beefy lycra-clad men lounging at the front table were the club runners. I hovered on the outskirts, and was quickly joined by the only other girl (slighter than me; pink cycling top; pigtails). I struggled to understand why I wasn’t more grateful to have someone to talk to. Perhaps it was because, by instinctively creating our own group, we had decisively excluded ourselves from the main group. Now the men definitely wouldn’t talk to us. And now I’d have no incentive to try and join their conversations and pretend I wasn’t afraid of them.

She told me about the 95-mile sportive she was training for in a couple of months time, and the 100-mile charity ride she’d organised from her home-town of Ipswich the year before.

“Have you heard of the Dunwich Dynamo?” I asked. She had. “It would be great for you, because you could just cycle home afterwards. For most people, getting back to London turns the whole thing into a nightmare.”

“It’s overnight, isn’t it?” she asked dubiously, and I could already tell from her tone of voice that she’d never even consider it. She asked if I was training for anything in particular.

“Yes, I’m doing, umm, a race this summer.”

She chuckled.

“I love how you call it a ‘race’! It’s always just a ride with me.” (‘But it is a race…’ I thought.)

I realized I’d forgotten my helmet. Not that I couldn’t ride without it, but drove yet another wedge between me and the rest of the group, whose shiny Kask and Catlike lids were currently lined up on the table in between their coffees and energy gels.

Before we set off, I located one of the ride leaders and repeated my assurance that I didn’t want to hold anyone up, and that I was perfectly capable of finding my own way home if I got dropped.

And we were off. Down Anerley Road, out through Elmers End and West Wickham, down Corkscrew Hill and over the roundabout onto Layhams Road – a route I love, because within 15 minutes of leaving my flat in South London I can be out in what appears to be open countryside (though is in reality more of a green finger poking into the sprawling suburbia of South East London). Not wanting to get in anyone’s way, I stayed close to the back of the pack, though at one point one of the men tried to usher me through so that I could ride next to the other girl, assuming we were together.

We stopped to regroup just before we hit Skid Hill Lane. “So we’ll go straight over this junction,” announced one of the leaders, “and then left and up Beddlestead, and when we’ll get to the top we’ll divide into a faster group and a slower group.”

Beddlestead Lane (tackled from the north) goes sharply down and then slowly up, and is one of those hills that always hold a little more in reserve – even when you’re over the worst, there are still a few more ramps, a few more bends, and a couple of fiendish false flats. Of course, everyone left me behind as we set off on the descent (I have always been an over-cautious descender), but as the gradient reversed and the climb rose up ahead of us, something unexpected happened. I caught up with the riders at the back, dutifully crawled along behind them for a moment or two, and then realised my legs would be happier going faster than that, so hesitantly pulled out, somehow worrying that they would think I was showing off, or committing the cardinal sin of leapfrogging (overtaking repeatedly at a pace you then fail to hold). The same thing happened with the next few riders I passed. I’d sit behind them for a bit, wondering, for reasons I couldn’t even fully explain, whether it was appropriate for me to overtake, and then pull out, pick up the pace, and plug on up the hill.

It was a lovely climb. Eventually the only riders ahead of me were the two ride leaders, one of them tall, lean and broad-shouldered; the other smaller, stockier, and explosively energetic.

“Thank you” said a voice from behind me as I pulled over at the top, breathing deeply. I turned round to find that a couple of the men had been drafting me up the final section.

“I thought you were a tourist when I saw that bag” said one of them, indicating my seatpack. “But you’re good – you’re strong, and you’re smooth.”

“Oh …thank you!” I said, not quite knowing how to respond to this.

He introduced himself, and offered to give me a few tips on drafting when it became apparent I’d never done it before. And when the rest of the group had reached the top of the hill, he insisted that I join him and what turned out to be only four others on the faster ride. As we rode off to the right, and the others disappeared to the left, I overheard him saying to one of the leaders “that one … tourist … but she’s actually quite good”.

I remained slightly worried that I’d fail to keep up, or that perhaps I’d have exhausted myself on that one hill, but as the man in the shop had predicted, I was fine. I occasionally got left behind on the descents, but I more than held my own on the climbs, and I was actually disappointed when, on the way back to Crystal Palace, they took a detour that avoided Corkscrew Hill.

You’d think perhaps I’d have felt relieved? Well, I did and I didn’t. I rode away from Cadence waving at my newfound friends and knowing I wouldn’t be rejected if I ever chose to go back there (which I will). I was no longer frightened, which had been my main aim for the morning.

But, as I ended up musing at length over a lunch with my sister – why was I so self-effacing in the first place? Why had I managed to convince myself that I’d be the slow one, that I’d be unwelcome, that I’d get dropped, and the peleton would ride off without me, probably having a laugh at my expense as soon as they were out of earshot? I know I’m not that bad a cyclist – I know it – so why did I so readily fall into that role? Why did I take pains to reassure the men on the ride that I knew my place, that I’d find my own way home, that I wasn’t going to intrude into their boys’ club more than I absolutely had to?

Partly, I think, I can blame road cycling for not being welcoming. It’s a common enough complaint. But really I feel that I myself am at just as much at fault. I recall Solnit’s 2012 essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me‘ (you should read it, if you haven’t already), where she recounts an (ultimately satisfying) encounter with what we now know as a ‘mansplainer‘, and talks about being “caught up … in my assigned role as ingénue”. That’s to say, the man patronising her about a subject on which she is an acknowledged expert decides to talk to her “in the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice”, and she decides to accept that power dynamic. In my case, I actually encouraged the power dynamic, by suggesting to the ride leaders that I was out of my depth, and priming them for my eventual failure.

And I still haven’t quite figured out what was going on here. As a couple of people have suggested, part of my motivation might actually have been a covert ego-trip – i.e. by deliberately lowering people’s expectations as much as possible, I was setting myself up for an even more impressive triumph when I turned out to be an OK cyclist after all. But that doesn’t explain the cringing sense of apology I genuinely felt when warning the leaders of my potential slowness, or wondering whether it was appropriate for me to overtake other cyclists on the way up a hill. Was my nervousness also, somehow, a reluctance to upset the status quo, to rock the boat, to disrupt the assumed hierarchy?

My sister spends a lot of her time in gyms, and recently trained as a fitness instructor. She also has a degree in anthropology, so almost can’t help herself noticing people’s unconscious rituals and hierarchies and peccadilloes. In her current gym, she’s usually the only woman who uses the weights section, and frequently has her workouts interrupted by men offering her unsolicited advice, or criticizing her technique – so much so that she now spends a lot of her exercising time rehearsing responses, and keeping an eye on those around her, so that next time someone tries to intervene she can say “actually I’m a fitness instructor, and you’ve been doing it wrong, let me show you.

After lunch we went out for a walk and came across the outdoor gym in Norwood Park, where she decided to show me how close she now is to being able to do a pull-up. Within no more than a couple of seconds a nearby man had rushed over, and without even bothering to introduce himself he started coaching her attentively, advising her on what grip would work best, and suggesting she move to the other side of the apparatus, where there was a counterweight that would help her to develop the relevant muscles. This went on for a few minutes, with her politely thanking him, trying to explain that she already knew how to do a pull-up, that she’d been building up these muscles for a while, that it was a work in progress, and him brushing aside each assertion with yet more advice.

I held her handbag and held my tongue, determined to let her fight her own battles, but wishing I could tell him just how wrong he was getting it. Eventually I could bear it no longer, and said “she’s a fitness instructor!” at the same moment as she finally said “I’m a fitness instructor, I know what I’m doing”.

“I’m a fitness instructor too” said the man. “A fitness consultant. At a gym in Wandsworth.”

“No he’s not” she whispered as we walked away, leaving him to it. “He’s just making it up.”

We briefly debated whether it was better for his ego to have remained unscathed, although we all secretly knew he was bullshitting, or whether we should have taken him down more decisively. It didn’t really matter, we decided, and carried on with our walk.

But I can’t stop thinking about this, and feeling disappointed with myself. Why didn’t she or I challenge him directly? Why do we so readily go along with a situation where we are right and someone else is wrong? Why was I so apologetic on that morning’s ride? Why, despite thinking of ourselves as proud and confident feminists, are we still colluding with these roles that we don’t really fit? We know better than this.

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12 Comments

  1. zero
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    Of course you’re a real cyclist: you’re a bloody courier! More ‘real’ than any bloody weekend warrior roadie…

  2. Sean
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Hello Emily
    irritatingly for a lot of people, I’m the type of person that has never had a lack of confidence and have sailed through my life, head high, never for a moment considering what if I could or couldn’t do anything. If I could – so much the better and if I couldn’t I’d just set off onto the next thing and put it down to experience.
    It’s only recently I’ve realised that not everyone is the same and some people find it hard to come up with the confidence to do something; I don’t understand it and occasionally it makes me frustrated when I see someone with far more ability than I struggling with self-doubt.
    I’ve been the typical blinkered pillock, who when they come across people with (perhaps) depression, a bit of low self-esteem or just doubting their ability to do something, cries “Pull yourself together”, “Don’t be daft”, “It’s easy”, “If I can do it …” “you’ll be fine…” etc etc.
    You know the type – a pain in the bum!

    So when I read your post today I was amazed to read that you had such misgivings about joining the Roadies; as soon as I saw what you were up to my first thought was “well she’s going to p*** that, what with her fixed wheel experience, climbing abilities etc”.
    The second thing that came to mind halfway through your piece was “I wonder just how many of those Roadies could manage a cycle across Canada in winter on a Fatbike? I suspect few.”

    Bearing in mind that men can be such arses what with their egos and apparent inability to realise, let alone understand, that the population is over fifty percent female and every single one of them is equally as good if not better than your average bloke, and women know this only too well, do you think you would have had the same misgivings had most of the group been girls?

    Because I don’t really understand lack of confidence (although I have now learned to appreciate it!) I can’t really think of any sensible advice to give you about how to assuage your misgivings. Sincere apologies you’ve had to read this far to discover this :-)

    So I thought perhaps some insight into my own experience may be of use.
    I was brought up very solidly middle-class and was fortunate to have been very well educated and my speech is modulated accordingly (as a Southerner); for want of a better description, I am accentless (exasperatingly known as ‘posh’ nowadays whereas that’s about the last thing I am).
    Despite this ‘white-collar’ upbringing, I’ve always been drawn to ‘blue-collar’ work-place environments such as juggernauting, building, factory work, largely because I prefer to work with my hands and bod rather than sit about in an office.
    As you might imagine, my [lack of an] accent has resulted in a fair amount of prejudice against me in the workplace (mostly from colleagues rather than ‘management’, surprisingly.)
    Hilariously, I’ve always been oblivious to this and just got on with the job at hand, taking whatever has come along (by way of opprobrium or appreciation of a job well done) as simply another day in my life.
    #BullInAWorkshop

    Now when I look back, from a certain viewpoint it can appear ridiculous behaviour, but then I look at all my experiences, successes and failures and of course I realise I wouldn’t have had a quarter of them if I’d hesitated, doubted my ability to learn to do something well or not expected to fit it with the crowd as a result. I knew I could do it.

    That’s probably my advice right there – whenever you find yourself doubting your ability or wavering in the face of unfamiliar people or situations, keep in mind you already know you can do this stuff, indeed you already have done it although perhaps under different guises. And you’ve done a bunch of things none of these people have done.

    I hope you don’t mind my saying that were you my daughter, I’d be immensely proud and urging you on with your plans and the hell with what other people may or may not think. It’s your life, live it your way, not theirs and be beholden to no-one but yourself.

    Hahaha – I only meant to say “GoGirl!” when I started and now look what I’ve done!

    I really enjoy your beautifully written blog BTW :-)

    Kind Regards
    Sean

    @crushtot

    • Posted May 11, 2015 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

      Ah, thank you for such a thoughtful comment! And for having enough self-awareness to recognise that not everyone is able to share your approach to life, no matter how sensible or obvious or enviable it might seem.

      When it comes to social privilege, and associated confidence in oneself, I think I’m somewhere in the middle really. I mean, there are a lot of facets of my life where I definitely drew the long straw – I’m white, my accent is posher than my roots might suggest, I’ve had a good education – etc. etc. etc. Even being female is a definite advantage in some contexts.

      The result of this seems to be: sometimes I can believe in myself, and sometimes I can’t. I was going through some old papers a few months back, and felt a surge of pride when I re-encountered teenage Emily, who somehow knew her own mind and had enough belief in herself to talk/write her way into a sixth form scholarship, and subsequently a place at Cambridge, even though there were no precedents or role models for this in her family or social circle. I can still barely believe I pulled it off. But I seemed to spend most of my time AT Cambridge being shouted down by over-confident privately educated young men, whose fathers and elder brothers and schoolfriends were all also at Cambridge. I eventually learned to shout back, but somewhere along the way I internalized the message that they knew best, that this was THEIR place, and THEY made the rules, and I didn’t belong here. If I’d known it was going to be like that, I definitely wouldn’t have applied in the first place, so I think my comparative ignorance actually gave me a crucial advantage – it was far easier to aim for something that was unknown, or mostly imagined, than it would have been to try and penetrate someone else’s fortress.

      And I think it was the same with my decision to cycle round the world – it was so much easier (and more exciting) to aim for the unknown, and to make up my own rules as I went along. Trying to conform to (or live up to) someone else’s rules has always seemed doomed to failure. (In answer to your question, it WOULD have been slightly different if the roadies had been girls, but I’d still have been intimidated. The main reason I’ve never been on one of the Rapha women’s rides is that I’ve seen them setting off from Brewer Street, and they’re all about half my size, and wearing a grand’s worth of kit.)

      I am (as you’ll have noticed from the post!) increasingly impatient with my own lack of self-belief. But I’m not entirely unhappy with how I’ve channelled it. My fear of not measuring up to others (much as I need to get over it) has made me a soloist, has forced me to be original, and has led me to make my own way in the world – and a wonderful way it is too!

      But thank you very very much for your kind words, and for sharing your own experiences. Thank you for not just saying ‘pull yourself together’. It means a lot to me that you’ve read my words and thoughts and given me your own in return. Thank you. :)

  3. Posted May 11, 2015 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    They are willy wavers. Just like the emailers and testosterone fuelled advisers that amuse us throughout. Let it be my friend, let it be :-)

  4. Wobbly
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    I understand why you, a strong rider, took such a “submissive” (probably the wrong word, but I hope you get my gist) position when signing up for something new(ish) with a group of people you didn’t know.

    However to explain why in a coherent manner would only be possible if I’d not had that third (or was it fourth) glass of wine. Glass? Bottle? Whatever.

    So, I’m afraid I’ll have to leave my laser-like, incredibly germane insight until I’ve sobered up. At which point I’ll have forgotten what it was.

    :)

  5. Posted May 12, 2015 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    I do recognise where you are coming from Emily. I found myself saying similar things about pace and ability when in conversation with some roadie friends recently but another friend cut me off short with the words, “you have got nothing to prove Tony”. He could just as easily have been talking to you. The problem is, knowing you have nothing to prove is one thing, behaving that way is quite another. You remind me of a certain woman that came and joined in a few of our club rides for a while. It didn’t take long before most of the blokes in the club were nervously hoping she wouldn’t turn up and leave them for dead on the hills. You know what men and egos are like so be gentle with them. 😉

  6. Posted May 12, 2015 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    so sad to read this. dunno, apart from that i don’t like these “sportive” club-guys for many other reason as well – sticking with them is just wasted time in my eyes. do _your_ miles, do _your_ routine, visit friends far away, go there by bike, (… or whatever reason it takes, uhhh that one ice cream shop in xyz miles…) and have _your_ time on the road. you’ll be on your own anyways. if you look for company for long rides, i’d say there won’t be many with the same style of riding. never had a look into these brevet-clubs or smtg similar, could be that the are more relaxed. most of these clean-jersey-roadies would jump on a tree if they get a smell of you after you’ve done a 200miles ride.

    hm. am close to delete what i just wrote, because it seems also a bit like being a “Klugscheisser”, sorry for that. see ya.

  7. Notak
    Posted May 12, 2015 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Pilates, yoga, pedal stroke analysis, bikefit, £50 a month? Are you sure this is a cycling club you’ve joined? Or perhaps it’s just another example of the ‘London bubble’? Round here cycling clubs cost about £10-15 a year and take you on weekend rides and/or races!

  8. Jenne
    Posted May 22, 2015 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Because we never know which man will turn violent when we tell them to piss off. Because men told to piss off have decided that women are trying to tear them apart and have become men’s rights activists.

  9. Jo Upton
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. I can very closely relate to what you describe. I have recently joined Dulwich Paragon and had similar feelings of inadequacy and felt very intimidated by joining and riding with the club…. Still have them. My background is similar to yours. Ex courier, worked as a cycle instructor, office job now but bike everywhere and love touring.
    In my current work I conduct a lot of research for various sporting NGBs looking at how to encourage more people to participate in various sports. The feelings of inadequacy are very widespread and get in the way of many people doing anything. They do effect women but not exclusively, men can also feel not good enough.
    It would be good to run into you one day… Maybe in the club run! Jo @bikelove

  10. Imogen
    Posted June 6, 2015 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Oh. Yes. ALL the time.
    Some of it gets better with age.
    And darling wonderful Emily – if anybody’s a real cyclist, SURELY that is you. You cycle for a living, how much more real does it get? And you rode to Japan. Through China in ten days. Innit.
    So they can stuff that in their shorts and eat them.
    But, yeah. Been there, got the T-shirt.
    Oddly, what I am finding out just now is that taking *other* people seriously rather helps. I.e. not the judgemental pricks who I fear will judge me; but taking the people seriously who say or show me that they think I’m *not* an idiot. I tended to just dismiss them as either a) idiots themselves (cos they had failed to notice my idiocy) or b) just being nice/kind/polite.
    But when people I respect and who are not exactly given to being nice/kind/polite give me bewildered looks when I wail that I know NOTHING, and this happens several times, mebbe I can take their reaction seriously. And, thereby, myself. A bit.
    This is last week’s startling insight/idea, & I’m still very much mulling it over as an interesting possiblity.
    You know. All those people who said, “She’s good.” Because you actually ARE. So there.

    Oh, also: Impostor syndrome: (“particularly common among high-achieving women”). Innit.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome

  11. Posted June 7, 2015 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    I agree, she should have called him out for misrepresenting himself as a fitness consultant.

    And you’re a stronger cyclist than you think. It sounds like some of those men are just old in thinking about women and their capabilities.