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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