Sheroes on wheels

This year’s International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, was themed around gender parity which no doubt resonates with women from all walks of life.

As a woman who cycles and a huge fan of both men and women’s professional racing, I’d love to say that my favorite sport is a utopia of equality and parity isn’t an issue. Sadly, the truth is quite the opposite. In professional cycling, the pay-gap is more like a gaping chasm. For example, at last year’s World Championships team time trial in Ponferrada, Spain, the winning men earned £26,500 whilst the women’s prize fund was only £8,500.

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At Velothon Wales 2015 – how many women can you count?

The world of non-professional cyclists also seems to be a bit of a sausage-fest. It’s always pretty disheartening to take a look at the start-list for a sportive and discover that only 5-10% of participants are female. For women who want to get serious about cycling, options to buy decent clothes and bikes have been pretty limited until recently. Even in the larger branches of the major high-street bike shops you’re lucky to find more than a handful of women’s bikes and the models stocked are normally at the lower-end. Clothes are limited to a small selection of baggy commuter hi-vis jackets and poorly-fitting jerseys.

However, the times are finally changing. Progress might feel slow but there’s a shift towards a more gender-balanced future for cycling. For professional cycling, the Women’s Tour is leading the way in TV coverage and by making the prize money equal to that of the men’s Tour of Britain. Some of the biggest brands are starting to look seriously at their women’s design. Liv and Cervelo are now working closely with their professional teams on innovative female-specific design which should encourage the rest of the industry to follow. Giant‘s stores are a shining example with Liv taking up roughly half of the floor-space. Even if your local bike shop is stuck in the dark ages there’s an ever-expanding choice online. If you don’t believe me just take a look at the incredible selection of brands available through the award-winning women-specific retailer VeloVixen.

Yes this is an exciting time to be a female cyclist, made all the more exciting by the inspiring women driving change forward. There’s too many amazing ladies out there (just look at the list of Strongher ambassadors) but in a belated Women’s Day celebration I’d like to introduce you to some of my Sheroes who constantly inspire me to kit up, kick ass and ride awesome.

Lizzie Armitstead

http---coresites-cdn.factorymedia.com-rcuk-wp-content-uploads-2016-03-Lizzie-Armitstead-world-champion-Boels-Dolmans-Troffeo-Alfredo-Binda-Cittiglio-pic-Boels-Dolmans-1020x716Before I saw Lizzie battle Marianne Vos at the London 2012 Olympics (a battle which saw Lizzie take the silver and the first of many GB medals that year), I had absolutely no idea just how exciting women’s road cycling could be. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’d even seen any women’s racing. On that rainy day, Olympic gold came down to an exhilarating sprint which had the whole country on the edge of their seats. I’ve been hooked ever since. This formidable woman from Yorkshire recently became only the fourth British woman in history to win the World Champion stripes on the road and since then has been almost unbeatable, taking the win in three out of her first four races of the season. Luck has nothing to do with it. Preparation, tactics, hard work, nerves of steel. This is what makes Lizzie a world champion. I’ll never forget the time I saw her being interviewed at an event not long after she earned her stripes. Summarizing Lizzie’s ride, the interviewer described how it looked like was putting herself in danger by letting the breakaways go and asked how it felt to feel like she was loosing. At this point I’ve never seen somebody look so deadly serious when she replied with a simple ‘I was always in control.’

archieKatie Archibald

As an accident-prone cyclist with color-changing hair myself, I have a lot of love for this multi-talented young lady. Not only is she Scotland’s first female track cycling world champion and a triple-gold medalist at last year’s European Track Championships, she’s also a fashion maverick who can convincingly wear two different-colored pairs of tights at once (see her frankly brilliant Instagram feed) and a refreshingly entertaining columnist for the Herald Scotland. Her latest column features the only response for prying parents wondering when you’ll settle down: ‘I’ve been with the same gal for years now and my mum won’t like it: she’s 6.9kg, carbon fibre and totally incapable of supplying a grandchild.’ I love cycling as a sport but it’s far more engaging to watch people who actually have personalities and lives of their own.Keep up with her adventures on Twitter and watch out for her at Rio 2016!

Sarah Connolly

As I type this blog post, the third race of the inaugural UCI Women’s World Tour, the  Trofeo sconnollyAlfredo Binda, is playing out in the background. Unfortunately, there’s no coverage in English language so I have a rather confusing Italian stream on my television. Confusing because a) my grasp of Italian extends to ordering a beer and b)
the only live images are broadcast from the finish line of the short course in Cittiglio which the riders cross four times and c) the broadcast keeps cutting to images from earlier parts of the race. As always, I have Sarah Connolly to thank for helping me to understand what the hell is going on. Being a fan of women’s cycling (even men’s cycling at times) can often be hard work but Sarah’s blog Pro Women’s Cycling makes it that much easier. Embracing all forms of social media to share her passion for the sport, from live commentary on Mixlr to insightful and entertaining Twittering, her encyclopedic knowledge of womens’ cycling hasn’t gone unnoticed. She’ll be bringing her indomitable wisdom to the TV coverage of the Aviva Women’s Tour later this year.

Alicia Bamford

QoM9156564_copy_reduced_height_75.originalLast year I was lucky enough to get a ballot place on the Ride London 100 sportive. Lacking enough knowledge of the area to confidently train alone, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a women-only training ride organised by a cycling shop in Kingston-Upon-Thames. Sadly, where I live in Southampton, I’m pretty short on female cycling buddies so off I went on the train by myself, anxious about being Nora-no-friends. What if they all knew each other? Londoners all have fancy bikes right? I bet they’re faster than me. Thankfully, my fears were entirely unfounded and as soon as I arrived at the meeting place I was chatting away like I was among old friends. This is when I met Alicia who initially stood out not only by being an Aussie but also by her ridiculously huge passion for cycling and infectious positivity. She convinced me that I was fast enough to ride in the front group and being able to keep up was a real confidence boost for the main event in August. It’s this encouraging, inclusive personality that she’s channeled into her Queen of the Mountains brand that will 100% make it a brand to watch. As well as creating a beautiful, well-thought range of coordinating pieces in stunning colors, Alicia has been nurturing a growing community of female cyclists in the London and Surrey area, facilitating rides for all abilities. Check out her website for details and maybe I’ll see you there sometime!

The Breeze Network

London to Brighton bikes 18.JPG.galleryBritish Cycling have pledged to change the culture of cycling and get one million more women on bikes by 2020. This isn’t something they can control centrally from within their organisation. They rely on hundreds of ordinary women from all backgrounds and cultures to share their own passion for cycling with other women. The Breeze network is facilitated by British Cycling who provide ride-leader training, kit and an online booking facility but it’s the hundreds of volunteers who run the show, organizing rides every day for all abilities. For women who are interested in cycling but nervous about where to ride, don’t have anyone to ride with, want some like-minded-buddies to share cycling wisdom, Breeze has been a triumph. Their volunteers have helped thousands of women to build their cycling confidence, with many participants going on to take the Ride Leader course themselves and spread the wheel love even further. The launch of the Breeze Challenge sportive series in 2015 has even given women who want to take their cycling up a level the opportunity in a friendly environment. Who knows, I might even see a few more ladies lining up with me at the start-line of the next sportive…

 


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No such thing as bad weather?

Rule #9//

If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period.

Fair-weather riding is a luxury reserved for Sunday afternoons and wide boulevards. Those who ride in foul weather – be it cold, wet, or inordinately hot – are members of a special club of riders who, on the morning of a big ride, pull back the curtain to check the weather and, upon seeing rain falling from the skies, allow a wry smile to spread across their face. This is a rider who loves the work.

As a year-round cycle commuter, out of all the Velominati’s rules, Rule 9 is my mantra. And Rule 5. But then Rule 5 is for everyone right. OK so if you believe John Ruskin then ‘sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.’ Yes to sunshine, yes to rain, wind….oh yeah sure there’s nothing  I love more than furious pedaling to move at approximately walking-pace and snow? So pretty when it falls from the sky, how funny when it tickles my nose. Then it turns to ice. Remember that bit where Bambi’s on the ice? Yeah that’s me. Every year. Except I’m clipped into my pedals. Every year.

Saturday December 12th was Rapha‘s annual Rule 9 day for women, Braver than the Elements. In recognition of the fact that for most cyclists, winter changes our riding habits, the luxury cycling brand extends an invitation ‘to all women who ride to step out into conditions you might otherwise shy away from.’ Why just women? Cycling is still a male-dominated sport; according to British Cycling statistics there are now more than three times as many men cycling as women. It’s easy for anyone to be put off by the cold and the dark and it can be hard to get back on the bike after months off. Could ‘Braver than the Elements’ motivate women to challenge themselves to keep cycling through the colder months? 37 organised events around the world with a photo competition and wide participation via social media certainly go some way to enable a sense of camaraderie that reaches across continents, even for those riding alone.

Since there was no organised ride near me and I hadn’t summoned up the organisational skills to do anything about it, I embarked on my battle against the elements with my long-suffering boyfriend for company. With my monthly Strava Gran Fondo badge (and my pride) on the line, I was committed to 100km. Wind gusts were forecast to reach up to 40mph so it wasn’t going to be easy. Living in a city center, we are somewhat sheltered from the elements, but out on the open heath land of the outskirts of the New Forest there’s nowhere to hide. The first climb of the day, a subtle, steady grind, never worth more than three or four gear changes, became a monstrous peak worthy of inclusion in one of Simon Warren‘s top 100s. I wrestled my bike away from the ditches that the over-enthusiastic road camber seemed determined to tip me into and grinded the pedals to the summit only to be rewarded with a slight descent which demanded just as much effort as the climb. The shelter of the trees was my far-off oasis, beckoning with loving arms and whispering leaves. With streaming eyes I somehow made my way into the sweet relief of the forest. The ups and downs of the road didn’t matter now that the trees would protect me.

...and breathe!

…and breathe!

Reaching my old favorite roads around Beaulieu felt like a victory against the elements. Wiping away the tears from my windswept face, I stopped to commemorate the day with a picture at St Leonards Grange, dismounting to sidestep a rather suspicious-looking and rather large horse (I’m braver than the elements but not brave enough to risk a kicking). It was here that we saw our first fellow cyclists of the day, a club ride making it look easy. Damn them and their drafting. I don’t follow, I lead and that’s what I did. I led us round an old familiar loop feeling clever that in the direction we were going the wind would helpfully propel us from behind. How I chortled at the poor old chap struggling the other way, gripping the handlebars, head down. ‘It’s harder this way,’ he shouted. Funny. Until the next loop where I took a wrong turn and we ended up coming back on the same road. Of course I tried to imply I’d taken us the hard way deliberately. Remember Rule 5?

After several choppy loops and some exciting interactions with the New Forest’s excellent drivers, we were kindly aided on the long road home by a wind that for once was in our favor but reaching the shelter of the apartment block I dismally noted the number on my Garmin. 99.14km. In the face of adversity, failure is not an option but having faced up to the grueling wind, having come so far, my laps of the car park felt like victory laps (rather than ‘oh hell I’ve miscalculated my 100km route’ laps).

With my trusty Beast safely locked away (you name your bikes too right?) it was time for hot chocolate and a leisurely scroll through the Braver than the Elements photos from the rest of the world, feeling proud to have joined so many strong women at least in spirit for a badass ride but disappointed to have only seen two women on my local route. Watch out though New Forest – next year I’m getting myself organised and I will lead a ride, come rain or shine (but preferably rain right?) because there’s strength in numbers.

Adventure Time

Enjoying a mid-ride snack :)

Enjoying a mid-ride snack 🙂

As a self-confessed Strava addict, this weekend’s long bike ride was very much inspired by the current Adventure Challenge. Just in case you’re not familiar, Strava is a fabulous app you can download onto your smartphone or synchronize with a GPS device to track your every cycle ride or run. Set up clubs or connect with friends and you can see each other’s routes and compete on segments of road or trail. Apart from my endless quest to capture those QOMs (Queen of the Mountains which, the award for fastest girl on a segment), I’ve become slightly obsessed by badges which are earned by completing challenges. They’re not even real physical badges but that congratulatory email that comes through after a long ride is (sadly) the cherry on top of an awesome day in the saddle.

To earn the latest ‘Adventure Challenge’ badge, Strava says we should go exploring and ride a route we haven’t ridden, taking photos along the way. Being the adventurous type, it sounded like an awesome idea to me so I turned to my expert navigator boyfriend and together we agreed on a 150km route (the length’s important – there’s also the Gran Fondo badge to earn!). Despite a super-chilly start, the day soon became beautifully spring-like as we sailed past bright green fields and luscious forests out of Southampton and up to historic Salisbury where we devoured delicious cakes at Boston Tea Party before heading out for the home leg. Having negotiated our way back out through the Salisbury one-way system, we enjoyed tackling one of the few notable hills in the New Forest at Blissford,  and meandered home through the pretty hamlets and villages, dodging ponies and donkeys as we went.

A good day’s riding makes for thirsty work and, as we all know, beer never tastes better than at the end of a ride. Having made a brief stop at home for food and showers, we continued the adventurous theme for the day and headed out to the new and only brewpub in Southampton, The Dancing Man. As a reluctant Southampton resident, I OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAoften find it difficult to find many nice things to say about the city. It’s dirty and boring and smells of wee and marijuana and for a long time there was nowhere to go to drink good beer. Thankfully, however, I now have three good things to say about Southampton. 1) we have the ridiculously tiny but incredible Butcher’s Hook 2) we have one of the best bottle shops in the country, Bitter Virtue and 3) we have the Dancing Man! Bet you wish you were here now!

When I heard the people behind the Platform Tavern (great beer but not a big fan of the entertainment because I am a killjoy) were buying the city’s only surviving medieval Wool House, I was terribly excited, not only because their beers had so far been a massive success but also because I had always been curious about the building but never been in. The Wool House was built after the French raid of 1338 by Cistercian Monks from Beaulieu Abbey and has had a variety of uses including a prison for French soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars. A building with such a rich history deserved loving restoration and the Dancing Man Brewery have totally nailed it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWalking in it’s impossible not to be impressed by the grand wooden staircase or warmed by the inviting fairy lights and candles. The two floors have been designed with a feeling of openness whilst retaining a cozy, rustic look, perfectly mixing the old and the modern. The move of brewing production to the larger space has obviously been a success. Being admittedly a little tired from our adventures, we only had one beer each so I went for a Last Waltz (5.3%), the house black IPA which was just incredibly fresh and delicious. Just think of the big bitter hops and hedgerow berries of Brewdog’s Libertine but then imagine it from a cask. Crazy stuff and without a doubt the best real ale I’ve had in a very long time. The boy went for local favorite Vibrant Forest‘s flagship porter, Black Forest, again expertly kept and served even if it wasn’t brewed on site.

So is there anything bad to say about such a gorgeous new addition to the city? Well, there was the small matter of most of the taps being off. For our needs there was enough to choose from but for a longer session we might have been stuck but perhaps on a Sunday evening this was just a sign that Southampton is thirsty for great beer and maybe the weekend hoards had almost drunk them dry. Nevertheless, I’ll be looking forward to my next visit and having had a good look at the delicious-looking menu I’ll definitely be back for food.

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Loving the lighting!

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Do I have to go back out there? The candles are so cozy!

 

Here's where the magic happens

Here’s where the magic happens