By Becky Furuta
I could tell you a million stories. I bet you have a million of your own. At least, you do if you are a woman.
There’s the time I pulled up to a red light in the dead of winter, wearing fleece-lined bibs, a long-sleeved jersey and a heavy winter cycling jacket. Hardly an inch of skin was exposed to damp air as tiny splinters of icy snow had begun to accumulate on my gloves. I wiped my runny nose on my sleeve, and glanced at the big, silver truck on my left. A round-faced man in a thick flannel jacket cast his gaze in my direction, unrolled the window, and proceeded to tell me that it was “too cold to be riding outside,” and I should hop in his truck so he could “warm me up.” He proceeded to cat-call me the entire length of the road. I could feel my cheeks turn red and hot, the shards of snow stinging my soft face in the frosty air. I kept my head down and pedaled silent, angry circles until the fat man lost interest and the truck disappeared.
Or the time I went into a local bike shop to pick up a new tire, and the gentleman behind the counter patronizingly inquired whether my bike had “big, fat tires or smaller, skinny ones,” and then informed me that they could put them on for me so I didn’t have to “figure it out” on my own. I rolled my eyes, and took my business elsewhere.
Then there was the time that I spoke in front of a huge crowd in the rotunda at the Mall of America alongside my friend, Indy car driver Charlie Kimball, only to have a woman from the audience raise her hand and ask, “Don’t you feel bad about leaving your children all the time? What do they do while you are traveling and racing?” It was a question I had been asked a thousand times over. I had not given a media interview in years, in fact, without someone inquiring as to whether my children traveled with me, and what they did in my absence. I could be standing alongside all the fathers on my team, with young children of their own, and only I would be asked about my role as a parent versus my career on the bike. It was always irksome to me but, in that moment, on that stage, the weight of the question fell on my shoulders like an accusation. I was fighting back tears as I turned to look at Charlie, his stunned face softening in quiet encouragement. He looked into my eyes, smiled, and prodded me onward with the sort of gentle stare that willed me to reply to the aging woman. I inhaled Charlie’s calm as if he’d opened a window to a breeze inside the too-hot space of the crowded rotunda, and summoned enough restraint to get through a polite, yet pointed, response.
Sexism is, of course, endemic in cycling. At the professional level, disparities in pay and opportunities persist despite calls by both men and women for greater equity. A survey by the newly formed Cyclists’ Alliance revealed that 50% of female professional cyclists earn less than $11,800/yr., 17% get no salary at all, and more than half work a second job to make ends meet. Less than 11% of women made enough from racing to meet the $35,500/yr. minimum wage required by the UCI for professional male riders.
And the problem goes well beyond the question of pay and sponsorship opportunities for the elite. The British cycling magazine Cycling Weekly recently apologized for publishing an image with the caption “token attractive woman” above a smiling member of the Hinckley Cycling Race Club. Pinarello was criticized for marketing its new e-bike with the image of a woman who stated that she wanted to ride with her boyfriend, but to keep up with him “seemed impossible.” A Belgian advertisement for the 2015 Harelbeke cycling competition released an image of a male cyclist reaching to grab the exposed behind of a woman, with the tagline, “Who squeezes them in Harelbeke?”
Recently, under pressure from Vittoria’s Ken Avery, PezCycling News took down it’s “Daily Distractions” webpage featuring a gallery of podium girls and other “beautiful women.” While some companies like Vittoria get it right, there is still a culture in the sport which discredits and objectifies women who ride. Marketing continues to be gender-specific instead of use-specific, meaning that plenty of badass women are talked down to, ignored or glorified as objects.
Worse, many women are flat-out harassed.
A National Household Travel Survey shows that only 24.7% of bike share rentals, and 24% of all trips on a bicycle, are made by women . The national data also demonstrates that women are less likely to cycle today than they were in 2001. There are multiple explanations for the relatively low number of women who ride, but harassment and fear of assault certainly play a role. When women go out in public, they are routinely honked at, hooted at, leered at, screamed at, lunged at and told by multitudes of strange men that they would, in various terms, like to “tap that.” Women know what it’s like to be followed, touched or grabbed in the middle of the street by total strangers. And the result? A kind of low level anxiety that forces us to be more vigilant, more aware of our surroundings, to consider the routes we take when walking or running or riding, to stroll confidently through the parking garage with our keys in our fingers and our cell phone always accessible. In light of those considerations, there are some women who cannot imagine pedaling solitary stretches of lonely tarmac in tight Lycra clothing.
In so many ways, women can become the people they are told and led to be by the chorus of men around them. We hear the cat-calls and flip through the pages of the cycling publications by men and for men. We listen to the odds makers and pay attention to the negative reasoning of those who speak from a position of doubt and tunnel vision when it comes to the capabilities of women in sport. It is not as if the sphere of cycling were designed for men alone, but there remains the shadow and shape of sexism hanging in the corners of the road, and it’s easy to become trapped by those sentiments. The dreams and goals and ambitions of women get ignored or pushed aside amid the egos of the guys in charge, and it can be hard for women not to wonder if maybe those guys are onto something…. maybe this really isn’t for us.
Sexism and harassment have as much to do with power and oppression as they have to do with limited vision, limited imagination, the egos of others and what people value differently. There are any number of reasons people will try to steal confidence and joy, but none of those reasons are valid. From the moment I began my career in cycling, I had as many discouragers and I did cheerleaders, but I knew there was something that connected me profoundly with the bicycle. The rhythm of the road became the flow of my life, and it was never a matter of how much money I would make or how successful I would become. Cycling, for me, was about not loving anything else as much and being entirely consumed by the love of riding.
Women should be able to be themselves on the bike, without the worry of criticism or harassment, or having to consider how they look or who might condemn them with a remark like, “You’re just a woman, so what do you know?” Women should go forward with certainty that they belong on the road as much as anyone else, and their ambitions are no less valid. After all, the thing about your dreams and your goals is that they belong to you, and no one else. No one can take them from you if you don’t let them.
I hope my daughter won’t have a story to tell. In the meantime, I remind her that confidence isn’t inherent, but cultivated. That she should never settle for less or feel intimidated or afraid because she came into the world a girl, and that strong women are working every day to throw open the doors of opportunity to everyone. I watched her hop on her bicycle weeks ago with my two male teammates, and pedal confidently alongside the boys. They gently guided her, praised her, told her she was rad and amazing and strong. If only every woman could experience that kind of encouragement in sport from men who get it, how different might things be?