Why Do I Have To Race Men Or Not Race At All?

A couple of weeks ago I took place in the Red Hook Crit in London, a closed circuit track bike race with a pretty fearsome reputation and very high standard. I was one of nearly 70 women who entered, and I’d done so because I’d seen other girls riding at the previous event in Milan and thought, ‘that looks fun – I wonder if I could do that too?

Last October’s Red Hook Crit event in Milan had a far smaller field, with riders numbering somewhere in the mid teens, but seeing those ladies doing their thing was enough to make me consider racing and ultimately take the plunge this summer.

Just a year prior to that race, I’d have been disappointed in Milan, because there wasn’t a women’s category at all. That spark of interest would not have occurred, I wouldn’t have entered RHC London and those who joined me in doing so might not have either.

 

Juliet Elliott Fixed Gear Charge Ti Plug

 

It was a similar story with Steel City DH in Sheffield. Last year, I’d been approached about the event as the organisers were keen to have a strong women’s field and were actively seeking out female riders to invite and encouraging us to enter. I was unable to attend that year, but after following the event online and hearing how amazing it was, this year I signed myself up. Again, the event had grown and I was one of around 70, making up one of the biggest female fields ever seen in a UK mountain bike event. The girls were happy and the guys were amazed, wondering ‘where on earth had all these women come from?’

So far, so good, right?

 

Wrong.

These events are not the norm, and if I’m blessed with a daughter when I have my own family, I’ll have to explain to her that she’ll have to make do with cheering her brother on most weekends, because ‘there aren’t enough women to warrant stand alone women’s races,’ apparently.

I’m so bored of that same old line being trotted out by organisers. Of course there aren’t enough women entering races if there aren’t any races for them to enter – how can a race scene ever grow if there’s not even a seed there to begin with?

We have to begin somewhere, or this situation will never change. The organisers of Red Hook Crit and Steel City Series saw that and have been rewarded handsomely, not just with our gratitude, but with our money too.

The point is, women ride bikes and many want to compete but organisers may need to take new and different approaches to build a thriving women’s scene. Because historically there is no such scene, they need to help lay the foundations of one; they need to take the plunge and build something great from something initially small. By not bothering to try, they’re failing you and I and sending a strong signal to woman that we’re not worth the effort.

In a country in the grips of what some call an ‘obesity epidemic,’ I think that’s morally wrong.

 

What’s the point in campaigns like Sport England’s This Girl Can, designed to encourage female participation in sport, when there aren’t incentives or indeed demands that governing bodies give us opportunities and there’s little infrastructure to help grow women’s sport? I’m not even talking about equal opportunities; just some opportunities would be nice, because let me tell you, This Girl Can’t when it comes to track racing where I live – I have to race the men or not race at all.

Maybe you’re wondering why I think we should get special treatment and ask organisers to make an extra effort to help us? Maybe you think that women need to just step up and get involved, make some noise, demand their own events, or ‘man up’ and just enter the same events as the guys to ‘show they’re serious.’

I’d like to know why we have to campaign to have the same infrastructure as men? It’s like it’s ‘our fault’ for being female so we have to sort the problem out ourselves – shouldn’t equality be a collective effort for the good of us all?

Do you fancy telling your mum she’s just not as important as your dad? Your daughter she’s not as worthy as her brother?

 

As I said, some organisers have taken steps to redress the balance and it’s paying off – for them and for riders like me. And I began writing this article as a positive celebration of what’s been achieved by events such as the Red Hook Crit rather than another ‘grumble piece,’ keen not to just have a moan about the state of women’s cycling. I know there are a lot of pieces like this already out there… and I felt the need to apologise for what might be seen as another angry rant. But surely having an understandable response to this situation, that of sheer frustration, is justified?

So enough already. I’m angry and that’s that and we should be; sometimes it really sucks being a woman. Though there are many, many more important issues of gender inequality that need tackling than whether or not I get to race at the weekend, as a female cyclist living in a supposedly forward thinking nation I am just so frustrated at how totally unfair things are for my half of the population.

 

Juliet Elliott Fixed Gear Portrait Cycling Active

 

So what do you think? Do you think it’s up to the competitors or the organisers? Do we need legislation, voluntary pledges, a dedicated task force? Maybe you’re an organiser frustrated by low female turnout at your events – I can understand that too, but could it be symptomatic of the cause?

I’m not claiming to have any of the answers and I’m certainly not pointing fingers; I wouldn’t know where to point them anyway. I just wanted to get this out there as we need to keep talking about issues like this. Because I want to race women not men – racing other women is hard enough already!

EDIT: It’s great to read so many comments below and on Facebook – thank you for sharing your thoughts.

I’m adding this footnote due to some of the more negative responses this piece has received  – not  particularly in the comments below, but on reposts or shares dotted about the internet. Some people seem offended that I have an opinion on this matter, feeling I don’t have a right to say anything about this unless I am actively doing something to change things. If you happen to be one of those people, hear this:

Everyone has a right to an opinion, and by sharing mine I’ve helped sparked conversations and inspire debate, so I am actually doing something.

As for the other point:

I have trained as a British Cycling coach so that I can help with the development of womens cycling. I have run a series of free coaching workshops for women. Myself, my husband and my friends are in the process of organising more local women’s events. I actively promote local races and try and encourage female entrants. I write this blog that aims to do the same thing. So, erm, yeah. Where’s the emoticon for two fingers?

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Comments (30)
  1. Richard July 24, 2015 at 9:02 am

    Go encourage women to not only cycle, but also compete. There are alot more female cyclists these days but that I don’t see that desire to compete, to race in nearly as many of them as I do in men. Races are the easiest thing to happen once you have the numbers. Work on that.

    Also don’t play the victim here. Go change the attitudes of women regarding competition or race with the men. There isn’t a conspiracy here, so don’t go down that path. Your smarter than that!

  2. Grace July 24, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Totally hear you, though there’s a great group on Facebook around my neck of the woods which encourages women to race. Tameside only does one women’s race a month “because there aren’t enough women to warrant a weekly race”. I had a bit of a moan to someone in our events team a couple of weeks ago but it always falls on deaf ears or everyone points the finger at each other. I think it boils down to “be the change you want to see in the world” – contact your Regional Event Organiser, get together with some other women racers and see what you can deliver together. It might only be one race a year but it’s a step in the right direction. Guarantee if you put a call out for volunteers at local clubs, you’d have some pretty good support.

    • Juliet_Elliott July 24, 2015 at 11:23 am

      Hi Grace! You’re right, we do need to help make changes. Myself, my husband and some other local riders are joining forces to make improvements. We’ll be putting on some races, getting feedback from other riders and doing what we can to improve things in the South West.

      • Grace July 24, 2015 at 2:48 pm

        That’s awesome! I was unaware you’d done so much training so kudos to you and your team of amazing people! I realise I have it quite lucky in the North West. You’re doing a great job just doing what you do!

      • Karen Wyle smith July 25, 2015 at 6:49 am

        Hi Juliet, I would be interested to be involved with plans for women’s racing/training on the south west for 2016.

        • Juliet_Elliott July 28, 2015 at 7:48 am

          Hey Karen. That’s great, do you want to drop me a line via the contact form and I’ll get in touch?

  3. Richard Hill July 24, 2015 at 9:51 am

    Hi,
    Just a bit of context. I’m a male, bike rider/race/organiser for 20+ years , father to three daughters and had a mother with a strong feminist streak. I’ve also followed womens cycling for a long time and count on a few top flight women riders as friends. I’ved raced against Nicole Cooke, and Lucy Garner I can vouch first hand that they deserve more support.

    Yes the scene for women is crap. There is no other word I would use for it.

    I see a lot of people talk about how bad things are but do they positively put back into the sport help and time to push it forward?

    Rather than racing one weekend – why not organise an event? It isn’t rocket science.
    Rather than racing a weekend – why not marshal at an event? Help out?
    What about giving up some time to help promote the sport?

    There is a lot that riders themselves can do but don’t and just think the sport should come to them. A lot of riders seem to forgot that those races they loved most were organised by riders for them – the organiser just happened to be a bit ‘older’.

    Its not really a rant – more trying to put across some more ideas about what could help this side of the sport.

    • Juliet_Elliott July 24, 2015 at 11:25 am

      Hello Richard, thanks for sharing your views. Having read Nicole Cooke’s biography myself I would have to agree with you that our top women need more support.

      Perhaps I should have mentioned in my post that I do help promote women’s races, I have organised events and I’m in the process of organising more.

  4. Jordan July 24, 2015 at 10:19 am

    This is a really interesting article and has sparked some great conversation between my family (my sister, and occasionally I, race and my brother is a coach and race organiser). Just wanted to take this opportunity to invite you and all your readers to race at one of my brother’s events, the Dave Creasy 6. This year for the first year they are running the women’s madison national championships and a women’s team madison. We’ve really pushed for women’s events and it would be so cool to get a huge turnout and prove how important it is to have specific women’s events at big races like
    this. It will be run at both Lea Valley Velodrome and Herne Hill Velodrome over two days: http://www.davecreasy6.co.uk/

    Would be good to see you there and hope you can spread the word 🙂

    • Juliet_Elliott July 24, 2015 at 11:27 am

      Hey Jordan! Glad it sparked a conversation, that’s what I was hoping to do really. I’ll be sure to share news of your event and do what I can to help encourage women to enter. And if I manage to get some track racing experience before then I’ll definitely enter myself as well.

  5. Jordan July 24, 2015 at 10:29 am

    This is a really interesting article and has sparked some great conversation between my family (my sister, and occasionally I, race and my brother is a coach and race organiser). Just wanted to take this opportunity to invite you and all your readers to race at one of my brother’s events, the Dave Creasy 6. This year for the first year they are running the women’s madison national championships and a women’s team madison. We’ve really pushed for women’s events and it would be so cool to get a huge turnout and prove how important it is to have specific women’s events at big races like
    this. It will be run at both Lee Valley Velodrome and Herne Hill Velodrome over two days: http://www.davecreasy6.co.uk/

    Would be good to see you there and hope you can spread the word 🙂

    • Juliet_Elliott July 28, 2015 at 8:06 am

      Hey Jordan, thanks for your comment. I did reply but my reply seems to have disappeared!

      Thank you so much for the invite. Unfortunately I don’t have time to get enough track racing experience before your event. I’m going to try and race this summer at Newport, even though it means I’ll have to race men, but even so I won’t have enough races under my belt by September. I’ll make sure to spread the news though!

  6. James July 24, 2015 at 10:36 am

    I suggest compulsory equal investment in development, equal prizes, equal race distances, at all levels. What do you suggest, Juliet?

  7. Lesley July 24, 2015 at 11:09 am

    What kind of racing are you interested in? I’d say the racing scene for road and track is getting better and better for women in my opinion. Organisers are putting on more and more races for women (albeit there are still much less open road races for women) and numbers are getting better. More is being done to get women in to racing in the first place with the novice race training that is popping up (road and track!) Where women havent found the racing they want they’ve set stuff up themselves… Women led leagues in the NW and E regions are hugely successful as is the TT series in SE and it looks like the London Women’s League is going to be reinvented too.

    While it’s not perfect it is getting there and in fact, sometimes I feel for Organisers who go to the effort of putting races on for women and get hardly any entries, often ending up out of pocket as a result! They are most often volunteers and apart from big sponsored events make no money from it.

    • Juliet_Elliott July 24, 2015 at 11:33 am

      Hi Lesley!

      Honestly, I’m interested in all racing as I ride a lot of different disciplines. What sparked this was a frustration that my nearest velodrome has a track league but not a single race for women. Not even one. I have never done a road race, but my friends down here are quite frustrated that there are barely any road races for women. There aren’t many crits either, though there are a few.

      As for getting involved, myself, my husband and friends are doing just that! Hopefully we can build something good for everyone, though as an organiser I wouldn’t be allowed to race myself of course.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      • Lesley July 24, 2015 at 2:38 pm

        I think perhaps we are spoilt in London! Herne Hill Velodrome certainly has the most developed programme for women I think, partly because they persevered even when number started small. Hopefully your velodrome might follow their lead! We even have our own monthly track league just for women which would never have happened a few years ago.

        I’m sure you can still race if you organise by the way! One local organizer to us frequently races in his own events (and wins!)

        It’s pretty ace to have so much debate and good to be reminded all of the UK isn’t as well served as the south east!

  8. Edward July 24, 2015 at 11:32 am

    I find your comments insulting.
    I am a race organiser and I promote the events, I dont make special treatment for men or women, (that’s equality)
    But there are not enough women committed to racing on bikes.
    And to suggest equal prizes is a great idea.
    but try explain to 150 guys who have fought to win a very tough event to then give the same in prizes to five women who are average at best.

    Put your money where your mouth is and promote events then see how hard it is to get women to race.

    Until then keep your insulting snide comments about event organisers to yourself.

    and before you start making accussations of sexism, we get consistently high numbers of women children and men in events, our latest events are now encouraging more children than ever. But it is up to you women to sort your shit out and get racing if that’s what you want. when we start having to turn women away from events because they are full then you will see equality in prizes etc.

    • Juliet_Elliott July 28, 2015 at 7:51 am

      calm down mate. I don’t see any reference to equal prize money anywhere in my piece, so not sure what you’re talking about…

    • Richard Keller August 1, 2015 at 8:40 am

      Raising awareness in races that promote true equality is not done by insulting what some men might refer to as ‘the weaker gender’. There are differences and strengths on either side in different areas, that’s just human nature. I am very surprised you say you actually are an event organiser by the views you promote here and the way you present yourself. May I ask what these events are, that you have put on?

      In my opinion your argument of 5 average women competing in a category of their own being inappropriate is utterly poor. Consider the world series in marathon running attracting the world elite in both men and women running (say for instance the London Marathon). On the one hand you would not see the winners race in a local Hackney 10k race now, I wouldn’t assume. On the other side, however, how do you think the women’s elite would react to your comment on simply dumping them in a mens/mixed category for that same race? You promote a similar mind-set here to the Boston Athletics organisers of the Boston Marathon – back in 1967 with Kathrine Switzer competing amongst the men. And look where we are today, with 16500 male and 13751 female competitors in 2015 at the Boston Marathon. The fastest women ran across the finish line 19 and 15 minutes after their male counterparts, respectively, at the London and Boston marathons this year.

      In cycling there is no difference. Men are stronger. Maybe it is time for you to step up and challenge your own opinion. I would challenge you to put your money where your mouth is and simply ask these 150 male racers, you acclaim to be upset by a women’s category in the races you organise, what they think about the idea of introducing a female category in your races? You may be surprised by the support you will find amongst these men. The spirit of sport and competition is not just in the numbers the timing chips generate, is is also very much based on equality, tolerance, solidarity, and integrity. After all, the winners at your races would probably all look rather average too, should the top TdF elite decide to compete amongst them. I find your view on equality insulting.

  9. Spatch July 24, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    I would have thought that most amateur race organisers would be only too happy to help someone who wanted to have a go at organising a women’s race? Isn’t that how the seed gets planted?

    • Juliet_Elliott July 28, 2015 at 7:54 am

      Hey Spatch! We’ve begun organising local races already, and not just for women either – there will be a new series of cheap races at Torbay Velopark to allow a great number of people to enter. Looking forward to it starting!

  10. David Rose July 24, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    Really interesting article. Thanks for posting.

    Sport England, UK Sport, British Cycling and other race organisers/authorities have a duty to ensure the health and wellbeing of their population. It is proven that cycling can do this. This is done, partly through injections of cash. Sometimes where there is no return on that investment in the short term. But in the long term, it pays off.

    In my own experience, having worked for the England and Wales Cricket Board, there has been significant investment made in the women’s game. This has trickled down into growths in the popularity and participation of women’s cricket. I headed up the performance analysis function at the ECB, and at the elite end, I was determined to provide to the women’s teams what we did for the men’s. And we did. Now each women’s team have their own performance analyst when playing and training, as well as ongoing support.

    Such investment is needed to develop women’s cycling. If race organisers can think about quality and not just the number of participants, we may get somewhere. Young girls want to be inspired. It sometimes only takes one women riding past at 50kph to do that!

    Keep up the fight, Juliet.

    • Juliet_Elliott July 28, 2015 at 7:59 am

      Hi David, that’s interesting about cricket – sounds like it’s paying off. I must do some more research into how things are done in other sports, just for my own curiosity.

      Inspiration from others plays a big part in what I feel I’m capable of and I’m sure that’s the same for many girls and women. It’s hugely important. As are opportunities, because sometimes it can be a little bit off-putting if you have to fight or trail blaze when you’d rather just participate!

      Thank you!

      • David Rose July 28, 2015 at 10:41 am

        Absolutely. Interesting and good to hear that in the county I live in (Derbyshire) they’re putting out plans to double the number of people cycling and narrow the gap between men and women’s participation (currently 12% v 5%).

        Lets hope the plan becomes reality!

        Glad you enjoyed the TdF and the caravane! We picked up loads of goodies on stage 6 which are going to be awesome stocking fillers!

  11. Ellie Rogers July 24, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    Hi,
    Thanks for writing this – I totally agree with your view and I am a big fan of your blog. I am frustrated that it seems that you are not allowed to express your opinion without proving you are doing something to solve the problem. Why can a woman not just express her opinion about blatant inequality? I have only recently got into cycling (road) and by reading your blog I realise how much more excitement I have to come trying out other sorts of cycling. Educating people about the reality of life as a female cyclist (both good and bad) IS doing something and you should be applauded for taking the time to express it in a well thoughtout and constructive way.

  12. Corinne August 6, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    I have to say, I’m with Juliet on this one. Racing is hard enough as it is, racing with men is ridiculously hard.

    I came to racing in much the same way as Juliet, ie. from the courier fixed scene in London. I started racing Alley Cats for a bit of fun and to support the scene but it never really felt like proper racing. Proper racing, to me, looked like the Tour de France, very serious and very out of reach.

    Until, that is, the Red Hook Crit started a women’s race…and came to London. Suddenly my interest was piqued. I started training for the first time in my life and got myself a race licence so that I could enter a few criteriums for practice. On the day, my fitness, strength and bike handling skills showed alongside my lack of race experience and tactics. I came in near the back end of the chasing group in 12th place when I could have easily come in 8th. But I loved every minute of it and I am hooked.

    As soon as I’d recovered from my hangover, I started training again. There were a couple of unsanctioned races the following week plus the regular Wednesday crit at Lea Valley but I couldn’t make any of them because I was going to visit my parents on Wednesday. I kicked myself for it and looked up races near my parents but there was only one and it was about 20 miles from their house and it wasn’t a women’s race.

    I checked I was allowed to race and though it was tight, we made it there 10 minutes before the start. I had just enough time to go to the loo and pin my number on. There was one other girl racing. I got dropped on the first lap but managed to get back in after warming up and stayed with it for about 45 minutes. Then we both got dropped. It was hard as hell and afterwards I hung around to eavesdrop on the other girl talking with her coach about how hard it was.

    I’m pretty lucky living in London, there are loads of women’s races to enter and I can cycle to most of them after work. It’s not the same throughout the UK. I think it runs even deeper than that, though. Women’s racing notoriously gets poor coverage and only half a mention. Women’s pro cycling has still got some way to go before it captures the heart of the nation and inspires more women to take up the sport. There are many things that need to be addressed, not least equal minimum wages.

    I was inspired by the Red Hook Crit because it’s totally badass. There may be less of us, but the women push themselves just as hard as the men. And there are crashes in the women’s race, just as there are in the men’s. And the podium, well. The podium. There you see the two winners standing side by side and you remember them both in the order of your own gender. Ainara Elbusto Arteaga and William Guzman. Standing side by side on the same podium. The two winners and no podium girls. That’s how dreams are made.

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