‘Cyclists have to own their body shape’ – Athletes challenge stereotypes that can stop women getting on a bike

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    Ovo Energy has organised a number of women's only rides - 2019 Getty Images
    Ovo Energy has organised a number of women’s only rides – 2019 Getty Images

    “The first few bits of cycling kit I bought were way too big. I just didn’t want to wear tight-fitted clothes. I was too self-conscious.”

    Laura Scott giggles as she reflects on starting out in the sport, and feeling uncomfortable in the sport’s trademark figure-hugging, Lycra-clad world.

    Five years on, the 34-year-old – who describes herself as “curvy” – is an established endurance cyclist, with races including the 4,200-mile Trans Am Bike Race across America, despite crashing and dislocating a shoulder on day one.

    Body image concerns can stop women from getting on a bike – and the cycling industry finds itself in the dock. Even after her success, Scott was dropped from a magazine photo shoot when she sent her bike kit measurements to the firm who had invited her.

    Scott, from Guildford, said: “I’ve always been athletic, but as a child I didn’t think of myself as athletic. That would be my No 1 piece of advice to women too self-conscious about getting on a bike – athletes come in all shapes and sizes.

    “I have big legs. I’ve used them to cycle across countries and that’s an incredible thing. It’s about finding out what your body is capable of and learning to love it.”

    Scott is determined to challenge the streamlined stereotypes the cycling industry favours. She is a supporter of plus-size mannequins that Nike recently introduced in its flagship London store.

    Some serious cyclists under-fuel on training rides to keep their weight down. Scott, however, is a fan of “real food” when out riding and resists using energy gels, which she struggles to break down.

    Research from British Cycling shows that men account for 69 per cent of the UK’s cycling population. Concerns over safety, and so confidence on the roads, are key factors deterring greater female participation. Drivers’ bad behaviour is also key.

    Ovo Energy, sponsors of the Women’s Tour, this week launched a series of summer night rides around London to help bridge the disparity in gender participation in cycling. Further rides will take place in Manchester, Bristol and Glasgow over the coming weeks.

    Cycling activist Jools Walker believes media, marketing and advertising of the sport fuel the gender divide, promoting a flawed model of a modern-day cyclist, one who needs a baseline level of fitness to justify their Lycra-clad bodies. Walker suggests the reinforcement of such stereotypes holds back women.

    “I didn’t see myself reflected in that world,” she said. “It made me think I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t fit into that box or mould designed to squeeze into Lycra. You look at some of the cycling brands and you wouldn’t believe it is a space for a black woman, an older woman or a larger woman.

    “Cycling is an activity that everybody should be able to participate in. It’s important for brands to recognise there is more than one type of person on a bike.”

    Phil Bingham embraced that approach while launching his cycling clothing company VeloVixen with his wife, Liz, after the London 2012 Olympics. Their main clientele now are women aged 40-60. He believes making female cyclists of all shapes feel comfortable is vital to keeping them in the saddle.

    Bingham said: “ ‘Shrink it and pink it’ was the traditional phrase that used to banded around female cycling kit. It is definitely no longer the case that everything female is pink. Almost every female cyclist wants to look good and have matching stuff.

    “The women’s cycling world is a very inclusive environment. It’s incredibly self-supportive and wants to encourage other people to get involved and I think that’s one of the real reasons for optimism.”