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13th January 2023

What Turns Your Wheels?

Recently, I was asked to become an ambassador for a sports clothing company. Their aim is to help empower and promote women in sport, regardless of their level of ability. There are so many inspirational women out there who are achieving or have achieved incredible things, and I count myself lucky to have friends who once played for the Women’s Rugby Team for Australia, friends who compete professionally in women’s triathlons, women friends who can tackle the hardest of rides, leaving male cyclists struggling to keep up... I even have one female friend who was once the International Bog-Snorkelling Champion.

I hadn’t really given much thought to the role I played or could play in encouraging women to try out a new sport or in becoming more active, but the more I looked into it, the more I realised that it’s not specifically my role, rather it’s my story that is more important. And why me? Why is my story, the story of a someone who has always been active, who climbs, cycles, swims, walks, scuba-dives and more but who pales in comparison to these incredibly talented, incredibly motivated athletes, of relevance to other women?

In the words of Marianne Vos, “I want to be motivational and inspirational for everybody,” but my story could easily be any one of your stories. There’s nothing special here, nothing different to what most women achieve on a daily basis, certainly nothing that’s going to worry any serious athletes out there. It’s a story that might resonate with some of you I hope, that might inspire you to give cycling a go, even if, like me, your aim is not to be the best.

Between April and September 2020, women aged 18-29 uploaded 45.2% more activities than during the same period last year, compared to a 27.3% increase by their male counterparts.

Firstly, to clarify, I don’t consider myself to be a cyclist. I know a lot about cycling, I watch all the major tours and I’ve seen my fair share of stages live. With my husband, I own and run a cycling guesthouse providing catered and supported cycling holidays for individuals, friends, families, and large groups, but if someone asked my sport, I’d go with swimming, rather than cycling, even though over the last few years I’ve completed some pretty amazing cycling challenges over here in the Pyrenees.

I’m not really sure why I’m scared to admit that I’m a cyclist. Perhaps it’s because when I cycle, my aim is not to ride the furthest or the fastest, and I’m certainly not the fittest of any group I go out with but cycling really does appeal to me; the open roads, the wind in your face, the sense of achievement you only get when pushing yourself hard, the chance to accessorise your bike with a carefully matched outfit (or helmet at the very least)!

Over the last few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to cycle with lots of guests who have stayed with us at AYP and in 2019 I set myself the challenge of conquering some of the more difficult cols of the Pyrenees, inspired largely by some of our female cycling guests who had convinced me and given me the confidence to give it a go. For the last 2 years, I’ve slowly been gaining in confidence, and have had some interesting learning experiences. I’ve ridden up hills and down, inside and out, quickly and slowly, and achieved riding up several Pyrenean cols. When circumstances changed in March of last year though, as for everyone, my goals for the year, and my fitness regime had to adapt.
According to Strava, women led an unlikely global fitness boom in 2020 with large increases in the numbers running, cycling and walking during the pandemic. Strava CEO Michael Horvath said in the 2020 Year in Sport Data Report that “during a challenging year, it has been a privilege to connect athletes to what motivates them and help them find their personal best. Community members shared more than a billion activities including nearly 400 million photos with each other, from solitary virtual marathons and Everesting bike rides to midday walks while working from home. And through it all, athletes from around the world cheered each other on, proving that every effort counts and people keep people active.” But the data below is perhaps even more interesting:

“Between April and September 2020, women aged 18-29 uploaded 45.2% more activities than during the same period last year, compared to a 27.3% increase by their male counterparts.”

Although out of the age range, I was definitely in this category during lockdown, as with more time on my hands, and no guests to cater for, I was able to spend time cycling, swimming, walking and running, even if it was only within a 1km radius of our house! I completed a Supersprint Triathlon from the grounds of AYP, swimming 400 metres in our pool before a 10km ride on the turbo, set up outside so I could see the mountains though not actually cycle in them, and then a 2.5km run, or 4 laps of the village! The virtual support I received for the challenge was amazing and it gave me the confidence boost I needed to continue training and planning other events. I’ve realised that if you let yourself believe that you can do it, eventually, you’ll catch the cycling bug without even realising it!

I asked a friend of mine, Helen, to elaborate on her experience as a female cyclist:

“Throughout my childhood I was always active and rode a bike, but it wasn’t until I met my partner that I took up road cycling and bought my first carbon bike in 2014, aged 35 years. Ste helped me get fit for cycling and gave me loads of tips and encouragement along the way. Six months later it was time to join my local cycling club St Helens CRC. Wow – I remember that first 45-mile ride pushing myself to my limits, yet all the club members encouraged me, even pushing me up some of the inclines and everyone waited for me at the top of the climbs. There was only one other female who rode with the A group and this is still quite common in cycling clubs today, but this didn’t deter me.

In 2017, I started participating in a local chain gang, and over several years I improved and managed to stay with the group of guys and work through, and after lots of encouragement, I entered my first race in 2019. As there aren’t many local female races, I entered a male race.

My first men’s road race – yes, I was the only female!

Now this does have its advantages as the guys do look out for you and offer you lots of guidance. I’m not going to lie, I was unbelievably nervous, yet as the adrenalin kicked in and I settled into the racing I found myself enjoying the buzz. My goal was to finish the race, and each time, try to stick with the guys for a further lap. It’s great to set yourself personal goals and the sense of achievement when you cross the finish line is priceless.”
Helen’s experience is similar to many women’s. There are far fewer women who join cycling clubs than men, but everyone I’ve spoken to has been incredibly positive about the support and camaraderie found in their club. Everyone, male or female, has joined the club for the same reason – to cycle and so there will always be that shared passion and with it, a great support network.
The fact that I’m writing an article about women in sport itself though suggests that there is a long way to go before we reach the point where women are seen as equal to men in sporting circles. Studies constantly show that girls and women who play sports have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem and lower levels of depression. Girls and women who play sports have a more positive body image and experience higher states of psychological well-being than girls and women who do not play sports.

As a former teacher, I’ve experienced first-hand the struggles girls contend with about body image, I’ve seen the panic on their faces and heard the excuses they tell not to have to take part in any physical form of activity, and I hope that my advice to them echoes my opinions and those of Helen, in this article: It’s ok to cycle just because you enjoy it, it’s also equally ok to want to be the best or sit happily in the middle somewhere. It’s ok to be you and do exactly what you want to do, as often as you want to do it and for as long as you want to do it and its ok to have days where you want to climb the highest mountain or just stop at the nearest café before heading home having only cycled 15km.

I’ll leave you with some advice from Helen: “Any females out there who are considering getting in to cycling, I say go for it, you have nothing to lose and plenty to gain!”

You can read the full interview with Dr Helen Mills on our blog, where you will also find out more about life at Allons y Pyrenees.
If you are interested in booking a cycling holiday, why not get in touch today.

This piece also featured in the March 2021 issue of BIKE magazine in a special Women's Day edition. Click here to read it and to see more photos.

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