Written by Lucy Vandergugten
Graphic by Holly Jones
It is 2019, and all I want to do is ride my bike.
Regardless of my gender, sex, gear or ability, I want to ride my mountain bike. Without your preconceptions of what a woman can do, without your conceptions of my biological make up in comparison to yours, I want to ride until the end of the day when I have to peel my fingers off my handlebar grips. I want to get muddy and dusty and sometimes a bit bloody. With mud caked onto my makeup if I so choose, or dirt plastered onto a layer of sunscreen I applied on top my cyclist tan lines. My bike might come to a holt before that big jump or that mass of rocks and I’ll think about it and weigh in on the risk. Maybe even decide that today is not the day to jump that far or ride something that steep. Or maybe I’ll just ride it anyway, leave all caution and reason in the carpark. I’ll cry when I crash or I’ll show up at the bottom of the trail, bruised and scraped, and simply get on with it. This is how I would like to ride my mountain bike as a woman.
In 2019, a woman set off to ride her bike across an entire continent. Across hundreds of kilometres of straight, empty, desolate roads. She simply wanted to ride her bike. Her legs were strong, and she trusted them, instead she set out to conquer her mind. In the many hours spent in the dark, riding at night to beat the heat. But with any challenge, as great as this, things don’t always go to plan. She started to notice the beginning of pain, a set back in her legs, another challenge to meet. Upon sharing the news of an injury online, her followers, who had been supporting her great feat, began to send through messages and comments. The messages came from men on couches twiddling their thumbs, men riding bikes to their local cafe, men who tracked only numbers and figures. And as she battled the endless straight tarmac for hours on end, these men instructed her and told her what to do. They told her their opinions, what she was doing wrong, what would have been better and before she knew it her comment section was full of doctors, sports scientists and mechanics. So as she pedalled through mental challenges and physical pain, she also pedalled through constant uninformed criticism. Voices who felt they had the expertise to dictate how she should approach her own challenge. She simply wanted to ride her bike, in her own way. No matter what equipment she used or how she managed her own body. Amongst all this unwanted advice, were the quiet voices of the odd woman who would offer her a bed to sleep in or an emergency lift into the nearest town. Only if she decided that she needed that.
Also that year, a transgender woman named Kate Weatherly won a podium position at a UCI World Cup Downhill race. She had battled twice as hard to get to where she was. She had sat more medical tests than just the compulsory drug test sat by every other rider. By all the rules of the sport, she was just as worthy to be there as any other competitor. And yet, big brands voiced their opposition, major athletes took to social media to speak against her. Not to mention the torrent of online abuse from anyone who felt they had some authority on the sport. She simply wanted to ride her bike. They set out to attack not only her, but also the whole world of women riding downhill mountain bikes. Citing our lack of recklessness, their perceived reasons of why there aren’t as many women in the sport. The fact that we will never be fast enough.
We just want to ride our bikes.
So when I competed in my first downhill race I heard the voices of those who said, “You? Racing mountain bikes?” bouncing around my head. They were in my heavy breathing as my bike carried me down the track as fast as I possibly could at that time. For all those men who exclaimed they wouldn’t believe I could ride mountain bikes until I proved it to them, I was chasing the hardest proof I could find. In the end, much to my own surprise, I came home with a race finish better than I could have hoped. And as I presented the trophy in front of their own eyes they still said, “Yeah, well there aren’t that many people in women’s categories anyway.” I’ll never be able to prove it to them or change their narrow minds.
Instead I’ll be here. Still riding my bike.