Thirty thousand cyclists at RideLondon and I saw three women of colour

As the suffragettes knew, cycling can empower. But it’s still too dominated by middle-class white men.

Asha Modha
18 September 2018

Image: RideLondon 2018. Credit: SarfLondonDunc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

This summer I completed Prudential’s London to Surrey 100 mile cycling event. As someone who hasn’t ridden a bike in almost ten years, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. I was impressed by the faultless organisation of the event - and by the overwhelming support of volunteers and spectators despite the painfully early start and the pouring rain.

But RideLondon 2018 highlighted a bigger issue - the serious lack of gender and ethnic diversity in cycling.

The event, setting out from one of the most diverse cities in the world, was dominated by middle aged white males. I never anticipated the stereotype to be this accurate. I was surrounded by MAMILS (Middle-Aged-Men-In-Lycra) from the word ‘go’, with the DJ blasting songs from U2, The Monkees and The Beatles at the start line, setting the tone for the day ahead. Whilst I was continuously overtaken by a steady influx of cyclists throughout the ride, I noticed only three other women of colour throughout the entirety of my journey – one of whom was my aunty who I was riding with. There were 30,000 cyclists at the event and my finishing time was a snail’s pace of 09:24 minutes, so I saw a lot of people.

The lack of ethnic diversity and female representation was shocking, disheartening and frankly quite intimidating. As a British Indian female in her 20s, I was glaringly aware of my presence from start to finish, especially as a novice to the cycling world.

Turns out that the domination of white middle-class males in cycling is more than just anecdotal. Eighty-five percent of cyclists in London are white, leaving only 15% of cyclists in London being Black, Asian or of minority ethnicity, with only 7% of regular riders being of Asian ethnicity, according to Transport for London’s most recent figures. It’s disappointing, given how empowering sporting events such as RideLondon can be.

I found myself probing the ‘MAMIL’ stereotype. Research conducted by Steinbach and colleagues in 2011 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) explores why in London “cycling is disproportionately an activity of affluent white men”. The study, funded by TfL and NHS Camden, highlights several factors. Cycling is associated with a certain image, emulating a “bourgeois sensibility” which does not necessarily resonate with Londoners of Black and Asian ethnicity. This perception can act as a deterrent for people of ‘other’ backgrounds; especially if cycling is seen as a white-middle class sport in which – as Matt Season of The Guardian puts it – “the cycling community may not always have had an unblemished record of anti-racism” in the past.

Regarding the gender divide, the same study found perceived femininity and appearance to be influential factors in cycling. One interviewee stated that “women that do cycle are probably more blokey than feminine.” Whilst I can relate to wanting to stay fashionable during my ride, having donned a pair of pearl earrings to do so, I was more relieved to ‘blend in’ in my cycling gear and stay warm than concerned with glamour.

Have many internalised Western expectations of beauty and femininity to the extent of rejecting the sport entirely due to fear of appearing masculine? If so, how disappointing. What would the Suffragettes think – given that the women who transcended societal boundaries to pave our future, using cycling as a mode of transport and a means of liberation?

Aside from problematic notions of femininity, aggressive masculinity is a factor too. A couple of Steinbach’s interviewees admitted adopting an aggressive attitude as cyclists, referring to themselves as “urban warriors”. In retrospect, my experience of RideLondon supports this. As they overtook me, passing cyclists threw me condescending and cutting remarks, as well as uncomfortable gazes which I interpreted as unwelcoming micro-aggressions. Their air of superiority knocked my confidence at times. I can understand why budding cyclists would be discouraged from taking up the sport.

Remember when the ‘Boris bikes’ were launched in 2013, and then Mayor of London said, “I want more women cycling, more older people cycling, more Black and minority ethnic Londoners cycling, more cyclists of all social backgrounds – without which truly mass participation can never come.”

Eight years later the current Mayor Sadiq Khan continues to tackle the issue of diversity in cycling. He has appointed Will Norman as London’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner to bridge the gender and ethnicity divide. There are plans to spend around £169m every year for the next five years to implement cycling schemes and infrastructure to achieve that objective.

RideLondon 2018 would have been a great place to start, especially as the ‘Mayor of London’ and ‘Transport for London’ logos were plastered all over the RideLondon banners. Both my uncles – people of Indian descent with strong fitness abilities were rejected for the event whilst thousands of white males were chosen to partake. The lack of diversity was the only disappointment of Prudential’s London to Surrey 100 cycling event. It could have helped to bridge the diversity gap and provide new opportunities to cyclists of various backgrounds, as it did for me.

Nonetheless, because of a women of colour, my aunty, I have been exposed to a new world of sport and empowered to pursue cycling further. I’ve applied for next year’s ride. I hope that other women and people of varying backgrounds feel the same and try a new sport – it is only then we can change perceptions and break boundaries.

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