'Cycling is not just for the white, Lycra-clad middle class'

Jools Walker
Cycling is not an easy sport for women, says Jools Walker - Ian James

Award-winning blogger Jools Walker, aka Lady Velo, is on a mission to spread the joys of riding a bike to everyone.

I’m not going to tell you how to become a “proper” cyclist. The truth is, that doesn’t exist. Riding a bike is one of the most joyful things you can do, but I’ve often found that the unadulterated pleasure of riding a bike gets lost in a weird narrative, stripping cycling down to the best kit and road bikes you should own, or how to increase your average riding speed.

Some fitness experts and personal trainers prescribe cycling as a route to rapid fat burning and weight loss (coupled with the “right” calorie and carb-controlled diet), shaming you into the quest to get perfect rock-hard cycling thighs and a banging body like those peppered throughout health and exercise magazines. Alongside all the industry pressure, news reports turn cycling into grim statistics, highlighting infrastructure failings and the risk of taking your life in your hands each time you even think of riding on the roads. It’s a wonder anyone ever gets on a bike.

That toxic narrative has even gotten to me sometimes, but one thing I know is the reason I’ve stuck with cycling is because I absolutely love it.

Cycling is a combination of so many different things: it’s the fits of laughter I broke into after tumbling off a rented bike outside the Deutsche Guggenheim when I visited Berlin for the first time; it’s the delicious pleasure of eating a flapjack that’s gone gooey in your jersey pocket in the middle of a long road ride; a blog post that speaks directly to your heart; a way of avoiding the claustrophobia of an overcrowded Underground train; a gateway to new friendships that can change your life forever, and it’s discovering the mental strength I never knew I had on rides I was convinced would break my soul before I crossed the finish line.

Jools Walker has reconnected with cycling again Credit: Ian James

As a black woman, though, it can be hard not to feel like an outsider in the sport sometimes. Cycling is not just middle-class white men and women in Lycra. Nor is it the images of competitive racing that we see on TV. But that’s not always apparent from the marketing campaigns and imagery we see.

Over the years I’ve fallen in and out of love with cycling. Growing up in Canning Town, east London, bikes were everywhere in my life – from the trike I loved as a three year-old, to the 1982 BMX Burner that my older sister Michele bombed around on. Looking on admiringly, I couldn’t wait to inherit it from her.

But just as my sister and her friends stopped riding as they got older, I did too. As a young woman, cycling around on your own means strangers shouting unsolicited reviews of your anatomy at you. If I was feeling brave enough (because most of the time it was intimidating and bloody scary), I’d stand up for myself and shout something back. Then came the retorts: “Can’t you take a compliment, love?”

Just the thought of facing that kind of harassment, knowing I’d get jeered at or that someone might say something creepy about my school uniform, was enough to make me rejig my usual cycling routes, or take a change of clothes with me for riding home after school. It was ridiculous to be exposed to that kind of harassment, just for riding my bike. It’s bad enough that catcalling and sexual advances are something that women deal with literally every day while existing on this planet. So getting it while riding a bike, the vehicle that for many of us is a means of freedom? That sucks on so many levels. Little did I know that those experiences were just a taster of the hurdles to overcome as a woman in cycling. Is it any wonder teenage girls still don’t feel comfortable out and about on a bike?

As an adult I fell back in love with bikes. But it is still not an easy sport for women, and certainly not women of colour (WoC). I’ve always been a strong believer that cycling is for everybody, but there is no denying that many barriers to entry still exist. A source of frustration for me is that huge governing bodies and cycling organisations don’t recognise the need to incorporate WoC in their initiatives, and fail to push for inclusivity.

Speaking to my sister about why she hasn’t ventured back into cycling as an adult, Michele tells me that it doesn’t feel like a space for her. Her school friends feel the same way too. Hearing these stories prompted me to set up a WoC cycling group with my friend Jenni Gwiazdowski, director of the London Bike Kitchen. But we weren’t prepared for the backlash. People told us that a WoC cycling group is a regressive and racist step to take. I don’t see it that way – I see it as trying to make something positive, something that encourages other women to feel that cycling is a space for them.

Ayesha McGowan is the world’s first female African American Credit: Instagram

As Ayesha McGowan, the world’s first female African American pro road cyclist says: “If you can’t see yourself in this industry, why in the world would you magically have this idea that you can be a part of it?”

The very fact that Ayesha is the first in the history of the sport should have you shaking your head in disbelief. But Ayesha couldn’t find a single African American woman who had gone pro. This took her aback. ‘It was 2014 and I just didn’t understand . . . almost everybody rides a bike, and at some point in the history of cycling this must have already been done. And it hadn’t.’

It’s been nine years since I decided to get back on the saddle, and my definition of cycling is still being broadened and enriched. It gets me thinking about the eighteen year-old me who left it all behind. But my love for cycling never really died. Yes, it waned and fizzled out, but it was more like a dormant volcano. It was still there, bubbling under the surface, waiting to erupt again. It took a hiatus, but I ended up back on a saddle again. Now I can’t begin to imagine what my life would be like without cycling.

This is an extract from ‘Back in the Frame’ by Jools Walker (Sphere, £14.99)