Last week I went mountain biking in the Lake district – nice way to spend a few day ordinarily, except that I’d never been proper mountain biking before. I’ve always ridden bikes, just not down steep hills covered with loose rocks in the pouring rain. As the title suggests I was the lest experienced, most cautious and, to top it off, sole female in our group. Which is not happy place to be at the best of times but what made it even more excruciating was the fact that we weren’t just out joyriding. Oh no we doing a serious course to become mountain bike ride leaders. Yes it was probably a bit foolhardy of me to just assume that mountain biking was just like well riding a bike – I had one as a kid and you never forget right? Wrong. Its seriously skilful, the bike handles differently, you have to learn balance and movements which feel totally unnatural especially to a cyclist who has spent their youth pounding the streets of london on a road bike. I spent most of the time desperately trying to conquer my instinct to push rather than cycle my bike up the slippery rock face or stick my legs out when tearing down steep hills.
The experience revealed to me an exhilarating new side of cycling – it broke down some of the smooth tarmac city limits I had imposed on two-wheeled exploration and definatley gave me some good tools for taking groups out riding (although not necessarily up mountains) which is what I went for. But being used as the instructors example of ‘how not to do’: wheelies, rear wheel lifts, manuals (don’t ask) descents and just about everything else, made it not a very fun way to learn this. This is what it must have felt like to be the unsporty kid in PE lessons at school. For me the whole thing was a bit reminiscent of when you start a new job and you have to prove your as good as you said you were in the interview and everyone else knows what there doing and you don’t feel you can ask. I burned with self-frustration as I pushed at the limits of ability and skill in this thing I thought I’d mastered outright – cycling. The worst of it was being the only women. I’m not sure how much of the competition between the rest of the group about who was the baddest on the bike and who’d sustained the most horrific biking injury was real and how much it was me blowing there talk out of proportion out of anxiety. The whole point of being there was to get trained up to lead rides and organise bikey stuff to get more women cycling – to break down barriers and challenge stereotypes. Instead I felt like I was living up to all expectations that women can’t do mountain biking, or at least that they aren’t as good as men. If there is one thing I hate its being seen as the ‘inexperienced girl’.
I feel like this all the time at the moment cos when I’m not off trying not to break my neck on in the Lake district I work in a bike workshop, again with all men each with a good decades worth of experience on me. I work slower than they do, I have more questions about everything, I am less sure of myself and my judgements and it drives me mental. Unlike them I didn’t start taking bikes apart when I was knee high to a grass hooper just to see how they worked, I played fantasy games and performed made-up plays when I was little. I made conscious decision to get into fixing and ride bikes to me equal freedom, I think the simple act of cycling create sure a radical positive change in someones life that we can change the world if we get enough people on bikes. I wanted to be part of spreading the word spread, the knowledge and the expertise so it isn’t the reserve of intimidating men in a workshop or all-the-kit-bit-of-a-git guys out on the trail its with us all, so we all feel empowered to use, enjoy, build, fix and recycle bikes in ways that work for us.
I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m probably never going to be the quickest mechanic in the west or mountain biker who can take the most awesome descents but I might start giving myself a break because maybe its a strength to understand what it feels like to be a novice and just maybe its good for everyone new to the world of bikes to see someone they relate to getting stuck in, getting it right and sometimes wrong but always giving it a try.