Allyship: What men can do to support women in cycling
“[ al-ahy-ship ] noun. The status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalised or politicised group in all areas of society, not as a member of that group but in solidarity with its struggle and point of view and under its leadership.”
I’m not a big fan of beginning an article with a dictionary definition. But sometimes it is necessary to make sure that everyone is coming from the same understanding, so I shall start by disagreeing with this definition.
I don’t agree that ‘ally’ is a noun; it is not a state, status or an identity and certainly not one that can be self-claimed. Allyship is an action and a choice. So I will focus on the ‘actively works’ part of this definition.
As part of the 100 Women in Cycling celebration I am going to shine a light on some of the roles that men are playing behind the scenes to further the inclusion and experiences of marginalised groups in cycling.
Chris Boardman recently wrote an article in which he amplified the advice to men offered by the This Girl Can campaign by Sport England. The perma-eloquent Boardman says: “I’d put the burden of responsibility of keeping safe on my 17-year-old daughter.”
However, after being curious about his wife’s experiences of exercising alone he came to the conclusion that it was men who needed to change their behaviour, not women. Chris rightly shifts his focus to the source of this anxiety: male behaviour.
It should no longer be an exception for a man to be feminist. Everyone needs to be pro-equality if we want to see equal representation of bums on saddles. So Chris has done his bit to urge men to give women space, not to make comments, and to challenge friends or family making disrespectful comments. Great. The bar is low.
One of my biggest bugbears is that it is often down to the marginalised group to solve the problems that led to their own marginalisation. In the case of women in cycling it is women, who famously take on two-thirds of the unpaid care burden in society, who then put in further (usually) unpaid work to undo the inequality thrust on them by the ‘in group’, aka middle-aged white men in Lycra.
Before you close your browser tab this is where the man bashing ends. This is an article about those men who are advocating and actively working to support women and women-led spaces.
These allies are serving some of the women celebrated in this year’s 100 Women in Cycling list. They don’t want to be celebrated in a 100 Men in Cycling list, they recognise their privilege and they don’t want any more. They are happy working behind the scenes, at home doing childcare or at the back or the group as the unofficial photographer or gate butler.
They don’t seek prominent or leadership roles within these female-led communities. They are some of the unsung heroes of the groundswell of women’s cycling. This article isn’t to celebrate them as individuals but to call them in, to celebrate their actions and share some examples of what men can do in their own communities to be better allies.
The biggest difference men can make is to normalise participation, quietly and repeatedly
Dr Fiona Spotswood, senior lecturer at Bristol University
The burden of unpaid care work has already been mentioned. Women have less time for leisure because they spend more time putting the needs of others first. Dr Fiona Spotswood, a senior lecturer at Bristol University, has studied some of the relationships between care givers and exercise.
She explains: “There is a societal ideal of ‘good mothering’ that means women feel an embodied pressure to put the needs of others first. I define this as ‘being present to care’… a disposition that’s shared among mothers and shapes how they feel their time ‘should’ be spent. Cue leisure guilt.”
One of the most impactful ways that men can demonstrate their allyship is to encourage the women in their lives to ride. “Making it normal and feel utterly unextraordinary to do so,’ urges Dr Fiona.
“The women in my study who were active were able to be so because their husbands fully expected it – there was an unextraordinary expectation that this was a priority and a way time would be spent.”
Don’t have any sprogs of your own? Set up a creche so your friends, partners and fellow club members can go and ride their bikes. Not everyone lives in a heterosexual nuclear family. Plus, we all know that great things can happen when men take the kids for a day.
There are some fantastic examples of this from School of Rocks Nottingham, where David and Nick would take on childcare responsibilities so that some mums could enjoy a group ride.
Many road cycling clubs have their club runs at the worst time for family life clashes. While clubs should consider if their ride timings serve all their members equally, offering childcare can make a big difference in the meantime.
We’ve all been there. You want to organise a trip, maybe a weekend tour or bikepacking trip to explore a new landscape. Not everyone has the equipment or the spare cash to blow on all the extras required to ensure a warm night under canvas.
The solution? Have the incredible Jess Notzig organise a weekend and drive her, group breakfast, sleeping bags, towels and everything else to the campsite the night before!
That’s what Jack did in October. He also had to ride back to the campsite post-adventure to pick up his car, while everyone else had their feet up on the sofa! Heroic? Or should this just be normal?
Before you start joking about women not being able to read maps or having no sense of direction, consider how we are all socialised in map reading
Eleanor Jaskowska, founder of School of Rocks
Before you start joking about women not being able to read maps or having no sense of direction, consider how we are all socialised in map reading. If you’re not brought up in a family or community speaking Spanish you wouldn’t expect someone to turn around aged 28 and be able to read Don Quixote cover to cover in Espanol.
Furthermore, we all know that while all roads or bridleways may appear equal on a map, that can differ quite significantly on the ground.
As well as confidence, fitness or a desire to venture into a new area, you might have some local knowledge. More valuable than a line on a map is the lowdown on where it is actually fun to ride, the good tarmac or the fun bridleways...and I’ve not even mentioned the invaluable intelligence on which bike-friendly cafés do the best cake!
The thing that I feel sets apart women-led or women-focused groups vs the male equivalence is this ‘altruism over alpha-ism’
Nic Pow, Cardiff Cycle Workshop
This is similar to map reading and the Spanish example, except add on that women are often discouraged from taking on mechanical or technical tasks so often don’t have the opportunities to develop some of the skills and awareness that men have.
As bike mechanic and previous 100 Women in Cycling winner Vicky Balfour puts it: “There is joy to be found in the art of fixing your bike as well as the freedom that is gained from having those skills.”
While we all wish we could clone Vicky to teach bike mechanics up and down the country, there is a huge network of local bike shops and cooperatives including those like Broken Spoke in Oxford which runs a mechanics traineeship for all women, trans and non-binary folk.
Nic Pow at Cardiff Cycle Workshop organised a mechanics evening for the local School of Rocks community. While we would love it if every women’s mechanics evening could be led by a woman this isn’t always possible. Years of patient parenting and a kind nature means Nic’s donation of his time was greatly appreciated by attendees.
When I asked Nic why he was so keen to support the sessions he replied: “The thing that I feel sets apart women-led or women-focused groups vs the male equivalence is this ‘altruism over alpha-ism’, and as someone who tries hard to serve rather than be served in a group setting, I have always preferred working, coaching and teaching mixed or women-only groups, because the altruistic environment is more prevalent, making the experience more pleasant for everyone.”
This may be the easiest and most fun way to support. Watch women’s cycling on the TV, buy from women-owned and co-owned businesses, repost content from female adventurers, buy their books and tell your female friends, family members and colleagues about women-led groups.
There are teachers like Vicky Balfour, instructors like Go Velo, guides like Katy Curd, Aneela McKenna, Kath Goodey and Julia Hobson, and coaches like Jasmijn Muller, Heidi Blunden, Alison Wood, Holly Seear and Natalie Creswick. Charities and CICs like Women of Colour Cycling Collective, Cycle Sisters, New Forest Off Road Club, Women in Tandem and Steezy Collective.
Many of the women behind these organisations are themselves 100 Women in Cycling winners.
Last but not the least glamorous of the examples is one for the off-road riders: the lowly gate butler. Faithfully bringing up the rear, assuring that the happy group of cyclists is adhering to the countryside code and closing all gates after passing through them.
The gate butler may occasionally take on additional duties such as photographer, which is important to amplify the group’s activities and help them remember their experiences.
So, male allies of the world, we salute you! We thank you for your quiet service and the examples you set to your peers and your children. Feeling inspired? Excellent, get out there! Just remember these three golden rules (which are neither comprehensive or perfect):
1. You don’t get to decide if you are an ally
Allyship is not an identity. It is a choice; it involves action. As a man you do not get to claim allyship as an identity for yourself. A true ally will never self-proclaim and will be constantly looking to educate themselves about the systemic barriers to women, non-binary and other marginalised people benefiting from the joy of cycling.
2. Consider the impact of your intention
As the New Forest Off Road Club puts it in the FAQs: “Is this the only place I can be? Or is this an additional place I can be?”
These communities and groups have been designed deliberately to serve those who aren’t typically represented in cycling, and for people who may not feel safe in traditional cycling groups. Reflect on how it might be best for you to offer your acts of allyship and how much space you take up by doing so.
While you might love to be the next official gate butler to your local group, perhaps you can be a better ally changing nappies or enduring another episode of Peppa Pig. The route will always be there.
As Dr Fiona explains, the biggest difference men can make is to “normalise participation, quietly and repeatedly. Only where there’s an expectation that women will ride (and fix their bikes, read maps) will societal norms be overturned”.
3. Notice the limits of your knowledge and experience
You might be an expert on puncture repair, route planning or God’s gift to fitting mudguards. Things you will never be an expert on: the lived experiences of the marginalised individuals and communities that you seek to support. Never undermine these lived experiences and remember that you are there to serve them, not to serve yourself.