I have been working as a cycling instructor since November 2013, during which time I spent two and a half years as regional manager for a cycle training and promotions provider.
Teaching VS empowering
I came into the job after two years as an Associate Lecturer in Cultural Theory at Southampton Solent University and many more years working in university libraries and archives. I think colleagues at the University were a little baffled by my side step into community sport, but to me it made perfect sense.
Every week for those two years in which I worked a lecturer I stood at the front of a theatre or facilitated seminars with journalism students, discussing the role that popular culture plays in constructing our society – our relationships with each other, with ourselves, and the relationships we aspire to have or, in some cases, aspire to sever. I discussed fashion (design, value, appropriation), bodies (race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, age, health, beauty), cultures of celebrity (stardom and fandom) and cultures of consumption (capitalism, commodification, cultural canon). I described the way the world worked in depth, but in abstract. I explained the barriers people face in their everyday lives, but didn’t remove them. Hell, I didn’t even poke them. I talked and taught and teased ideas out of the young people I worked with, I saw many eyes open, but ultimately I felt impotent. My work only had an impact on those privileged enough to attend university and it only had an impact on the world beyond those classrooms when my students felt inspired and informed by my lessons.
In stark contrast, when teaching people to ride a bike I saw their eyes open to a world of possibilities. Barriers that society had erected around them – a lack of affluence and access to a bike as a child, lack of access to open space in an urban environment, a lack of time for those working long hours or raising families – or barriers that culture had cultivated – conservative upbringings that frowned upon sport for girls, a world that shames fat bodies and scares people from being seen exercising in public, a world that celebrates success to the detriment of those that want to try their hand at a new activity, a world that sexualises women to the extent that we fear being seen in scruffy clothes with no make-up.
Teaching people to ride a bike or teaching people to run was for many a very tangible experience of raising their middle finger up to all the myths that have surrounded them and told them they couldn’t. It is a liberating experience for many, and, as some have told me, a life changing one too. Breaking down one barrier can have a domino effect on that individual and becomes a constant point of reference for them when facing other barriers in their everyday lives.
Working as a cycling instructor gave me a far greater and more accurate insight into contemporary society’s attitudes towards our bodies and towards our environment than I could ever get from standing in a lecture theatre or pouring over psychogeography papers in an office. I was meeting real people, who described their real experiences of the world and watched them confront real barriers. Furthermore, they were people I would likely never cross paths with otherwise – different ages, different levels of physical activity, different ethnicities. My own perceptions were being challenged with each trainee I met.
To me, my side step into community sport and increasing participation was a no brainer.
In December 2013 an old friend and relatively new colleague, Louise Gold, got in touch. She worked for Cycle Experience and wanted to set up a women’s cycling group in Harrow, the borough she was working in at the time. We put together a project brief for a club that would target women cyclists – beginners, returning cyclists, nervous riders, women wanting to practice, women simply wanting to exercise – it was a broad spec, but gave us great scope to suss out exactly what was stopping women in the area from cycling and the kind of support they needed. We secured funding, the club took off, Louise left the post to take up a job with Sustrans, and I was taken on as her replacement.
After taking up the helm at Cycle Experience in Harrow I worked hard to build a strong relationship with partners in the local council and continue to build the beginner women’s club, while also launching a commuter cycling club, develop a Bikeability programme for SEN pupils in local special schools, overhaul children’s cycling activities during school holidays and oversee an enormous project teaching children aged 3-11 to cycle.
12 months after taking up the post I submitted a proposal for Harrow’s first cycling festival, the Tour de Harrow. I wanted to show off and showcase all the incredible work our team has carried out in the last year, teaching over a thousand children to cycle, encouraging a couple of hundred women to start riding regularly, and teaching children and adults how to be safer when cycling on the roads. The Tour de Harrow wasn’t just a celebration of Cycle Experience’s work in Harrow though. It was also a celebration of the incredible Harrow residents that have supported our work by taking part. It was a celebration of their open-mindedness and sense of adventure, and a celebration of the shifting culture in the borough towards cycling. In 2016 we hosted the second Tour de Harrow. You can read more about the Tour de Harrow here.
I found Harrow to be a truly inspiring place to work. It is a borough dominated by cars, which ferry children to school and haul groceries back from the supermarkets. Its narrow roads are clogged by cars, but in an area popular with young families and London commuters that isn’t surprising. The challenge has been, and continues to be, demonstrating the versatility of bicycles and the possibility of cycling as a real alternative for everyday transportation.
Agitating for change in the industry
In May 2015 I attended the first national Women and Cycling conference. Delegates came from every corner of the industry – health trusts, local authorities, retailers, engineers, designers, mechanics, instructors, coaches, researchers and academics – united in their commitment to getting more women cycling.
Despite being a room of cyclists, 95% of whom were women, I am acutely aware that cycling and the cycling industry is dominated by men. Less than half as many women and men regularly cycle and this imbalance is reflected in the industry too. The conference boosted mine and many other women’s morale though, as we met new colleagues equally committed to tackling the gender divide in cycling.
Following the conference a group of delegates continued to meet and prepare a second conference in 2016. We wanted to offer a regular opportunity for women in the industry to come together, skill share and make plans. Forming under the name WE Cycle (Women’s Equality in Cycling) we successfully delivered a second conference in partnership with Herefordshire Council in May 2016.
You can read more about WE Cycle here.
In the summer of 2016 I made the decision to return to the world of freelance cycle training. Though my work with Cycle Experience was challenging and largely successful, I wanted to return to working with more grassroots organisations and use my experience to support others establish projects in their own communities. Working with WE Cycle helped me realise that my skills are not best used from behind a desk. My background in teaching, my passion for cycling and my love for being outdoors make a pretty clear case for being out in the field, teaching people to cycle and supporting community champions. In October 2016 I officially went rogue – and I haven’t looked back.