Report of the recent Cycling Cultures: Insights and Methods conference by Jo Somerset

CYCLING CULTURES: INSIGHTS AND METHODS – MMU, 14th February 2019, by Jo Somerset

I couldn’t resist a conference on ‘gendered cycling cultures’ at Manchester Metropolitan University last month.

Although it used academic words like autoethnography (researching from personal experience) the day was peppered with interesting perspectives and fascinating facts, dealing with themes of women’s ‘physical capital’ (muscles) on two wheels, the lack of Black-British women in elite cycling, and implicit male bias amongst planners which produced ‘unequal cycling experiences’ in London.

MMU’s Kate Themen built on her previous study of women footballers by taking to Manchester Velodrome’s boards to find out how it feels to develop ‘physical capital’ – both in body mass and the sense of power coming from the speed and focus of track cycling. Her idea was to challenge ‘the pejoriative framing of women’s physicality’.  Aiming to build muscle mass, she realized she’d achieved her goal when a friend noticed she was ‘walking like a gunslinger’; her insights about women’s bodily experience of the world of competitive cycling had begun.

However, this world is almost totally white, explained Marlon Moncrieffe from Brighton University, himself a 2010 Silver World Master at the Velodrome, talking about his recent exhibition ‘Made in Britain – Uncovering the Life Histories of Black-British Champions in Cycling’.  There aren’t many, but black and Asian women champions deserve more public recognition. Shanaze Reade, Charlotte Cole-Hussain, Dani Khan and paralympian Kadeena Cox are relatively unknown compared to their well-known Athletics counterparts like Dame Kelly Holmes, Christine Ohuruogo and Katarina Johnson-Thompson.  He suggested that the popular image of elite women cyclists is unconsciously white – just look at the hair – and that ‘whiteness’ is the norm at this time.

Photo credit: British cycling
Photo credit: Phil Shepherd-Lewis

Moving from racing to everyday riding, Nadia Williams proposed that the road network is also a social network where ‘all space belongs first and foremost to men,’ somewhat like the cycling equivalent of ‘manspreading.’  Most bike riders, female and male, will recognise the concept of being squeezed into narrow inappropriate spaces.  We should have little sympathy for the so-called victim mentality of drivers who are ‘forced to comply’ with new regulations and road layouts as our urban landscape is gradually transformed to be more people-friendly.

Analysing cycling measures through a ‘gender lens’ provided fruitful insights for Tiffany Lam, which are good pointers for Chris Boardman and his team.  When examining the gender gap that still exists in London’s bike travel, there was a warning for us in Greater Manchester not to implement plans with an implicit male bias towards peak-time journeys and hard infrastructure over off-peak travel and soft measures to encourage participation.   “Gender bias is embedded in the way that cycling infrastructure is conceptualised” she said. London’s cycling superhighways appeal more to men than women, and Transport for London’s 2018 Cycling Action Plan focuses too much on rush hour travel at the expense of off-peak local short journeys – guess the male/female breakdown in each category.  There’s also a warning of potential racial segregation on the roads, echoing Marlon’s comments that people need to see ‘people like us’ riding bikes, and nearly half of BAME people she surveyed said cycling isn’t for ‘people like me’.

I would also suggest that Greater Manchester and Sustrans adopt Tiffany’s definition of safe urban mobility, which includes being safe from sexual harassment alongside protection from traffic accidents, although there’s also a positive flip side to be aware of: many women, including myself, find that using a bike increases our personal safety at night, making it possible to travel around the city less afraid of male assault.

Finally, to the world of entertainment. Bruce Bennett from Lancaster gave inspiring examples of ‘riding like a girl’ in film, from The Day I Became a Woman (2000) and Wajda (2012) in Iran, to sports documentaries, bike courier stories, Mama Agatha (2015) teaching refugees to cycle in Amsterdam, and films from the early 1900s where bike riding was integral to the first wave of feminism.

Photo credit: Dr. Bruce Bennett
Photo credit: Dr. Bruce Bennett

I missed the presentation by LadyPedal, who apparently gave a good account of the issues in Manchester for women starting out in cycling, many via the Breeze network, and maintaining a regular bike riding habit, needing bike maintenance skills and sheer confidence to take their place on Greater Manchester roads.

Walk Ride GM is well-represented by people – not just women – who understand the importance of our whole GM population adopting car-free travel.  Hopefully the notes from this conference will help to articulate our arguments so that the case for two-wheeled (and two-footed) transport becomes even more compelling.



Jo Somerset

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