I started riding gravel about a year ago, by accident. Or more accurately, by necessity. I was out smack in the middle of the USA for work, and no matter what direction I rode my road bike in, I eventually hit gravel. So I got a cross bike (n+1 rule, right?) and the rest is (recent) history.
When I signed myself up for the Middle Georgia Epic 200k, I figured I may have already moved south for work by February… wrong. So instead, on February 17th, I hauled myself down from Pennsylvania to the much warmer, much prettier Georgia countryside for some fun on two wheels. I camped the night before outside the Blue Goose, a lovely bicycle-themed hostel hosting the race, and hung out that evening with the other hostel-dwellers – several of them being the gracious GravelCyclist.com folks. “You know, we’ve never had a woman write a race report before,” said JOM. “I can write!” said I.
I went off the next day and rode my 200k quite happily and relatively successfully, given that I’d spent the winter in Vermont and Pennsylvania on the trainer. It drizzled intermittently, got quite muddy, and there was a fun hike-a-bike portion in the last 15 miles that I would’ve gladly re-ridden the first 100 miles to get rid of. I rode about 90% of it entirely alone, which led to a lot of freaking out that I was lost, even though Garmin and cue sheets told me I wasn’t.
There were portions of those last miles that I was glad I was alone for, particularly the parts where I was making dying animal noises while trying to pedal uphill with my feet on top of pedals. When I got off to put my chain back on twice, my shoes acquired several inches of clay over the cleats meaning I couldn’t clip in. Making matters a little worse, shifting was ill-advised because my rear derailleur was so clogged with clay. That’s a justifiable situation for making dying animal noises by yourself.
Anyways, JOM did a bang-up job here of going through the nitty-gritty (literally, gritty) of the course, including some fantastic pictures of the red clay and also my kit, which is probably visible from space.
Afterwards, I sat down to write. And I was a bit stuck. I could bang out my standard glib, endearingly self-deprecating race recap without a problem, but there was little in it that distinguishes it as being “from a woman.” What makes a woman’s gravel race recap any different? “And then, at mile 58.72, I had a lot of sports bra chafing?”
The other path this write-up could go down would be the feminist cyclist rant. Believe me, I can do that just fine as well. I could talk about how many times the evening before I was asked by a dude, “Are you riding tomorrow?” Followed by, “Which distance? Oh, the 200k?” which is always delivered with just a hint of veiled surprise, and/or a (sometimes implicit, sometimes verbalized) “you go girl!”
Yes. I go. I go 200k, in fact.
But that’s not entirely fair either. The man-splaining usually shuts down pretty quickly, at least among fellow gravel cyclists, and then I generally get treated with as much respect as every person with a Y chromosome. So if it doesn’t take that long to clarify that you’re riding and not there supporting your boyfriend/husband/second cousin’s son, and that yes, you know what 50/34 chainrings are, why are there so few women racing gravel?
One, because there are proportionately few women racing anything cycling. In general, cycling culture hasn’t been super female-friendly, although it’s slowly improving. A little less pink-it-and-shrink-it, if you will. I can actually find bibs that fit me now.
But there are a few things specific to gravel that probably also come into play, like mechanical skills. A lot of these events are self-supported. Things break in mud/sand/rocks (e.g. derailleurs, spokes, your soul), and you need to be able to fix them, or wait a really long time for someone to come retrieve you (and DNF). Fixing things requires mechanical skills, and let me tell you, YouTube only helps you so much when you’re on a dirt road in the middle of Oklahoma by yourself with a broken rear derailleur. Shop mechanical classes can be intimidating places for women. Bike shops in general can be intimidating places for women.
A week after Middle Georgia Epic I walked into a local bike shop because I needed my cassette changed and didn’t have the tools on me. The lone mechanic was swamped by the Saturday afternoon crowd, and gladly handed me the chain whip and cassette lock when I volunteered to do it myself. He hollered to the store manager that I was hireable (thanks, dude!), and they were actually looking for help, and I’m enjoying some temporary under-employment before I go back to being a physician this summer. So I listened to the job pitch. Which was great and included a lot about how having a woman working in a bike shop is the holy grail because otherwise women don’t come into bike shops, UP UNTIL he said “even you just standing here looking pretty would make other women feel more comfortable here.”
I know. He was just trying to illustrate a point. We’ve already established that I know how to use a chain whip, after all. But in an environment where women are so attuned to even potentially being perceived as lesser-than, because it can be so rampant, the easy, foolproof solution is to just speak to everyone the same way. If you’re going to presume some sort of knowledge or skill level, presume the same whether male or female. I think the perception is that women want to be treated differently, to be acknowledged that as female cyclists they have different needs. To come full-circle back to how a woman’s race recap would be different (see, this write-up is actually going somewhere!) – do they really? Other than bibs that are easier to pee in?
So maybe if we want more women racing bicycles, on any kind of surface, we should just, you know, treat them normally. I don’t need to feel special or be congratulated on being a woman every time I check in to a race. And in general, on gravel, that’s what happens – normalcy.
That is, as long as you call spending 8+ hours on your bike, getting everything you own stained with red clay, and making dying animal noises while going uphill normal. Epically normal. I’ll be back at this race next year.