The last time I wore a dress to go out with my teammates, when I walked into the bar, half of them stared blankly, confused, and the other half actually asked, “What are you wearing?”
“A dress. I am a girl, you know,” I replied, somewhat annoyed that compliments weren’t flowing like the beer on tap that they’d clearly been drinking for a while.
“No, you’re not. You’re a bike racer,” one of them replied. He was kidding, of course, but he made an excellent point: being a bike racer and a girl don’t always go hand in hand.
Or do they?
When I started writing The Bike Life, Nathaniel asked me if I’d be interested in writing about the women’s side of racing, about what it’s like being a female racer and, in my case, interviewing a whole lot of them for my other job. At first, I didn’t know what I would write about. Then, an idea wormed its way into my head and has been ruminating there for some time now.
I’ve realized recently that most of the time, it feels like being taken seriously as a cyclist means tamping down all of my femininity. After all, who needs eyeliner to race? This hasn’t been something I put a lot of thought into or consciously focused on, but as I’ve gotten more serious about racing, my daily routine has consisted less of putting on lipstick and more on stretching after rides.
However, in doing this, I feel like I’ve lost a part of myself and started to develop almost a sense of shame about wanting to look “pretty.” I can’t remember the last time I painted my nails, and wearing mascara elicits confused responses from friends and family alike.
This is done for the exact reason the aforementioned conversation happened: to be considered part of my male-dominated team and be taken seriously as a racer, I had to first be classified as a racer, not a woman. It’s not to say that the cycling community isn’t welcoming to women. It is, very much so. It’s just that sometimes, a certain stereotype about women cyclists does exist, however unintentional it may be.
On the bright side, it seems like lately, within the female cycling community, a quiet revolution has started. Until recently, it seemed like for a female to be taken seriously as a racer, she had to erase everything female about herself: hair yanked back, no makeup, no “feminine” clothes post-race, nothing that defined her as being “a girl.”
But now I know plenty of women racers who paint their nails despite how mud-packed they get during a good cyclocross race; women who race wearing eyeliner, women who discuss the new Jimmy Choo galoshes (great for post-race mud) and haircuts (short versus long) on Twitter just as often as they discuss racing and riding.
I was a Women’s Studies minor in college, yet for the first two years I raced bikes, I was afraid of looking “girly” for fear of not being taken seriously. Now, I refuse to live in fear, and it seems like plenty of women are echoing the sentiment. It seems like we’re all starting to ask the question, “Why can’t we be racers and women?”
I’ve had pro British cyclocross racer Gabby Day staying with me for the week, and we talked about the concept of being a female and a racer a lot this morning. She agreed with me that there seems to be a stigma in the community against looking too feminine, for fear of not being seen as a racer. But she’s chosen to fight the stereotype that women cyclists can’t be serious and pretty at the same time (and she’s doing a great job of it!)
“It’s about showing that women can do it, be competitive, but at the same time, it’s about showing that feminine side and wearing makeup, and being a girl still. Just because it’s a male-dominated sport, we can still want to be pretty and feminine. And I think that can help attract more girls into it. Especially young girls who can look at it and think, ‘oh, she’s riding really well and she’s really pretty, on the bike and off the bike as well.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that. You can race really well and still look attractive.”
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look our best before, during and after races, and I’ve decided that this season, I can have the best of both worlds. Yes, I will ask my hairdresser to give me a cut that will look good after being under a helmet for hours on end. Yes, I will start re-applying makeup post-race. Yes, I will wear dresses to those post-race parties. Why? Because I want to, dammit. After all, if I spend 20 hours per week training and racing, I can spend a few making sure I look and feel good doing it.
And before you men out there rise up and make a fuss, no, this isn’t a column about you or how men view female racers, because I know there are plenty of you out there who will argue that we’re at our most attractive covered in mud post-race. This column is about how we view ourselves.