Lost kit #2: This one isn’t about sports bras
I was going to write to you about sports bras this week. Specifically, I was going to tell you how much I hate them, and how the issues so many people encounter when shopping for them — limited size ranges; deranged fits — are symptomatic of a wider problem when it comes to workout gear. I was also, after last week, going to write about a sport other than cycling, particularly after seeing so many great Couch to 5k updates popping up on social media.
In my defence, what I’m going to talk about isn’t cycling-specific. It’s happened to me while swimming and running; at the gym and the rock-climbing wall; during yoga and the walk to work.
This time, it happened on my bike. My boyfriend Conor and I were cycling to meet our friends Sarah and Jamie in Hyde Park, slipping along the Quietway on one of those sunny September afternoons that makes you feel like you’re getting away with something. I couldn’t tell you much about the two men we passed, except that they were spread out across the road so that we had to ride between them, and that they had a dog, which I smiled at. Perhaps this was what attracted his attention; either way, one of them made a lewd comment as I went by.
Neither the comment itself nor the incongruously conversational tone in which it was made were extraordinary. Pretty usual, too, was my reaction, which was to swear at the person who made it. What happened next was less normal: the man shouted up ahead to a friend I hadn’t yet noticed, parked on a moped where the road narrowed to a two-way cycle path through the trees, and told him to get that slag.
Swearing at him, then, had evidently been an error, and as we reached the trees, I realised three things:
- If the guy on the moped does try to get me, I can’t outsprint him
- If three guys attack me, I will definitely lose
- If three guys attack my boyfriend, he will get hurt
It wasn’t until the next junction that Conor realised I was crying. He hadn’t heard what the man had shouted, and I wasn’t able to tell him: there was a little girl waiting at the crossing on her shiny purple bicycle and I couldn’t speak.
A few days later, and I can say now that it wasn’t just fear that rattled me, or the sick dread of what my retaliation almost caused. It was the realisation that no matter how good a cyclist I become — however much I win the battle in my own head — it will have no bearing on whether or not strangers treat me this way. One study of cyclists in Queensland, Australia found that over 70% had been harassed by motorists in the previous 12 months, with 45% reporting obscene gestures or sexual harassment. While researching this topic, I found a compelling MSc thesis by a scholar named Elsa L. Roberts which draws a link between harassment and women’s participation in the public sphere specifically within the context of bike-riding. Or, to turn that thesis around: the man in the road does not care how far or fast I go, and why would he? He’s not interested in me as a cyclist, but as a woman, and there is no way to achieve my way out of that.
That evening after the Tour de France* highlights finished, Eurosport went to coverage of the most prestigious stage race for women cyclists, the Giro Rosa. I sat on the opposite end of the sofa from my boyfriend and imagined all the athletes being shouted at by men in the street.
Next morning, alone on the road to Kent, I passed a man riding uphill with his daughter. She couldn’t have been more than six or seven, and from my bike I could hear him correcting her technique in that specific gentle tone parents adopt when they are teaching a child about something they themselves love dearly. “Lower gear, higher cadence, darling. Keep going.”
As I got out of the saddle to pass that little girl and her father, a thought crossed my mind very clearly: one day, that little girl will be thirty, and with any luck still riding her bike like her father taught her. And maybe, in a sunny south London street thirteen or fourteen years from now, that woman will be out cycling with her friends when a man will shout something at her from the road. Maybe the woman, who today is only six years old, will say something in response. Maybe she won’t dare. Either way, she’ll go home and wonder if she did something wrong, and most likely she will tell her dad nothing about it.
I know there is nothing I can do between now and her adulthood that will change that story for her. But seeing her did help me make my mind up on one thing: I will always, always tell that man to fuck off.
*I almost wrote the tautologous “men’s Tour de France.” Whoops! Bit of satire for you there.