In this latest SheCycles post, we hear from Uni, in her own words, about what it’s like to be a cyclist and a woman.
Let me hand you over to Uni: I’m strictly a weekend warrior and I ride mountain bikes only although I do take my bike out on the tar. I abide by the “Just Ride” mantra. Being on my bike is my outside therapy ”me” time. I started out as someone who had no clue about riding a bicycle and even less fitness, and I remember my first ride with the girls – it took me over 4 hours to make it through the 17km trail. Gears were foreign to me – I didn’t understand when someone said to me “just feel” – I kept demanding being told what gear I should be in. I also struggled to stay upright and pedal and think about steering and changing gears at the same time. It was all very overwhelming. Nearly 9 years later and I’m still loving the journey.
What does it mean to you, as a woman, to also be a cyclist, and how (if at all) do you feel it’s different from what men experience?
As a late comer to the sport I don’t think it’s such an issue anymore.
Do you feel women are treated as equals in the world of cycling, and if not, what can be done about it?
I’ve been riding since 2012 and I’m not involved in competitive cycling but I have noticed a definite improvement in terms of treating women as more than just ‘sex objects’. The days of commenting on how women look on their bikes and what they wear rather than their skills are on the decrease. No doubt there’s still “locker room” type comments but I see it called out more often.
Competitively the women’s cycling races still receive less airtime though there are names out there that have great following. Ladies like Emily Batty and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot are great role-models proving that being a lady and getting down and dirty on a bike are not mutually exclusive concepts.
What got you into cycling?
Strangely enough I would never have thought of myself as someone that would ride a bicycle for fun. I have vivid memories of the day my dad pushed me off down the road, and looking back and realising my dad was not holding on to me anymore. How I didn’t topple over in that moment was a win for momentum and a loss for gravity.
A friend of mine had told me about a ride he’d done. I told him it sounded amazing and it was something I’d love to try. His response to me was “No offence Uni, but you’d never make it”. He would’ve been right – I was very overweight and severely unfit – and I had no clue how to ride a bike.
Back in 2012 I had four weeks leave over December and I decided I’d get a cheap bike and start riding. My intention was really to keep myself from getting bored and vegging out on the couch – and also to prove my friend wrong. The plan to get a bicycle over December failed but in January, my then partner bought me a bike as a surprise. It was a steel rigid bike with little flowers on the saddle. I was at the time rather upset that he had taken the pleasure out of choosing my own bike but had he left me to my own devices I would have ended up with a bike that would spend more time in the LBS than on the trails, as I was adamant I didn’t want to spend a whole lot of money. I ended up riding that bicycle for a year before upgrading to something with some suspension.
From then on, kilometre by kilometre, fall by fall – my cycling adventure began.
To you, what’s the best thing about cycling? And the worst?
The best thing is without a doubt the feeling of freedom. Whether out on the trails or even a short ride on the roads around the neighbourhood, I can’t help but grin. Even when tired and in pain, the feeling after a great ride is euphoric.
The worst thing is the cost of cycling. I find the cost of bikes and maintenance makes it quite an exclusive activity, especially here in South Africa. The old adage “A rich man’s sport and a poor man’s transport” is very true.
Tell us some of your cycling dreams and aspirations?
I love that I’ve been privileged to have some cycling adventures in South Africa and around the world, and I hope to have many more. In 2017 my visit to the UK had me googling bike rentals so I could go exploring on a bicycle. My passport still bears the water stains from being stuffed in my rain jacket pocket while riding around in Wales. I did a week-long bicycle cruise in Croatia in 2019. I hope to ride in iconic mountain biking destinations like Sedona and British Columbia but also enjoy a chill exploration holiday on bicycle around Amsterdam and other destinations.
As a woman, what can you do to make cycling more normal, and more inclusive? And what are the biggest obstacles in your way?
I think we’ve reached a point where it is inclusive. Seeing a woman on a bicycle is no longer an anomaly. Here in South Africa one of the biggest obstacles is safety. Not just the typical road dangers but we have a high crime rate that includes bike-jackings, and these are often rather violent. This forces many women to have to join group rides which may not always work for their schedules in terms of other work/family commitments.
Tell us about you – what motivates you, what scares you, and what makes you happy?
I am a very nervous rider and my technical skills are severely limited. Often sadly there’s a voice in my head that screams “You can’t” and my body listens and grabs the brakes. When I manage to overcome the voice and I get over something that scares me, or I finally manage to beat an obstacle that was a mental block – I call them my “Good Girl” moments. I talk to myself a lot when I’m on the trail – from “WTF are you doing?” and “Pedal!!!!” to the huge smile followed by “Good Girl” – when I’m brave and I believe in myself and trust my bike.
What was the biggest challenge or obstacle you’ve had to face?
My head is my biggest enemy on my bike. That feeling of giving up before trying is a constant battle.
Is there an achievement or contribution that you are most proud of?
On the Croatia bike tour I knew it would be difficult but I was adamant that I didn’t want to opt for an e-
bike. I have nothing against e-bikes but I wanted to do this on my own steam. As a weekend warrior, with my longest ever ride being only about 62km, I was super proud of myself for getting on that bicycle every day and finishing without having to get a push from one of the others in the group or taking a turn on an e-bike. The “Queens Stage” was 59 km with 920m elevation – and I did it!
One of my little happy gloats, I have the QOM on a downhill segment at one of the local bike parks. If I’m not built for climbs and least I can descend. Haha. I’m proud of this as when I first started cycling I often stopped and walked my bike down that section of the trail.
How did cycling change you?
In absolutely every way possible. I was always fat and inactive. My resting heart rate was in the 80s. I was unhealthy. In 2009 I had a pulmonary embolism. The lifestyle changes that happened after that included riding my bicycle not because I have to, but because I want to. I’m still overweight but my RHR is now 58 and at 46 I’m fitter than I have been all my life.
How has your cycling impacted on your family life, and your life overall?
I think my family has been inspired by how I have taken to cycling. My second bicycle has been donated to my sister. Though she doesn’t ride it unless I take her out with me, she’s enjoyed a few rides with me. My oldest sister that never learned to ride a bicycle took lessons at the age of 50.
What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you?
I was in a skills clinic at a shared green belt space and we were practicing just riding off small drop offs. I got it wrong and OTB’d. I was on the floor laughing about it when the instructor came over to detangle me. Only problem was that the saddle had hooked into the back of my baggies, and as she pulled my bike, she pulled my pants too. And um … yeah… Oops 🙂
Where would you most like to go cycling? Why there?
The BC bike race in Canada 🙂 Iconic.
If you could change ONE thing about cycling, what would that be?
That it was more accessible. With the introduction of e-bikes cycling can be something more people enjoy but they are so expensive. Here in South Africa I would love to see more cycling lanes allowing more commuting.
What bike do you ride? What made you choose that one? If you have multiple bikes, which is your favourite, and why?
My current fleet consists of a Niner EMD 9 29” (11-36) and a Mercer Hungry Monkey 650B (11-40)
Some cycling friends sold me on the idea of a steel bike and I fell in love with the idea of a one of a kind hand-made bike (Mercer bikes is a custom frame builder in Cape Town, South Africa). I set myself 3 goals. One was to drop 15kgs and the other two were obstacles on the trail that I kept bailing on. When I achieved those – the upgrade to the steel bike was my reward. The Niner was purchased second hand with the intention to move the components onto the steel frame. After riding the Niner I decided she was too lovely a ride to strip so – and then there were two. I don’t have a favorite, I ride the steel bike on rocky and more technical terrain; the Niner makes a lovely gravel grinder and she rolls fast 🙂
What advice would you offer to women who are thinking of starting to cycle, or are new cyclists?
Just do it. It has been such a liberating and life changing event. Don’t compare yourself to others but do use tools like Strava that you can set goals against yourself and see how you’ve improved. Don’t forget to stop and enjoy the scenery along the way and be kind to yourself and those around you.