I’m delighted to bring you yet another SheCycles post. In case you didn’t know, SheCycles is a series of posts in which a range of different female cyclists answer the same questions, in their own words. You should read all the SheCycles posts, by clicking this link.
I’m Niamh Lewis, a sports journalist from Lancashire. I’m a former triathlete, and got into swimming, cycling, and running individually around 2009, and later moved to triathlon in around 2012. I’ve done many challenges over the years at various levels, my love in cycling for a long time was for time trialling, but now I settle for staying fit all year round and dabbling with a little bit of what I enjoy!
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?
I don’t know if I feel it’s different between genders. For me, the freedom and simplicity aspect of cycling is what made me fall in love with it. The places you can explore and miles you can cover — much further than on foot — which I’m sure is similar to why many blokes got into it. Also, what I love is that the bike and the terrain doesn’t discriminate between genders, anyone can get on a bike and find the same joy for cycling that we all have for it. A man suffers on a hill just as much as a woman does, so I suppose as a woman who cycles, it’s a nice way of letting your legs do the talking.
And for me, about 98% of my cycling friends are male, and they have been my biggest supporters. Any gender bias or egos in my circle are quickly quashed.
Do you feel women are treated as equals in the world of cycling, and if not, what can be done about it?
In professional cycling, absolutely not. As a sports journalist, I’ve covered this subject extensively, but
it is slowly progressing. Part of the struggle on the professional side is that mens’ cycling has such a vast history spanning over 100 years so it will always be over 100 years ahead.
There are many key moments in the sport’s history — such as rivalries between champions, and stunning attacks and breakaways in Grand Tours — that have engaged audiences over the years and moments which made the sport change and adapt to what it has today; the women’s side doesn’t have that so it is very young in comparison. But on the flip side we do have some incredible women to remember such as Alfonsina Strada who is the only woman to have ridden the Giro d’Italia in 1924.
On the amateur side I think it’s more equal, brands have stepped up and there’s a lot more innovation and design in women’s clothing, kit, bikes, saddles, and so on. I think the majority of decent humans would never think twice about a woman on a bike, but there are still a number of guys who become disgruntled at women who are faster than they are.
What got you into cycling?
I’m not entirely sure. I’ve always been very sporty since I was very small, and have done all different kinds of sports over my lifetime.
I hated cycling and running, but was entered into events by my parents and forced to do them. One year they made me do the Manchester 100 (mile) sportive. I did it on a hand-me-down bike that was too small for me. I hadn’t trained anywhere near that distance, didn’t have enough to eat and slogged around for eight hours in pain hating every minute.
But the summer after I finished my GCSEs I had a lot of time on my hands and not much to do with it, so I borrowed my dad’s bike which was a bit bigger and would head out in the mornings with some water and snacks, and explore Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland and come back at dusk. I started the summer thinking 30 miles up the valley was far, and ended it by doing 80 mile / 4000ft adventures to Yorkshire and back and discovered so many new places along the way, and then someone told me about Strava.
To you, what’s the best thing about cycling? And the worst?
The best: The freedom and adventure, and simplicity of pedalling in beautiful places. That summer I got into it was so pure, I didn’t have a Garmin or equivalent device or any stats to look at, and I would map out my routes once I got home to see how far I’d been. The only pressure I had was getting home before it went dark.
The worst: when things go mechanically wrong. Cycling is simple when everything works the way it should…
Tell us some of your cycling dreams and aspirations?
I am a traveller and some of the European adventures around the Alps and Pyrenees are dreamy and appealing, but equally, I think I’d be more proud of a sub-22:00 over a 10 mile TT and run around the famous European trails instead.
As a woman, what can you do to make cycling more normal, and more inclusive? And what are the biggest obstacles in your way?
It’s really pleasing to see the number of inclusive groups out there now, Black Cyclists Network being the most obvious one off the top of my head, which isn’t just for people of colour either. Inclusive groups are really helpful for when you are new to something and don’t know where to start.
I think we as humans in the modern world, which is filled with opportunities, need to give less of a shit about what other people think. I never got into my career, sports or any hobbies/ other interests because of inspiration from someone before me, I did them because either I fancied having a go and trying something out, or I was quite good and pursued it further. I don’t think there are any obstacles to cycling anymore, at least not in the UK. Even if someone cannot afford to buy a bike, there are places to go to lend one and teach you everything you need to know.
So, my advice is if you are intrigued by cycling, go for it. The worst that can happen is you don’t like it and never do it again, but at least you gave it a go!
Tell us about you – what motivates you, what scares you, and what makes you happy?
I love challenges, I love suffering, and I love living on the edge of my comfort zone and constantly extending the boundary. I have been doing this sport long enough to have been there and done most things in terms of doing it for fun and then taking it seriously and racing.
I’ve also fallen in and out of love with it several times. Now it makes me happy to know that I have all that experience and I can wake up in the morning and dip into whatever training I fancy doing. Intervals, a time trial, cafe ride with friends, it’s all fun, and sport is my lifestyle so everything I do is because I like it.
What scares me: Crashes… last year I had a really bad crash after a driver was on the wrong side of the road and I was lucky to survive. I got straight back on the bike as soon as I could to avoid the build up of fear, but otherwise sporting challenges don’t scare me. Bring it on!
What was the biggest challenge or obstacle you’ve had to face?
Several crashes over the years, which always mean setbacks, and the last one was the worst. I was conscious the whole time. A car had come across the wrong side of the road without looking to see if it was clear, and I remember flying head-first into the side of the car and then landing on the ground in the middle of a busy junction unable to move. My bike took the majority of the impact and was severed into three pieces, I bizarrely escaped with minor injuries, but it was hard to come back after that.
Is there an achievement or contribution that you are most proud of?
Time trialling, probably. And also getting back on every time I’ve had a crash and coming back stronger.
How did cycling change you?
I think any sport is useful as a way to channel your energy into. Taking a sport seriously whether it’s cycling or running or something else teaches you a lot about yourself, where your boundaries are and how to push them and also escapism from the mundane stresses of life. Most people surprise themselves, I think!
And lots of studies show that exercise isn’t just good for your body, but the effects on your mind help you problem solve and so on.
How has your cycling impacted on your family life, and your life overall?
Cycling and other sports made life better! It’s a fabulous way of exploring and experiencing the world.
What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you?
Falling off, probably… once on a longer TT I went around a gravel lane too fast and ended up skidding off and falling into a bush, there was nobody around to see it so I got back on and carried on, not realising there was grass stuck to me. I think I still was in the top three women or something.
And a similar thing happened recently, I finished TT efforts up a steep hill, didn’t quite have enough gears to make it to the top but I had no choice but to keep grinding. A gravel patch made me lose my balance, so I fell over and then threw up, once again, nobody was there to see it thankfully.
Where would you most like to go cycling? Why there?
Girona, the new home of cycling. Beautiful place and the modern cyclist’s dream land.
If you could change ONE thing about cycling, what would that be?
Less mechanical bits and bobs to go wrong… or for me to know more about how to fix them!
What bike do you ride? What made you choose that one? If you have multiple bikes, which is your favourite, and why?
After the crash I’m left with two. A Felt AR5 (aero road bike), and a Specialized Transition (TT). Years back my house was broken into and all the bikes were stolen. The Felt was an insurance replacement and I love it. A few months later, I found them on eBay so the police went to retrieve them, and thankfully the TT was returned. The TT is my favourite and is sentimental to me after being stolen and all the moments of suffering and race wins I’ve had on it.
What advice would you offer to women who are thinking of starting to cycle, or are new cyclists?
If you fancy it, don’t hesitate, there’s nothing stopping you!
Strava is good fun to see where you’ve been and for the community. But don’t get bogged down by stats, and ignore anybody who tells you that they are important.