Breaking down barriers: Challenging the current message to female cyclists

by Tina McCarthy


Wheel Women Founder Tina McCarthy emailed me overnight. We had been in discussions about her writing for Ella, but a few recent events compelled her to put words to paper to address a topic close to her heart. “I was going to publish it to my own blog,” she wrote. “But then I thought perhaps I should offer it to you. It may be seen as a little controversial from some corners, but I think I raise some valid points that we can see evidence of at Wheel Women.” Interested, I downloaded the document attached and gave it a read.

While the article below represents Tina’s opinion, I certainly recognise the issue Tina outlines and consider both her theory and recommendations an important part of the broader discussion on what can be done to get more women on bikes. I sincerely hope Ella CyclingTips is amongst the voices that empower women to ride rather than the voices that leave women questioning their ability to join us out on the road.

Jessi Braverman


We sat in the café mid-ride, discussing the need for gendered riding groups and why women love the ‘women’s only’ approach to cycling.

“In my day, we just rode. It didn’t matter who with, we just got on our bikes and rode. I didn’t think there was a need to separate ourselves from the fellas,” my friend informed me.

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As a proponent of a large women’s ride group at Wheel Women, her comments raise some interesting questions in my mind about the current state of getting women riding.

I have a theory and that theory was bolstered recently by the publication of several articles. Ginger Boyd recently published a blog post on the Machines for Freedom site. Boyd’s piece, Self Deprecation and The Female Cyclist, was circulated quite widely on social media, suggesting it was relatable to many.

It’s an interesting angle on the subject of women and bikes and our need for apology for what we do. The article has a focus on the upper end of cycling: women who race, women who compete and those involved in bunch rides. Many friends kindly forwarded the article to me – were they sending it because they think I am apologetic (I hope not!), or because they knew I had an opinion on this too? Or was it because they have heard me bemoan the fact that I am so often asked to make comment for the media on what barriers women face with cycling.

While we sat at that café, I shared my theory with my friend. Now I’m no scientist, but I do have a strong background in advertising and communication. In many ways, the very premise of advertising is to tell people something enough times that they will start to believe it. Boyd’s article refers to this element in women’s cycling and it’s exactly this practise that I explained to my friend over coffee at the café.

Boyd’s article states:


What is it about joining in on a group activity that makes us feel it is necessary to give everyone a PSA regarding our potential performance? It’s important to note, also, that no one ever asks this of you when you show up to a new group ride. No scary gang of girls rushes up on you, demanding to know if you will slow them down on the hills. Rather, I often volunteer this information, uninvited, and in doing so, I believe I not only lower others’ expectations of me, but I certainly lower my actual capabilities as well. As Stacey points out, “say something a thousand times and you’ll start to believe it.” It will start to be true.

As women we apologize for any manner of things when we ride. When we say: “Sorry, but I’ll meet you at the top. I’m slow on the hills” or “I’ll ride at the back. I don’t want to slow anyone down”, it cuts to the very core of our own beliefs about ourselves as women cyclists.

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In shaping our personal beliefs, our apologetic approach shapes the perception of women riding (or not riding!) bikes. It influences the media, the bike companies and a raft of other stakeholders who are key in women’s cycling. Google the term “barriers to women’s cycling” and there are nearly 500,000 entries. While each may not toute the problems us poor women have when it comes to considering a ride, the mere topic has added to the groundswell of belief that we have a problem with even considering a bike ride.

Say it enough times, and people will believe it. Yes, they will. This is Advertising 101. Share your message. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Plant that seed of belief, coupled with the seed of doubt, and we will embrace it. I realize this may sound slightly radical, but I think the biggest barrier to women’s cycling is our belief that the problem is bigger than it really is.

I am in no way denying there are issues when it comes to women’s cycling and the gender imbalance. Research confirms some our different needs and unique challenges. But what I am saying is that we do ourselves no favours by continuing to give some much attention to these perceived barriers and the negative angle on women and bikes. When we repeat the message, women believe it and groundswell takes over. Worse still, the media jumps on board the cycle of propagating the barriers us poor women must face.

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I challenge the notion that the barriers are as consuming as they really are. We run classes at Wheel Women, in a women’s only environment and we see women make rash, apologetic statements about their ability all the time. The statements are based on what they are taught to believe about themselves before they even attempt some of the things that shroud them in doubt. “I’m not confident to ride on the road,” I hear from a lady who has never tried but has backed herself into the corner of disbelief she will never step out of her comfort zone. A little hand-holding goes a long way in helping women believe that yes, they can just get on their bikes and ride!

Cyclist and medical practitioner Dr Bridie O’Donnell was quoted recently in an article by Dalton Koss:


They say courage is ‘feeling the fear but doing it anyway,’ and it’s true: I feel fear a lot of the time but I go ahead and try things anyway. The fear of looking foolish, making a mistake or humiliating yourself can be controlling but it is important to embrace risk. Change is the only way to becoming the best you can be.

If more women would prescribe to Bridie’s viewpoint, we might see less women influenced by the glut of articles around barriers and actually form some self-belief in their ability to ride. More articles like this one by Koss are needed. We need to start writing articles that champion our self-belief in our own ability, that speak of the positive angle of women riding bikes, and share stories about what amazing things female cyclists can achieve.

These are the tales that inspire other women as Bridie’s interview with Koss inspires me. Dr. Bridie O’Donnell is an inspiration not just as a cyclist but as a woman with her own set of beliefs and doubts formed by her ability to think rationally.

At Wheel Women we don’t talk about barriers. We ask women what things they want to achieve with their riding, Time and time again they start out with words expressing fear, doubt and lack of belief.

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By the end of the programs, we see evidence that we have re-shaped that thinking. These women have positive experiences on the bike and they repeatedly hear positive messages that echo their experiences. We tell them: Riding is fun. Riding is easy. Riding is possible no matter who you are or how fit you are. It’s amazing watching the transformation women can make for themselves when they have positive experiences and messages to help them parlay their fear and doubt into confidence and determination.

Let’s delete the word “barrier” from out mindset with cycling. When we believe in our ability to ride and treat the whole experience as not so different than any other fun, new challenge to tackle, it will be easier for women to believe in their abilities. When we begin to treat each new cycling challenge (riding indoors, riding outdoors, riding in a group, riding a different kind of bike, etc.) as “no big deal”, guess what? It won’t feel like that big of a deal. Say it enough – and yes, we will believe it!

We need to encourage the media to do away with “that word” when they talk about women’s cycling. When we can do that, we will start to solidify the message that is desperately needed to influence more women to start riding and having fun on their bikes.

Tina McCarthy started Wheel Women in 2012 after having an epiphany about her state of health. On a quest to help her teenage son train for the Great Victorian Bike Ride, Tina realised that bike riding wasn’t as easy as it was when she was younger due to her lack of fitness. With the prospect of mature onset diabetes and chronic heart disease staring her in the face, Tina decided that she needed to make some changes. Riding became the life changer She lost weight, gained fitness, made new friends and gained a whole lot of happiness.

Tina trained as a coach and now rides every day encouraging other women to get on their bikes and get healthy. She recently won the Iris Dixon Women’s Champion of The Year award from Cycling Victoria in an honour of her contributions to women’s cycling. Tina loves riding with women – and she also loves the fact she is fitter than she has ever been and can now keep up with her teenage son on their weekend rides.