Learning to embrace lycra

by Anne-Marije Rook


I’m an elite level racer and spend a lot of hours in the saddle. I’m healthy. I’m strong. And I’m confident on the bike. Yet every time I see a picture of myself in lycra (or spandex as we say in the US), I cringe.

Even in a podium shot –hands in the air, a big smile on my face— my eyes go straight to my hips, my thighs and other “soft” areas.

Ugh.

I feel like even though I have been an athlete my whole life, I have never looked like one. Not really. And while I am a good thirty pounds (13 kilos) lighter than I was before cycling and before medication corrected my TSH (Thyroid-stimulating hormone) levels, I still see that chunky version of myself each time I see a photo of my bum in lycra.

God, that’s what I look like on the bike?! I don’t look like ‘a cyclist’.

It shocks me every time because when I’m actually out there riding or racing, I feel like Superwoman. I just don’t look like her. Never have, never will.

Cycling is a weight-obsessed sport as it is, and yes, top-level athletes have performance-oriented reasons to be of a certain power to weight ratio, but for the average person? It’s neither necessary nor a realistic ask to have the BMI of a professional athlete.

But cycling’s obsession with weight combined with the growing market for trendy, fashion-forward performance wear means that there is now a real clear image of what a woman ‘should’ look like on a bike: She’s around 170cm and very lean –neither muscular nor soft. A long sidebraid drapes over her shoulder and she’s smiling. Oh, and climbing. Or out the saddle at the least. But not breaking a sweat or working hard.

When it comes to the advertising of women’s cycling products, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. (And I’m not even talking about the overtly sexist ones!)

The problem is that this image is far from inclusive or representative of what actual women on bikes look like. And it only adds another barrier for getting more women on bikes.

It’s kind of silly, really. Because with our click-clacky shoes, helmet, sunglasses, gloves and lycra, the whole ensemble, while purposeful, looks super dorky! Yet while the goofy attire is easily forgiven, an extra 5 pounds is not.

We all fear sausage legs and muffin tops and I know there are plenty of women out there intimidated by the idea of the wearing skin-tight clothing. And others who forego the comfort of a kit altogether out of fear of what they might look like or for being judged.

Heck, I used to hide my lycra underneath baggy shorts until I accepted that performance wear is simply a necessary aspect of any sport. And nowadays, a good kit actually makes me feel stronger, more confident and sexier than any dress ever could.

Until I see a photo…

Of course, I know better. I know that my body image issues stem from unrealistic societal pressures. I am also well aware that I’m going to get some comments for writing this post from those who insist I look just fine — Hi Mom!

Just as one part of society tells me I have to look a certain way, its counterculture tells me to own my body and to not be ashamed. Conflicted, I can do neither and I find myself ashamed that I am ashamed (but luckily not ashamed enough to sacrifice the post-ride beer and burger).

Because the thing is, any feeling of insecurity or self-shaming goes straight out the window when I’m riding. On the bike, I’m in control. It’s what I know how to do, it’s where I feel at home, where I test my limits, reach for new heights, and where I am the truest version of myself. On the bike there is only the view. The top of the climb, that city limit sign, the 20-minute effort, and that white line. Out there, the only thing that matters is what my body can do. And as long as it allows me to do the things I want to do, and as long as I’m healthy, nothing else should matter.

While the increase in stylish and comfortable kit is a welcomed trend, the added pressures to look a certain way is not. Our “ride-time-is-me-time” is being hijacked by the very social pressures and stressors we try to pedal away from. Our community is a wonderfully diverse one and I’d love to see a better representation of that across the industry.

Cycling gives us all so many wonderful things, and if nothing else, it should be a celebration of the body, your body. Because those legs –firm or jiggly –got you up that hill; that booty propelled you in the sprint; your body carried you through a century ride!

So what does a cyclist look like? Like someone on a bike, doing what they love.

You can add your comment below or take part in a women’s only discussion in our new forum. Just join the VeloClub and head to the post on this topic in the Café Talk section.

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