My very first memories of the bike are of sitting on a rack on the back of my mother’s orange commuter, with a brown velvet cushion tied on for comfort as she pedalled both of us to the shops. It was just an innocuous everyday event at the time, but now I look back on it with a different perspective. That moment and many more like it of watching my mother take to the road on two wheels for transport, fitness or fun helped shape my view of the place of women in cycling and sport in general.
With my mother as an example, there was never any sense once I reached my teenage years that cycling wasn’t a thing that grown up females did. I embraced the freedom the bike offered me, instead of shunning it as a kiddy past time like many of my friends. And now as I watch my daughter progress into the teenage years, I thankfully see the same attitude in her. The bike is part of life – life as a child, life as a teenager and life as an adult.
Now, even though my years as an impressionable teenager may be long gone, my mother is still setting a cycling example that influences me. Close to 70, she still rides and is still willing to take on new challenges on the bike, including venturing out on single track on the mountain bike for the first time last year on a ride so she could join the grandkids. It’s seeing things like this that make me not even have to think twice about embracing the possibility of cycling as a life long passion. Being a cycling granny sounds like a great plan to me.
So what does this have to do with the health of women’s cycling as a whole?
This may just be my story of my mum as a sporting role model but its a story that seems to ring true for many. We so often talk of the benefit of role models to encourage the next generation of female athletes, usually referring to top Olympic performers and elite athletes. Though, somehow we too often seem ready to look past the biggest role models – mums.
It’s not a revolutionary concept, as over the years there have been a variety of studies on role models in sport that point firmly to the role of parents in influencing their children’s sporting aspirations. One titled the The Inspirational Function of Role Models for Sport Participation and Development found that only ten percent of elite athletes were in fact inspired to start out in their sport of choice by other elite athletes, with the most common influence being their family. Another, the Relevance of Sporting Role Models in the Lives of Adolescent Girls, found that family members were overwhelmingly the most common source of role models and most often it was the mother.
That’s not to say it’s not important to provide more widespread coverage of the very top level of women’s cycling to show the girls and young women in the sport that there is a path to the elite ranks and something incredible to aspire to.
However, we shouldn’t at the same time be underestimating how crucial it is we find ways of making it easier for mums to participate.
We know, that as a whole, far more men ride than women, with the numbers in Australia showing a substantial gap as 8.5 percent of males participate in cycling compared with only 4 percent of females according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. And from what I have witnessed, both on social group rides and at races, I’m left with the impression that there is an even bigger gap in the age group where women are most likely to have young children.
It’s not hard to understand why, as it is a stage of life where it seems there is always too much to do and not enough time to do it in. It can be nearly impossible trying to make it to a morning ride when there is the juggle of getting kids to child care or school to contend with and it can be just as hard to make a weekend ride around all the family commitments.
Given the demands on time, it may not be easy to find a way to make cycling more accessible for mothers, but the price of not trying is way too high. If the most powerful role model in most girls’ lives is their mother, supporting mums on bikes isn’t just about supporting and building the cycling community now, it is crucial for the future of the sport.
And it is not just about those mothers with daughters either, as it seems foolish to discount the impact a sporting mother can have on the development of a son’s long term attitude toward women and sport. I know it makes it much easier for me to fit cycling in because of the support I receive from the men in my life, including my brothers who have long encouraged me to take on cycling adventures.
I can’t help but think that may just have something to do with the example my mother set as we were growing up.
Fortunately there seems to be a growing recognition of the importance of parents as sporting role models with a delightful example being this campaign launched by the Australian Sports Commission late last year where kids talk about their sporting heroes, their mums and dads.
So if you want to encourage the next generation of females into cycling, make it easy for all the mums in your life to get out for a ride this Mother’s Day … and for the rest of the year too.
What do you think we could do as a cycling community to make it easier for more mums to get on their bikes?