As a woman who chooses to wear a headscarf and cycles, I’ve become accustomed to curious glances. When I cycle as part of a group – all of whom are similarly dressed, however, the stares multiply (and not in a bad way!).
Over lockdown, like so many people around the country, I got on my bike and cycled into the sunset. It was a very lonely ride. A coincidence led to me finding like-minded women in the Evolve Cycling Network – a club formed to get more women and children of colour into cycling with a primary aim of improving physical health and alleviating mental health issues in the Muslim community.
Within the last six months, the Evolve team has trained 10 coaches and taught at least 50 women, mostly over 40, how to ride a bike – relentlessly pushing women out of their comfort zones and getting them to ride 37-mile routes like it was nothing.
Iffat Tejani, co-founder of Evolve, tells Stylist: “It was a dream to get women from my community out onto their bikes and push themselves to accomplish the impossible.” Tejani has done just that with over half of the women riding being first-time riders in their 2021 inaugural Sportive.
She continues: “There is a strength that can be derived from pushing ourselves physically and I wanted all women to have access to that opportunity.”
Cycling has pushed me out of many of my comfort zones and brought me to a new understanding of strength. This sport has created a safe communal space – in the great (relatively Covid-free) outdoors – and has helped me to make friends and comrades.
In a society that is still driven by patriarchal values, our perception of strength is still a physical one. I can’t help but feel that many of us are missing a trick in overlooking how interpersonal connections and spending time in nature can foster a stronger body; my own strength and wellbeing – especially in these socially distant times – are directly correlated to my ability to forge connections outside of my bubble.
I often find myself cycling alongside women who are older than me, and I’m privileged to be able to rifle through their treasure troves of stories. From Irma, a caregiver to a child with special needs; to Fatema, who picked up her bike to help with cancer recovery; or Mona, who is planning on learning to ride a motorbike next, these women all have incredible tales to tell.
Like them, I’m thoroughly accustomed to sticking out in a crowd. I am too short, too brown, too liberal (or too conservative depending on the crowd), too everything and not enough of something. I find myself quite often going into a mental cave with my thoughts as a way of keeping safe from the ‘other’ gaze.
The beautiful simplicity of cycling is that I just need to move forward, one pedal push at a time. It’s a bit like riding a convertible with the top down – feeling the wind blowing through my headscarf – with the added kick of an endorphin rush. What’s not to love?
British Cycling has recently started to actively encourage women into the sport and to join their coaching ranks. Evolve is also keen on getting women of colour trained as coaches to further inspire others within our communities to pick up a bike. Quite often, the fear of being misunderstood about the contexts that shape the way we dress or act in an unfamiliar setting is enough to keep women away from sport. Now, more than ever, we need to foster connections to keep each other healthy and connected.
I recently trained as a British Cycling level one coach. Once again, I trained with other women. I found myself learning a lot about the techniques that go into good cycling, while relishing the conversations that occurred over lunch breaks or in-between feedback sessions.
From the price of gold (it’s cheaper in Dubai) as one of us was preparing for a wedding to how to include cauliflower into your salad (you boil it and then roast it just in case you were wondering), our conversations were hilarious, meaningful and nurturing. Cycling – especially in that kind of space – enables the equal exchange of ideas, which I find incredibly empowering.
I have come to realise that female fitness is a multilayered goal. Building physical power isn’t just about how fast you can go or how heavy you can lift; it’s about building someone up mentally, emotionally too. I discovered that fact while trying to cycle on my own; I was stronger when cycling with others.
Riding alongside other people allows us to imagine ourselves and each other beyond our assigned stereotypes. If we can pedal for longer than we thought, ride on busy roads alongside lorries, ride for 50 miles, then what stops us from imagining bigger and better realities for ourselves outside of sport? In the right gear and mindset, even the most unsurmountable mountain becomes rideable.
So go on, pick up a bike. It starts with the first stroke of the pedal, your first mile, your first tire change, your first jersey. Choose one friend or a group and ride into the sunset together. You won’t regret it.
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Images: Evolve/author’s own