Hill climber Becky Hair, who competes in the national championships this Sunday, explains why she's pushing for equal treatment for women from the bottom to the top of cycling.
Hill climbing is a niche discipline within a niche sport, yet it's one steeped in history and legend. The aim? Simple. To ride up a hill as quickly as possible. Time trialling on some of the hardest climbs in Britain. 25% gradients, technical switchbacks and unrelenting climbs. The simplicity is part of the appeal: you don’t need honed skills or tactical prowess to compete, just the ability to push up to and past your own limits. It doesn’t matter who you are, the internal battles you face on the hill are exactly the same.
As with all forms of racing in this country, fewer women enter hill climbs than men. It comes down to fear - of a perceived lack of ability, of competing priorities, of how they might look - as well as a lack of role models (This Girl Can UK). The women that attend my group rides share similar experiences that only supports the research.
‘If we can’t see it, we can’t be it’
If women see fewer female entrants in a race, they may be less inclined to race themselves. I can only remember seeing men at the Tour de France when I was growing up. The Internationelles have done a lot to increase the awareness of this subject in the last few years.
Invisible barriers surround us; women are generally expected to perform the majority of caring duties within the home, which can restrict time for leisure activities. Those women that do choose to compete are often viewed negatively: “Shouldn’t they be at home looking after the kids?” We need to feel welcome. We become even more aware of our ‘appearance’ in a room full of men at sign on, or as the only woman on the start sheet. It’s intimidating. We end up racing less, we fall out of love with the sport, and our engagement with it gradually - or rapidly - declines.
These invisible barriers are compounded by a more visible one: prize money. In amateur and professional competitions unequal prizes - such as at last weekend’s Tour of Flanders - are the norm, making women feel that their performances are undervalued. This only adds to the sense that we are less welcome. As does clubs which give out prizes for the top four men, but only the top two women. Members often argue that women give less back to the sport, or less female entrants means we should have fewer prizes. 4100 people have so far signed an open letter to dispute this, and to push for equality in prize giving regulations from Cycling Time Trials (the national governing body for time trialling).
Those brave women who do choose to hill climb have already pushed through numerous barriers to be there but, once there, are then often described in masculine terms, as if femininity doesn’t include grimacing on the hillside. Here, the pinnacle of compliments to some of the best women riders is that they ‘ride like a bloke.’ This is not how we want to be regarded.
I was too scared to enter a bike race until one of my friends talked me into it. She gave me the confidence, she helped me enter it, explained how it would go, and she acted as that role model for me. In turn, I would like to be a role model for others. I can see women grow in confidence with the group rides, bike maintenance courses and skills sessions I run. We all need a helping hand to get us over the initial hurdle.
Someone who has been an incredible inspiration is Laurie Pestana at Reading CC. Her and her club have grown female participation in the national hill climb championships from 12% to 30% for this year’s race on Sunday. Her campaign has continued to grow and has provided an opportunity for many women to race their first nationals; some women have even received entry fee reimbursement from local businesses.
Everyone has the opportunity to have a go at this iconic race and it's helped put women at the front of the ‘nationals’ story in 2020. These are the events that get it right, supporting equality, creating as much fierce competition amongst women as it does with the men.
This is where #climbhighertogether comes in. I heard about the increase in female entrants at national championships, and I was so excited as it is my first nationals too. I was riding back from work one day and all I could think of was ‘how do we keep the ball rolling?’. We are using this hashtag to start the conversation, to get women talking about their experiences in racing and to raise our profile. We are starting with hill climbing, as it is topical at this time of year (and is one of the only races going ahead due to Covid), but we hope it will continue to grow afterwards too.
We want people to share their questions, their pictures and stories with the hashtag, and we hope to plant the seed for other women to race in the future. In Laurie’s words; ‘we want this to be a movement, not a moment’. We need to keep this ball rolling, to keep the discussion going, to enable women to race.