Rapha Women's 100 - The Invisible Peloton: Shuhena Islam

The Invisible Peloton: Shuhena Islam

These are strange times and this year, many of us will be riding the Women’s 100 solo. But, as the Invisible Peloton interview series shows, we might be riding solo, but we’re never alone. This week, it’s the turn of Shuhena Islam to explain what the cycling community means to her.

Shuhena Islam

Shuhena Islam is a lawyer and cycling advocate continuously encouraging Muslim women and people of colour to get on a bike.

What does cycling give you?

I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer, since I was 17 years old, and I’ve always seen that as my identity. Suddenly cycling came around and I was just like – ‘hold on a second, I’m more than a lawyer’. Now I’ve got something else that gives me a sense of purpose and identity and community. I’ve found such good friends through cycling.

I think the biggest thing it gave me was relief for my grief. The morning of my dad’s funeral, 6am, I was out on a ride to Mott Street – that’s a famous climb in Epping – on my bike. I didn’t know what else to do.

Has it always been like that?

Cycling during the pandemic, I can finally do things on my own terms. The clubs I was riding with – I really like them, but all the rides revolve around Essex. Lockdown has given me the confidence to just put a pin on the map.

I felt like I wasn’t expressing my faith so much on club rides. Yes I might be covered, but I wasn’t talking about wanting to pray, or anything like that. Now, riding with my friends Sarah and Yoav, I went to see Cambridge mosque, which is the first eco-mosque in Europe, and it’s really beautiful. It was shut for COVID, but when I said I really wanted to go in, and I’d cycled 62 miles, they let me pop in.

And on my first ever century ride, we cycled to the first mosque in the UK, built in 1889 in Woking. We went to Windsor, because I wanted to give them their touristy cycling bit, and then went a bit south to Woking. I got to pray at the mosque, and then we cycled back. Sarah was happy to just watch the bikes and wait for me, and take whatever pictures I wanted. They’ve both been so supportive of my cycling and religious observance.

Tell us about a time when you exceeded your expectations, or achieved something you never thought you’d be capable of.

The Peak District! There were a lot of tough climbs, and I didn’t think I could do it. I was riding a bike that was too big for me, but a beautiful Canyon from Rapha. And I was so naive about it all. I don’t know why the title ‘Peak’ didn’t give it away. It was so out of my comfort zone. The climbing was really hard. And I almost fell descending.

My friend Heather was so much better than me because she lives out there. She did Lands End to John O’Groats and her training ground was the Peaks. So it was easy for her but it wasn’t for me. I felt that just getting through that ride and managing to catch my train back to London in one piece, was a big achievement.

How did you get yourself through the tougher moments of the challenge? What did you do to keep yourself going?

I talk a lot. So if I’ve had a crap ride I talk a lot to Toks who’s mentored me. I do a post-ride review of everything that happened. And he says ‘yeah, but your average speed has gone up’. I always focus on things that go wrong.

And if there’s something that’s difficult, in terms of technical skills – I try and get somebody to help me. I’m quite fortunate in that I know lots of people in cycling.

There’s always going to be a good ride after a bad ride, so I try to focus on my next ride, and not get too bogged down. And the thing is, it might not even be technique, and it might not be average speed, it might just be emotional things that I’m dealing with.

Who is in your invisible peloton?

When I rode up Ditchling I was thinking about one of my best friends, Forina, who has a little boy. I find her inspiring – how she manages to hold down a job and go to university and have a baby and do all these things, and is still there for me as a friend.

And I was thinking about my friend Shahnaz. When I was 17 and I wanted to be a lawyer she was the year above me. She went to Cambridge, and she got her job at a city law firm before I did. And it felt like if she’s a girl in hijab who can go and work in a big law firm, then so can I.

I’ve also been thinking about who I would like to have in my invisible peloton, when I’m riding next. And although my mum doesn’t like my cycling, she still inspires me, and I’d like to think that maybe somewhere deep down she’s cheering me on, and that she’s proud.

Sometimes cycling is a challenge, and sometimes it can help us through the other challenges in life. Has this been the case for you?

I think it’s a challenge when I compare myself to others. So when I see people’s Strava stats or I want to ride with someone and I’m not going to be able to hold their wheel. And I feel a bit envious as well, of the things that people do that exceed what I’ve been able to achieve. Land’s End to John O’Groats is not out of my reach, but I haven’t done it so I feel a bit jealous of the people who have.

But people are so transient, and our life circumstances are so uncertain, especially with this pandemic. Cycling has been my constant.