This Is How We Ride

This Is How We Ride

For too long, we have been an afterthought: pushed aside and made to wear kit that limited our self-expression, and restricted how we love to ride. We’ve been left out of races, undervalued and underestimated. It’s about time for change.

Words byRuby Boddington

Photography byTonje Thilesen

With thanks toAmy, Samra, Arame, Ahlam and Bel

“We are proud to be women in cycling. But what does that mean? It's empowering one another to be strong off the bike and even stronger on it. To be unapologetically female; to wear your long hair out so everyone can see when you lead the pack. We are the role models we grew up without. It's a huge responsibility but we're happy to take it on. We are powerful. We are courageous and willing to endure the pain of the climb for the reward of the descent. We are generous with our support and our friendship; we uplift our communities. We are constantly raising the bar, surprising ourselves and growing our ambitions. We are more than development teams and additional riders. We are defying standards and redefining what a cyclist looks like.”

At a family-run restaurant nestled among the streets of Port de Pollença, a small town in northern Mallorca, we spoke with five female cyclists after an arduous but glorious day riding the island’s famous roads. Our table soon filled up with the much-loved (but luckily somewhat hidden) spot’s selection of homemade pasta, unique wines and impeccable tiramisu – and we proceeded to quiz Amy, Samra, Arame, Ahlam and Bel on what it means to be a woman in cycling: the good, the bad and the ugly. 

We were in Mallorca to get their perspectives on an expansion to Rapha’s women’s range. Designed from the ground up by an all-female team, our latest collection has been developed through three years of research. The result is a range of all-new and unique silhouettes designed to offer more options to women on the bike. The collection includes a range of modest wear developed alongside the London-based cycling collective Cycle Sisters, an award-winning charity which inspires and enables Muslim women to cycle.

Being part of a strong and supportive community emerged as a key factor among the group. Previously a keen runner, Arame first came to the sport while transitioning to triathlons. A friend recommended she check out the Manchester Clubhouse’s women’s-only rides and she was received with open arms. “The community was so welcoming,” she recalls. “Before I became a cyclist, I thought everyone was unapproachable, or you had to have a lot of money. But now I know that anyone can be a cyclist.” It’s a lesson she learned from the riders, particularly the women she met through the RCC. “To me,” she continues, “the women I ride with are my inspiration. Those who don’t necessarily look like your typical cyclist. Their fitness and determination are mind-blowing to me.” 

It’s this community that has shaped her mindset when pulling on her kit ahead of a ride. “I feel amazing when I put my kit on,” she tells us. “However, there have been times I’ve been on my period and I’ve felt so exposed.” This sense of unease is something Arame knows fellow female cyclists have also experienced, describing times when friends have received comments from male riders on how their jersey fits, for example. “When kit doesn’t fit, it’s already a bad feeling. You don’t need anyone to point that out to you.” As a result, she wants to empower other women to own how they look in their kit: “When you look the part, you feel the part also.” 

This notion of what a cyclist looks like is something Samra – Chair of Trustees and Ride Leader at Cycle Sisters understands all too well. “Someone once told me I’m not a typical road cyclist because I don’t clip in. It surprised me because I’ve never thought of myself as a typical anything,” she explains. For her, what a cyclist looks like is redundant anyway, for what she gains from being on her bike goes much deeper. “It’s not just a way for me to get from A to B, it’s about setting a message in terms of how we connect to our environment, how we connect to nature.” At times, she’s questioned whether she should “cave to the pressure to look like a typical road cyclist,” but what she’s realised is that her passion for the sport transcends image. Instead, it’s about riding your bike with joy and confidence, and pushing for progression: “To witness changes in yourself is empowering. A change in my physicality or strength makes me feel so good.”

While Arame and Samra came to cycling in more recent years, Amy has been competing since a young age. She credits the group of girls she trained and raced alongside during this journey as the reason she has stayed in the sport, explaining how they made a “huge difference” to her development. “As a woman [in cycling], you have less opportunity than men,” Amy outlines. “There’s a pathway for guys in the sport and people pushing them in the right direction. But as women, we have to find the opportunities for ourselves.” It’s because of this, however, that she says “being a woman in this sport is so special.” In particular, she points to the emergence of incredible role models for younger riders including Marianne Vos – an inspiration to Amy. To be involved in the sport at the same time as “these incredible women pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a woman in cycling” fuels her, she describes, and so when she gets out on her bike she always ensures she wears her long hair in a plait so people can see she’s a woman. “It’s a nice feeling to know I can offer young female riders what I needed when I was younger – someone to look up to,” she adds. “Younger me struggled to know whether I fit in in cycling or not. I wish I could tell her how strong she is; how many races she can win.”

Ahlam echoes the need for role models with enthusiasm. In Saudi Arabia she became the first female national champion, providing her with a unique platform to inspire the future generation of riders in the country. “In Saudi, we don't have the biggest cycling community but it’s rapidly growing,” she tells us. “It’s a small community but we’re so inclusive and supportive of each other.” She describes how when she was growing up, cycling was traditionally seen as a boy's sport – a preconception she is working hard to challenge today. “Being a woman in cycling is so empowering because the sport is still so male-dominated. I grew up not even thinking cycling was an option for me. I can inspire young girls now because it’s so important to see that role model in real life. It’s a big responsibility but it’s one I’m happy to take on.” What’s crucial, Ahlam continues, is that the sport continues to widen inclusivity and accessibility: “There isn’t one type of cyclist, they come in all shapes and sizes. But the thing that connects us is we love to be outdoors, smiling on a bike.” 

Bel continues this train of thought, adding how she feels proud to represent women – those with and without disabilities – in the sport. She wants to send a message that it doesn’t matter what you look like as long as you love what you’re doing. For her, cycling has offered her freedom, it’s her source of happiness she tells us, rounding off our discussion. “I started cycling when I was younger and I never feel like I have any type of disability when I am on the bike. I am just myself.” She adds: “When I’m cycling everything is easy. I’m a stronger person on my bike than I am off my bike.” She’s also witnessed the sport change for the better in the years she’s been involved in it. “When I first started cycling, I barely saw any other riders with disabilities so it’s really important for me to show others that anyone can join this sport. I want to set an example while also being my own role model.” 

What’s clear from our time spent with Amy, Samra, Arame, Ahlam and Bel is that women’s cycling is in flux. Gone are the days in which high-profile DS’ felt comfortable calling female cyclists “ugly” on national television. Today, much of the cycling community is excited to create a more diverse and uplifting space for those who have historically been left as outliers within the sport. Yet there is a way to go until participation and the opportunities afforded to participants are equal. At Rapha, we want to be part of that change and recognise that developing kit that makes all riders feel empowered, comfortable and confident is something we must provide. 

We’re proud to offer our new and expanded range of women’s riding apparel. Shop the collection now.

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