By Alena Thiem, AnyBody Deutschland
I like riding a racing bike. I love the feeling of the wind in my face, blowing away all annoying thoughts, while my legs are spinning away one kilometre after other. Sometimes I ride by myself, sometimes with friends, sometimes with larger groups.
This year I planned something special: For a big road bike race I applied for an all women’s team, sponsored by a big sporting goods producer, organized by the sponsoring brand’s ambassador that aims to empower female riders. 20 women planned to ride the 100 km track together as one train - meaning one group - with an average speed of 30 km/h. If one bikes regularly, that is doable - from time to time one can stroll along in the wind shade of the others, in addition there’s the adrenalin, which gives an extra push.
I transferred the racing fee to cover the organisation of mutual practice rides and the team clothes, and looked forward towards the upcoming weeks.
Image by Cltstyle (2012) under a Creative Commons license
At bike races accidents can happen quickly, since the speed is high and you have to concentrate strongly to be able to evade negligences of the riders surrounding you to avoid falling yourself. Surely, most of you have seen pictures of collisions at big races like the Tour De France. Thus, as a team we planned to definitely stick together and watch out for each other. When the riders in the front would make an announcement, the following riders would have to quickly act accordingly and follow suit. We planned on practicing this in our freshly cobbled together team. Safety of all our riders was supposed to be a priority. I liked the approach of finishing the 100 km together, considerately with stronger riders pulling weaker ones along and weaker riders being sure of the support of stronger ones.
The participants, whom I met during the practice rides turned out to be a colourful mix of women, some having been riding together for some time and others being new to the group - like me. There were tall and short women, a high-school-graduate and women above 40, very wiry bodies as well as round bodies. From my perspective, it was just the usual diversity. Yes, as in any sport there is the cliché of the slim and young female bike racer. And as in any other sport, “slim” doesn't always equate “fast” (or “extraordinarily good”) and the reality of mass sports does in fact look differently. Actually, this applies to elite sports as well: Take a look at the prominent example of the fabulous Serena Williams, who has consistently faced body shaming but who remains the best tennis player of all time.
For us to be recognizable as a team, we were supposed to receive team clothing by the sports goods manufacturer. Everyone who has done team sports knows how team attire strengthens the inner connection of the team’s members as well. You are a group and yes, groups establish by including some and excluding others.
The other day we were notified that our team clothing would now be ready for all of us to try on - it would be available in three sizes. I was confused. Three sizes? Our team definitely covered a need for more size variety, according to my perception. In addition, I had noticed the co-organizer with a slimmer figure than mine was already wearing the largest size available. In our team’s group chat I asked, whether other sizes could be made available if needed, since I was assuming the largest size offered might be too tight for me and the sizing could be problematic for other team members as well. I received the response, the fabric of the garment was very stretchy and for one bigger team member there were already steps being made to find an alternative.
Alternatives to team clothing are not team clothing. One looks similar, but different from the outside. It feels weird to be the one an alternative has to be found for. It nourishes the feeling that one’s body is wrong. And squishing one’s body into clothing that feels too tight doesn’t exactly strengthen self-esteem.
I argued with strong words. I didn’t find it acceptable for a team - which is being sponsored by a sports goods manufacturer (and let’s be honest, for a team advertising for this company during a big race) and for which everyone could apply as long as she believed to be able to ride the race - not being presented with a suitable size variety. For somebody who isn’t politically active, my wording may have sound harsh and demanding. And I know, it’s very annoying to have to deal with unfairness. Especially, when you are not affected yourself and it appears to be “somebody else's personal problem”. But this is where the fallacy is occurring: It is everyone’s problem when unfairness exists. It is everyone’s problem, when people get disadvantaged, due to whatever characteristics. And it is our common task to establish a society without discrimination.
Some women in the group chat supported the organizers, since they were making a big effort to find alternatives for the riders with big or round bodies - some wrote to me and showed their solidarity - many kept silent.
The big-built cyclist, for whom alternative clothing was already being organized, wrote me a personal message in which she thanked me and agreed with me. Then the sentence: “I don’t complain about things like this anymore, because I know, if only I kicked myself in the butt more, I wouldn’t have this problem.” These words made me incredibly sad. There is this woman taking part in 100 km bike races, who is able to ride the distance at 30 km/h average (at least), while still believing she isn’t active enough. Still believing she needs to change her body. Why does she think that way? Because we are confronted on a daily basis with the demand to fit the narrow ideals that apply for beauty and fitness. But not every body’s ideal state is a German size 36 (UK size 8, US size 6). We are all different.
I don’t want for people to live their lives with the constant feeling of something being wrong about them. That’s why I’m committed to AnyBody Deutschland (the German chapter of Endangered Bodies), to help create more acceptance. And I am convinced claims sometimes have to be put into strong wording and have to be voiced loudly to be heard. Maybe the clothing issue will be handled differently next year in the collaboration with the sponsoring company.
I did try on the clothing that day. I could squeeze my body into the shorts and the jersey - but to me fitted bike attire looks and feels differently. I would have preferred the clothing to an “alternative” during the race anyway, because I really wanted to be seen as part of the team - a very human wish, I believe. Beside the rider described above, I’ve known at least one other team member for whom an alternative would have to be searched for - or who agrees to wear too tight clothing (that is, in case she shares my feeling of how bike garments should fit, of course).
I am not going to take part in the race, though. The organizer kicked me out of the team for causing a disturbance. She told me that in a racing situation I might be a safety risk and that she felt she couldn’t rely on me to act out announcements from the front of the train. The decision was made solely based on the discussion - the organizer had no idea of how I acted as a rider within a group, since she hadn’t been able to join our previous practice rides. The organizer made clear this was her personal decision and didn’t have anything to do with the sponsoring company, for which she acts as an ambassador to empower female racing bike riders. The choice of the pre-ordering of the team clothing in a limited size variety was made by her. The sponsor usually offers its regular bike garments in six different sizes.
I am a little sad. I would have liked to ride the race with this group and I had been looking forward to it. Sometimes it is tough to bear the consequences when one speaks up about an issue. On the other hand, I honestly have to say that a team which kicks me out due to the above described reasons is not the right team for me - or the organizer is not the right team leader for me.
My fee was back in my bank account the following day. I am going to treat myself to some nice, well-fitting bike clothing.