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Comment: To prescribe cycling, first you need to make it more inclusive

Isobel Duxfield
27 Jul 2020

In Britain, cycling as both a mode of transport and leisure is white male dominated. Photo: Paralympian Kadeena Cox in the Rapha Women's 100

It's official, cycling is medically mandated. In an attempt to tackle Britain’s obesity epidemic which is exacerbating Covid-19 fatalities, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is advising GPs to prescribe cycling.

On the face of it, cycling is a perfect remedy. It gets the blood pumping and can help people manage their weight – which Public Health England links to Covid-19 related illnesses. Cycling is socially distanced – perched on the saddle a rider is at least one metre away from any other citizen, and with reductions in motor traffic, cycling could be safer than ever.

However, cycling is not the nirvana Johnson supposes. Access to a pair of wheels is distinctly stratified by class, race and gender. In Britain, cycling, as both a mode of transport and leisure practice, is (white) male dominated.

Women make up under 30% of those using bicycles; simultaneously, analysis of Sustrans's Bike Life data revealed BAME and low-income groups are underrepresented in cycling. The research saw 19% of people from lower socio-economic groups state that they did not think cycling was for ‘people like them’.

As the recent coronavirus outbreak in Leicester – linked to low income textile workers – exposes, we ignore the disenfranchised at our peril.

Inclusivity behind the handlebars is not a new debate. Think-tanks, sports charities and individual athletes have long argued for improved cycling infrastructure to accommodate user groups beyond the lycra clad white males.

POLIS, a think-tank encouraging active mobility across Europe, has consistently called for renewed focus on inclusion, while the Active Travel Academy has proved an essential forum for discussions around access to bicycles.  

However, such debates have not filtered through to recreational cycling with quite the same force. If Johnson’s strategy is to be successful, it is recreational cycling as much as transport which must change, and fast.  

Cycling clubs have been instrumental in encouraging and maintaining cycling activity. Following the successes of British athletes in the Tour de France and the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, road cycling has experienced a phenomenal growth in popularity, marked by an increase in local cycling clubs across Britain.

Today British Cycling lists almost 2,000 affiliated clubs.  

However, inclusion is a significant concern within cycling clubs, and many have been criticised for their lack of gender, racial and class diversity.

This is not to brand cycling as an elitist hyper-masculine pursuit. Such attacks – which often resort to petty name calling (MAMIL springs to mind) are unproductive and in fact alienate vast numbers of committed cyclists. Nonetheless, uncomfortable conversations about inclusion must be aired.

Women account for less than 20% of membership in most British clubs. As a result, cycling clubs have earnt a reputation for being male dominated, something many female members have found alienating.

'I get immense pleasure from club cycling; however, lack of female membership is often something which makes me feel slightly isolated, and I can see why it may deter other women from joining,' says one female member of Oxford based club, VC Jericho.

Conversations around gender diversity are not entirely absent from recreational cycling. British cycling and Sport England have pioneered a range of schemes encouraging women onto the saddle.

British Cycling’s ‘Breeze’ rides have been part of their effort to 'close the gender gap', spawning a network of women’s groups which actively promote more cycling across the country. Women-only clubs are proving increasingly popular, groups such as Bella Velo in London, or Kent Velo Girls enjoying record membership.

However, is separate equal? Such efforts arguably do not confront the masculine cultures of club cycling, but in fact re-entrench them. Rather than continually create separate spaces for female riders, clubs must embrace female membership in their own group.

'I like to maintain links with female cycling clubs because I think we are in a minority, but mixed-sex cycling is an incredibly valuable space for me to improve as a rider, feeling welcome here is important to me,' said another female member of a group in Cambridge.

This means bringing more women on to their committees, adapting ride start times to suit different professional and personal commitments and addressing accusations of macho or 'old boys' cultures.   

While gender diversity has received increasing attention from cycling advocacy groups, race and ethnicity have not been subject to the same scrutiny. Given that individuals from BAME backgrounds are at much higher risk of contracting and dying from Covid-19 than the general population this cannot continue.

BAME individuals make up just 7% of membership in London’s cycling clubs; while there have been a range of pioneering efforts to promote inclusivity, including Brothers on Bikes, Black Cyclists' Network and the Women of Colour group, there is still progress to be made.

'Cycling clubs need to develop a better understanding of BAME communities to improve diversity by connecting with groups like ours,' says Amjad Shah, convener of Nottingham and Derby Brothers on Bikes branch.

However, clubs must address diversity amongst their own membership too.

Speaking to British Cycling, Brothers on Bikes co-founder Junaid Ibrahim asserted, 'For many BAME riders the bigger challenge is approaching and feeling included with clubs where there are very few, if any, people "like them".'

Confronting this requires transforming club cultures, fostering clear and authentic conversations around inclusivity and diversity. Clubs must include BAME members in visual representation on websites and promotional material, indorse accessibility across social media channels and use club meetings to build awareness and educate members.

As a GP, and member of Brother on Bikes, Dr Hesham Abdalla points out, 'Just like a good GP would not prescribe you medicine without first understanding your psycho-social context, so these prescriptions need to be attuned to our strengths, weaknesses and motivations if they are to be effective.'

Cycling is, and has always been, political. Lauded for its role in women’s emancipation efforts during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, riding has consistently proved much more than mere sport. As Covid-19 prompts record numbers on the saddle, cycling once again proves its potential.

Change is afoot. However, current agendas lack the innovation or radicalism necessary for the PM’s vision of a cycling society. As recreational clubs stir from corona-induced hibernation, they have the capacity to empower new communities of cyclists.

This is a chance for clubs, and the entire cycling industry, to confront its inclusion problems and step up to the plate. Executed correctly, 2020 could be the year which transforms cycling – for everyone.

Isobel Duxfield has recently graduated from Cambridge University where she researched gender equality in British cycling clubs. She is the co-founder of gender equality podcast Take It From Her