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Improving diversity in cycling

Chahat Awasthi
12 Apr 2021

Cycling is stereotyped as a white middle-class sport. What has kept people of colour & LGBTQ communities away and how can this be addressed?

On a rare sunny day, Mymuna Soleman was called ‘Superman’ by a white male cyclist. She had just become an ambassador for Nextbike UK, a bike rental company, and was out on a celebratory ride with her hijab flowing like a cape. But it wasn’t a compliment for her. She felt that it was a dig at her appearance.

Being a Somali-origin, Welsh woman in Burqa and veil, Mymuna is visibly black, visibly Muslim. She says she was shocked when he called her by that name but didn’t let it dampen her mood.

It motivated her to continue: ‘But my confidence plays a major role. This might have been a deterrent to others.’

 

This wasn’t the first time that something like this had happened, neither is she the only one to have been the brunt of snide comments on British streets. However, she is one of few who have taken on the job of breaking stereotypes, making cycling normal for people of colour and other marginalised communities.

The deterrence doesn’t just stem from those carrying racial biases or those who hate cyclists in general. It also comes from within the marginalised communities. The reasons, however, seem to overlap.

Mymuna says, ‘If you look around and you think of a cyclist, do you think of someone who looks like me? I guess that’s a no. It is because it just isn’t the norm.’ Her point is that when you don’t see something often, it is hard to see it as normal – a woman in hijab on a bicycle being a case in point.

She recalls being stopped by Somali women because for them seeing her on a bike in that dress wasn’t normal.

A report by campaign group Cycling UK in 2017 revealed that of those in England who said they cycled more than three times a week, the lowest number came from South Asian and Black communities.

One of Mymuna’s neighbours was shocked because she was not used to seeing women like her, dressed as she was, on a bike before. After a short chat, the neighbour signed her daughter up with the group. ‘It is about making it normal by educating people,’ says Mymuna.

 

Willoughby Zimmerman is the managing director at SpokesPerson, a community interest company in Wales that works exclusively with marginalised communities to make cycling more inclusive.

He echoes Mymuna’s sentiment: ‘You have to see people cycling to be people cycling. Lots of people look at who’s on the road, and they don’t see themselves reflected in that, and then they think cycling isn’t for them.’

Mymuna’s group of 20 members is meant to empower women of colour against ignorance and to get on a bicycle, with their own set of clothes – from cape, to hijab, to salwar kameez – for them to be their own kind of superhero.

Her Privilege Café events, which include a host of discussions related to topics regarding race, privilege, gender, are a ‘safe space’ for people of colour to air their views and opinions. Participation has ranged from 55 to 344 people, but it has been more than simply a place to talk.

Speaking of how a conversation on cycling has previously led people to move from the café to the cycling group, she adds, ‘The café has been a causal factor to continue the work in encouraging Muslim women and women of colour in sports.’

Mymuna is working towards making the change from the ground up. So is Willoughby and a number of big and small local clubs. Their conversations show that racial discrimination and rage directed towards cyclists in general are not the only issues plaguing cycling in UK.

Issues such as the design of a cycle and cost of equipment also contribute to the reasons why some women of certain ethnic groups keep off saddles.

Speaking of South Asian women’s challenges, Willoughby says: ‘People have told them they can’t wear salwar kameez because it gets caught in the back wheel. So, they have to dress differently. That’s absolute rubbish. You can get a skirt guard that goes over the back wheel.’

Mymuna says, ‘I grew up in a sporty household and was very passionate about fitness, but cycling went off the radar as I grew older because I’m from Muslim faith and I couldn’t see myself on a bike and my Islamic clothing was incompatible with cycling. So when NextBike covered the chain with a massive board a few years ago I was like, this is amazing because they used a really simple technique to solve the problem.’

Zahir Nayani, an Indian-origin solicitor and avid biker, adds, ‘Cycling in the UK has been quite a male dominated pastime and there are barriers to entry, like the cost of bikes. These have perhaps contributed to it being the preserve of a certain type of cyclist.’

In Mymuna’s group, riders can cycle without payment as she receives a set number of bicycles from Nextbike UK free of cost.

Another issue that adds to the lack of diversity in cycling is claimed to be inadequate or even zero representation of people from Black, Asian and LGBTQ communities on cycling boards across the country.

Willoughby connects shortcomings in infrastructure to this lack of diversity: ‘People making bikes, people making laws, people making infrastructure in the city are white, able-bodied men. When they’re envisioning how to make a bike path, they think it has to go from suburbs to the city centre because the commuter cyclists are going from their house to their job.

'This pattern of movement is very typical of a middle-class white man. Whereas a woman leaves home, goes to her kids’ school, then to her part time job, then back to school.

‘They haven’t thought it through because they’ve got this one idea of a journey and they don’t realise that that’s a man’s journey.’

It is interesting to note here that of the six people on the leadership board on Cycling UK website, none are from communities of colour. It is a charitable membership organisation supporting cyclists and promoting bicycle use. The executive leadership team of British Cycling is also comprised of visibly white people. A skim through NextBike UK’s HQ team page, however, shows a better proportion of people of colour.

Mymuna says, ‘Cycling boards should have people from communities of colour at the table because how are you going to prioritise our issues when you have all white members of staff?’

She explains that even the engagement these organisations have with these communities has to be meaningful – things like ‘we’ve left a leaflet in the library’ isn’t enough.

Additionally, as per Willoughby, a lack of training and sensitivity while dealing with marginalised communities, particularly those who have faced bullying, keeps certain cyclists (like those from LGBTQ groups) off the streets. Lack of ample funding to fix these gaps is unhelpful. It should be a concern for the Government in its efforts to make cycling inclusive.

Willoughby says, ‘I am transgender, and I have seen that for a lot of marginalised people who have been bullied, because there is homophobia and racism, cycling can be scary. So if you have this history, you’re not likely to be excited about it.

‘You need access to trainers. But if they are from white, cis-gendered backgrounds and don’t understand where you’re coming from, it might be intimidating,’ says Willoughby. ‘They might tell you that you are being silly because it’s not frightening and you should just ride. That’s not what a genuinely afraid person wants to hear.’

However, Willoughby is hesitant to take the Government’s help.

He says, ‘I intend to get grants mostly from charitable grant givers. The current Government is incompetent and racist. I want people who I’m working with to trust me.’ He says he wouldn’t set up a programme with the Police either.

Explaining his hesitation, he says, ‘I don’t think that people trust them or feel safe with them.’

 

A club called Brothers on Bikes (BoB), started by second-generation Indians in the United Kingdom, is making cycling inclusive on a larger scale than Mymuna or Willoughby and the impact is being felt.

BoB’s co-founders, Abu Thamim Choudhury and Junaid Ibrahim, say that the group started when a bunch of friends from South-Asian Muslim background got together: ‘Our experience at this time was rides with clubs with a predominantly white, middle-aged, middle-class membership. Although this wasn’t a negative in its own right, there was a cultural gap.’

Some of these gaps, they explain, included stopping off at a pub, which is not in line with religious practices of some members, or wearing Lycra, as not all members of the cycling community feel comfortable with it.

BoB operates across the UK and won the 2016 London Cycling Campaign award for Best Community Project of the Year.

‘It was necessary to have a club where Muslims could ride together and share similar interests culturally,’ Abu says. ‘We are proud that we are at the tip of the wave for the rise of cycling within minority groups within this country but we also recognise that there is much to be done.’

Like they say, not all heroes wear capes – some wear Lycra, some hijab, some salwar kameez.

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