In part one of her interview with Chrissie Wellington, Fan Park Ambassador Laura Stewart asked about La Course, the women’s race on the final day of the Tour. But the multiple Ironman World Champion also talked about how to get more women involved in sport and her next big sporting challenge
Last May five of us hopped on our bikes and cycled from London to Brighton. As five women we were there to have a good time, take on an adventure and test our limits.
We didn’t see many other women out cycling that day and started to talk about what barriers women face when getting involved with sport. Here’s what Chrissie Wellington is doing to break down some of these barriers.
Q. What holds people back from getting involved in sport?
Chrissie: “We all have our own personal barriers to participation, be they mental, physical, logistical, financial or institutional. We are all nervous about trying new things and giving ourselves bigger mountains to climb. We all worry about the ‘what ifs’ and, of course, many of us are scared about being seen in public wearing lycra or getting on a bike for the first time.
“Six years ago I was asked whether I would ever do an Ironman. My response? ‘No way – you must be completely mad to do something like that!’ Imagine if I’d never gone back on my word, if I hadn’t changed ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’, if I hadn’t dared to push myself harder and, most importantly, if I hadn’t had people to support, encourage, mentor and most of all make me believe in me?
“I never thought I would be able to run a marathon, but once I finished my first in 2002 I realised it wasn’t such a big hurdle after all. And I never thought I would be crowned World Ironman Champion, but in doing so I achieved more than I ever thought possible.
“The many different barriers can be overcome with will and collaborative action on all sides – from activity providers, government, event organisers, governing bodies, the media, the private sector, professional athletes, sports clubs and more. There should be no reason why someone can’t take up a new sport, enter an event or race, or go walking, running, biking, hopping and skipping or jumping. Everyone has a role to play in ensuring that we ‘pay it forward’ and help everyone realise the benefits of getting active.”
Q. What would you say to inspire women to get into cycling?
Chrissie: “There are no limits to what you can achieve, in sport and outside – only the limits you place on yourself. I would encourage people to ask for support from more experienced cyclists, to think about joining a club and to find a safe place to cycle, such as in a park or on quiet country roads. If you’re nervous of road biking, you could also try off-road biking and take to some of the great, safe bridleways in the UK.
“There are some fantastic women-only rides, and women-only training events or workshops that can help increase confidence and teach novices more about bike handling, maintenance and road safety. Online forums and magazines are also a valuable source of advice and information. All of this can help increase your enjoyment and knowledge of cycling, and help to overcome some of the barriers that face people (whether they are women or men).”
Q. One of my favourite quotes from the Half the Road documentary about elite women cyclists is “What did you think happened out there in the course of a day with a peloton? Everyone stopped to put on make-up.” What do you suggest can be done to fight against the ‘pink & fluffy’ expectations of women in professional sport?
Chrissie: “A journalist once asked me what I did to feel ‘feminine in an unfeminine sport’. My answer was that I never feel more feminine than when I cross the finish line, smiling, strong and successful. Femininity is not always about high heels and nail varnish, despite what the media and contemporary culture may have us believe.
“Sport is sport, whether women or men undertake it. To get to the top takes hard work, dedication, commitment, strength, teamwork, passion and fortitude, regardless of the gender of the participants. Those characteristics are true beauty of sport, rather than the colour of your outfit or nail varnish.
“Dispelling myths is hard, as these are deeply entrenched cultural and social views and norms. We can help by increasing the (good quality!) media coverage, using female cyclists as positive brand ambassadors and role models, and promoting the positive aspects of women’s cycling amongst the masses.
“We can also think carefully about the language and imagery that’s used the describe athletes and sportspeople generally. But ultimately we need a cultural change that starts right from birth in the way in which we bring up girls and boys, and the skills and characteristics we promote in them.”
Q. As an international development specialist (Chrissie worked for the British government and then for Rural Reconstruction Nepal), do you believe the bicycle can be a force for good in the world?
Chrissie: “Of course and at so many levels. The bike can empower people, give them confidence and self-esteem, and help them develop organisational, decision-making and teamwork skills. Cycling builds friendships, as well as delivering a huge range of physical benefits.
“At the global level, the UN and other international institutions have acknowledged the power of sport as a superbly effective tool for development. Sport is a great equaliser. Cycle-based projects such as those undertaken by World Bicycle Relief (WBR), have demonstrated the link between cycling and empowerment, from the local to national and even international levels.
“Specifically, there’s evidence to suggest that bicycles can help fill the transport gap where conventional motorised services are poor. Plus, bicycles offer relatively high personal mobility at relatively low cost, thereby increasing education attendance and offering wider social gains. Like WBR I envision a world where distance is no longer a barrier to healthcare, education and economic opportunity, I believe with mobility, people have the power to better their lives and the ability of the bike to really help people prosper.
“That’s why I’m proud to be part of the first all-women’s team in the Trois Etapes Tour, and we’ll be riding in support of World Bicycle Relief.”
Q. What’s the Trois Etapes?
Chrissie: “It’s the world’s finest pro-am cycling event. It consists of 13 teams of eight riders, each with at least one professional cyclist, competing over some of the most challenging cycling terrain in the world. This year the teams will compete across three stunning stages in the Pyrénées from 7-10 August. Each team rides in support of a charity.
“For the first time ever, an all-women’s team will take on the Trois Etapes Tour. It will be led by US professional cyclist Evie Stevens. Our team will be riding for World Bicycle Relief with the aim of raising funds to mobilise women and girl students in rural Africa and promoting the advancement of women’s cycling around the world.
“To have the honour of being part of this team is a once- in-a-lifetime opportunity. It will help to shine a light on the power of sport and to show that change really can happen, one pedal stroke at a time. Gandhi urged us to be the change we wish to see in the world – the power is in our hands … and legs if we are pedalling the bike!”
It’s hard not to be inspired to get out on your bike when Chrissie puts it like that! If you want to join us on our next group cycle let me know via Twitter: @ledavies.