a journal - cycling, sociology, social media

Sunday 22 April 2018

Women's Cycling: Bloomers, Boompods and Barriers.


I have been meaning to do a post on women's cycling for a while as there is a lot going on in the sport at the moment and I thought good place to start would be with a very quick look back at the history and significance of women's cycling, followed by a feature on a really up to date cycling team, my friends from the Boompods/Edco/NRG squad, finishing up with a quick a look at some of the barriers to the success of women's cycle racing that are yet to be resolved. 

The role of the bicycle in the history of the emancipation of women has often been overlooked by historians, but in the latter part of the 18th century the bicycle provided women with freedom that they had never experienced before, and not only the freedom to travel but the freedom from the restrictions caused by the billowing dresses and skirts which were the fashion convention of the time. Over a hundred years ago Alice Hawkins a member of the suffragette movement caused public outrage by cycling around Leicester wearing bloomers to promote women's rights. Subsequently during the fight for the vote the bicycle became a powerful symbol of the emancipation of women.

Victorian ladies enthusiastically took to cycling, even though they had to had to deal with many social, political and material challenges to their freedom of movement. Cycling in everyday dress was potentially dangerous as long skirts would get caught in the wheels. Loose fitting trousers or 'bloomers' soon appeared which allowed much greater freedom of movement, however they caused an uproar across society with some men even signing pledges not to associate with women who wore bloomers.

The right to dress as they wished has always been at the forefront of the women's rights movement and cycling was central to it. In 1881 the Society for Rational Dress was formed in London, opposing womens's restrictive clothing. Cycling was at the heart of this movement and cycling groups began to form across the country as more and more women began to wear knickerbockers and bloomers for cycling. This was regarded by some to be an affront to public decency and the image of 'the new woman' with her bicycle and her bloomers became a figure of ridicule and scorn. 

The bicycle and cycling eventually led to a change societies attitude to health, fitness and exercise and helped to prove that women were not to quote Dr William Fowle in 1826 "feeble and helpless" American suffragette Susan B Anthony later claimed that the bicycle had "done more to emancipate women that anything else in the world"

In a future post I will be looking at some of the significant figures that have contributed to women's cycling and cycle sport over the years and also some of its current stars, but for now to bring things right up to date a look at a team from the north east of England who are really making an impact on the sport Boompods/EDCO/NRG  -  'The Team that Rock'


A couple of weeks ago I went along to a photo shoot with some of the riders from  Boompods EDCO NRG organised by PR specialist and team founder Tony McDonagh of Manilla PR A great location had been picked for the shoot, a subway in central Middlesbrough with plenty of 'industrial' back drops to use. It was, I have to say absolutely freezing, although the conditions seemed to be more of an issue for Tony and myself than for the girls. Tony is involved with team in several areas but regards his main role as being on the sponsorship side of things. 

                                    Some of the riders: Jen Batey, Chloe Gladders, Ellen McDermott and Olivia Fawcett with Tony

The team was conceived in the autumn of 2016 based on a perception that there were lots of talented riders in the region but what was lacking was a pathway from their club participation to high level racing. Initial success came as a result of the fantastic commitment from a small group of riders in the team's 2017 debut season, helped and supported in no small part by sponsor EDCO wheels. The targets for the team were deliberately set very high in terms of the UK racing scene and as a result Boompods have rapidly become the 'go to team' in the north east where talented riders can achieve their ambitions.

                                                                                     The BoomPods/Edco/NRG squad for the TdY

This year, working with Boompods who Tony describes as "one of the most supportive sponsors a team could have" has enabled the squad to reach the ambitious levels set for them at the outset in only their second full season. It has just been announced that the team will be competing in the most prestigious event on the UK calendar the Asda Women's Tour de Yorkshire TdY which for 2018 is over two gruelling stages on the 3rd and 4th of May. Stage one is a tough 82 miles between Beverley and Doncaster and Stage two starts in Barnsley and follows an equally challenging 82 miles to the finish in Ilkley.

May is going to a be a really busy month for the team as straight after the TdY they will be competing for the first time in the televised OVO Energy Tour Series Tourseries. The team will be contesting all seven rounds of the series starting on the 10th May in Redditch right through to the final round at Wembley Park in London on the 29th May followed by the Grand Final at a location to be announced shortly.

       (above) Sarah Walker in the thick of the action on her way to 6th place at the Active Fakenham  Criterium on the 1st April.

                                       Some of the talented Boompods juniors L-R Marie Lynn, Olivia Fawcett and Anna Armstrong

                                                        A picture from the photoshoot and it's a strong look from the Boompods riders.

I know several of the girls from the Boompods squad from the north east cycling scene and because I raced with some of them at last year's Tour of Malta (my blog posts on the race here: Malta-1 and Malta-2) Hannah Farran from the team is also a good friend who I regularly train with. Above Hannah racing in awful conditions last month at the tough Oakenclough road race in Lancashire.

In the cafe last week I had chance to chat to Hannah about the team. There is a great atmosphere around the squad and one of the first questions asked her was how the team had managed to develop such a good team spirit so quickly "The team began with the ethos of 'we got this' which was originally an Instagram hashtag used by one of our sponsors, Continental Tyres, CONTI however it soon developed in to the ethos of the team. We have always played to the strengths of everyone and we like to think that one of the main reasons why we have been successful. All the riders contribute to the team in more ways that simply riding their bikes"

When I asked her about the teams racing strategy Hannah summed it up well  "The BoomPods approach is to always race aggressively and try to win but have fun doing it. Somebody recently commented that the team 'seemed to be punching above their weight'  which is probably accurate but that's because we are passionate, ambitious and most of all determined to have fun racing our bikes"


Ellen McDermott of Boompods on the grid earlier this month preparing to race against some of the biggest names in the sport at the Ronde van Gerwen Criterium in Holland (on the front row left to right) Dutch rising star Puck Moonen of Lotto Soudal, alongside 2016 Olympic Gold medalist and multiple classics winner Anna van de Breggen of the Boels Dolmans team and on the right Dutch National Champion and winner of the 2017 La Course by Le Tour de France, Annemiek van Vleuten of Michelton Scott. 

I started this post by highlighting how cycling has empowered women and has been a site of social progress throughout it's history. But it is also clear that cycling and cycle sport specifically has also been a site where women have been socially constrained. Women's cycling is in a better position today than it ever has been but two big issues still dominate the sport: under investment and an underlying culture of discrimination within the sport. 

It was announced recently that women riders in the 2019 Tour Down Under will receive the same prize money as their male counterparts, although this is a big step forward there is still a huge pay gap in the sport. There is no minimum wage for professional female cyclists and as a result female professionals are lucky if they earn half as much as their male peers. Another issue is distance and duration of races which are limited in women's races under UCI rules with road races restricted to 130 Km and time trials to 40 Km. Also lacking is equality of coverage of women's racing, more coverage would attract more sponsors which in turn would bring more money in to the sport.

Change will come for sure, but in the meantime look out for 'THE TEAM THAT ROCK' this summer having fun racing their bikes ! 

Boompods latest!                             

A good day for the Boompods today with a one two in the Tyneside Vagabonds Spring Criterium, at the Middlesbrough Sports Village. Hannah on the top step with new signing Amy Graham second and Nikki Metcalfe of Prima Team Racing completing the podium. 


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