Apparently, We Don’t Like Our Icons Sweaty

There are plenty of things that have been keeping me away from the keyboard recently, only some of which has been bike riding. But recently, I have been spending more time in front of this screen and tonight I finally got around to catching myself up on the Tour de France‘s first two stages. While I was watching the video and reading the highlights, I started thinking about the GiroDonne, currently happening in Italy, and ventured over to their corner of the internet to see what had been happening with the ladies.

I don’t religiously follow the world of professional cycling, but I think it only responsible of me to show some love for my fellow women out there, keeping it rubber side down, and kicking some serious ass. The world at large, it seems, does not share this sensibility. Of course I know the Tour de France – we all know the Tour de France. Even if you have never seen it, have no intention of watching it, or don’t even like cycling, you still know who Lance Armstrong is (and maybe even about the doping scandal). But do you know Marianne Vos, currently the women’s world cyclo-cross champion who dominated the fourth stage at GiroDonne earlier today? Chances are most folks have never even heard of the GiroDonne until recently – maybe even right now – despite its having been around for over 20 years.

So this got me thinking. Where can a person such as myself watch the GiroDonne? Not at a bar or pub – though, to be fair, options for TDF at those locations were also limited. Not at a bike shop – mostly because TDF stole that show in a big way. So I returned to the ever-accommodating internet, waiting to deliver any and all manner of entertainment. If one does a Google search for ‘Tour de France, live stream’, they are presented with limitless options. If one runs a similar search for GiroDonne, there are links mostly to articles. The only real option is a subsection of an Italian news syndicate that has been loyally broadcasting the race for years. After this slightly disappointing show of internet option, I decided to check out the official site for the GiroDonne to see what they could offer in terms of schedule and viewing options. What I found there was so disheartening and offensive I figured it must just be me, over reacting and getting caught up in the wave of women’s cycling indignation so popular around this time of year.

While catching up on the Tour de France stages, via their official website, I was treated to footage highlighting pivotal moments of the race – the attacks, the peloton slowly falling further and further into the distance, the riders pushing, drafting, overtaking, sprinting. In short, I watched a very abbreviated version of a much longer race. I was given a sense of things; the drama and tragedy, and the intense, sustained physical effort of the event. I was watching athletes doing their work. I was treated to technical descriptions, in English, of who was doing what and where they were doing it. I was shown maps and given highlights of things to come. I was treated like an intelligent, discerning spectator, deserving of all the richness and nuance that this sport has to offer.

What I got on the GiroDonne page was very, very different. The first thing I noticed was the music. At first, I was thrilled to see the videos were a little longer (around 6 mins., opposed to the 2 or 3 of the TDF highlights). But the content is lacking. More than half of each video is footage not of the race itself, but the teams posing for photographs, walking around, waiting with their bikes, sitting and talking to each other, or drinking water. All the while, what sounds suspiciously like girl power punk rock is playing (it’s in Italian, so I have no idea about lyrical content). There is a few seconds of footage when the peloton leaves the starting line, and then footage of the expectant crowd at the route’s end. In some videos, there is actual footage of the ladies crossing the finish line, while in others, the few seconds of actual riding they show are sped up, as though to say ‘yes, yes, that’s fine, but look! Other stuff!’. Then there are three women, who’s names we are never told, standing on a podium, smiling and spraying champagne. What the hell? The commentary is all in Italian – which is fine, the race happens in Italy, but there is something to be said for universal access. More about this in just a moment – and there is no sense of this ride at all. Not in imagery, not in commentary. What I felt like I was watching was a photo shoot of women in Lycra, not the most aggressive stage race in women’s professional cycling. Yes these things are part of the deal, but why highlight this one piece? Are we afraid to see our icons sweating? These women, while beautiful and powerful, did not train to compete in a photo contest. They came to race – an experience that is grueling, demanding, painful, exhausting, and ultimately amazing. Why is it that we are not allowed access to any of it? Why is it, even within the world of professional women’s cycling, that women are being portrayed as gentle, giggly, silly, soft creatures? Sure, we all have at least a little of that in us, but we have a whole lot of other stuff in us too. These are not little girls with big, expensive toys. So why treat them like it?

Cycling is a pretty disgusting sport, when you think about it. Personally, I think that’s part of the charm (where else in civilized society is the snot rocket acceptable?), as I’m sure many cyclists do. The cultural attraction to athletes is in part driven by their aesthetic when standing completely still, made up and modeling something. But mostly, we are drawn to athletes because of what they can do. Or, more relevantly, what they do that we cannot. I can stand on a podium in Lycra shorts with my hair well styled and wave at people. What I cannot do is climb a massive hill, overtaking my competitor in the process and sprint until my legs are screaming to win the second stage. Is the sexism inherent to all women’s sport so internalized that even the organizers of the GiroDonne have succumbed to it?

The rhetoric I hear over and over again is that you cannot be what you cannot see (Taking The Lane has a great guest post about this very issue, which you can read here) – and in the case of girls and young women in the world of cycling, it’s easy to imagine there is no place for them. As a woman who does not often wear dresses or makeup, I can only imagine being a girl who might be the same sort of tomboy I was, trying to reconcile her love of bikes with what it means to be a woman, searching for inspiration, only to find images of women dressed up perfectly, not a smudge to their lipstick nor a bead of sweat on their brow. An art unto itself, and beautiful though it may be, this lifestyle is not for everyone (the same would be true in reverse if this image was overshadowed by aggressive, pro cyclists). That girl, like all people, needs equal exposure to the world of cycling – or any world, for that matter – so she is equipped to make her own choices about who she wants to be. She needs equal and universal access – a kid shown footage of women dressed like athletes who are only taking pictures is not necessarily going to understand that there is something much larger here when the commentary cannot tell her so because it is not translated. This is particularly true for young women and girls in countries where this sort of empowerment and access to it are even lower priorities. Never minding the fact that a child is certainly not going to have their interest held for very long by footage overlaid with a language they cannot understand.

I am hugely disheartened by the GiroDonne’s self-portrail, but I am equally inspired to know that right now there are women from all over the world, riding just as hard and just as well as the men of the Tour de France, and that as the number of cyclists grows each year, so does the volume of our voices calling for more equality in both the bike lane, and the peloton.

*Cover Image via Epic! Stratton

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