Gendered Resistance (in Indoor Cycling)

Should Instructors Give Different Levels of Resistance to Men and Women in Indoor Cycling Sessions - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

Since I got injured I’ve become obsessed with indoor cycling. Right now nothing comes close the sweaty endorphin boost I get from pounding it out on a bike, plus it’s a really good way to keep my fitness up when running is off the cards.

Because I’m a woman on a budget, and I don’t always want to go an workout at work, I decided to start hitting the spin classes at my local gym - Brockwell Lido. For just over forty quid a month I can take as many classes as I want, and if I stick to my goal of three bike sessions a week I’ll definitely be getting my moneys worth considering how much classes as boutique studios like Psycle are (although I do love them so!). So last Monday I toddled off to the Lido to check out my first class(s - obviously I decided to hit a double).

Being totally straight I wasn’t expected classes even close to those I’ve taken part in at Psycle, Boom or Heartcore, after all the Lido is essentially a local leisure centre not a trendy studio, and the offering reminded me a lot of the Spinning classes I used to go to occasionally as a teenager. The instructor shouts out a resistance and an RPM and you do your best to keep up, no fancy choreography and no faffing about with upper body, it is all about the bike. What I wasn’t expecting was the instructor to should out one level of resistance for ‘the ladies’ and another for ‘the men’, calling out those who weren’t on track as he wandered around the studio.

Maybe I’ve been training alone for too long, or maybe I spend too much time in high end studios, but I honestly thought that this approach had died a death. While I’ve heard stories of ‘ladies weights’ I figured that type of thing was a one off, and that I wouldn’t experience sexism around performance in any gym I went to.

Now this isn’t about my capabilities or ego - if anything my current injury means I need less resistance rather than more - but it is about the messages we share with men and women about their capabilities as athletes (and in this context I’m using athlete to refer to anyone who moves, because Chevy Rough raised me right). It’s also as much an issue about men and masculinity as it is about women - reinforcing notions that as a man you should be able to achieve a particular level of athleticism based on your chromosomes, something we are gradually realising is deeply damaging. Similarly, it reinforces notions that women are inherently weaker than men, and therefore need to tone down their exertion, which again promotes damaging stereotypes. Yes, men and women do have physiological differences that can impact performance, but at the level of a sports centre cycling class this isn’t an element I think is particularly relevant.

Should Instructors Give Different Levels of Resistance to Men and Women in Indoor Cycling Sessions - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

Leaving class the instructor’s directions played on my mind, and I decided to ask some of my friends who teach indoor cycling for their thoughts. Was this actually a relatively normal approach that I’d simply missed by riding in fancy studios? Was there a good reason for gendered resistence?

Honestly most people I spoke to (including other staff at the Lido) were really surprised that anyone still took this approach, although (and much to her credit!) Mollie did fess up and tell me that she thinks that she’s probably done similar when training people on Keiser bikes (where there’s a visual display of resistance, so similar to what I was riding during this class). Mollie commented that as an instructor it can be hard to know where everyone is at in terms of strength, and while you could give guidance based on the idea of beginner and advanced riders it is easy to cheat, and some people might identify more with directions based on gender. I can see where Mollie is coming from, but I’d argue that we need to take care around reproducing narratives - it’s like your Mum always says, just because so-and-so does something it doesn’t mean you have to as well. When it comes to gender ideology (and this scenario is a prime example) we need to be alive to challenging rhetoric and language if we want to promote change.

I was curious to know how this all worked from a training perspective, and Carly chatted me through the various approaches to coaching in a class setting. Reflecting on my experience she explained how the instructor I encountered may have slipped into assumptions around gender and performance - when teaching indoor cycling you can work on watts (power) and give an indication on what athletes should be aiming for, and her thesis is that the instructor may have interpreted this as related to the factual biological capacity of each gender. Which does make sense, although as I mentioned earlier in this post I don’t think is necessarily relevant when considering performance in the context of a leisure centre fitness class. But then maybe I’m underestimating my fellow Lido goers and my analysis is actually based on bias?

Carly told me that the approach used in my class wasn’t one she’d use herself as she’d worry about alienating women and making men feel ashamed if they weren’t able to reach the prescribed resistance, as well as bringing negative segregating language into an environment where she’s trying to make people feel good (God I love that woman). She also highlighted that performance is affected by a myriad of different issues, some of which can vary almost by day - take my leg injury for example - and really prescriptive instructions about things like power and resistance aren’t helpful if you take this into account. While the intention might be to encourage people to push themselves, this could really backfire. It’s a tricky balance.

Should Instructors Give Different Levels of Resistance to Men and Women in Indoor Cycling Sessions - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

I can’t begin to imagine the challenges of teaching a group fitness class, but I do think community environments have a responsibility to be conscious of the impact of words and actions and that it’s important we reframe athletic efforts if we want to break down gender barriers in sport. Hell, we need to do this if we want to break down barriers that suggest you can only participate if you’re already fit or athletic.

What are your thoughts on this? Do we have a responsibility to be mindful of the effect of our approach on gender, or am I being a bit extra?

*images: Anna Rachel Photography for The Altitude Centre.

What It's Really Like to Cycle in London with B'Twin

This post is in collaboration with Decathlon.

It’s been two months since Doris came rollin’ into my life. Two months of navigating London on two wheels. Two months of learning how to be a cyclist in London. Cycling in London gets a lot of bad press, and concerns over cycling safety are one of the greatest barriers to people cycling in the city according the the Mayor’s office, but I thought I’d share how I’ve really found it.

What It's Really Like to Cycle in London - A Pretty Place To Play

The idea of heading out on busy urban roads is scary. There are lots of vehicles. Buses, trucks, moped, cars, other cyclists. Lots of street furniture. Lots of pedestrians. There’s a lot going on. Lots of potential to get spooked out. Lots of things that could happen. I remember the first time I cycled in London over 10 years ago, I was so spooked out I didn’t even contemplate cycling in the city for years afterwards. When I did start cycling again I made sure I was well prepared to deal with these challenges. I went to a workshop at a local cycling shop that focused on skills for cycling confidently in the city. I learnt how to cycle assertively, refreshed my understanding of my rights and responsibilities as a road user and brushed up on my road safety skills. It was an invaluable experience and really boosted my confidence, I came away feeling like maybe I could do this thing!

What it's really like to cycle in London - A Pretty Place to Play

The first time I dipped my toe into city cycling the infrastructure in London was not what it is now. While the city has a long way to go, but compared to a decade ago provision for cyclists is so much better. My favourite discovery so far has been quietway routes. Quietways enable cyclists to travel through safe, less busy streets across the city. I LOVE THEM. I love how they wind their way through back streets, helping you explore your neighbourhood and get to know parts of the city you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. While the cycle superhighway is great, it can also be crowded and a bit intimidating at rush hour (I see you people in lycra with focus in your eyes!), and the Quietways offer a very pleasant alternative. Seriously, nothing beats pootling along a tree lined street of sweet terraced houses. Finally I love how the Quietways connect parts of the city that the cycle superhighway doesn’t necessarily reach. London is big, not everyone lives right by a main road, Quietways help connect the dots. It t

I’ve raved about it before, but CityMapper has been a game changer for me when it comes to cycling in London. Planning safe routes to get you from A to B is an overwhelming prospect when you’re finding your feet as a cyclist and CityMapper takes the stress out of it, especially when you can set it to show you only the quietest route to your destination. It’s a real confidence boost.

What It's Really Like to Cycle in London - A Pretty Place To Play

There’s a theme here, confidence. That’s the thing I’ve learnt about cycling in London, it takes confidence. It takes confidence to share space with vehicles bigger than you. Confidence to take up space when there are vehicles bigger than you. Confidence is hearing the stories and knowing the risks but doing what you can to manage them. That’s what city cycling comes down to, risk management. Bad things do happen. There are accidents. There are other road users who aren’t going to think about you. But there are things you can do to manage the situation. Making sure people can see you - that means getting decked out in hi-viz, having good lights, learning how to anticipate and indicate. Protecting your head with a good quality helmet. Taking time to plan routes. Sticking to cycle lanes. Stopping for traffic lights. Know the highway code and follow it. No, not everyone around you will do the same, but you are putting yourself in the best possible position you can to stay safe and enjoy cycling in the city.

Finally, the tip that has stayed with me the most - there’s no shame in getting off your bike and walking if things look hairy. Got my Mum to thank for that one.

*Doris was kindly gifted to me by Decathlon, but all opinions are my own.



Cycling in the City with B'Twin

Cycling in the City with B'Twin - A Pretty Place to Play

I've flirted with the idea of a bike for as long as I've lived in London. When I first moved here I had an ancient hand-me-down set of wheels and got spooked by a bus the one time I hit the road. Many years later I acquired another ancient hand-me-down which I pootled around town on but knew was not exactly roadworthy (it was very not roadworthy), and knowing your bike isn't totally safe doesn't make the idea of riding it particularly attractive. So there've been a few false starts on the bike front, but the idea of zipping around town still holds major appeal. And I think Doris might be the ride to get me into the habit. 

Doris is a beautiful little red folding bike (a B'Twin Tilt 120 to be specific). She is just as comfortable wizzing along the cycle superhighway as she is nestled in a corner of the tube. She's a bit of a head turner, but I don't have to worry about her staying out all night because she fits so neatly into that space by the table in the living room. She is perfect. 

Cycling in the City with B'Twin - A Pretty Place to Play

I chose Doris after a lot of thought about how I live my life and what I want from my wheels. In the past I've had full size town bikes which I've found bulky and cumbersome. They had to live in bike stores and I'd have to haul them through corridors and doors to get them out to the street. Then if I needed to stop my bike had to be locked up, usually outside, with a complex array of locks. It just always felt like a mega faff, which isn't really what you think of when you think about the freedom of cycling! No, this time I wanted something that worked with my life. A bike I could keep in my flat, take with me into the office, take on the tube if needed. A foldie ticks all those boxes. 

I won't lie, the idea of cycling in London can be scary, it definitely was the first time I tried. But these days I'm older and wiser, a few years ago I went on a course all about how to cycle safely in the city (I can't for the life of me remember who it was with!) and it really helped my confidence. I picked up so many tips and generally felt much more prepared to head out on the roads, it's definitely something I'd recommend all cyclists do! Cycle infrastructure in London has also come a really long way - the cycle superhighway is life changing (and life saving) and CityMapper is ace for finding safer routes around the city. I've uncovered so many quiet routes I never knew existed using that app, it's awesome! It's changes like this that have encouraged me to cycle, and help me feel more confident doing it.  

I can't wait to start exploring London with Doris, we've already discovered so many cool routes and it's only been a couple of weeks! Follow our adventures over the next few months using the hashtag #AdventuresWithDoris and let me know your tips for city cycling! 

* Doris was kindly gifted to me by Decathlon, but as always all opinions are my own.