Patronized, Catcalled and Mansplained: One Woman Speaks Up

Patronized, Catcalled and Mansplained: One Woman Speaks Up

I could tell you a million stories. I bet you have a million of your own. At least, you do if you are a woman.

There’s the time I pulled up to a red light in the dead of winter, wearing fleece-lined bibs, a long-sleeved jersey and a heavy winter cycling jacket. Hardly an inch of skin was exposed to damp air as tiny splinters of icy snow had begun to accumulate on my gloves. I wiped my runny nose on my sleeve, and glanced at the big, silver truck on my left. A round-faced man in a thick flannel jacket cast his gaze in my direction, unrolled the window, and proceeded to tell me that it was “too cold to be riding outside,” and I should hop in his truck so he could “warm me up.” He proceeded to cat-call me the entire length of the road. I could feel my cheeks turn red and hot, the shards of snow stinging my soft face in the frosty air. I kept my head down and pedaled silent, angry circles until the fat man lost interest and the truck disappeared.

Or the time I went into a local bike shop to pick up a new tire, and the gentleman behind the counter patronizingly inquired whether my bike had “big, fat tires or smaller, skinny ones,” and then informed me that they could put them on for me so I didn’t have to “figure it out” on my own. I rolled my eyes, and took my business elsewhere.

Then there was the time that I spoke in front of a huge crowd in the rotunda at the Mall of America alongside my friend, Indy car driver Charlie Kimball, only to have a woman from the audience raise her hand and ask, “Don’t you feel bad about leaving your children all the time? What do they do while you are traveling and racing?” It was a question I had been asked a thousand times over. I had not given a media interview in years, in fact, without someone inquiring as to whether my children traveled with me, and what they did in my absence. I could be standing alongside all the fathers on my team, with young children of their own, and only I would be asked about my role as a parent versus my career on the bike. It was always irksome to me but, in that moment, on that stage, the weight of the question fell on my shoulders like an accusation. I was fighting back tears as I turned to look at Charlie, his stunned face softening in quiet encouragement. He looked into my eyes, smiled, and prodded me onward with the sort of gentle stare that willed me to reply to the aging woman. I inhaled Charlie’s calm as if he’d opened a window to a breeze inside the too-hot space of the crowded rotunda, and summoned enough restraint to get through a polite, yet pointed, response.

Sexism is, of course, endemic in cycling. At the professional level, disparities in pay and opportunities persist despite calls by both men and women for greater equity. A survey by the newly formed Cyclists’ Alliance revealed that 50% of female professional cyclists earn less than $11,800/yr., 17% get no salary at all, and more than half work a second job to make ends meet. Less than 11% of women made enough from racing to meet the $35,500/yr. minimum wage required by the UCI for professional male riders.

And the problem goes well beyond the question of pay and sponsorship opportunities for the elite. The British cycling magazine Cycling Weekly recently apologized for publishing an image with the caption “token attractive woman” above a smiling member of the Hinckley Cycling Race Club. Pinarello was criticized for marketing its new e-bike with the image of a woman who stated that she wanted to ride with her boyfriend, but to keep up with him “seemed impossible.” A Belgian advertisement for the 2015 Harelbeke cycling competition released an image of a male cyclist reaching to grab the exposed behind of a woman, with the tagline, “Who squeezes them in Harelbeke?”

Recently, under pressure from Vittoria’s Ken Avery, PezCycling News took down it’s “Daily Distractions” webpage featuring a gallery of podium girls and other “beautiful women.” While some companies like Vittoria get it right, there is still a culture in the sport which discredits and objectifies women who ride. Marketing continues to be gender-specific instead of use-specific, meaning that plenty of badass women are talked down to, ignored or glorified as objects.

Worse, many women are flat-out harassed.

A National Household Travel Survey shows that only 24.7% of bike share rentals, and 24% of all trips on a bicycle, are made by women . The national data also demonstrates that women are less likely to cycle today than they were in 2001. There are multiple explanations for the relatively low number of women who ride, but harassment and fear of assault certainly play a role. When women go out in public, they are routinely honked at, hooted at, leered at, screamed at, lunged at and told by multitudes of strange men that they would, in various terms, like to “tap that.” Women know what it’s like to be followed, touched or grabbed in the middle of the street by total strangers. And the result? A kind of low level anxiety that forces us to be more vigilant, more aware of our surroundings, to consider the routes we take when walking or running or riding, to stroll confidently through the parking garage with our keys in our fingers and our cell phone always accessible. In light of those considerations, there are some women who cannot imagine pedaling solitary stretches of lonely tarmac in tight Lycra clothing.

In so many ways, women can become the people they are told and led to be by the chorus of men around them. We hear the cat-calls and flip through the pages of the cycling publications by men and for men. We listen to the odds makers and pay attention to the negative reasoning of those who speak from a position of doubt and tunnel vision when it comes to the capabilities of women in sport. It is not as if the sphere of cycling were designed for men alone, but there remains the shadow and shape of sexism hanging in the corners of the road, and it’s easy to become trapped by those sentiments. The dreams and goals and ambitions of women get ignored or pushed aside amid the egos of the guys in charge, and it can be hard for women not to wonder if maybe those guys are onto something … maybe this really isn’t for us.

It is.

Sexism and harassment have as much to do with power and oppression as they have to do with limited vision, limited imagination, the egos of others and what people value differently. There are any number of reasons people will try to steal confidence and joy, but none of those reasons are valid. From the moment I began my career in cycling, I had as many discouragers and I did cheerleaders, but I knew there was something that connected me profoundly with the bicycle. The rhythm of the road became the flow of my life, and it was never a matter of how much money I would make or how successful I would become. Cycling, for me, was about not loving anything else as much and being entirely consumed by the love of riding.

Women should be able to be themselves on the bike, without the worry of criticism or harassment, or having to consider how they look or who might condemn them with a remark like, “You’re just a woman, so what do you know?” Women should go forward with certainty that they belong on the road as much as anyone else, and their ambitions are no less valid. After all, the thing about your dreams and your goals is that they belong to you, and no one else. No one can take them from you if you don’t let them.

I hope my daughter won’t have a story to tell. In the meantime, I remind her that confidence isn’t inherent, but cultivated. That she should never settle for less or feel intimidated or afraid because she came into the world a girl, and that strong women are working every day to throw open the doors of opportunity to everyone. I watched her hop on her bicycle weeks ago with my two male teammates, and pedal confidently alongside the boys. They gently guided her, praised her, told her she was rad and amazing and strong. If only every woman could experience that kind of encouragement in sport from men who get it, how different might things be?


Becky Furuta is an elite cyclist who has spent the last seven years racing for some of the most recognizable teams in cycling. She has worked to advocate for greater equality in the sport of women’s cycling, and volunteers for programs aimed at teaching kids with disabilities to ride bicycles. In her spare time, she works as a sports vision specialist at an optometric practice in Golden. She makes her home in Longmont with her husband, two children and her hound.

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  1. Seano

    It is.

    Thanks for this: my hope for my friends, my wife and my daughter is that they experience more of that last paragraph, too.

  2. Chris

    Thanks for sharing. My wife is a runner and, while she still suffers anxiety about running at alone at night, the running community doesn’t seem to suffer as much sexism as us cyclists. Do male runners ever talk about trying to avoid getting ‘chicked’?

    We, as cyclists, can’t cure all the ills that are keeping women out of the sport but we can sure do a better job of making them feel they are an equal part of the community.

  3. Winky

    Thanks for sharing this. It is worthwhile and thought-provoking to read such a high-quality and thorough account of how women are treated and are made to feel in this world. The experiences described, in many cases, align with those of the women in my life, as they have accounted them to me, and as I have personally witnessed.

    This piece is significant and should reach a wide audience.

    1. bigblue

      I can see the logic of why you put it there, but it seems odd. It could be described in the article, but to reproduce it, well it’s pretty offensive – the image is so blatantly unconnected to the product. I guess that’s the point … Anyway ISM should be ashamed.

    2. Becky Furuta

      I actually thought the same thing when I first saw my piece published on 303 Cycling. I realized only later that it was positioned to illustrate the problem. I understand the reader’s confusion, as I shared it, as well. I want to be clear that it was not original to the work (I, as the author, did not choose to reproduce the advertisement or any of the other graphics used), and RKP simply reprinted the layout created by the first publisher. Hope that helps clarify, especially for those who took offense.

      And thanks to all for taking the time to read and comment.

    3. cash

      I had the same thought, and then looked at it more closely … and it was obvious the image was used to illustrate the story. Whether that was a good editorial decision is debatable (I don’t think that it was …. seems gratuitous to me)

    4. Padraig

      And for my part, I should have checked with Becky before reproducing it. I made the assumption that she was okay with it there. I’m now removing it.

  4. Becky Furuta

    Padraig, I hadn’t given it much thought. But I wanted to clarify that neither you nor I made that decision.

    Having said that, the very fact that it is offensive underscores the article. It’s a real advertisement, reproduced in copy and digitally, and widely circulated. It’s relevance to the content is indisputable, and instead of focusing on its placement in this piece, we ought to focus on its placement in the sport more generally.

    1. Padraig

      I have one other comment on this: I had never seen that ad before and I was floored by it. And because I don’t think I can possibly be too explicit, I’d like to make clear that if an advertiser approached me and wanted to run that ad, I’d refuse it, even if it meant refusing the ad dollars all together.

    2. bigblue

      I think we’re all on the same page, but just to clarify my original comment a little, any offence taken was really against ISM. The advert was such a crass and stupid piece of imagery. I understood Becky didn’t sanction it’s use, and also understand the reasons that Padraig / the original publisher included it – you could argue about using it either way. My personal preference would be to not include it, but with or without, the issues the article highlights are the main point.

      It beats me why you’d trash talk / talk down to women who ride. Over here in the UK the women’s track cycling team have been consistently amazing, and can justifiably be viewed as role models (see Laura Trott, now Laura Kenny). I believe you in the US have your own one-woman wrecking ball called Sarah Hammer 🙂 Marianne Vos is supposedly quite handy on a bike too. Seemingly _any_ bike. Just three names from many. Down at less rarefied levels, I’m happy to see anyone of any gender out on a bike as I slog my way along at pretty modest speeds. And cyclists self-inflicting stupidity on other participants in a profession / sport / pastime they love seems utterly perverse. I guess we should remember that not everyone is so inclined, try to educate those who are of the, err, errors of their ways, and resolve to carry on enjoying our riding even in the face of such idiocy.

  5. David Rick

    Sad to know that this is Becky’s experience here in a place with one of the highest concentrations of serious cyclists (of both genders) on Earth. As a decidedly non-elite cyclist who’s been “chicked” (not my term) on iconic climbs like Left Hand Canyon and Flagstaff too many times to count, I want to assure her that if there’s an imbalance between disparaging and complimentary comments as she goes zipping by, it’s because many of us whose views fit the latter category are too out of breath to say anything at all.

  6. Lyford

    Becky –

    Thank you for this piece.

    Serious question: Do you have any advice for guys who genuinely want to be helpful and not be seen as “mansplaining”? I hate to see newer folks struggling and want to help, but it often seems safer to just stay quiet.

  7. Jeff

    When I first found PEZ cycling, the “distractions” panel was so offensive, I refused to visit that site again.

    I am also a person that tries to help every cyclist (bicycle and motorcycle) on the side of the road. I’m big guy. 6’4” with huge hands. I can pick a Harley Davidson up off its side or mount a difficult tire with a flat with ease. I don’t like to think I’m a mansplainer or chauvinistic, I’m just a huge person willing to help.

    I’m also not offended when people grab my wheel, i know it is like drafting a semi truck.

    It seems the A-holes of the world give those that are genuine a bad name.

    1. Tominalbany

      Good on you, Jeff! Keep helping. If you’re truly sincere, the open-minded will be able to tell pretty quick, though I could understand why an alert/wary woman might be anxious around a big guy.

      I was explaining yesterday, to my almost 12-year old son, that soon, the testosterone is going to kick in and it just gives a physical advantage that is no one’s fault but, could make some nervous. Fortunately, he’s a pretty sweet kid that despises anyone that hurts anyone. I hope he keeps that ethic right through!

      Finally, I, as that 5’6″ 130# featherweight thank you for all of us for providing that draft. The fastest I’ve ever gone downhill, was on the wheel of a skilled, bigger rider. I just don’t have the mass to really ramp it up. Damn potential energy equation!

  8. khg

    to the guys wondering about offering help without seeming like they’re mansplaining or talking down to women–

    In my experience (woman here), it’s pretty easy to tell when an offer of assistance or encouragement comes from genuine helpfulness and enthusiasm, rather than from looking down on me for my gender. (Yes, “you’re really strong!” sounds different if the guy is thinking a silent “for a girl” after it…)

    One thing I try to be aware of is to try to phrase things so that it doesn’t sound like I assume the other person is incapable. For instance, if someone is changing a flat, I’ll as “do you have everything you need?” rather than “do you need help?” or “do you need me to do that for you?”

    Also, listen to what is being said. If someone describes to you in detail the shifting problem she is experiencing, and the precise conditions under which it does or does not occur, do not respond by saying “Shifting sure is complicated” and launching into your “Shifting for Newbies” speech.

    I think these are pretty good principles for interacting with people generally, but as a woman, they are not always in evidence when people interact with me. Yes, sure, there are equal opportunity assholes, but we all know the guys who don’t mind men passing them, but get pissed when a woman does, or the shop guy who enthusiastically talks Dura-Ace vs Record with a man, but only asks the woman about the color she wants her bike to be, never the specs.

    Lastly, if you do offer a woman help/advice out of a genuine desire to help, and are rebuffed as a mansplaining jerk, don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s the 100’s of men who came before you.

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