Emily Chappell, the Transcontinental Race winner, author, and a friend of Rapha shares her reflections on the transformation of women’s cycling.
I’ve interviewed some of the world’s top female ultra-endurance cyclists. When I ask them how cycling makes them feel, they all give the same one-word answer: “Free.”
“I never thought I could be a pro athlete,” says Tanja Erath, who won the Zwift Academy and became part of Canyon // SRAM in 2017. While competing for a highly-south slot on the powerhouse women’s team, Erath watched videos of the team to motivate herself before each workout. All of a sudden, she was one of them. I felt the same when I won the 4,000km Transcontinental Race in 2016. I didn’t think I was the sort of person who would win a major bike race. I still wasn’t even sure if I could call myself a cyclist, since that conjured up images of lean, graceful men on road bikes, powering sternly up Alpine switchbacks, their faces solemn and serious.
I was a different species. I had chattering bursts of enthusiasm at the start of a ride, excited to get going. I smiled through the uphills, rather than theatrically dreading them as these men seemed to. I enjoyed the way my emotions soared and plummeted throughout a ride, savouring the lows as much as I did the highs, knowing that they wouldn’t last. I was – still am – short, curvy and muscular: a corgi among greyhounds. I dressed myself in a mishmash of men’s kit that didn’t quite fit me, women’s kit that didn’t quite suit me, and the free jerseys given out by my courier company.
“Everyone is afraid of loneliness, but at the same time we have to embrace that.”
This is according to Kasia Niewiadoma, the Polish Powerhouse of Canyon SRAM, whose ferocious attacks and nail-biting breakaways demonstrate her courage, and commitment to striking out on her own.
I embraced loneliness in my own way. In the absence of other women like me, I rode solo, around London as one of its few female cycle couriers, across Asia on my touring bike, and through the frozen wilds of Alaska and Yukon, where people I met assumed I must be a man until I peeled off my frozen face mask. When you’re alone on a bike, what you are ceases to matter, and who you are becomes more important.
It was on these long solo rides that I got to know myself, and that I decided that cycling was something that belonged to me, even if I wasn’t anything like the ‘cyclists’ I’d encountered to date. On the bike I go my own way, and I am better for it.
“We are all wild women ... some are quiet, some are loud.” Hannah Barnes
And then, the world began to catch up. The Rapha Women’s 100 was founded in 2013 – one day every year where woman all over the world went for a ride together. I still rode alone, but now I knew there were other people out there. A couple of years later I found my tribe – a sisterhood who shared my love of cycling through sunrise and sunset on the same day, who made me realise I wasn’t the only one whose mind went to strange and shameful places in the dark hours of a ride, who joined me in hilarity as we exchanged our worst saddlesore stories. We were nothing like the sleek men I had envied in my early days. Together we discovered different ways of being a cyclist.
In 2016 Rapha begun a meaningful investment into women’s cycling. And not only have they put their money where their mouth is, they have also – crucially – listened to and consulted with women every step of the way, designing and marketing the kit around who we are and where we’re going, rather than setting a mould for us to try and squeeze ourselves into.
“Everyone is unique in their own way, and has their own power.” Alexis Ryan The women on the website are not professional models but real cyclists, from backgrounds as diverse as crit racing, bike polo, track, couriering, and the UCI World Tour. I look as unlike them as I did the sleek men I used to envy, but take comfort from the fact that they look nothing like each other, either. We each have our own way of being a cyclist.
Head of Design Maria Olsson oversaw the redevelopment of the women’s bib shorts with a completely reconstructed chamois, optimised variously for comfort, performance and ventilation. There’s no longer just one way of wearing lycra – the Cargo shorts are designed with multiple pockets, meaning you can eschew the traditional cycling jersey if you want to. The Pro Team detachable bib shorts were designed for speed, with quick pit stops in mind, but they’ve also become a favourite of mine in the colder months, since I no longer have to fumble myself out of half a dozen layers whenever nature calls. “I don’t have to follow others’ dreams – I have my own dream.” Kasia Niewiadoma
For a long time, women’s cycle clothing was a sub-genre, an afterthought, a single rail at the back of the shop, mostly pink. A transformation is taking place, and Rapha’s 2020 offerings are further than ever from the tired old template we used to squeeze ourselves into.
The updated Women’s Pro Team kit, and a new collaboration with Outdoor Voices, demonstrate once again the brand’s commitment to supporting female cyclists, and exploring new stories within women’s cycling.
The women’s Pro Team Kit, worn by Canyon SRAM and already one of the stand-out designs of the pro peloton, has had a makeover. Designer Angelo Trofa worked closely with the team to create their striking new look, described by rider Tanja Erath as “powerful on the one hand yet playful and dreamy on the other.” Rapha + Outdoor Voices is a radical departure, with each brand taking the other on an adventure. Outdoor
Voices believe that life is better when you get out and do things – Rapha believe that cycling is the best way of doing this. Designed to adapt to however you want to use it, the new kit has both recreation and performance in mind, and comes with pockets aplenty. These two very different collections showcase just how far women’s cycling has come over the past few years. It’s hard to remember now, but we didn’t always have so much opportunity to tell our stories and express our identities on a bike, let alone wear kit that fitted and suited us. “You don’t have to love everyone - you have to understand each other.” Alice Barnes
But there’s more to life – and cycling – than finding the right outfit. The most recent beneficiaries of the Rapha Foundation will be announced later this month, with four European grassroots organisations joining the five US beneficiaries the fund supported in 2019. These beneficiaries include Amy D Foundation, Star Track, NICA, Boulder Junior Cycling, and USA Cycling Foundation.
The awards show a heavy emphasis on women’s cycling with some organisations such as Amy D Foundation dedicated explicitly to improving gender equality in cycling whilst the others are focused on youth development, ensuring the future of the sport that has already given so many of us so much.
We all knew there was strength in numbers. What we didn’t expect to find was solidarity, aspiration, and the confidence to be authentically ourselves – no matter what our style of riding. I’ve come a long way since my days of cheap, mis-matched kit and trying to be like the boys, but there is so much further to go, for all of us.
This year Canyon//SRAM will be heading off the beaten track of traditional racing, and participating in the Alternative Calendar, as part of the Gone Racing series. I will be exploring new roads and climbing new mountains, alone and with many of the friends I’ve found in the past five years. All of us have so many more stories to tell.
Rapha was established in 2004 to address a need for stylish, high performance cycling clothing. It now provides products for every cyclist and continues to push the boundaries of innovation in cycle wear. Alongside this, Rapha has cultivated a global community of passionate riders who come together as members of the Rapha Cycling Club (RCC), the largest club of its kind in the world. Rapha’s retail model and unique brand values come to life in its many rides and events and global network of Clubhouses that combine retail, cafés and cycling culture all under the same roof.