As October rolls around once again, the attention of road cyclists up and down the country turns to the very British pastime of hill climb season. For the unfamiliar, a hill climb is exactly as it sounds - an uphill time trial to set the fastest time to the top. This weekend marks the National Hill Climb Championships which takes place in Streatley, near Reading and with the traditional cycling season in tatters due to the impact of Coronavirus, hill climbs have been left as one of the few ways of letting your competitive juices flow on two wheels.
COVID-19 aside, this year's National Hill Climb Championship promises to be very different to previous years - on the start list is 140 female rides, the highest number of female entrants to ever enter this national championship. In addition, over 4,000 people have signed an open letter to the event's governing body, Cycling Time Trials (CTT) to demand a rule change which brings parity to prize money for male and female competitors.
In addition, women are taking to social media and using the hashtag #climbhighertogether to share their own stories of hill climbing and experiences as women in cycling with the hope of inspiring others, and creating a movement which raises awareness around gender inequality in cycling.
To find out more, we caught up with Becky Hair, Specialized Women's Ambassador and a contender for a top ten at the National Hill Climb Championship this weekend.
Who am I, and what's my history in sport?
Hi, I'm Becky, and I'm an NHS physiotherapist and cyclist. I come from a triathlon background and got my first cycling race license last year. I have always tried to get people active - both as part of my job but also as a personal trainer and strength coach - and I enjoy giving back to the sports that have always been so kind to me! I became a cycle leader 3 years ago, and I was lucky enough to become part of the Specialized ambassador programme. Now I'm riding my bike more than I'd ever have imagined.
It's through this experience that I started racing, and started to compare it to the experience I had at swimming competitions, and when I started triathlon at university. Cycling is very different to those sports, with a lot of barriers such as equipment, mechanical knowledge, and bike handling skills to name a few - but there are more barriers for women. I wanted to help women overcome some of these barriers so I've worked hard to run ladies bike maintenance sessions and skills sessions over the last few years. As a result, I was lucky enough to be nominated for the Top 100 women in cycling by Cycling UK in 2019.
When I think about swimming, the girls and boys always trained the same, raced the same distance in the pool, and there were no real barriers that I can remember from starting racing aged 7, all the way through until 17. The story was the same in triathlon - the training was the same, the races were well attended by men and women, and the opportunities were similar. When I started to cycle I realised how few women were in the races, how often the races were cancelled, and how often the women's race was amalgamated with the juniors.
I've done my research, and understand the reason for this, but it still seems that women's cycling is an inferior sport. This year, with some great work by Laurie Pestana for the National Hill Climb Championships, we've got the number of female entrants up to 30%, and now we want to build upon that even more.
We want to start a movement, not a moment. We want to encourage others to race, to get past those barriers, to have a go, and to feel welcomed into our community.
My history in cycling
I got into cycling through my Dad, an avid cyclist in the 'classic' mould - he gave me his old road bike when I went to university in 2009. I couldn't ride it (it was way too big), I had no idea how to maintain it, and I certainly never dreamed of racing it. I remember getting a puncture, so I just left it for a month until I could take it home for my Dad to fix. He was absolutely mortified. He taught me the basics, and sent me back to uni with a cycle pump and full repair kit.
In 2013 I got into triathlon and started going on longer rides, so I needed to know how to fix a puncture if it ever happened. I had a female coach who is the best role model I've ever had. She encouraged all of us to improve our bike maintenance, and improve our handling as best we could. We were encouraged to enter crit races and push ourselves, and this is what sparked my interest in cycling and getting others involved. I have had my bad experiences - being laughed at by men in bike shops, and turning up to a local club ride to hear the men say �Oh, we'll have to put on a slow group now that a woman has turned up�
BUT - the kindness and generosity of the cycling community has helped me overcome all of these barriers and those small encounters are a thing of the past now. I commend all the women I've ever ridden with.
I left triathlon a couple of years ago, and have since got a race licence for the bike. I did crit races last year (and came agonisingly close to my 2nd category license), and got into hill climbing by chance after a friend persuaded me to give the classic Monsal Head Hill Climb a crack - I managed to come third! I had the bug then, and knew I fancied having a proper go in 2020.
As an NHS Physiotherapist, the coronavirus pandemic has seen me drafted in to Critical Care and so haven't been able to race or train as much as I would have liked - but I've done some specific training for the National Hill Climb Championships and hope to pull out a top ten result. I have recently been doing ladies hill climb skills sessions and I'm hoping that some of my local cycling ladies will come and race with me next year!
I love riding my bike for the freedom, for the exhilaration, for the friends I have met and obviously for the fun it gives me as I challenge myself on various rides around the world. I hope to inspire other women to feel the same.
What are my experiences in racing?
I've started racing crits and hill climbs in just the last few years so I am not the most experienced, but with the other Specialized Womens Ambassadors I am surrounded by experienced and talented women and I've picked up some handy hints and tips along the way.
I've found the women's racing community to be small, compact, but perfectly formed. The women that have helped me have been amazing, they've taught me so much, and it's great to see the same women at many races around the UK. I feel like we all have such a good time, but there are so many hurdles for many women to jump over before they even get to racing, and it's these barriers that we need to break down.
We just need to showcase this to more women, to really prove our worth and how much fun it is. We also need to show this to race organisers and campaign for equality in opportunities to race, but also in prize money. It is intimidating to turn up to a race when you're the only woman on the start list, and it can make women feel undervalued if there is unequal prize money up for grabs. I've been at races where there have been just 3 of us, and I can see that the organiser would much rather cancel our race than let us have a go.
Saying that though, I've been to some excellent races where the women's races are jam packed and the racing is magnificent. Some clubs do skills sessions prior to the race itself, and the women love these as it builds confidence magnificently.
What brought about the idea of #climbhighertogether?
Laurie Pestana (Reading CC) has grown the number of female entrants from 12% to 30% this year, and it has made a huge impact on participation for women at the National Hill Climb Championships. People have got the opportunity, and for many of the women it is their first nationals. I heard about the increase in female entrants at the national championships, and I was so excited as it is my first nationals too. I was riding back from work one day and all I could think was, �how do we keep the ball rolling?�
We are using the hashtag #climbhighertogether to start the conversation, and get women talking about their experiences in racing, and to raise our profile. We are starting with hill climbing as it is topical at this time of year (and is one of the only races going ahead due to the pandemic), but we hope it will continue to grow afterwards too.
We want people to share their questions, their pictures and stories with the hashtag, and we hope to plant the seed for other women to race in the future. In Laurie's words; �We want this to be a movement, not a moment�. We need to keep this ball rolling, and to maintain the discussion to encourage women to race.
Want to share your experiences, or get into racing & hill climbs? Use the hashtag #climbhighertogether on your posts, and give Becky a follow. We wish Becky the very best of luck for the National Hill Climb Championships this weekend!