Why is it that the vast majority of articles circulating on gender and cycling seem to focus on the fairer sex? Yes, us girls. Obviously, gender goes both ways and I want to now revisit a topic I once explored as an undergraduate: Cycling and Masculinity. I know I run the risk of alienating many men who read my work, but I would ask that you don’t take this personally. Women have to deal - on a daily basis - with the media picking apart our every move, every look, every activity. We are also our own worst critics: harsh judges of everything from other women’s pimples, unsightly cellulite, outspoken passions to being too fat, too thin, too obsessive, or not caring enough. Presumed “feminists” are also given an unfair share of criticism for speaking their mind when it comes to resisting these harsh judgements of our gender.
I would be a rich woman if I had a penny for every time someone called me a lesbian for riding a bicycle. Somehow the world seems to view most dedicated athleticism by women as a blot on our femininity. So I’d like to turn the tables for once, and look critically at the sport which seems to embody so much manliness.
Ten years ago I wrote an essay entitled “The Lance Effect”. In the midst of Armstrong’s many consecutive Tour wins, I was curious how cycling had shifted in the American popular imagination from being stereotyped “something gay Frenchmen do” to the height of masculinity. One man, with no balls, had managed to capture America’s hearts and minds. He wasn’t just a hero, he was a survivor. Everything about Lance Armstrong - his name, his working-class Texas upbringing, his all-American looks and abundant family to match - was symbolic of the kind of man American men wanted to be.
Writer and celebrated critical theorist Eve Sedgewick, coined the idea of the “homosocial continuum” in the mid-1970s, a way of understanding the point at which otherwise Platonic relationships between members of the same sex cross over into homosexual relationships. Women, she claimed, have a much longer homosocial continuum than men. Female relationships could get very close to being homosexual without actually becoming sexual. Men, on the other hand, have a very short continuum, whereby heterosexual men maintain strict physical and emotional boundaries within their friendships.
Homosocial relationships are everywhere. Any time women do ‘girl nights’ or any time a group of men get together for ‘male bonding’, they’re engaging in homosociality. It just means they do stuff with people of the same sex. In a term: ‘Bromance’.
In order to maintain psychological boundaries on the homosocial continuum, members of both sexes partake in homosocial bonding. Doing so, they constantly test and control their own personal sense of sexual identity. Wherever there are extreme instances of male bonding you find a culture in which notions of masculinity are in flux or being threatened.
British ‘Stag Nights’ or American ‘Bachelor Parties’ are a good example of an initiation-rite-as-homosocial-bonding. On the eve of a man’s impending couple-dome and ‘lost freedom and man-hood’, a big group of boisterous young men take to the streets to enact the most extreme form of homosocial bonding they can think of. Often dressing the groom-to-be in drag, visiting strip clubs and presenting various and often sexual challenges, the party pushes the homosocial continuum to its limit. How close can they get without actually crossing over into homosexual relationships with each other?
Of course, women enact homosocial behaviour as well, but that is a separate topic for another very different discussion.
Any sport, played between members of the same sex, could be interpreted as homosocial bonding. Perhaps never more-so than when sports are played largely to the exclusion of women.
Sport has always been a socially acceptable way of enacting (playing or performing) behaviour that’s otherwise uncouth. Wars became football matches. Sporting events became an opportunity for young men to demonstrate their masculinity and thus their potential success as a sexual partner. They couldn’t very well go off and survive battles that were no longer being waged to prove they were the most successful men. Going even further back, some sports (like cycling) became symbolic hunting expeditions. Stripped of their genetic right to be hunter-gatherers, the big cycling event (or even the weekend ride) stands in for the very basic human need to demonstrate masculine success and potential as a mate.
I won’t go into it in depth, but the acclaimed evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa has spent a lifetime’s work empirically proving that virtually all of human behaviour is done with the explicit or implicit goal of reproductive success. If that’s the case, sport like cycling makes perfect sense: Men have been stripped of the activities their genes spent thousands of centuries evolving around to prove their sexual fecundity.
Once upon a time, back when all humans lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes on the African savannah in groups of roughly 150 people, young men hunted, fought with neighboring tribes and participated in initiation rites (all of which more or less performed the same function psychologically) which have all been permanently etched into our genes. Some might claim humans have evolved since then, but the problem is, as Kanazawa explains, evolution requires both a very short life span (like that of a fruit fly) and a very stable environment in which genetic mutation can take hold. Humans have a very long life expectancy and our last truly stable environment was the African savannah, hundreds of millennia ago. Our biological brains still think we’re living in the savannah even if we may consciously know we’re not.
Men are playing sport because it makes sense to their genes. They also play sport and go through initiation rituals (like stag parties) to the exclusion of women because their genes don’t actually know any better.
Sport and homosocial bonding are inherently related to potential masculine reproductive success. At least our brains think it is.
For a long time, competitive sport has been the exclusive remit of men and boys. And it’s not just socialization to blame. Yes, girls are taught from a young age to be cooperative and learn how to empathize with others while boys are taught to be physically competitive and independent. But our biological brains have programmed us to be this way as well to both survive and be reproductively successful.
Women have never had a survival or reproductive imperative to play sport. However, in the world we live in today, much has changed since the African savannah. Male brains may have a hard-wired need to experience homosocial bonding and competition with other men, but women run the risk of lacking independence, bonding with other women, self-confidence, health and fitness, and a general inability to compete for work in a world largely dominated by values of masculine independence and competitiveness.
In the world we live in today, a woman’s social value still (rather peculiarly) seems to be based on her appearance. Her looks may be the primary indication of her reproductive potential according to our rather stupid savannah brains, but so too, most of these stupid savannah brains don’t think she needs to play sports.
Men are not playing sport because they want to. They are playing sport (and trying to be competitive throughout all other areas of their professional lives) because their genes are desperate to attract a mate.
But not all men are created equal. Some are significantly more successful than others, and rarely is this more visible than in the world of cycling. With its various teams, heros, domestiques, climbs, roads, Grand Tours, Classics and Fantasy leagues, there’s a lot of cycling culture for the less successful to borrow and pretend.
Writer and strategist Max Gadney once proposed the existence of something he calls a “pretending layer”. The pretending layer is essentially the way people buy stuff and participate in certain activities that allows them to pretend to be someone else. They’re not faking it by falsifying their identity to others; the pretending layer is largely a very personal and internal experience. Many men will buy an expensive deep-sea watch to pretend they are in the Navy Seals. They might pretend to be Jason Bourne on their daily commute through Waterloo Station.
With all its kit, culture and technology, the pretending layer is thick and strong in cycling. Weekend warriors can pretend to be Mario Cipollini or Mark Cavendish just be wearing the kit or riding a certain kind of bike. They drink their coffee in a way that allows them to pretend to be “Euro”, or “pro”. In fact, the pretending layer is so strong that most cycling brands have designed their whole marketing strategies around it (consciously or not). Put a hero in it and people will buy it so they can pretend to be a little bit like him. Their silly savannah brains are confusing being a reproductive success with what a reproductive success looks like. You just couldn’t buy a pimped out Pinarello on the savannah.
Of course, the pretending layer applies to other aspects of life, other sports, and women too do a lot of pretending. But I find it fascinating how seriously all this pretending gets taken. Male cyclists are pretending to be their heroes by wearing the kit; they’re pretending to be (and perhaps even trying to prove they are) reproductively successful by going on all-male rides around a little park.
So next time some guy makes a wise-crack about women riding bikes, just remember his game, and probably his reproductive success too, is all just make believe, enacted by a prehistoric brain.