Throughout high school, I played competitive basketball at the top level in Ontario. While basketball players are not at the very top of the jock-scale, there was still enough trash-talking, inflated egos, and shitty masculinity (which I regretfully participated in at times) to turn me off of the sport by the time I got to university, at which point I almost stopped playing altogether.
In comparison, road cycling has to rank pretty close to the bottom of the jock-scale. This is both a cultural product and a result of the physical nature of the sport itself. Bicycles, even well outside of the context of bike racing, are seen as un-masculine. As we all know in North American culture, “real men” drive cars. Big, powerful, expensive cars. Within the sporting context, the equipment of the sport are also seen as un-masculine. Cyclists wear tights. They wear funny shoes. Ironically, one of the ways of showing your seriousness as a bike racer is by shaving your legs. Physiologically, the best cyclists in the world do not match any stereotype of the ideal masculine forms. They are scrawny by athlete standards. And cyclists cry a lot.
These are all factors that initially drew me to the sport, and have since bolstered my love for it. As I started to dig myself deeper into the sport and the culture surrounding it, I found it was populated by people who had developed a great deal of reflexivity about these issues. When you find yourself asking your wife for tips on how to avoid razor burn, it’s hard to hold on to presumptions about masculinity.
Against this backdrop, cycling has led me to innumerable confrontations with the prevalence of misogynistic, chauvinistic, and homophobic attitudes. When random assholes routinely call you a “f****t” and heckle you for wearing lycra bike shorts as they drive by, it prompts you to reflect on the assumptions that people are making about you. It has also forced me to consider the instances where I myself have made similar assumptions about others. Most importantly, such instances lead me to reflect on those who must suffer the most from such assumptions, like those who aren’t as privileged as to be riding around on an expensive bicycle for recreation. Cycling has encouraged me to contemplate cultural expectations of “being a man,” and allowed me to understand that these expectations are “toxic,” as they have been aptly described.
But shitty masculinity, while relatively subdued compared to other sporting cultures, still exists in cycling.
Competition easily slips into extreme forms with adverse effects. There is a marked qualitative difference between friendly competition and the desire to dominate. No one exemplifies this better than Lance Armstrong. Of all his transgressions, it is this I think I find the worst (yes, more than the doping). Lance Armstrong is the quintessential bike bro. And it is not difficult to find hyper-competitive men, exuding hyper-masculine attitudes, in pelotons of all sorts – shaved legs and all. (However, anecdotally, I’d say such men are more often amateurs than top-level pros).
And of course, there are the issues of podium girls and inequalities between funding and promotion of men’s and women’s races; any internet discussion about these topics is sufficient to reveal all kinds of persistent sexism.
A question is whether sports can exist without succumbing to hyper-competitiveness and dominance. Can competition be undertaken healthily, or is it unavoidably damaging (whether confined to sports or more broadly)? This is obviously a weighty issue, demanding a much deeper reflection than I can offer here. My short answer is that, insofar as it is not fetishised, I believe competition can be very beneficial. And nor do I believe that competition is inherently a masculine trait. There are women bike racers, and they compete passionately. The construction of masculinity is not merely about defining the confines of acceptable behaviour for men, but also for women. Just as men are expected to be competitive, women are expected not to be, lest they be considered masculine. Masculinity and sexism go hand in hand.
The whole point of talking about “toxic masculinity” is to understand that masculinity is not intrinsic, but determined by social and historical forces. Thus, the detrimental aspects can be filtered out, and whatever positive attributes we might find do not need to be thought of as unique to a particular sex, let alone gender. In this way, women who play sports are not “masculine,” but they are also prone the problems of hyper-competitiveness.
For what it’s worth, I’d estimate cycling (at least road cycling) does a lot better than most sports in this regard. There is a general intolerance for aggressive competitiveness, a conscientiousness about masculinity, and a healthy self-consciousness about how to make it a welcoming, inclusive sport. But it still has a long way to go.
I’ll end with some typically broad questions. I’ve pointed to various incidental factors in road cycling that I think contribute to its reflexivity about questions of masculinity and gender. But are there broader cultural factors at play here? Is the fact that bike racing is a European sport, rather than North American one part of the equation? And how do issues of privilege factor in? Might the demographics of the typical cyclist also have something to do with it? And is there something about the sport itself that allows it to evade the worst kinds of competitiveness (i.e. you don’t have direct opponents; there is little physical contact)? Can other sporting cultures – hockey, for example – shed hyper-masculinity?