Update, April 17: Collyn has now taken her post down, but you can still read it here.
Collyn Ahart, the Siobhan Sharpe of women’s cycling, wrote a blogpost that has been doing the rounds recently, and there is a great deal I find odd about it. In case you are one of the few people who hasn’t come across her promotional spiel masquerading as a feminist cri-de-coeur, her key observation is this: brands and the media tend to address women cyclists as if they are all beginners, which comes across as patronising and diverts everyone’s attention away from the higher end of the spectrum. She calls this state of affairs “beginnerism” and it’s the reason why her nascent company won’t be making cycling clothing.
I would’ve thought any aspiring businessperson, if they really had spotted how badly other companies are serving their customers, would consider this an opportunity rather than a reason to retreat before they have even begun. It’s as if Collyn has come up with an elaborate, face-saving excuse because she doesn’t want to enter a crowded market and fail. Or this could be a setup for a self-regarding return to the fray at some point in the future (Hey girls! I couldn’t turn my back on you! I shall be your saviour from patronising pink lycra! And I’ll do it in, like, a totally non-patronising way!). Whatever the reason, it seems clear from Collyn’s tone – apparently “everyone” is surprised by her announcement – that we are meant to consider this a decision of great moment and import. You can decide for yourself whether or not this is the case.
Targeting entry-level riders is probably a useful strategy from a business perspective. Far fewer women than men ride bicycles, but their number is increasing as cycling generally becomes more popular, so it seems sensible that manufacturers and magazine editors would focus on what appears to be a growing part of the market. And contrary to what Collyn suggests, wasn’t targeting newcomers how her exemplar Rapha started out? As I recall, it was initially the post-Armstrong crowd who rode around with ‘PEYRESOURDE’ and ‘VENTOUX’ emblazoned in bold type beneath their manboobs, not the fanatics who had been following cycling since the days of downtube shifters and Phil Liggett’s voice crackling over a dodgy phone line. Get them when they first venture into cycling, at the very point when they’re at their most enthusiastically receptive, and you’ve got yourself a loyal customer base who will tell their mates how great you are – which in Rapha’s case helped them widen their appeal to all kinds of road cyclists, thus generating a revenue of £28million last year alone.
But instead of following the money, Collyn is following the writing of Jacques Derrida – although I think the quote she used, “the success of feminism will be its demise”, may be incorrect. I wonder if she meant, “The risk of failure of women’s studies is the risk of its very own success,” which means something else entirely. In any case, I doubt whether any successful CEO has wandered down the path of postmodern philosophy to reach a business decision, so perhaps we should wish her the best of luck with that one.
More importantly, what are we to make of her key assertion – and it is just that: an assertion, offered without any evidence at all – that focusing on beginners has a detrimental effect on encouraging women to “reach up to the next level”? I think the competitive female cyclists I’ve known over the years are smart enough and determined enough to be unaffected by what companies in the cycling industry may or may not think they ought to wear or enjoy. Moreover, it’s a bizarre statement to make so soon after the successful launch of the South East Women’s Time Trial Series, Lizzie Armitstead winning the biggest race of her career and the UCI commencing the broadcast of women’s world cup races. Of course women’s cycling needs more success to breed future inspirational successes like these, but the enemy here is lack of money and investment, not a preponderance of fuchsia jerseys in Evans and too many magazines recycling lists of 10 Top Cycling Tips For Gals.
Collyn’s major clanger, which she hastily amended, was including Jeannie Longo in her list of inspirational women, apparently not realising that the Frenchwoman has been linked to a string of doping allegations. And in what might charitably be called a brave move, she has a pop at a women’s clothing brand. It’s done in a way that makes me wonder where professional opinion ends and passive-aggressive point-scoring begins. I’m not going to get into whether their apparel is appealing or not – that’s for each woman to decide, and as Collyn mentions in her addendum, “women are hard to please,” which I think is putting it mildly. But I would say two things. Firstly, I reiterate my earlier point: if an established company really is getting things wrong, then a newcomer should show them how to do it right and reap the rewards. (Incidentally, I can’t recall Simon Mottram having a dig at, say, Endura or any other specific sportswear brand when Rapha started out, and Collyn may like to reflect why this was the case.) Secondly, I think it’s a bit rich for Collyn to write: “This ‘girl power’ thing is all a bit too much protestation. Empowered people don’t have to tell people they’re empowered.” Surely, for any company, spelling out your philosophy in broad terms to your potential customers is just part and parcel of the language of marketing. Those who are outsiders and brave, for example, don’t need to say they are brave and outsiders either, yet those are the words which are plastered over the website for Collyn’s yet-to-be-launched clothing brand.
I suppose if you are prone to coining Siobhan Sharpe-style catchwords, you could call this mixture of cluelessness and assertiveness ‘expertism’ – a sort of evidence-free, self-promoting, faux-expertise. Women will think what they like, but I find it draining and cynical. Give me the imperfect idealism of beginners any day.