En-gendering competence

Cyclist crossing to Finsbury Park

I’m currently writing two presentations and related papers (well, there’s more in the immediate pipeline, but there’s two that I am particularly working on right now).

These are on injury and gender (“A transport system safe for men and other vulnerable groups“, with James Woodcock) and on cycling advocacy and activism (two related talks based on research I’ve been doing with Maria B├╝hner). Working on the LCC Big Ride survey spreadsheet, I was thinking of these presentations alongside work (mine and other people’s) on gender, cycling and identity.

Our survey asked people attending the LCC Big Ride to describe themselves as a cyclist; we had nearly 200 responses of which around 2/3 were from men and 1/3 from women. (Most respondents have been cycling for more than a couple of years, and cycle regularly.) Examining the responses, I looked for positive descriptions of skill, as I have argued elsewhere (in the paper that’s forthcoming in Mobilities) that cyclists are under particular pressure to demonstrate that they are competent. As well as ‘competent’ itself, I looked for the words confident, assertive, experienced, expert, capable, and proficient, which I would see as part of a group of terms used to construct the ‘competent cyclist’. I looked for them used positively (i.e. not, for example, ‘I am not competent’!) within people’s self-descriptions.

Just over half of the men described themselves using these terms while just over a third of the women did so. But perhaps more interesting is the way people use qualifying terms (either reducing the impact of the ‘competency’ terms, or adapting them by association with other attributes or identities). Less than a quarter of the men qualified their positive description of their own skills in this way, but more than half the women did so. Some the qualifiers suggested a perceived failure to live up to dominant norms of ‘competence’ (as per the Mobilities paper), while others seemed to embody a struggle with those definitions and norms and a desire to adapt them to create different kinds of ‘competent’ cycling identities.

Examples of qualified descriptions:


Confident but still learning
Fairly confident slow urban cyclist
Unfit, slow, but quietly competent.
Experienced, cautious and fairly assertive
Slow (I ride a Dutch granny bike), fairly confident (I’ve had some of that free training from my council) and a rule-follower.


Fairly experienced; calm
Experienced and assertive. Occasionally stupid.
Proficient, hates motor traffic.
Slow, competent and defensive
Experienced and tolerant

And some examples of self-descriptions that don’t have positive or qualified ‘competency references’:

A late-comer – to riding a tandem with my husband which I much enjoy & which is great for my fitness (I am disabled).
A non-aggressive cyclist, using the bicycle as an everyday form of transport around town
Pootle along non-lycra person on a bike
Law abiding and considerate with a mellow mojo but still faster than you!!
Slightly above average
I like cycling but I wouldn’t call myself a cyclist
Losing my nerve as I get older

The analysis continues…
(and yes, I’m sure you are faster than me ;) )

One Response to “En-gendering competence”

  1. LFGSS Ladies Jerseys - Discussion - Page 7 - London Fixed-gear and Single-speed Says:

    [...] I'm sharing the website url with my LCC group and will have a proper read when I can. I just read this blog post for starters, a really fascinating piece on the concept/perception of competence. I'm sure there [...]

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