Carolyn Axtell Interview

One aspect of the Diversity In Cycling report we have been meaning to explore further are the pathways available specifically for Muslim women. We spoke to our good friend Carolyn Axtell to find out more about the work she and others are doing to support Muslim women interested in taking up cycling.

Carolyn Axtell, photo by (Paula Siqueira Photography) 

Tell us about yourself

I am a cyclist, community organiser, and advocate for women. I currently work for climate action charity Possible as Car Free London Campaigner. I’m a mother of three and embraced Islam over 20 years ago.

And how did you get into cycling?

Some years ago my husband, a lifelong commuter cyclist, persuaded me to get a bike and start commuting to work, although my experience was limited to riding around the park as a child. 

Later, once our kids could all cycle, we started going on rides as family outings, and also commuting to school and to madrasa by bike. We became known as ‘the cycling family’ as very few families cycled to school and none to madrasa. 

I discovered that about 90% of local women and families really wanted to cycle; they had simply never had the opportunity. Being a stay at home mum for 9 years gave me the opportunity to build up a large and diverse social support network of other mums.  

This sparked an idea to organise group rides for families and also for mums/women during school hours. I trained as a Ride Leader with British Cycling and later as a National Standards Cycling Instructor so I could teach women to ride and also to recruit and train more ride leaders.

Cycle Sisters started in Waltham Forest and has expanded to several London boroughs

What do you love most about cycling and how does it fit into your life?  

The sense of freedom, the ability to explore, the feeling of movement and the independence it has given me. I love riding off-road best of all, through Epping Forest or along the River Lea.

The social aspect of cycling makes it extra special. For the past few years cycling was my bread and butter, as a ride leader, cycling instructor and founder director of JoyRiders.  I was on my bike seven days a week in all weathers. 

Cycling can do so much to empower women and increase their confidence off the saddle as well as on it. I was not at all sporty as a child or teenager and had very low physical confidence. Teaching other adult women to cycle is an absolute joy and privilege, it gives them a massive sense of achievement. 

Cycling has also increased my love for my city and my local community.  I often bump into other women from my network when cycling around, and it gives me a great sense of pride seeing how they have progressed over the years. 

What are the challenges to getting more Muslim women on bikes?

A general challenge is a fear of cycling in traffic and dangerous driving. Personal safety and fear of Islamophobia, of being very visible on a bike are also big factors. The intersection of gender, race, being visibly religious (for those who wear Islamic dress) means women can feel exposed and vulnerable, compared to being shielded inside a car. 

Lack of access to bikes is a barrier, together with a lack of knowledge about how to buy a bike and where to start. 

Women’s lack of confidence and self-doubt is perhaps the biggest barrier. Many need a lot of persuading to even have lessons, as they are so convinced they won’t be able to learn. 

I’ve worked with a lot of married women and I have found that some Muslim men, however well meaning, don’t really know how to support their wives to start cycling. They get frustrated if they are at very different levels of ability. Some buy road bikes for their wives when they are not ready for it. Just as the best person to teach you to drive is probably an instructor rather than your spouse, the same goes for cycling. 

There are also many single and divorced mums in our network, and lack of childcare can be a barrier to cycling for them, so timing of rides is important for accessibility.

In my experience, women really benefit from the support and solidarity of riding with other women.

Many Muslim women think their clothing is incompatible with cycling, but we have worked hard to dispel this myth. We have instructors and ride leaders who cycle every day wearing the jilbab and one of them, Khadijah Zaidi, has written a blog with tips on cycling in Islamic dress.

Although there are Breeze (women only) rides in many areas, if a beginner turns up to a Breeze ride wearing Islamic dress she may feel out of place and her confidence could be affected as a result, especially if the other women are in cycling kit and on road bikes.

The Tour de Salah is an annual charity bike ride between different London mosques (Jenna Selby for Waltham Forest Council)

What do you see changing?

I think the cycling revolution will continue to attract more women of all backgrounds into cycling.

In east London we have several Muslim female instructors who provide culturally sensitive training to their peers, and there is a huge demand for lessons. More female Muslim coaches would make a big difference in helping women to develop their technical skills.

Social media enables women to connect and be inspired by seeing role models who represent them. “You can’t be what you can’t see!” There is a growing online community of Muslim women cyclists.

For a while Shuhena Islam, who is a Rapha ambassador, accomplished cyclist and an inspiration to many, was the only visible Muslim woman doing sportives and long distance rides. But in the past year or two, many more Muslim women have embraced road cycling, clipping in and challenging themselves, and I think this trend will continue!

Which groups are doing good work in this area? 

There are a number of groups doing great work, but here are some to namecheck as a starting point:

Cycle Sisters started in Waltham Forest and are now expanding into 5 other London boroughs. They offer entry level social bike rides, training and online support. In their recent lockdown ‘Smiles and Miles’ Strava challenge some women rode hundreds of miles in a month. They also organise ‘Teen Bikers’ rides for girls.

Evolve is a new club based in Harrow. They organised the first sportive for Muslim women. Some members are training as coaches and they are working with British Cycling.

Muslim Charity’s Team MC has been organising long distance sponsored rides for some years, and recently introduced women only rides. They are very inclusive in terms of catering for varying abilities. 42 Muslim women cycled from London to Southend last September in aid of Yemen. This has really helped women to set themselves more challenges, with many cycling London to Cambridge or Southend independently since then. 

Nuhiha CC is another new club based in the West Midlands, providing training and led rides for a range of riders and abilities, from 5 miles to 60. They recently organised some great Ramadan challenges to keep women physically active during the month of fasting.

Fatima Elizabeth Phrontistery Cycle Club (FECYcle), which I co-founded with headteacher Hamid Mahmood and my husband Gary. Before lockdown, we organised regular rides for parents during madrasa hours. As a mixed club for Muslim men and women this was ground breaking. It gave women the opportunity to experience longer, more challenging rides such as London to Cambridge. There was fantastic camaraderie between the brothers and sisters.

It is also great to see some mosques setting up women’s cycling groups.

Salma Rahman, Cycling Instructor and Ride Leader (Paula Siqueira Photography) 

What advice do you have for Muslim women taking up cycling?

Book some free one to one cycling lessons through your local council. Even if you can already cycle it really helps to build your confidence on roads. You can request a female instructor as well. Some councils also offer free bike hire schemes.

Find a buddy to ride with you. Seek out advice and support, such as Cycle Sisters, JoyRiders, or see if there is a Breeze group in your area.

Also, follow groups on Instagram for inspiration and join the Muslim Women Cyclists Facebook group – you will get lots of support and encouragement!

Zainab Arian at the Muslim Charity London to Southend Ride for Yemen

Finally, what are your hopes for the future?

I would love to see Muslim women training as coaches, and entering more sportives and races. Also more women who wear niqab (face veil) taking up cycling and training as ride leaders and instructors. I’ve specifically tried to shine a light on our riders who wear the niqab as they are such fantastic role models.

Cycle training budgets need to be ringfenced. Otherwise, spending on infrastructure without providing support for women and minorities to overcome barriers to cycling just risks exacerbating existing inequities.

We need better representation of Muslim women in cycling, including those who cycle in Islamic dress. We need to be visible on the walls of the Olympic Velodrome! A reality TV cycling programme could do wonders to raise the profile of Muslim women cycling, like Nadiya Hussain in Bake Off. 

I would love to see more integration between different cycling clubs. It’s great that Cycling UK and British Cycling are making diversity and inclusion a priority. Women’s clubs like Velociposse have always strived to be inclusive and welcoming. 

I want to see more people embracing cycling as active travel, not just for sport but as a normal everyday activity. Cycling is key to the Green Recovery and can bring us untold benefits!

Carolyn, thank you so much for your time.

You can connect with Carolyn on Instagram and LinkedIn.