I love following female cyclists on Insta, it’s so inspiring, and one person who really stands out amongst the crowd in more ways than one is Mandie Durack aka Bikezilla. Mandie is not your typical female roadie and I absolutely love her story. She hasn’t let road cycling ‘snobs’ curb her enthusiasm even though she’s been ‘kicked to the ground’ more than once. Her story is compelling, and a little confronting.
It makes me cringe a little because I live in the same city as Mandie, but I know that I’m not one of those awful people who have tried to put her off cycling. However, we can all do more as road cyclists to make people of all colours, shapes, sizes, genders, and more feel welcome on the roads and paths of Sydney and beyond.
Mandie tells her story below in an email interview. It’s fairly long but well worth the journey.
How did you get into road cycling?
I started cycling in 2019. I had a couple of work friends who were really into road cycling and constantly talking about it. They gently encouraged me to buy a bike. At that point in time, I had just started to work out with a personal trainer as I was told that if I didn’t lose weight, I would end up with Diabetes. It was a wake-up call. Yet I hated the gym. I didn’t enjoy it at all. So I thought cycling might be worth a try.
My first bike was an e-bike and I started to ride to work on it (around a 12km round trip). As I rode that bike, I felt a sense of freedom I have never felt before. I enjoyed my rides so much. I’d smile the whole way and I would take longer routes just to experience the joy I felt when I was riding. I spent more and more time on the bike and started doing longer and longer distances. People have this misconception about e-bikes and I find it annoying. That you don’t have to pedal. Of course, you have to pedal! It’s just slightly easier. OK, much easier on hills but you still pedal.
For a first-time cyclist, it was a great introduction to cycling and I continue to be a big advocate for e-bikes. We need to stop the snobbery around this. If they get people on the bike, I’m all for them. So, I cycled on my trusted e-bike, exploring my neighbourhood, going further and further until the day I did 80km on it and it ran out of battery. You forget how heavy these bikes are! Pedalling back was a nightmare and at that moment, the idea of buying a ‘normal’ bike established itself in my mind. I just needed a push to do it.
That push was a charity ride that my friends did regularly. Three days. Around 100kms a day. Significant elevation. I signed up for it. Purchased an entry-level road bike and really started my cycling journey. I spent a year training for the event. It was hard. I punished myself both physically and mentally. I was the weakest in the group and singled out by Group Leaders. I wasn’t fast enough, strong enough, skilled enough.
Every time I went on a group training ride, I got anxiety. They made me feel less than. It soon became apparent that I was the problem child and they told me to train more, harder, just to keep up with the rest of the group. I knew they discussed me behind my back. I sent a screenshot of a group chat where they were talking about my lack of progress. Everybody else was getting stronger. I just got more and more anxious to the extent that when I saw a hill, I had full-on panic attacks.
I felt bad about myself. I’d lie awake at night crying because I wasn’t where I needed to be. Although they intended well, by singling me out in the group, they put a sign on my head that said “not good enough”. Other cyclists (trying to be nice) would try to coach me. Tell me where I was going wrong, do this big thing about cheering me up hills. It was well-intended but it made me feel worse. I began to hate cycling. Then it happened.
They called me into a room a month before the ride and told me I couldn’t ride. I wasn’t good enough. Out of 300 riders, I was the only one that wasn’t allowed to participate. You can’t imagine how devasted I felt. I had tried so hard, and I had failed. Worst of all, I thought I had failed my sister who I was riding for (she had cancer). I cried so hard. I felt so embarrassed. Everybody knew I wasn’t good enough. The truth was, looking back, I wasn’t strong enough. They were right but they could have managed it better.
They left me with anxiety that still surfaces to this day. I don’t tend to ride in groups much because of it. I still don’t like riding hills with people because of it. I tend to cycle alone or in small groups of friends.
After this happened, my first instinct was to give in and stop cycling but I am stubborn. I spent the next year trying to show them I was good enough. I got a coach, I trained at least five times a week. I got stronger and fitter but I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I could not let it go – that feeling of being the weakest link. It took me a long time to get out of that mindset. A long time. However, the initial joy I felt when cycling never went away.
I upgraded my bike and then finally I got my dream bike (the SWorks). It’s totally OTT for somebody like me who is more of a social rider these days, but I guess it was an F U to the elitist cycling community. I love it though, sorry, I love her – Cruella 😊 Nowadays, I tend to just ride for me, for pleasure, for mental health and mainly smaller rides. I don’t feel the need to climb massive elevations or do big 100km rides. I’ve actually accepted that it’s ok, just to ride for pleasure and I no longer feel in competition with others – to prove myself.
What do you love about it? What do you not like about it?
I love and hate cycling in equal measures. To me cycling means peace. When I’m on the bike I find myself switching off, slowing down, and focusing on being in the present. Enjoying the moment. The sun on my face, the scenery. I am not one of these cyclists who is continually checking stats. I see cyclists hurtling along with grim determination and I think to myself “Look up dude, look up”. You are missing out on so much! I used to be a bit like that but now for me, it’s about mental health and being relatively active.
I have met some amazing people through cycling that have encouraged me, supported me, cried with me, and cuddled me when I’ve stacked it on a hill. I’ve built close friendships through cycling, and I am grateful for that. However, I think cycling as a sport still has a way to go. It’s still too elitist. Cyclists can be so damn judgey. I’ve been asked, “What is a person like you doing riding a bike like that”. My answer – Cause I can. Cause I bloody well can.
I was also told by a fellow cyclist that my cycling didn’t count (at that time I was probably cycling and training six days per week) because quote “It was all junk miles”. Apparently, I didn’t climb enough hills and mountains to be considered a proper cyclist. I hate that shit. Some cyclists forget that they all started somewhere and find it easy to judge others or dismiss them.
When I hear a cyclist say “I don’t want to take the beginner group out in my club because they are so slow, it will impact my Strava stats”, I get cranky. What about paying it forward! I did a post once about cycling clubs. I looked at the beginners’ rides across multiple clubs, and most of them wanted beginner groups to be averaging around 25km/hr. I mean, seriously?! No wonder people feel intimidated by cyclists.
I also get a lot of women writing to me who lack confidence and don’t feel comfortable cycling or can’t find a group that they feel ‘safe’ with, and I mean safe in terms of not being judged or feeling intimidated. We have to stop this kind of behaviour and encourage people to take up cycling. That’s what I’m all about. About showing people you don’t have to fit a certain mould to cycle. Anybody can do it.
Do you always put on make-up and lipstick before you head out on the bike?
Ha Ha – hell yes! I actually don’t wear make-up. Just red lippy and my fake lashes. People assume I have a full face on but I don’t. The reason behind the lippy? Well, when I was working my way up the leadership ladder my boss (a fellow woman) would say to me “Mandie, put your lip-gloss on girl. We are going into battle”. So, my lipstick is like my armour.
I started wearing it on my training rides in that horrible period where I was training for the charity event. It made me feel better. Stronger somehow lol. Now, if I don’t wear my red lippy on Insta posts, people always comment or message me and say “Where was the red lippy today”. It’s become part of the Bikezilla brand.
You call yourself Bikezilla on Instagram. What’s the story behind that?
When I first started road cycling, I used to cycle with a very good MAMIL friend of mine. He liked ‘mansplaining’ quite a lot and would continually coach me on what he perceived I was doing wrong. He was only trying to help but if you follow me, you know I am quite a feisty individual and honestly, don’t want to be constantly told what to do, especially in a condescending way.
One day, after picking on the length of my socks (yeah, he’s one of those lol), I told him that I appreciated his advice but could he please stop before I hit him or put a stick in the spokes of his wheel and he said “Calm down Bikezilla” and all the other MAMILs laughed with him. From that point on, every time, we rode then, he’d shout out “Calm down Bikezilla” because he was trying to wind me up. So, I thought FXXX that shit. I will own it and Bikezilla was born. First on Strava and then on Insta. Now people actually call me ‘Zilla’ which I think is funny as.
You’ve started a group called Misfits CC International. What’s that about?
The Misfits started because as my Insta profile took off, I started interacting with a group of cyclists regularly. I was messaging with one of my fellow cycling buddies in the UK and we said how awesome it would be to ride together one day and then we realised we could – virtually on Zwift!.
We put feelers out to other cyclists and started a chat group and posted about a possible ride. So many people expressed an interest, the chat group grew into three groups and one night I was looking at all the cyclists in the groups and thought to myself what a diverse group of cyclists, from beginners to people who are semi-pro, from social cyclists to people who race, all wanting to ride together.
I changed the name of the Group to the Misfits on a whim and the Misfits were born. The name the Misfits was intentional as through the chat groups I realised that regardless of where we all were in our cycling journey, we had one thing in common. At some point or another, we had all felt disconnected from the cycling community or felt that we didn’t fit in. Here was a safe community where everybody was and is welcome. We are a non-judgemental community of cyclists who support each other.
What I love about the group is the sense of community and support. People genuinely care about each other and when I went through some difficult times recently, these people rallied around me, checked in on me, encouraged me, and provided resources. I have not met any of these people in person. It humbled me. Since we’ve expanded, the Misfits has really taken off. People can relate to our ethos because it is 100 per cent authentic. A lot of our members cycle to stay mentally healthy (including myself), so you will see the mental health ribbon on our kit and any kit that is sold, a small percentage goes to a global mental health charity.
You speak your mind in your Insta posts. Do you get many negative social media comments?
When I started an Insta cycling account, the number one priority for me was keeping it real. I spent hours browsing other cycling accounts and cycling apparel brand accounts and I hated how under-represented ‘normal’ and ‘plus-sized’ cyclists were. They did not inspire me.
I also hated the fact that they were so tightly curated and posed to represent an ideal of cycling and an industry which, frankly, doesn’t represent me or people like me. No wonder people feel discouraged and cannot relate to the sport! I like to have fun with my account, but at the same time be real about cycling. That means discussing topics that other cyclists wouldn’t and being honest about how much I hate it sometimes and how shit it makes me feel.
I also swear like a trooper (the British person in me). I am honest about my experiences as a cyclist. Sometimes I have really bad rides. Sometimes the behaviour of other cyclists annoys me. I also think I talk to things that other cyclists think about but don’t necessarily feel confident saying. I am a huge advocate of getting people on the bike and making women feel better about cycling. I flaunt my lumps and bumps in my Lycra. I don’t shy away from that. I want other women like me to feel comfortable in their skin and embrace it.
I am lucky that people really engage in my content; and I get messages from people telling me that I inspire them – because I am relatable. If it helps one person get on the bike or feel better while being on the bike, then I am happy. I have had a few negative comments – mainly trolls trying to upset me by mentioning my weight. They picked the wrong person. I hate trolling with a passion and will give as good as I get.
What is upsetting is when other cyclists have made comments about my size when I’ve been riding. I have zero tolerance for that shit and if I catch up with them, they will hear that. I find it really depressing that other cyclists (oh and these have all been men) feel the need to provide an opinion on my weight. Once, I was riding along with my friends and a group of about 10 male cyclists came up behind us and the lead shouted “Fatty on the left” and they all laughed. That made me cry. Nowadays, I would shout something back. I am Bikezilla after all.
What can we all do to encourage more women to ride bikes?
I think we need better representation across the media, by cycling apparel brands, and in clubs. Women come in all shapes and sizes, yet the media only presents female cyclists in a certain way. We need to change that. I don’t know whether it’s a local thing to me, but a lot of the clubs are still very male-dominated.
The rides are all about thrashing each other, the stats, who’s the fastest, PRs and ‘winning’. That’s the perception that a lot of people have about the sport. Those big groups of MAMILs bombing along at 35km/hr and trying to outdo each other. I see them on the road. They don’t look particularly happy and most of them don’t even acknowledge you when you go past. No wonder women think it’s not for me.
Unfortunately, I occasionally come across women like that too. So, I am not surprised that there is a lack of representation of women in the sport. A lot of women are put off by this! We need to remove the judgement too.
During the first ever group ride I went on, I was asked what possessed me to buy a “Merida” bike. There is a lot of judging going on – bike, kit, tools. In my book, if you are on a bike – any bike – you are a cyclist.
Women are also very self-conscious. They don’t want to wear the Lycra because let’s face it, it shows every lump and bump. Then I always get “I’m too slow or I am worried about hills”. All of these things add up to “I’m too scared to ride or join a club or group”. We need to encourage others by giving them ‘safe’ environments to explore cycling. Don’t judge them on their kit, bike, speed, etc.
My goal is to start a club for females, run by females. One that allows riders to learn and experience riding at their own pace. Where we share the basics with them, and we allow them to develop at their own speed. Where we show them (through role modelling) that you don’t have to be a certain build or at a certain fitness level to ride. That riding is about so much more than Strava and the stats. Where women support women and gently encourage each other without all the over-the-top “mansplaining” or ‘coaching”. If I can find some strong riders who don’t care about their Strava stats and understand what it was like being a beginner, I will do this!