The Celeste Barber of Cycling
August 04, 2019
This amateur racer is lighting up Instagram with her ironic, indignant posts that call out the misogyny in the cycling world. When she started, she admittedly didn’t have a clear vision, but within a few months (and after a profile in Bicycling Magazine) her online presence jumped from 3.5k to 10,000 followers. And it just keeps growing. While she might think that was the weirdest day of her life, we bet that the more people who fall in love with the Celeste Barber of the cycling world, life may get a little more hectic.
Why did you start the Instagram account @gravel_tryhard?
I have never been a social media person. I don’t have a Facebook account and I virtually never used social media. But I’m part of a close-knit circle of cyclists who do use it, and it’s often a joke or topic of conversation of whatever account is posting provocative pictures of women posing next to their bikes, often with a tight focus on their asses. We’d share the more ridiculous ones among ourselves. Then at one point, a friend of mine had borrowed my camera and I wanted it back. He said, “I’ll give it back to you, but you have to take interesting photos and post them on Instagram.” So I said, “OK if you give me back my camera next week I’ll make an Instagram.” Somehow, those two completely innocuous ideas collided in my brain: bike babes, and suddenly having to do something interesting on Instagram. Originally the focus of my account wasn’t as clear as it is now. My first thought, which didn’t last very long, was actually, “I bet some of these women are making bank and getting a bunch of free bike stuff and maybe I could just set aside my ethics and be one of them.” I had this idea that I’d do bike babe photos, but every photo would have some weird, subtle detail that made it obvious that I was actually just joking. But then I started to think a lot harder about what I was doing, and I also started to observe which posts people responded most strongly to. And about two weeks after creating the account, I had focused on creating photos that conveyed to other female cyclists, “here’s what this bike babe photo looks like to me. It makes me laugh, and I want to show you exactly why.”.
Why the emphasis on anonymity?
I have a day job and stodgy family members. My name and face are out there in public. I wouldn’t get fired but I don’t want those two worlds to collide. I keep what I do on my personal time in a nice box. I have a responsibility to other people as well: I don’t want my family or friends to feel like they’ve been involved in this project if they don’t want to be. I’m not embarrassed or have to keep a secret; it’s just a healthy separation.
Do you have a team of co-conspirators?
I hang out with a bunch of cyclists and ideas have come from them or things have spun off. And now that I have a bigger following, people send me ideas virtually every day, and I use a lot of them. But I’m really a one-woman operation when it comes to setting up, taking, and publishing the photos. It’s not some kind of corporate endeavor with a team of creatives. It’s normally just me sitting by myself in the middle of a dirt road in my lingerie, mastering split screen, trying to hold the camera behind my butt while keeping the bicycle from falling over. If someone were to drive upon it they’d probably run over me.
What is your vision?
I’m going to keep going until someone gives me a free bike [she says laughing]. No, I would just be so enormously grateful and so happy if I felt like I had achieved even a little bit of cultural change. A few months ago, I didn’t dare to dream that big. But my thoughts have changed as I’ve watched the project grow.
What does cultural change look like to you?
It’s really hard to say. On the one hand, you could say that cultural change would maybe be a point in the future when companies will no longer use women’s bodies to sell bicycles. And maybe the Instagram influencers of the future will show us photos where they’re riding their bikes through mud pits and working just as hard to portray a tough, gritty, capable image as they work right now to portray an impractical, ridiculous one. I can say that my goal is not to get individual women to put their clothes on. I’m not creating content to influence the women in the photos, I’m creating it for the people who see their photos. Rather than censoring content I’m uncomfortable with or keeping that content from being created, I’d rather see a world where people feel safe and enthusiastic about responding to imagery that they see as anti-feminist. If people could freely and publicly react, that would be amazing. I could just be flattering myself, but I think that since I started @gravel_tryhard, I’ve seen just a little bit more of that type of conversation on Instagram. For example, a bike manufacturer recently posted a ridiculous video of a model in stilettos, posing with a bare bike frame next to an expensive vase. Traditionally, if you look at a photo or a video like this and you check out the comments, they’re all men saying things like, “Well dang, I would go on a group ride with her (wink wink)” or men trying to be coy like “I didn’t even notice her tits, I was too busy looking at the bike.” But it struck me that on this video, the comments were from both men and women, and they were saying things like “Hold the phone, I thought you were a cycling company, what’s the deal?” or “Hey, has she ever tried riding your bikes? What does she think of them?” They were opening a conversation about something they saw that didn’t look right to them. That’s a sign of cultural change. In the past, you would have primarily seen this kind of coy, cutesy response from men on these photos, but one tiny piece of evidence of cultural change that I'm actually starting to see is what really happened on this video—which is, people reacted strongly and negatively, and it opened a conversation with the company. Now, part of that conversation is that people, including my followers, will react in ways that I personally wouldn’t. One line that I draw, personally, is that I’ll never say that this stuff is disgusting or that the women who appear in it are disgusting. I also try never to comment on women’s bodies or their personal behavior: I try to keep it exclusively about the photos and what they look like to me as a female cyclist. Not everybody draws the same line, so some of the conversations that start around feminist issues in cycling are conversations that make me uncomfortable from both directions! But the bottom line is, we’re having a conversation and that’s so cool. It’s not just a bunch of men saying “Gosh, I wish I was her bicycle seat.” Maybe I gave that a little nudge in the right direction started a critical and complicated conversation. Maybe I gave it a little push. I hope that I did.
How would you respond to sponsorship requests?
First of all, I am keenly, keenly aware of how incredibly fortunate I am that I’m able to say that no, I don’t need your free shit. Isn’t that amazing? I’m fairly young, but I’ve had some good luck in my life to get to the point where I’m supporting myself and I have a job that allows me to not only survive but also have some freedom. I have to hustle to a certain extent, but I don’t have to hustle to get by in the cycling world. That puts me in a uniquely good position to do what I do: I don’t set out trying to make people angry, but if I do, it’s not likely to affect my daily life that much. As for accepting sponsorships, it’s a tricky thing. I have accepted gifts from companies since starting this project. I’ve also turned down gifts. I have some rules of thumb: I’m always completely transparent about what I’ve received from whom, and no company will ever become immune to criticism by “paying me off.” There haven’t been any huge ethical dilemmas yet, but when I’m not sure about something, I try to fall back to the central principle of the project. I want to make women’s lives better. I hope that’s what I’m creating, something that women want to see that helps them or inspires them or makes their day brighter. If anything interferes with my doing that, it’s a nonstarter.
Do you have a sense for how the industry feels about your Instagram identity?
I really, really would love to know. There’s a part of me that doesn't care what the industry thinks of me. But on the other hand, having a relationship with the bike industry represents influence and access to a larger group of people, including the female cyclists who I’m creating content for. So yes and no that I care. I want to get the word out to more people, but I don’t care about the stuff. You know what I do fear? What I am afraid of is that companies will see what I’m doing, and they will look at that and say “It’s not safe for us to put women in our advertising. Women are a timed mine ready to go off and let’s stay away from it.” If there’s one reaction I’m scared of, that’s it.