“One day I saw a mum putting her child into a seat on her bike, and I thought, ‘I can do that’.” Usma Chaudry is describing to me the moment in 2015 that inspired her to get back into cycling, an activity she had enjoyed as a child but left behind as she grew older and got on with the business of raising a family. By then a mother of six, Chaudry was motivated by the mum loading her child aboard a bicycle to find out about cycling initiatives available in her area. She discovered that she qualified for a free bike on a local scheme Big Birmingham Bikes, which supported less well-off communities with subsidised bikes and classes teaching road riding and bike maintenance.
Armed only with her enthusiasm and an inexpensive hybrid bike, Chaudry started an adapted version of British Cycling’s Sofa-to-50km plan, designed to help develop basic stamina in eight weeks, geared towards new and returning riders. “Pretty soon, British Cycling said I could lead their Breeze group rides,” Chaudry tells me. “They said if we couldn’t do the recommended rides of 20 miles, then anything – even just one or two miles – was fine. So that’s what we did, me and a group of women from my community. Within a few months – August to October 2020 – we went from riding one mile to 60.”
Indirectly, the Covid-19 pandemic fast-tracked Chaudry’s cycling, particularly her long-distance ambitions. “There’s a charity ride for children with autism that’s normally from London to Manchester, but because of Covid, they opened it to anyone riding 220 miles across two days.” Chaudry opted to ride a 50-mile loop starting from Leicester, and completed the 220-mile distance after just two years of cycling experience.
I’m taken aback by her achievement, but she waves away my praise. “I turn 50 in 2022, and I’m a mother of seven – if I can do it, anybody can.” Another aspect of Chaudry’s life that some might presume would limit her cycling is her Islamic faith. How has being a Muslim impacted on her development as a rider? “Some people say cycling [for a woman] isn’t modest or isn’t Islamic, but I put that to one side,” she says. “Then there is the dress issue. Some Muslim people say cycling is good but you’re not dressed right because the clothes are revealing. You just have to push back at these sorts of attitudes.”
What I learnt
You can do it: I’d like all Muslim girls to know they can do it – they can cycle for Great Britain, be part of the British Cycling team.
Ride to work: Cycling to work regularly has been good for me. Junk miles? No, my commute really helps keep my fitness levels up.
Embrace the community: Riding alone can be hard, but joining a group and setting a target can do wonders.
Get outdoors: I have a turbo trainer, but there’s nothing like being out on the road. If you love the outdoors, just get out there and ride.
While Chaudry admits it can be intimidating to be one of only a few women on a ride, and often the only Muslim woman, she invariably gets a warm reception. “It’s wonderful when I’m out there – it’s always nice how surprised and supportive people are. In general, people are great, often because they don’t know any other Muslim women cyclists.” As we chat, the 50-year-old repeatedly mentions Red Kite Belles, a women’s cycling club in Solihull. “They’ve been really accommodating,” she says. “They could see I had the basic cycling skills, but they were so positive and encouraging, helping me build my distance and stamina.”
What does Chaudry feel about some Muslims’ anxieties around women cycling, in terms of her own faith? “When I cycle, I feel closer to God, to my faith,” she says. “It’s like I’m not cycling alone, and I’m feeling excited about the future, that it’s all going to be OK.”Chaudry was delighted when cycling brand Rapha recently made Shuhena Islam its first female Muslim cycling ambassador, which she regards as a progressive step towards inclusivity. “I love seeing women cycling in hijab,” she says, and explains how Rapha are consulting with Muslim women to develop ideas for cycling clothing that fits with female Muslim dress codes.
Are there certain ways in which Chaudry’s religious observation cannot flex to cycling’s demands? “I have to pray on time,” Usma laughs. “It’s OK to combine prayers – midday and afternoon together at the same time – but you need to get it done within a certain timeframe. I often have to bear this in mind when I’m planning rides, but it makes it more interesting, to be honest.”
Then there’s the occasional unforeseeable complication. “Once we did a recce of a route through the countryside, took a farm road and got covered with manure – so we weren’t able to pray because the Quran says not to pray if you’re dirty,” she smiles. “It was just really funny. We had to organise a different route.”
I’m struck by how relaxed Chaudry is in addressing her faith and her sport, how one influences the other but not in a prohibitive or confining way. There are reminders, too, that being Muslim means different things to different people. “I come from a quite conservative outlook on Islam,” Chaudry confides, “and so I take what’s called a Mahram, a [male] chaperone, if the ride is more than 55 miles. It is an issue in distance cycling. Some women just say forget it and ride anyway, and that’s fine, but I suppose it’s important to me.”
This raises the question of how Chaudry’s husband feels about her cycling – but she has answered it before I’ve even asked. “On long, overnight rides, my husband drives out with the youngest children and we stay in a hotel together,” she explains. “When I’m training, it’s less of an issue, but we plan childcare and everything around my schedule. He knows that cycling is my passion, and I can’t be grateful enough really. I’m not sure I could have got this far without him.”
Cycling is not only a spiritual experience for Chaudry but one with mental health benefits too. “I think cycling took me away from a depression I had a few years ago,” she explains. “Riding a bike just makes me feel so happy and in tune with nature. It gives me time and space to think – a freedom, a self-reliance.”
Keen to encourage others like her onto bikes, Chaudry is developing Nuhiha, a collective for riders from Muslim and Asian backgrounds, circulating information about sportives and club rides. She has become a passionate advocate for setting goals, training for them, and ‘thinking big’ – and on that point, what future rides are in store for her? “This summer, I’m going to ride to Amsterdam,” she says excitedly, “and then, one day, to Mecca! I know some guys who did it, so why can’t I?”
Club mate's view: Flying with the Kites
Friend and club-mate Sarah Adams, who co-founded women’s cycling group Red Kite Belles, has supported Usma Chaudry on her journey
“The first time I met Usma she was with a friend, struggling with a puncture in a lane. I was riding home, and I helped fix the puncture, chatted about Red Kite Belles, and gave her our card.
“It’s been great to see the difference it made, as Usma moved from a heavy and not well maintained hybrid bike to a road bike, which allowed her to cycle faster and longer distances, as well as learning how to ride more effectively with a group.
“I know Usma has to juggle family and work but manages to fit in an amazing amount of cycling. In the early days, my husband Mike helped her with bike maintenance and set-up.
“It was obvious from the beginning that Usma liked a challenge. After lockdown, she completed a Saturday ride with the Belles of over 60 miles. I really hope her rides with us help in her other cycling goals.”
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