Guest blogger and City lawyer Shuhena Bhanu talks about how her love for cycling helped her through grief, smashed cultural stereotyping and made her an Instagram influencer!
I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer and, at the tender age of 17, first stepped into Clifford Chance. A towering skyscraper and the firm where I later trained to become a solicitor. And like so many, upon completing my training contract, being a lawyer soon became who I was.
But recently, I got into cycling and thought ‘hold on a second, I’m more than a lawyer’. Being a cyclist is now what gives me a sense of purpose and community. Today, it’s also the cornerstone of my newly acquired identity.
RIDING THROUGH A PANDEMIC
Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, lots of people are getting on their bikes for daily exercise, arguably a safer way to commute or to explore the outdoors. There has also been a surge in the number of those training indoors on platforms like Zwift.
For me, during the height of Lockdown 1.0, I cycled over 225 miles in just one week. That included rides to Box hill (80 miles) and Cambridge (90 miles) as well as Cambridge Central Mosque, Europe’s first purpose-built Eco Mosque (pictured), where I was able to use the prayer room entirely on my own.
HOW I GOT INTO CYCLING
I first learnt to ride aged 20 in Victoria Park, with memories of crashing and burning on a hybrid. I had no idea I’d be falling over again when almost a decade later I made the transition to cleats, lycra and a road bike! I tried road cycling whilst on holiday in Dubai in April 2018, on the Al-Qudra track (a training ground for cyclists including the pros, like Geraint Thomas and Caleb Ewan). I rented a road bike for the first time, did about 60km with no padded shorts (regretted later!). There, I fell in love.
Upon my return to London, I connected with a charity that offered entry level road bikes to borrow. I loaned one and bought most of my kit and accessories through the Cycle-2-Work-Scheme. I did my first big ride (London2Brighton) but also managed to crash downhill and break my arm a month later.
After recovering, I returned to Dubai to regain my confidence. I bought my first road bike in February 2019 and officially joined my local club Hub Velo. I later joined Rapha CC and Velociposse, a women’s only club and my adventures have been incredible, having cycled in the Peak District and Yorkshire.
WHAT CYCLING MEANS TO ME
In a lonely world where even extroverts like me can sometimes find it difficult to talk, my bike has become my best friend. It helps me process my thoughts and feel grounded again. Having travelled abroad extensively and used flights as a form of escapism, now seeing the English countryside is my way of getting away from the daily grind of City life. And most significantly, during the period of a mental health breakdown resulting from losing my dad, cycling got me through my grief. Indeed, I was even riding at 6am to Epping on the day of his funeral.
I’ve also made lots of friends along the way, my riding companions who understand my love for the bike and passion for #choosingcycling. It’s also been a great conversation starter with senior colleagues with cycling taking over as the new golf.
Being a Muslim woman in hijab and lycra, does of course come with its cultural and religious challenges, both with my family and the wider community. I grew up with six sisters, all of whom chose marriage and motherhood meaning my pursing a legal career and going to university was already trailblazing. Throw cycling into the mix and I was naturally on tenter hooks! However, I did manage to win my family over and thankfully the cycling community is also massively inclusive with even Sir Bradley Wiggins encouraging and following me on Instagram.
WORKING WITH CYCLING BRANDS
With the pandemic limiting our ability to mix with others and being forced to work from home, riding enabled me to connect with others in a safe and socially distanced manner. And as my love affair with my two-wheeled companion grew, I got approached on Instagram to work with Rapha, a global cycling apparel brand, to work on their #choosecycling campaign. I was involved in a collage of other cyclists who used cycling during the pandemic to find strength and meaning in a dark and lonely world.
I was subsequently asked by Rapha to be an ambassador for the Women’s 100 campaign, a ride that unites women across the globe and encourages them to ride 100km on the same day. Modelling for this and being a part of the ‘invisible peloton’ a concept founded by ultra-cyclist Emily Chappell was phenomenal. On campaign launch day (14 July 2020), I felt my whole life had changed.
Rapha even made me a custom hijab to match my jersey and suddenly cyclists across the globe, including the pros, knew who I was. I was able to leverage this opportunity to showcase to my community of young Bangladeshi Muslim women, discouraged to partake in sport, that if I can take up road cycling in my late twenties, then anyone can.
As my profile grew, I’ve had the privilege to engage with many prestigious cycling brands and am a proud ambassador of Cannondale bikes. I’m also partnering with brands like Oakley, to empower underprivileged communities like my own, and want to connect athletes with young girls who may aspire to be the next Hannah Barnes. The downside of all this is quite often feeling like I have a second job, in the last few months that I’ve been in the spotlight.
The highlight for me was seeing my face on a billboard in Canary Wharf, a place special to me as it was where I started my legal career. My face up on a Rapha billboard in the Reuter’s Plaza meant more than just cycling, it brought about all the nostalgia of some of the best years of my life. To have so many people send me pics of seeing me ‘the model’ is surreal. A Muslim female cyclist in hijab, breaking all social and cultural norms is huge, and for my face to be in Rapha stores all over the globe means we are defying everything society says cycling should be.
I’ve started leading women’s rides and am also the Women’s Champion of my local club, Hub Velo. I’m happy to teach women how to ride, but you would need your own bike. I’ve even appeared on a Bangladeshi TV channel, showcasing my story, to encourage women with similar backgrounds to mine to take up cycling notwithstanding the cultural baggage. I never chose to be a role model but I’m now adamant to make cycling more than exercise and sport, it’s a movement!