Imogen Callaway fell in love with cycling in Cornwall and is now a Sportswomen of the Year Awards nominee. She talks about her bike ‘Unicorn’, YouTube, being intersex, inspiring women, and much more…
By Jon Holmes
In this, the toughest of years, the British cycling boom has been a sports success story that’s changing the nation for the better.
Here on Sports Media LGBT+, we’ve recently featured a couple of inspirational stories of two-wheeled trailblazers. First, we profiled the go-getting ‘Gears for Queers’ duo of Lili Cooper and Abi Melton who spoke to our Zoe Vicarage in June about their new book to mark the Our Pride Ride event in June.
That was followed by a hugely informative Q&A between Zoe and Paeton McGuire for International Non-Binary Day in July, talking about the Tour de Trans – which they completed, raising over £1,200 for Chrysalis GIM. Congratulations Paeton and Callum!
Now, we introduce you to another person doing brilliant things on their bike. Imogen Callaway is a British Cycling HSBC UK Breeze Champion and the Area Co-ordinator for Cornwall and Devon.
During 2020, she has inspired countless women across the West Country – and beyond through social media – to get more into cycling, helping them build their confidence on the road and improve their fitness too.
Imogen has just been nominated for the Influencer Award at the annual Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year Awards – a fantastic recognition for all her hard work, particularly during the lockdown period.
Sports Media LGBT+ was introduced to Imogen by our friends at PRiDE OUT, the LGBTQ-inclusive national cycling network that has grown rapidly in 2020. Additional to the cycling chat, we also spoke to Imogen about Intersex Awareness Day which is observed annually on October 26.
After she left school, Imogen was diagnosed with CAIS (Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) and through documenting her journey via a series of YouTube vlogs, she became an influential and respected voice for intersex awareness, helping others across the world – particularly young people – understand more about the condition.
For our Q&A, we caught up with Imogen to find out more about her story in sport…
Hi Imogen! Your passion for cycling and community building has resulted in an Influencer Award nomination at the Sportswomen of the Year Awards – many congratulations! Tell us about the sessions you’ve been running…
I started leading Breeze rides [a free women-only programme from British Cycling] in May 2019, which soon all started to fill up and became very popular. The more I put on, the more ladies who would come along! It was all going so well until March and COVID stopped me in my tracks.
I started to do rides for women during this time as restrictions started to lift until I could officially lead rides again. Once I started back up, the rides were oversubscribed, with ladies determined to get on as many as they could. I just haven’t been able to keep up with the demand.
Along with running regular sessions, I’ve been trying to drive the recruitment of more ride leaders and volunteers to assist me in building a network of ladies rides around Cornwall and Devon. COVID has made this particularly hard work but I’m pleased that just last weekend, a British Cycling course has been completed and I now have eight new leaders to help spread the word for women to partake in cycling.
My main focus is to get ladies of all abilities out on their bikes. I’m working towards a coaching qualification which will allow me to take ladies with no cycling experience and build them up to going on Breeze or club rides. I’d love to work towards a career in cycling so that I could put 100% of my time into getting people out on their bikes. I’ll also be running guided rides (when I have time) so that anyone can ride together and use this as another stepping stone for women moving up into club rides which often are male-dominated environments.
How did you get into cycling and what sparked the next step into becoming part of the Breeze programme?
I started cycling about four years ago. I had a bike in the garage that I didn’t use – I always hated any type of exercise until this point. I started out with a three-mile loop from my house, gradually building.
I did try to go along to a club ride but found it all so daunting. I kept looking at Breeze rides for ages, but it took me from having a huge issue with social anxiety to actually push me into going. I signed up for a ride, but the day before, my grandad passed away, I was absolutely devastated but my partner talked me into going still as it would be good for me.
I haven’t looked back since. It helped me with losing my grandad and gradually getting over my social anxiety. I’m nowhere near there, but I’m on the way. After a few rides, I thought it might be fun to do the training to lead rides – and just a few weeks later, I was in Exeter doing the course!
Your Instagram profile is a great advertisement for cycling, adventures, and the beautiful South West! How did the ‘Unicorn’ nickname for your bike begin?
Thank you, I love sharing my photos and adventures with people! I’ve always loved unicorns, and she’s covered in glitter and has a kind of rainbow on her logo so ‘Unicorn’ just seemed right! I actually chose a bike with a lower specification due to the colour (obviously) and upgraded her so she is actually pretty rare – just like a unicorn.
YouTube has been an important social media platform for you for several years now. When did you start out using YT and how has it helped you to feel more connected?
I started using YouTube a few years after being diagnosed with CAIS (Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) as I just couldn’t find people like me out there.
It gradually built and built, and helped more and more people. I then moved on to sharing my love for stationery, which after a while gradually fizzled out, and my YouTube account was left in the dust. I used to enjoy making videos but work etc got in the way.
However, during lockdown (I was furloughed for four months) I decided to start to make videos of my cycling adventures. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to start sharing where I was going and what I was doing, just in the hope it might encourage more people to get out on their bikes.
The original videos I made on my condition did really help me find people who were in a similar situation and helped me work through my issues, but these new videos are all totally different. It’s just nice to see how much my channel has grown over such a short period. I would love for my channel to grow even more and really help all new cyclists on their journey.
You’ve mentioned your first YouTube channel there, and October 26 is Intersex Awareness Day. You’ve been a great advocate for education around CAIS / AIS in particular. What’s the fundamental message to convey?
That we are just people – there’s nothing wrong with us, it’s just how we are born and most are proud of who we are.
Of the challenges that someone might face if they have an intersex condition, which of these might have relevance to cycling and sports in general?
Personally, I was lucky in that I didn’t know about my diagnosis until after leaving school, and I was very uninterested in taking part in any sport until I was just over 26.
As a result, I’m not sure of the exact challenges that a person may face. I do know that British Cycling has just rewritten their Participation Policy and it does have a line in there about testosterone and the female category.
This states that if your testosterone is over a certain level, you are unable to participate in official races which is a worry for me, not that I’m likely to ever be able to compete in cycling, but as I am on testosterone and don’t know my levels, I would worry that I wouldn’t be able to compete.
That may affect other intersex people who may have higher levels – but it may not actually affect their sporting ability.
Once people have gained some basic knowledge through Intersex Awareness Day, how can they be better allies?
Just by supporting us, and not thinking of us as any different to everyone else.
As the SWOTY Influencer Award page says, cycling is still male-dominated and can seem intimidating. What examples have you had of women gaining confidence through your sessions?
I’ve had so many ladies who have come along being so nervous and worried, with quite a few too scared to even go along to a club with MAMILs (an acronym for ‘middle-aged men in lycra’). Through the time we’ve spent together, lots of them have now moved on up to clubs with everyone in and feel included. They do still come back to come on my rides, but feel less worried and pressured about going along to the clubs.
Some of my early participants who were nervous to ride in groups have progressed to (or gently forced into!) becoming rides leaders and sharing their passion – hopefully some of which I have passed on to them – with others. I’ve ridden with many different people at varying skills/fitness levels. This year, a group of ladies who started riding short rides (10-15 miles) completed the Rapha Women’s 100 (65 miles) which is an amazing achievement for any cyclist. They are talking about pushing it further to 100 miles next year which would be magical.
Who inspires you in sport?
There are so many amazing role models in women’s cycling. Some of my favourites are the InternationElles, as they are doing so much for women’s racing and just women’s cycling in general. I really look up to them and wish I could be as amazing as that one day!
My other role model I look up to is Katie Kookaburra, who I was recently lucky enough to meet. We went out for a ride and she did a little episode on me. Katie is a YouTube star of women’s cycling and has so much passion and excitement for everything she does.
Want to connect with an LGBT+-inclusive cycling club? Check out PRiDE OUT!