Laura Winter tracks down Ruby Isaac, the pint-sized junior school girl who is a star on Twitter as well as on her 24-inch bikes. She wants to grow up and emulate Laura Trott and, thankfully, no one has poured water on her dreams by telling her girls really don’t do sport
You must have seen the Always advert. Men, women, boys and girls are asked to “run like a girl” and “throw like a girl.” And so they do, their impressions thick with ingrained conditioning and preconceptions. Weak, silly, amateur, half-hearted. All hair-flicking, poor technique and hand waving. A bit useless. How long has “like a girl”, in sporting terms, been an insult?
But then a little girl steps up. She has fire in her eyes. There is not a hint that she is cowed by the gender stereotypes that so often blight young girls and women doing sport. Instead, she runs her heart out. She throws with all her might. And what we are doing to our young girls, through gendered language, subliminal advertising and pictures and a lack of regular coverage of female sporting role models, becomes abundantly clear.
But what is it like to be a young girl doing sport? When I met Twitter sensation Ruby Isaac, I asked her how she felt if she heard men, boys, or even women, telling her girls shouldn’t do sport, or that it wasn’t ladylike. The eight-year-old cyclist had no reply. It had never crossed her mind that her gender was potentially a barrier to the opportunities she has when riding a bike. She had never considered that being a girl would place a limit on what she could achieve. She was blissfully unaware of the deep chasm between men’s and women’s cycling at a professional level.
Ruby has amassed nearly 1,000 followers on Twitter thanks to a cheeky video sent to road-race sensation Peter Sagan, imitating him wolfing down Haribo post-race. She is nothing short of obsessed with cycling. Her gran Doreen, who cycles with friends, taught her to ride on a Saturday afternoon 18 months ago. Just two days later, she was at Bike Club, in her home town of Kettering. The following weekend she was out racing in Milton Keynes.
She rides a 24-inch Worx bike, a frame half the size of the smallest bikes the professional cyclists race and train on. Her feet are a child’s size 10. Her shoe was not much bigger than a pen. The Millbrook Junior School pupil also has a BMX, a cyclo-cross bike and a track bike. She is tiny, but mighty, if the sack of medals and trophies Ruby brought along to our interview is anything to go by. But where does the motivation come from?
“I’ve always been training, I’ve always wanted to race. I wanted to get better and faster, and when I race I encourage others, and try to do my best,” Ruby said.
“I go to Bike Club on Mondays and then during the week I go on the rollers. I’ll normally do one minute hard, two minutes cool down and keep going for 15 or 20 minutes. Then I race at the weekend.
“I don’t really have a coach. My brother Finley, who is 12, and also races sometimes, is helping me out. Cycling gives you strength everywhere, it keeps you really fit.
“My dream is to get to the Olympics on the track. That is what I love and it’s what I’m best at. I want to be just like Laura Kenny. Laura, Katie Archibald and Dani King are my favourite cyclists. But Peter Sagan and my gran are my heroes!”
Ruby will cover around seven kilometres in a race, competing against up to 12 other girls. She she is now the youngest in her age group (under-10), but that did not stop her coming second in a race in Milton Keynes last weekend.
It is that dogged determination and interminable spirit that moves father Nick. “Watching her race, I sometimes get quite emotional,” he says. “It’s amazing watching her doing something she loves. She tries so hard, she never gives up. At the Mallory Park Road Race League, it looked like she was never going to win and she was struggling. But she kept going and flew down the home straight to win it. It’s moments like that, I really respect her for what she does, for getting out there and doing it and giving it a go.
“I get very nervous watching, a lot more nervous than she does! I sort of watch through closed fingers. Last time she had a Garmin computer on the bike at Milton Keynes and she came down a hill at 28mph. I just thought, oh my God that’s fast!” Mum Kate just shouts a lot at races, according to Ruby.
Though bemused by the reaction, Nick and Kate are supportive of their daughter’s Twitter network. It was Rachel James who first persuaded her to go on the social media platform. The sprinter met Ruby at the National Track Championships in Manchester in January and asked how she could follow her cycling career.
From there, she has amassed hundreds of followers, from star riders, to cycling media, cycling brands and other youngsters. It is also where Ruby can be inspired and inspire. She has received messages from the likes of James and Sagan, as well as messages and videos from other juniors racing, inspired by Ruby’s fun films of her training on the rollers, and of course, feasting on Haribo Sagan-style.
But what about her peers? “My school friends don’t really know about Twitter,” Ruby said with a characteristic wide grin on her face. “They think the cycling is really good though and want to come and watch me one day. They think it’s all a bit mad. And the boys think I’m really good, too. Sometimes I feel like the odd one out, because I’m the only one doing cycling like that. But I like being the odd one out.” How refreshing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.