Spilling the Tea with Jessica Strange

In your own words, who is Jessica Strange?

Jessica Strange is a cat-loving, Nobbly Bobbly eating, tea-guzzling human who loves the outdoors.

How did you get started doing what you do?

It all came around out of the blue, really. I studied Economics at Uni and went straight into the public sector working for the government. When I found out that real-world application of economics within the government was more of a farce, I left. I took some time out to figure out what to do next, which is when I began mountain biking for the first time.

I started out with no gear and no idea, and I crashed a lot, but I enjoyed it as well because I felt like my stifled inner child finally got some fresh air. Fed up of riding with the guys who were far better, faster and not super helpful, I took to social media to find some local women to ride with. When that proved difficult, because I had no idea what to search for, so I started my own South Wales women’s MTB group, the Velo Vie Ladies. It was amazing to meet up and ride with other women, many of them new to the sport themselves, and it felt really supportive and nurturing.

That led me to search for women’s reviews, guides, content that could help get more women into mountain biking, but there was so very little online. So, again, I set up my own website, Velo Me, where I wrote kit reviews, interviewed riders and generally blethered on about all things women and women’s mtb related. It was so much fun in the early days, having no idea and just winging it with dreadful grammar. I remember when DMR sent me some V12’s to try out, and I was SO frickin’ stoked! I tried to send them back when I was done with them, but Olly Wilkins said I could keep them – mind blown – I still remember that feeling of testing my first product, writing a review up and then trying to send back these battered pedals.

A few months after Velo Me launched, I started working as a staff writer at TWC. Feeling like somewhat of a newbie on the bike and in my writing, I was hungry to learn as much as I could about journalism. During my years there, I became the editor of TWC and single-handedly ran the title for 18-months. If there was ever a moment in my life where I was thrown into the deep end, that was it. When things at Factory Media began to feel shakey as rumours from the higher-ups circulated around, I took up a role with GMBN as a junior presenter.

What I thought was going to be a massive step forward in my career, turned out to knock me back if anything. So, after a few short months, I left and decided to take my career in my own hands and become self-employed. I now work with a variety of clients on different projects, both in and outside of the bike industry and I love it.

Since you started in the MTB/cycling industry how have things changed?

I’ve definitely noticed a rise in female MTB bloggers, which is fab. More voices are emerging from the trails to share their stories, advice and opinions. We’re also seeing female racing get more love and limelight, maybe not by huge leaps that we’d like, but it’s getting better. Especially in DH and women’s XC.

When it comes to the mountain bike media industry, … many prominent female voices have been snuffed out.

For a while it felt like women in the industry were gaining some momentum. Does it feel the same to you, or have things seemingly dipped?

Totally! At one point, it felt like every big and small mountain bike title had at least one female member of staff creating content. Women-specific titles like Casquette and VoxWomen came out of the woodwork and I began to notice not just more women’s content, but more general content written by women as well.

Then in 2018/2019, it was like every female left the UK mountain bike media scene. Prominent women like Aoife Glass who was the women’s editor at Bike Radar, she left to pursue her own thing. Emma Pooley, Katherine Moore and I all left Play Sports Network within months of one another. Laura Bailey and others, all talented journos, left their respective positions in media.

What’s it really like being a woman working in a male-dominated industry?

It sounds a lot more daunting than it is, but only if you let it get to you. The numerous men I’ve worked with, travelled with and created content with have been a delight to work alongside.

It has been a tad uncomfy when flying around the world for a press camp, to find you’re the only female there out of 45 journalists. Even though everyone there was lovely and welcoming, when it came to socialising and even riding, I felt quite left out… and left behind. Typically, magazines will send their best riders, who are usually men, because they care more about getting the bangers than the content. Or in some offices, I hear that there’s a pecking order when new press camp invites come in, and if it’s a unisex product, it’ll go to a male journo before a female. Now, that is shit.

One very valuable skill that I’ve mastered from working in a largely male-dominated industry… a bloody firm handshake and I strongly urge all women to master this skill or risk losing some fingers and a mangled wrist.

Do you think there’s an issue with mountain biking not giving women a platform? It feels like a tired argument now and yet we’re still talking about it.

It’s certainly an ongoing hot point of contention. There are some brands who do it well, like Singletrack Magazine who have a good mix of male and female journos, and the women aren’t pigeon-holed to just cover women’s content either. That’s the way it should be, I reckon.

Then, there are some titles and networks who seemingly care a lot less about women’s content/inclusion. I think this is a huge reason why so many women are doing it for themselves, creating their own space online where they can speak/write freely.

With the closure of things like Women’s Cycling magazine and Total Women’s Cycling, do you think this is a good thing? On the one hand, women no longer have dedicated spaces for content, but now there’s more integration with content. What are your thoughts on this?

See, I don’t know. I think women’s content gets lost in the noise of mainstream mountain bike media. Having those female-specific titles helped pool together dedicated material for a minority group, and now, it feels drowned out or non-existent.

I think what a lot of people don’t realise is that women’s content isn’t JUST kit reviews, but it goes far beyond this. Women’s content can also include health-related topics, hormones, lifestyles articles and guides, but it’s also content written by women which is important. This isn’t a gender battle whatsoever, but a female perspective can bring a totally different side to a story, as can a man’s. I guess it all comes down to the buzzword “equality,” and having both varied and mixed content, written by journalists based on their knowledge and skill, rather than their gender, i.e don’t just get women to write about women’s clothing and bikes.

There are plenty of amazing people in the industry (of all and many genders) do you have people that inspire you?

I wouldn’t know where to begin because there are many incredible people who help shape and nurture my career over the years, and continue to do so.

However, I’ve become more inspired by the female mountain bike community during the current global health crisis. It’s bloody great to see more women sharing their stories, taking the leap into YouTube vlogging, setting out to achieve incredible feats of strength and endurance, like Molly Weaver’s incredible Dirty Weaver challenge. Sure, I could name a bunch of journos and athletes who do rad things that make me go “damn, that’s cool. I wanna do that,” but I feel empowered by those men and women who march to the beat of their own drum, who take risks to try something new and who stick by their convictions.

What do you think, if anything needs to change?

What’s your word count?

It’s difficult to pinpoint where changes need to be made without dissecting the whole industry from the designing of products, down to the brands, to the media and to the retailers, even mechanics.

As a very general and vague answer, I think the biggest change that’s needed in mtb/cycling industry is an attitude adjustment. Boy’s club mentality is rife and while it’s not malicious or cruel or anything like that, it can be uncomfortable in certain scenarios. It’s like “Welcome to our boy’s club where girls are allowed in… but, it’s still a boys club at the end of the day.”

You’ve had issues in the past with personal comments on your personal and work social media, what are your thoughts on this?

People who feel the need to publicly post negativity at someone, are d*cks. I welcome feedback and constructive criticism, you can’t grow without it, but I think people are more concerned about getting a reaction and starting drama, than they are handling the matter in a more polite manner. What do mom’s always say, “If you have nothing nice to say then don’t say it” – bingo!

It’s all too easy for some randomer to follow you online, pass judgement on your entire f*cking being as a human, when all they have in front of them is your social account that displays SELECTED SNAPSHOTS of someone’s life. People are stupid if they think that my life is solely about riding bikes every day and petting my cats, yet, people really believe that’s my life… and then they hate me for it. How close-minded can you be? It’s certainly a face-palm situation.

Another thing that people don’t realise is the massive mental health impact that “trolls” can have on someone. The person you’re dissing online is probably sat at home, trying to enjoy their downtime or dealing with personal things, then a notification from some sh*t c*nt comes through and f*cks up your entire night… weekend… week. I’ve been in tears on the sofa, at work and even in my car from this happening to me. That’s why I have no notifications on my phone anymore, so I can choose when and where I read them. Saying that, the last time I had some low-life jealous face leave a nasty comment, I reached out to Juliet Elliot, who has a load more followers and is far more well known than I am, for some advice. She said to just delete and block, and don’t think twice about it. Juliet explained that our social media pages are ours, they’re also our work, so why leave hateful and negative comments on a public space that’s been created to help and inspire? Very good point. Since then, I’ve been blocking/deleting to my heart’s content!

There are so many people doing great things for cycling, and certainly lots of amazing women but it seems most of them are doing it independently now. Would you say there’s been a shift in the past few years?

I think I briefly touched on it before. I think the lack of effort from big media titles and networks are forcing women to go and do it for themselves.

I think the draw of freelance life for women is being able to take control of your career and not have it dictated by employers who like to pigeonhole and label you as token-female, or employ you because they needed a diversity box ticking. Another great thing about freelancing is that there are more people to work with which adds variety and the ability to work on projects you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

When you stand out under your own name, you don’t have to answer to a title. You can be FAR more honest in your reviews and opinions, whereas under a title, you have to be careful to not p*ss off any brands. You can also create whatever content you want to, without having your ideas nicked and used by other people.

What have been the highlights of your career to date?

I guess the “nice” answer would be all the amazing people I’ve met over the years and all that jazz,.. but I think a career highlight would be the amazing places I’ve been with my bike. While I hate the actual nightmare of travelling, I love exploring new places.

In an ideal world, what does your perfect job look like?

Retirement. Genuinely, if I could somehow afford to live by just riding my bike, doing some gardening and chilling with my cats, then I’d do that.