When Gravel Tryhard launched her Instagram account in January, her vision was murky. New to the world of social media, her foray into the complicated dimension of life online was the result of a bet she’d made with a friend. A keen road-turned-gravel cyclist, she thought, at first, she may be able to play by the influencer playbook and score some free swag.
Thankfully for us, she quickly realized she was better suited to approach the platform from a different perspective. Taking the language of advertising and influencer-culture and flipping it on its head, she started making hilarious, thoughtful and, sometimes, controversial satirical interpretations of the problematic marketing campaigns she found the cycling world to be saturated with. Almost a year later, she’s accrued quite the following and has a clear-eyed mission she’s dedicated to. We talked to this ‘lady bicycle prankster’ about what makes people laugh, why it’s cool to work hard, and the importance of approaching everything with kindness.
First of all, we need to address the issue of your identity. Why have you decided to stay anonymous?
I honestly didn’t think too much about it in the beginning but I’m grateful I’ve been able to keep my online identity separate from my real life. It’s not that I would lose my job or anything but I do have a responsibility to others and don’t want everyone around me to feel like they’re tied up in this project. It also helps mitigate some of the pressure associated with my posts and gives me more freedom to act independently and do what I want. This is my thing and I’d like it to stay that way.
You’re mostly working on the pictures alone then? Some of them must be pretty challenging! Do your shoots always work out?
I’m lucky to live in a place with lots of space and open trails, so I’m usually able to get enough privacy to do what I need to do. I have had some people stop and enquire what I’m up to, especially if it’s something I have to strip down to my underwear for. I do pretty much always work alone though. That’s part of the game for me, trying to imagine how it would even be possible to capture these shots using a phone camera, without the help of a whole crew. The only time something hasn’t really worked out is if I end up deciding the image edges a little too close to cruelty.
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It’s a tricky line to toe between being mean and being funny. What helps you ensure you’re on the right side?
I try to put myself in the place of the subject in the original image. I ask myself, if someone posted this of me, would I giggle and be mildly embarrassed? Or would I be hurt and upset? Sometimes, the answer is the latter and that is when I know it’s not something I want to post.
I’ve also learned a lot since starting out about what people find funny and what will usually land. It’s not a question with an obvious answer for me. I’m often wrong deciding how many laughs I will get. But I’m getting better at predicting! I want to make stuff that people can enjoy, share, and that, hopefully, gets them thinking. I am very committed to creating content that people can use to start conversations. But above all, I’m mindful of how important it is to be kind.
There must be an even greater sense of accountability as your following grows. How has your role changed over the last year?
It has changed a lot. I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started but I’ve since spent a lot of time thinking about and reflecting on it. At first, I was just having fun. Now I’m dreaming bigger. I want my voice to be present in the discussion about the harmful impact of marketing culture.
Over the last year, I’ve had a lot of heart to hearts with friends, family members, and even people I just met through my account. I’ve thought long and hard about feminism and influencer culture, and I think I’m doing the right thing and approaching this in a healthy way. This has never been about me getting famous or using the platform to express that I think I’m better than women who care about makeup and manicures, I’m just trying to figure out how to make other cyclists (women in cyclists in particular) smile. The vast majority of the feedback I get is positive or is constructive criticism, so I think I’m on the right trajectory.
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It’s great that you’ve had so much support but there’s no doubt been some negativity. Have you ever doubted yourself?
I’ve definitely had conversations that have caused me to think about a certain aspect of what I’m doing in a different way. If someone was ever able to convince me that the overall project was wrong or that I wasn’t being kind, I would stop. I’ve been frustrated with advertising for a long time, and this is a way for me to express that and hopefully help other women. I want people to understand that female athletes are just athletes too. I have a lot of respect for the women in many of the pictures I post. They’re hardworking athletes and have incredible bodies because they’ve put in the time. On that note, I have been steered more towards focusing on commercial content versus material from influencers.
Yeah, that’s another dynamic you have to navigate. How do you decide?
I don’t want to limit myself to doing exclusively commercial material. Many influencer photos feature a lot of the same issues resulting from the problematic system I see developing. It is obviously much easier to make fun of a company than a real woman and, sometimes, that choice does make me uncomfortable. I think people understand that I’m making fun of the photo, not the woman though. I’m really lucky to have people in my life who are interested in talking about feminism and marketing culture critically. I find those discussions incredibly valuable.
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What about the name? Are you a sincere or ironic ‘tryhard’?
Well, first of all, let me say that I think it’s cool to try hard [laughs], even if you aren’t naturally talented or really good at something. It’s part of my ethos. I’m sick of the post-modern ironic detachment that it’s not cool to have passion. I think it’s really cool to have passion! I often think back to this conversation I had with my mom way before I started the account. She had seen the term ‘try-hard’ used in a negative context and was confused. I tried to explain it to her and she simply responded with, ‘I think it’s good to try hard.’ This response really stuck with me. As I’ve gotten older, I realize that I do too. I always want to be better and do better. I’m totally down with working like crazy if it’s for something you believe in.
How has this project expanded your view of the cycling community?
I always have and always will love cyclists. I think if you’re an adult who rides a bike, you have retained a sense of play and that’s a quality that I really enjoy. I’ve overwhelmingly found cyclists to be good people. I wouldn’t be part of the community if I didn’t. The very first thought I had when I started this account was that cyclists have done so much for me, I would like to give something back. I hope that I am!