I was inspired just before Christmas by the news story of Juliana Buhring, who became the first woman to cycle around the world. When I read her story, I was even more impressed – with very little experience and not many miles behind her, she set off and just kept going.
Even with the success of cycling in 2012 and outstanding female riders such as Victoria Pendleton, women remain surprisingly reticent about venturing out on two wheels. What are the barriers to women cycling?
I think there are several reasons and I’ve come across them many times since starting a ladies’ only cycling group. At this point I have to warn you – you’ll find some sweeping generalisations, but in my experience these are mostly true.
It seems to me that women often doubt their physical ability and think that they will not be able to keep up with other riders, and so will be left behind. I often see couples riding in the lanes and often the woman is peddling about 100m behind the chap, struggling to keep up.
There’s also the element of experience or forgetfulness, i.e. when people who have been cycling for some time kindly offer to take their friend out on a bike ride, but have forgotten what it’s like to be new to cycling. This is the most often cited worry by women, but it’s countered by their comments after their first ride – they then say that they found it much easier and more enjoyable than expected, and they were, in fact, able to keep up.
In our cycling group, we’ve all been there - the one struggling to keep up at the back, we’re very understanding and nurturing of newcomers.
In Chester, we are lucky to have several off-road options and routes – canals, routes by the riverside, old railway track and forest tracks. But I see these as additional to the beautiful, quiet country lanes we have in abundance in Cheshire and North Wales. Women often tell me that they only take one off-road route, as they don’t know where else to go, or how to get there.
I think I’m the odd one out as I have always loved looking at maps, planning and plotting routes and linking off-road tracks, and have spent many years exploring and going on mini adventures. But in my experience a lot of women generally do not know their way around a map (told you there were sweeping generalisations!), and some of the most confident and proficient riders in the group admit to not confidently being able to map read. My lady riding companions are often lost when following me, and will suddenly recognise a pub or a junction, but not know how they got there. Sat nav systems are not of much help if you do not have the basic map reading knowledge behind it.
But after a couple of trips out with the group, some of the ladies do manage to find their way back out to some of our favourite cafes, as they grow in experience and knowledge of the local countryside. Just being out a few times can increase confidence in your own abilities, and it helps you to find a few friends to ride with. Using the quiet lanes also dispels another myth - that roads are unsafe; and that there are too many fast cars. In fact, we do not see many cars on our rides.
So, who comes on my ladies’ only bike rides? It’s a broad mix. I have a long list of ladies who have been out aged between teens and women in their 60s. I would say most are mums, or are in a relationship. Some also go out riding with their family, some have grown-up children, although ‘we’ have had two babies this year. Some ladies are retired, some are still in work. Some have partners who are keen and fit cyclists. We’ve been joined by ladies I’ve known a long time through local CTC groups, looking for a social and relaxed ride, and newcomers who invest in a better bike after a few rides. We have ladies who are happy to potter, and some who have become so enthralled by cycling that they are out at every opportunity and are moving on to bigger challenges, such as sportives.
That is the beauty of cycling – there is something for everyone!
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