Do we need female-specific cycling activities?

Women can enjoy cycling as much as men so why don't more of them do it?
The response to events such as 'Women's Sport Week' is often along the lines of "That's all very well but shouldn't women be active every week?", not just once a year. Cycling UK's Julie Rand ponders why encouraging women can only be a good thing, as women currently do far less physical activity than men at every phase of life.

I love riding my bike, whether on or off-road, and so does my 19-year-old daughter (pictured on the left below). It's great exercise, gets you quickly and easily where you want to go, and enables you to appreciate the countryside at all times of the year. Most of all, it's life-affirming and brings about an enormous sense of well-being and joy. However, although recent research has revealed that there has been an increase in women’s cycling in the UK, the fact remains that women are less physically active at most stages of life.

As long ago as 1880 Jeanie Welford joined the organisation as its first female member but, in 2016, only around 20% of Cycling UK members are female and statistics supplied by Cycling UK Member Groups suggest that women are outnumbered by men on most rides by a ratio of about 2:1. This ratio widens with length of the ride and off-road rides have a ratio of about 3:1 male to female riders - for many years, I have been used to being one of only two regular female mountain bikers in a group of ten or so men, often joining them on what would normally have been a 'lads' weekend' away.

The many barriers preventing more women from taking up or keeping cycling include:

  • a fear of riding on roads or trails;
  • lack of confidence;
  • poor body image;
  • discomfort in the saddle;
  • lack of fitness;
  • poor or no suitable equipment;
  • biological issues such as menstruation and pregnancy;
  • social and cultural issues;
  • lack of time due to childcare responsibilities;

and many more - the list is probably endless. 

The good news is that things are slowly beginning to change, with a growing number of female-specific cycling groups and clubs, websites, retailers, media, manufacturers and others catering to the female market. Through our local cycling groups and community clubs, Cycling UK provides the chance for thousands of women to take part in female-specific rides and events, which have been shown to encourage many women to cycle who may not do so otherwise. The women involved may not think of this as 'sport' in the schooldays sense of competing (and possibly always losing!) at games. Whatever you label it, riding a cycle with friends or family is healthy exercise, even if it involves large amounts of tea and cake!

Currently, a number of groups offer female-specific riding opportunities, including:

Cycling UK groups

  • Fylde Bicycle Belles – originating from the Cycling UK ‘Five Miles to Fabulous’ project from 2006
  • Chester Fabulous Ladies – an informal group of Chester & North Wales originating from the same project
  • Wirral Bicycle Belles – also Chester & North Wales informal group
  • Ayrshire CTC– organise monthly ladies only rides of 15 miles
  • Derby and Burton CTC – the majority of Sunday riders are women
  • Isis Cycling (Oxford City) – an informal group of women riders
  • Lancaster and S. Lakes CTC – Girls’ Weekend Away
  • Two Mills – have a Bicycle Belles informal ladies’ group
  • In Scotland, our Belles on Bikes project now has groups in: Glasgow, Edinburgh,Stirling, Falkirk, Moray, the Scottish Borders, Cumbernauld, Fife, Tayside, Aberdeenshire and Inverclyde and more will be developed

Affiliated groups

There are other groups of ‘Belles’ affiliated to Cycling UK as groups:

  • Reading Bicycle Belles – supported by Cycling UK, monthly rides for women returning to cycling or beginners
  • Bicycle Belles Leicester
  • Southport Cycling Belles
  • Chichester Biking Belles
  • Banstead Belles
  • Bikedock Belles Bike Club
  • In Essex, Cycling UK has worked with Chelmsford City Council on the WoMEn Time project to encourage more women to take up cycling. The rides are supported with a choice of distances and a refresher session an hour before. They take place in the summer months and start from a café
  • Fleet Cycling – Friday Ladies Only rides of between 3 to 8 riders doing 30-35 miles with coffee stop. 

If you can't find a group near you, why not create your own cycling group with Cycling UK's help?

The future is looking very bright for women in cycling as more of them overcome the barriers, whether real or perceived, and enjoy the simple pleasure of riding a bike, tandem, or trike. Many of our Member Group Secretaries, ride leaders and tour leaders are female, as well as a large proportion of Cycling UK staff, including Vice-President Josie Dew. We campaign for better infrastructure, regularly publish articles on ways to overcome the barriers and promote female role models so, perhaps, one day there won't be a need for female-specific groups; but, for now, they are helping bridge the gender gap for those women who want to cycle but wouldn't do so without extra support. 

While some women may happily give Rachel Atherton a run for her money, they remain in the minority. Women-friendly initiatives, groups, events and activities are all important ways of redressing the current imbalance in cycling so let's back initiatives like Women's Sport Week - but remind everyone that women should be physically active all year round. And supporting them to cycle is one of the best ways to achieve this.  If you'd like to put on women-specific rides and events, we'd be happy to offer our support with publicity, resources and more. Just contact Julie Rand, Member Group Coordinator or Suzanne Forup, Head of Development for Scotland about Belles on Bikes.