Meet the group starting a revolution through cycling

The New Forest Off-Road Club builds community with guided, matriarchal cycling experiences Photo by New Forest Off Road Club
New Forest Off-Road Club is breaking new ground when it comes to opening up cycling for more people to enjoy, with revolutionary ideas and a mission “to increase representation in the outdoors by providing guided, matriarchal experiences”

Freedom of the forest

The New Forest Off-Road Club was founded in 2020 when a few local women were introduced to each other via a local bike shop and has since gone from strength to strength. It is now a Community Interest Company and has recently affiliated to Cycling UK.

Although the group’s name includes the phrase ‘off road’, it doesn’t take part in mountain biking of the more gnarly variety, with the focus on leisurely gravel riding. However, people are free to turn up on any kind of bike they choose which is suitable for the terrain, whether that is mountain, gravel or hybrid bikes, or even old-style steel tourers.

The forest is the ideal location for the group’s activities. Around 100 miles of traffic-free gravel tracks are suitable for rides of different lengths and speeds, appealing to a wide variety of people.

There are also the animals of course – deer, wild pigs, horses, ponies, donkeys and cattle roam freely – while the forest itself is incredibly beautiful and restorative. The landscape is timeless and includes ancient deciduous woodland, glades, open moors, heathland and beaches.

Co-founder of the group Nicola Carass has ambitions to “set the blueprint for the most inclusive, accessible and diverse community-led group rides”. Photo: New Forest Off-Road Club

Setting the blueprint

Nicola Carass, joint founder of the club, and a Cycling UK 100 Women in Cycling awardee, says: “We have ambitions to set the blueprint for the most inclusive, accessible and diverse, community-led group rides, and to support folks in starting their own bike communities at a hyper-local level.”

In addition to offering led rides and guided experiences, the group also provides bike washing sessions, navigation, mechanics and leadership courses in order to build confidence and overcome “the systemic barriers to women in all areas of life”.

Nicola adds: “We are thrilled to be a Cycling UK-affiliated cycling community. We see all the fantastic work Cycling UK does to advocate for better cycling infrastructure and we want to support that work.

“At New Forest Off-Road Club, we regularly see people experience the life-changing benefits of building confidence riding on traffic-free roads. We’re confident that with the new strategy, Cycling UK is expertly placed to work with governing bodies to create the future in active travel we need to tackle the climate crisis.”

Smiles not miles are what count on New Forest Off-Road Club rides. Photo: New Forest Off-Road Club

Smiles not miles

In addition to this principle, the group has many others, including ‘pleasure not pain’, ‘leading with context not control’ and, happily, ‘smiles not miles’. The goal is to widen participation in cycling by removing some of the perceived and actual barriers that lead to many riders and prospective riders to feel unwelcome in more traditional groups and clubs.

Funds are raised through sales of merchandise and online courses and are reinvested in the group so more people can gain confidence and qualifications in guiding and mechanics.

The group doesn’t believe in promoting the purchase of branded jerseys or other expensive items as it believes that “cycling is spendy enough” without adding further barriers to taking part. You can, however, buy a set of specially commissioned New Forest temporary tattoos for just £10!

Rides are open to everyone but centre the experience of women, trans and non-binary people and all the group’s current ride leaders are women or non-binary. Within that demographic, they are also representative of other kinds of diversity.

This includes CeCe, who rides an ICE adventure trike, and qualified MTB leader Sue, who is in her sixties and wants to encourage other women to age well and live with a positive, ‘adventurous mindset’.

Being a ride leader is an opportunity to show everyone that no matter what your size or shape, you belong on a bike and are worthy of taking up space

Meredith, ride leader with New Forest Off-Road Club

Ride leader Meredith, who is a plus-size cyclist, felt like she didn’t fit within ‘the patriarchal norm’ and has experienced verbal abuse while road cycling. She says: “Being a ride leader is an opportunity to show everyone that no matter what your size or shape, you belong on a bike and are worthy of taking up space.”

The group’s ride leaders are all female or non-binary and ‘lead with empathy’. Photo: New Forest Off-Road Club

Leading with empathy

Rides are ‘led with empathy’, meaning that nobody need fear being left behind or feeling they are riding the ‘wrong’ bike or wearing the ‘wrong’ clothing. It’s not so much about the destination as the experience of getting there, forging friendships and building community along the way.

Showing vulnerability is encouraged, as is a focus on the enjoyment to be had out of cycling with friends, rather than on the combative streak that can run through many group rides. Kindness and compassion dominate, rather than competition, and people are more likely to swap sweets than Strava segments.

Not all the rides on offer are slow, short excursions along a forest track, though – outings can be anything from three to a hundred miles, depending on the participants’ appetite for adventure. Monthly bikepacking trips are also arranged and are another opportunity to bond with other women and non-binary people in a supportive setting.

Ride leader Pat at the front of their group Photo by New Forest Off Road Club

How to start a revolution

Nicola says: “The patriarchy doesn’t serve anyone. We need to criticise systems not individuals.” Not only does the group provide practical training and online courses, the New Forest Off-Road Club also offers How to Start a Revolution workshops with modules titles such as ‘How to Build Community’ and ‘How to Tell Your Story’.

These include tips on how to introduce everybody at the start of a ride and how to avoid forming cliques so everybody feels equally welcomed and included, as well as ideas around creating a group’s mission and values. Nicola is passionate about building a culture of diversity and providing others with the tools to do so in their own communities.

By celebrating people’s differences, she hopes to create a space through cycling where not only physical wellbeing but also spiritual, emotional and cultural capital can flourish as well. “We believe the power of authentic, human connection is life-changing,” she says.

If you would like to find out how to start your own revolution in cycling, you can find out more by contacting the group @newforestoffroadclub on Instagram or via the club’s contact page.

Specially commissioned temporary tattoos help the group to invest in developing the community. Photo: New Forest Off-Road Club