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Women, on your bikes!

30 October, 2013

Whether it’s a lack of bike education or fear of riding on the road, many women are choosing not to get on their bikes. Riding coach Tina McCarthy believes education is the key to encouraging women back on two wheels.


Photo by Brendan McCarthy

Photo by Brendan McCarthy

Let me tell you how the conversation I have with women who want to get back on their bikes usually goes:

Caller: I like to ride, but I’m not very confident … I’ve got a bike, but it just seems really hard. It’s not like when I rode as a kid, it’s all changed.

Me: Why don’t you feel confident?

Caller: I really don’t know what I’m doing … like how to use the gears and I just don’t feel very safe.

Me: What kind of bike do you ride?

Caller: I don’t know, I think it’s a, umm … Actually, the bike has been sitting in the garage for about two years and I hardly use it.

Me: So you feel nervous about being on the road because of the traffic, and no one has ever explained how to use the gears and you’d like to know how to fix a flat and a little more about your bike, right?

Caller: You’ve got it in a nutshell … I’d love to know all those things but I don’t feel like I can ask at the bike shop, and if I ask my partner (because he rides), he just gets frustrated with me. And I’d like to ride with other women.

It’s usually the same sad story when someone calls to enquire about a bike course: lack of self-confidence and fear of the unknown in bike shops and on the road.

Is it any wonder many women are finding it tough to make bike riding a regular part of their lives? Too often, it’s just one big negative experience.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Riding a bike can be empowering for women—it provides both physical and mental health benefits that are too  numerous to cover in this article. One of the greatest benefits is a sense of freedom, as summed up by American suffragette and civil rights activist Susan B. Anthony, in 1896:

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling … I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”

While much has changed in the past 117 years (including women getting the vote), it seems that, aside from a brave few, women aren’t seeking freedom and self-reliance on their bikes anymore.

Dr Jan Garrard, Senior Lecturer at the School of Health and Social Development at Deakin University, is the author of Revolutions for Women, a seminal report about women’s participation in bike riding. She found that in Australia, just one third of commuter riders are women, and for recreational riders, women’s participation rates are only half that of men.

The Women and Cycling Survey 2013, conducted by the Heart Foundation and the Cycling Promotion Fund found that of the 1007 women surveyed, 90% had ridden bikes as children—at least once every six months—and 54% had ridden every day. Contrast this with 2013, when only 30% had ridden a bike in the past six months, and of that group, just 4% said they rode for fun every day. What’s going on, girls?

What are some of the key deterrents keeping women from riding bikes? According to the survey, fear of traffic of the roads; lack of cycling infrastructure, such as adequate bike paths; lack of confidence, skills and fitness; and even unattractive cycling gear are all cited as reasons not to ride. But I think there is really one big factor we are overlooking: education.

Bike riding classes are not just for kids

As a professional cycling coach, I am struck by how many women are hungry for knowledge about cycling. In the Women and Cycling Survey 2013, 70% of respondents agreed that they wanted bike riding education programs. But there is a critical lack of supportive and accessible education programs for women. While the media focuses on the lack of infrastructure—and this is an issue—there is no point in having great infrastructure if we lack basic bike riding skills. A hurdle to filling that gap is the perception that bike riding education is just for kids. Based on my experiences as an AustCycle coach, I know this perception is wrong: cycling education can benefit even the most accomplished adult riders (both women and men alike).

…I’m calling all women who want to get out on their bikes: let’s focus on the big pluses. Bike riding is fun, it’s easy, it’s great for your health, you don’t need to wear lycra and there  are lots of other women out there just like you…

Through AustCycle, I have presented free programs to women funded under the Federal Government’s Healthy Communities Initiative. Women are finding it can change their lives. The feedback I am receiving from participants is extraordinary. Let me share a few of the many highlights. One woman was close to tears after a session, hugged me and said, “Thank you, I’ve been wanting something like this bike program for years”. Another lady visited my house with flowers and champagne to say “thank you”. The program really has meaning for them.

Somehow, we’ve allowed these inhibitors to get in our way and been drawn into a peloton of negatives. We need to stop talking about the negatives and inhibitors and start talking about the positives of bike riding. So, I’m calling all women who want to get out on their bikes: let’s focus on the big pluses. Bike riding is fun, it’s easy, it’s great for your health, you don’t need to wear lycra and there are lots of other women out there just like you.

Women find their own cadence

Photo by Brendan McCarthy

Photo by Brendan McCarthy

It has been hugely rewarding to see how far women can progress when encouraged to find their own cadence, so to speak. Lucy’s* experience typifies this journey. In February this year, Lucy came to session one running late and flustered. She couldn’t get her bike in the car so her husband drove her in his ute. And she was very nervous. Lucy’s bike weighed a tonne and she had “grabbed a bike helmet in the garage” and it didn’t fit. In that first session, Lucy wobbled like a kid just off her training wheels. She couldn’t start or stop correctly and had trouble getting on and off her bike. “Oh Lucy, what will we do with you?” I thought.

But Lucy persevered because all the women in the group smiled and laughed with her, not at her. They encouraged and cheered each time a classmate mastered a new skill. Lucy’s learning curve was rapid and by her third week she was pretty confident and coming to rides. She was usually last in the group but still smiling. After one ride, she told me, “I feel like a big kid—I love this!” Lucy was meeting new women, learning new skills, getting fit and feeling positive.

Fast forward to the present and Lucy has a gorgeous new flat-bar road bike. She commutes to work on the road, at the time of writing was preparing to do the 50km Bupa Around the Bay ride and aims to achieve her first 100km soon. She might join the RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride for a few days. Her whole family is now riding, having caught Lucy’s infectious spirit. In fact, Lucy said she has far more confidence and is doing things in her 50s that she never thought possible. All this because she decided to pick up her bike and attend a lesson. Riding a bike is having a positive impact on Lucy’s physical and mental health, in a big way. Susan B. Anthony would be rejoicing!

Alicia* is another program participant whose lifestyle has changed through bike riding. Alicia joined the Healthy Communities Initiative program because she realised her kids would soon be old enough to ride on the road and she needed to learn the cycling safety road skills so she could join them. Alicia was an “around the block rider” when she first joined our program and is now a veteran of a 50km ride event and, at the time of writing, was looking forward to doing the Around The Bay 50km on her new road bike. She rides several times a week, usually about 30km at a time.

I am witnessing the experiences of women like Lucy and Alicia week after week in our sessions. We just need to present more programs where women can share their experiences and feel supported.

As a coach, I see the need to start at the cycling basics. Most of the women don’t know how to pump up their tyres when they start the program. They’re not incapable—they just haven’t had the opportunity to learn how and have felt too intimidated to ask, maybe because others have made them feel silly for asking. We need to stop assuming everyone knows ‘stuff’ about bikes, because they don’t. We also need to ensure women (and men) who don’t have a lot of knowledge about ridinto have a better experience when they visit
the bike shop. After all, education is the best way to get women riding.

Retailers target elite, miss market

Kaylene Chaproniere, owner of Chilli Cycles in Warragul runs a women’s group called Velo Fille through her store and has developed a keen understanding of what many women need.

“Women really want different things than men when it comes to learning about cycling. Women don’t focus on the bike itself the same way as men do. Generally women are more focused on how a bike will change their cycling experience in terms of comfort, speed or fit. It’s often about the outcome of what the bike will provide rather than the details of the actual bike.

“For most women the technology isn’t part of the joy of cycling as it for men. Things such as freedom, exhilaration, esprit de corps and a sense of achievement are what women seem to connect to with cycling. Talk about these things and women will listen and learn. Don’t tell me what cassette ratio I have, I don’t care. Just tell me the gears I have will get me up that mountain! It’s about what the bike allows me to do.

“Providing a good experience in a shop where you are listened to, and then provided with an environment to learn more is what works.”

Some bike shops are committed to providing a better experience for women. Nigel Letty, Director at Bicycle Superstore, is frank about the issues for retailers surrounding women’s cycling. He says cycling retailers have missed out on a key potential target market by overlookingb entry-level women cyclists. “The idea of having a specialist women’s area within a shop is nothing new,” Letty says. “I first set this up back in the early ‘90s and it failed because we couldn’t connect properly with the female customers, so I employed female staff hoping that the result would be increased sales. Again, it failed to get the traction we expected.

“The questions were endless as to what we were doing wrong. The answers were speculative: we had the wrong stock, it was too butch or too feminine, it was too cheap or it was too expensive or it didn’t fit the way they wanted,” he says.

“We’ve never given up on making women’s cycling work but if I look back in time, we’ve always had our focus on the performance end of women’s cycling rather than the entry level rider.”

Photo by Brendan McCarthy

Photo by Brendan McCarthy

Wanted: realistic role models

And here’s the thing: so much energy is focused on the elite rider. Picture the ads: the road-bike glamour girl, taut body, legs pumping at 50km/h, no sweat and no ‘helmet hair’. In the real world, women cyclists are kind of ordinary, often a bit overweight, sweat like the proverbial and have hair styled like Edward Scissorhands when they remove their helmets.

In Dr Garrard’s Revolutions report, research showed that women wanted “realistic” riding role models, not elite cyclists. There is nothing more inspiring than seeing a woman on her bike, loving the ride, no matter what her shape.

In our very non-elite groups, I always tell women that they can ask me anything: no question is too dumb, or too silly. This has proved to be invaluable in unlocking insights. Sometimes simple issues are raised that no-one knew how to resolve until someone was brave enough to ask. Once a so-called ‘silly’ question is asked, it breaks down the barriers for other women to ask their questions. Women have said it’s a revelation to find out all this information.

…so much energy is focused on the elite rider. Picture the ads: the road-bike glamour girl, taut body, legs pumping at 50km/h, no sweat and no ‘helmet hair’. In the real world, women cyclists are kind of ordinary, often a bit overweight, sweat like the proverbial and have hair styled like Edward Scissorhands…

Until now, too much attention has focused on the negatives of why women aren’t riding. It’s time we focused on the positives and translated the available research into accessible, practical, non-technical programs that provide a supportive and social learning environment. The bike community needs to recognise that women riders have different needs, and one thing we don’t necessarily need is competition at an elite level. But we might need to carry lipstick in our tool kits—and that’s okay.

So fellas, here’s advice for you. Next time your partner asks a question about bikes or riding, answer it without acting like the expert. Next time your partner is riding more slowly than you, don’t tell her to “hurry up”. Instead, give her a hug for wanting to go with you because she probably climbed over barriers to get there. And if any of you are reading this at the RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride, or at Bupa Around the Bay, applaud the women around you because, according to the statistics, they are the minority. And to women readers, enjoy the ride—you are the revolution.

Tina McCarthy is a Level 1 NCAS AustCycle Coach, owner of Wheel Women and winner of Cycling Victoria’s Women of Change Award. Find an AustCycle course:

*Lucy and Alicia are the real names of these women. They are members of Wheel Women and are happy to share their stories, in the hope that it will encourage more women to get out and have fun on their bikes.

Ride On content is editorially independent, but is supported financially by members of Bicycle Network Victoria. If you enjoy our articles and want to support the future publication of high-quality content, please consider helping out by becoming a member.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 October, 2013 12:36 pm

    Heres a question? If we stop calling it ‘education’ and call it ‘training’ does that turn women off it.. or on?

  2. 30 October, 2013 1:44 pm

    100% back you on this. We are holding a women’s only night at the Track next week, and key is to empower women in cycling! 😉

  3. 31 October, 2013 7:15 pm

    Hi there! Great article and very relevant to me. I ride along Maribyrnong Bike track and find that male riders are extremely aggressive – I was surprised at how affected I am!! Because the trail meets up with the Footscray Road off-road path it is a very well-used track by experienced ride-to-workers: I’m made to feel I’m in the way!! Still riding but am just so amazed at how hard it is to keep my confidence levels up!

    • crank permalink
      13 November, 2013 7:07 pm

      australian car culture extends a lot to how people ride bikes here – aggressive, inconsiderate, and as f***ing fast as possible. i think it is changing slowly, by people riding ‘regular’ bikes in ‘regular’ clothes. you’re probably part of that positive change, enjoy your commute with a smile 🙂

    • 14 November, 2013 8:52 am

      Keep pedalling, despite how others make you feel….the more of us who keep going despite the negative input we sometimes get, the more strength we have.

  4. K MacLean permalink
    31 October, 2013 9:23 pm

    I think this a bit naive – as one of those women (who cycled in Holland for years but dares not cycle here) what stops me is simple – Safety Safety Safety. Poor infrastructure and aggressive Melbourne drivers=no cycling for me. If this barrier were removed yes some people would take up education or training and the more the better – but its not the deciding factor by a long way.

    • Trish permalink
      13 November, 2013 8:11 pm

      I agree totally! I only ride on bike paths because it is simply too dangerous to ride on the roads in Melbourne. No amount of education or training will change my mind. The few on road bike paths/lanes are a joke.

  5. Emily permalink
    13 November, 2013 4:30 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with K MacLean. Far and away the main concern is safety. Actual and perceived safety means a proper separated bike network that is actually useful for more than a Sunday “stroll” along a riverbank. It would take people in a direct manner to the places they need to go without the constant fear that sharing infrastructure (that is set up for motorised vehicular traffic) brings. This includes destinations like shops and schools, not just work.

  6. CaresAboutHealth permalink
    13 November, 2013 4:54 pm

    As a female rider, the biggest turn-off is the ‘dangerization’ of cycling since helmet laws were introduced, as well as the inconvenience of helmets.

    The irony is that any comparison of injury rates per cyclist before and after the laws were introduced shows they actually increased, not decreased.

    Before the law, drivers slowed down rather than squeezed past, but after the law when I was wearing a helmet, drivers started to pull out in front of me and squash me into the gutter.

    The problem seems to be a combination of risk compensation and reduced safety in numbers. If we get rid of the counter-productive helmet laws and allow cyclists to choose, cycling will increase in popularity, public bike hire schemes will flourish and we’ll all be able to enjoy the resultant safety in numbers. As well as fewer bike injuries, hospital costs from heart disease and strokes will also be reduced – a ‘win-win-win’ situation!

  7. 13 November, 2013 4:58 pm

    Safety and a feeling of being unwelcome and unable to ask for help.

    The whole industry is built around competition not enjoying cycling.

    I work hard to make everyone who comes into my shop fell welcome and comfortable and I’m told a lot that most bike shops make females feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. It’s always about speed or weight. Not about a person’s needs.

    Make cycling save. Make it fun. Then more people will ride.

  8. 13 November, 2013 5:16 pm

    I do think some women are put off by the “Sportification” of cycling in Australia. I was recently in Germany and saw a lot of people cycling there just to get around, wearing their normal clothes and shoes and not going at breakneck speed. I’m from Europe and will happily cycle to work in a suit, even if it does make me look like the Boris Johnson of Melbourne.

    The safety issue raised above is also a factor, and I think related to the fact that cycling is seen as an elite activity and not a mainstream measn of transport.

  9. ingrid permalink
    13 November, 2013 10:05 pm

    A lot of women have to do a chore on the way home from work – pick up someone or something which is either out of the way or too bulky to carry on a bicycle.

    There is more expectation for women to wear different outfits each day unless they wear a uniform. So leaving just one suit in the work locker.

    I find it hard to accept so many women need so much support to do something they enjoy.

    • James permalink
      14 November, 2013 8:59 am

      A bit sexist don’t you think? There are a lot of reasons why some woman don’t cycle, but I think you are stretching the excuses there. A lot of men (and women) have to pick up items on the way home from work and do cycle (heard of courier bags, panniers and baskets?), and you can even ‘pick up’ someone (a child maybe) as they can cycle with you.

      In terms of clothing I think you may have a narrow view of ‘bike riders’, both my girlfriend and I cycle to our office jobs, wearing our work clothes. As long as it’s not above 30 degrees and you don’t ride like you are trying to win the tour, sweating isn’t really a problem. You don’t see a whole lot of cyclists wearing “cycling gear” in western European countries do you?

  10. Margo Armishaw permalink
    14 November, 2013 12:12 am

    I think part of the issue is something even MORE basic. My experience as an enthusiastic athletical type was that it never OCCURRED to me to ride! I think it was because there was no one that I related to who rode (as in someone I spent time with and wanted to be a bit like). Even though I was jogging, hiking & using a bike at a gym, it just didn’t cross my mind to get on a bike out on the road. I think that Safety considerations might be the subconscious blocking out the idea.

    Anyway, one day I saw someone I knew cycling through a roundabout and I was gobsmacked by his confidence. I wanted to be like that too! A week later I bought a bike. Since then, I commute 3 days a week & do 1 or 2 seriously hilly recreational rides a week. I don’t relate to the ladies pictured cycling on the magazine covers, but I want to be like them!

    However, my admiration for people who’ve just started cycling & are a long way from lean and fast is huge. It is hard to start regular cycling but great once you become confident. Safety still worries me though. A lot. But t I want drivers to be careful more than I want bike lanes.

  11. Smokey permalink
    14 November, 2013 10:17 am

    I applaud any efforts to encourage women (and indeed men) to get cycling. I was surprised that the list of reasons given for not cycling didn’t mention the need to wear helmets as my understanding was that that was quite pertinent for women especially, so I checked what the survey actually said:
    “Fashion seems to have a bearing on women’s perceptions towards cycling, with the majority believing its hard to cycle in skirts/dresses. In addition, one in three women perceive cycling clothes as unfashionable and a similar proportion feel wearing a helmet ruins a woman’s hairstyle.”
    Any reason why you left off the line about helmets? Too much of a hot potato perhaps?!

    • 14 November, 2013 1:09 pm

      The article came in to Ride On without a mention of helmets. Good on you for thinking to check the reference and discovering this extra factor.

  12. Drew Marshall permalink
    14 November, 2013 2:54 pm

    What an absolutely enlightening article, WELL DONE! My wife and I completed the 100km leg of this year’s ‘Around the Bay’ We took the Melb-Frankston-Melb option. There were lots of women taking part, which was fantastic. The ride to Frankston with the wind was great, but the leg back was a killer for my wife, Terri! The head wind was a bugger. Some much so that she could only manage 10-15km/h. To the not so gentleman that suggested she speed up or get off the road! Sod off! This was Terri’s first ride and a 100km at that. Your article has also created in me, a new look into riding. I ride to work nearly everyday and find it fantastic for clearing the mind! I will be informing Terri of such courses available to women and that may instil some more confidence and get back on the road. Thank You!

  13. 15 November, 2013 10:11 am

    Seven years ago I moved to a suburb that was a bit far away, with no public transport, to my sport I had to get to 3 times a week (it was still an inner suburb of Sydney). So I bought a new second-hand bike and started riding there. I had a (male) friend to show me the best back-street route, and I did it regularly, so I got used to it and gradually got confident with gears and road rules and assertive riding/road positioning. It was also a lot of fun, especially the downhills.

    I’d never been ‘educated’ on bikes, I still ride the same bike (after many tune-ups (by mechanics!) and replacement bits), and yes, I am turned off and intimidated by bike shops, which overwhelmingly are super-macho expensive places with male staff who smile condescendingly at you and don’t listen when you say what you want. If you’re not wanting a $2000 dollar bike or sprocket you’re not serious. I might have bought a new bike by now if I’d been more engaged with cycling as a thing, but really I’m not. I do it for transport, 20 minutes max for a trip. Now I’m in Melbourne it’s still the main way I get anywhere. But 50km rides? Fun rides around the bay? Yawn. And bike paths winding around the place going nowhere? Also yawn.

    As others have noted, there really is a problem with bike-riding being seen in Australia as a sport. Whereas car driving is not. For most drivers, they’re not into track racing – just getting from A to B in a comfortable, enjoyable (and yes, quick) way. Just like me on a bike. I don’t really see weekend/commuter lycra people on expensive machines as doing the same thing I am.

    I think ‘have a go’ days, like City of Sydney Council runs, would be a positive move. Come and try out a few types of bikes – cruiser, road, commuter – check your riding skills, pick up some maps and tips from ‘normal’ people. Plonk it down in the middle of the city, where people are walking by (not having to ‘sign up’ and attend a ‘class’ in a place you have to drive to). Say Fed Square/Yarra River. A big city park. I don’t call this ‘education’ so much as awareness. And opportunity. Like test drives for a new car – give people a taste. Get them excited. Not educated.

    As for the ‘women’ thing, I think it has a lot to do with the way we are brought up, the whole gender thing – which I’m sure you can read up on. Women and girls are brought up/cultured not to stand out, not to be assertive, not to show our bodies (at least being functional), to always look neat, attractive, clean, well-presented. Add to that, to be ‘safe’ and not to travel alone or in harm’s way. Riding a bike seems to contradict all those things. Women are also expected not to do things for themselves, but for others (husbands, children, bosses), versus riding being (mainly) individual. Add to that the mechanical aspect, which women just aren’t brought up to be familiar with. My dad showed that stuff to my brother, not me.

    I’m not saying these things are necessarily barriers, but these are the types of things that mean women may be behind in familiarity, exposure and identification with bike riding.

    So sure, teach the mechanics and how-tos, but also get some awareness and have-a-go happening, and show everyday women getting around on bikes in normal clothes, so other women can imagine themselves doing the same. Every time I see women like this it encourages me, or makes me smile, even though I’m one of them!

    p.s. Male riders, stop stopping in front of me at traffic lights, on the assumption that you’ll be quicker to start and faster on the road. It’s demeaning and annoying. It’s not a race. I’m not ‘getting in the way’. And I’m not as slow as you think.

  14. Jenny permalink
    19 November, 2013 9:00 pm

    Great article! I went to one bike shop a few years ago and when asked what sort of bike I was after, I said a step-through. Oh, we only sell NORMAL bikes here, said the assistant.

    Meanwhile I started riding while I was living in Europe some years ago. I had never considered riding a bike as a means of transport here, but in Europe, it was so normal! All sorts of people calmly getting about in their normal clothes, no elitism at all. I do commute to work a few times a week (25 km return trip) now and it’s definitely an intimidating atmosphere out there.

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