Women, on your bikes!
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.
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
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.”
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.
*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.
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