Ten Things I’ve Learned After Ten Years of Running A Women’s Cycling Group…
‘Fat chicks should not wear lycra’…that was an epiphany moment and highlighted one of the realities women face when they cycle: not fast enough, not thin enough, not young enough, not good enough (whatever that means), and perhaps just not a ‘good’ rider! Yes that’s right, we aren’t ‘good’ at much at all…and these comments don’t just come from blokes, but from women as well. Sad but true.
In ten years I think I know a thing or two about how to engage women in cycling, bike riding, getting out on two wheels…whatever you want to call it!
I’m going to use the term ‘cycling’ because that is what we do. Years ago I was reticent to use the term ‘cycling’ in fear that it elicited a sense of ‘pro’ about women on bikes — no, we best use the term ‘bike riding’ to not scare away the masses I was told. ‘Cycling’ would only serve to alienate those on anything but road bikes…but now I think I’m a bit over that notion. Regardless of your style of bike, we cycle and we have the right to be called a cyclist: any age, any shape, any bike, any woman. That’s our mantra.
If I could go back 10 years now and tell the ‘me’ of then what I know now, maybe I’d never have started this caper. Yet ten years ago there was nothing like Wheel Women in existence. I like to think that maybe we have paved the way for others to follow…we have provided a model of viability to all those other groups out there. Because we did, they can!
That might sound like I am blowing the WW trumpet a bit too hard, but if we had not done what we did, perhaps nobody else would have thought a women’s specific recreational cycling group could exist. There have been so many similar start-ups that have failed in the ten years gone that I have lost count. I salute them for their efforts…but maybe what was the over-arching strength of WW was sheer tenacity and madness to keep going. Our sole aim still is to engage and encourage women to drag the bikes out of the shed and give it a crack…and it’s worked.
So just exactly what have I learned in those ten years…
1. You don’t need to monetize something just because it has the potential to make money. The premise of WW has always been to simply provide a safe space for women to not feel nagged by the blokes around them , or by public perception, that they need to be something they are not, and never will be. Why does it need to make money? Sure, we like to cover costs, but in 10 years WW has never made a profit, except for the one year we did and we blew it on pizza for the coaches end of year get-together (sorry!)
2. Women enjoy a gender specific group to be active in because it feels safe and free from judgement. They don’t need somebody telling them to go faster, put the saddle up higher, get cleats as soon as you can and so many more countless pieces of ‘good advice’. We’ve seen that women want to do things at their own pace, in the company of other women, so they can be free to do it their way, not the way their partner or social media tells them they should. Judgement free is a great way to start any sport group including women.
3. Women underestimate themselves. Time and time again we see women arrive at a WW ride having said they are ‘not very fast’ or they ‘don’t know anything’ and they have never been good at ‘sport’. Yet they surprise us with what they can do and what they know…is this because of years of feeling like the underdog when it comes to ‘sport’? Women need to stop beating themselves up and underestimating their ability when it comes to bikes…or anything!
Our first Wheel Women Japan Tour, and when we met my bestie Atsuko who I still ride with.
4. Being fast or riding big hills does not qualify you to be a ‘good rider’! So often we hear ‘I need to learn to love the hills’ or ‘she is way better than me, she is so fast’ — comparison is a dirty word at Wheel Women and we are all guilty of it. Who says you need to ride big hills or go fast to be a ‘good rider’? Just because you don’t ride hills or go ‘fast’ does not mean you are any less a rider. Women love to compare themselves to the next woman — usually inappropriately. Quit the comparisons and do your OWN rides, do what you enjoy and don’t do something just because you think others will think you are ‘better’!
5. Partners who buy their loved on a ‘gift voucher’ for learning to ride usually haven’t asked their loved one if they DO want to ride. We see it time and time again…a well-meaning partner who rides bikes, wants the woman in their life to join them. Often those stories end in tears with the woman being beset by too many pre-c0ncioeved ideals of what she should be or do. Ask the recipient if THEY REALLY WANT TO RIDE (yes I am yelling) before you invest in something you want for them! Women need to make the choice and make the first move…that is literally the first step in ensuring a rider keeps riding.
6. There are no barriers to women’s cycling. The proliferation of articles about the so-called barriers to women’s cycling continue, 10 years on. I am still being asked to quote for media on the perceived barriers and I STILL say if we keep reading what the media blurts out we start to believe it: as someone whose prior career was in advertising, this is simply advertising 101. Repeat, repeat, repeat until we believe it. Women need to start believing themselves. In 2015 I wrote an article for Cycling Tips and I stated the following which still holds true (sorry, long quote following):
Plant that seed of belief, coupled with the seed of doubt, and we will embrace it. I realize this may sound slightly radical, but I think the biggest barrier to women’s cycling is our belief that the problem is bigger than it really is.
I am in no way denying there are issues when it comes to women’s cycling and the gender imbalance. Research confirms some of our different needs and unique challenges. But what I am saying is that we do ourselves no favours by continuing to give some much attention to these perceived barriers and the negative angle on women and bikes. When we repeat the message, women believe it and groundswell takes over. Worse still, the media jumps on board the cycle of propagating the barriers us poor women must face.
I challenge the notion that the barriers are as consuming as they really are. We run classes at Wheel Women, in a women’s only environment and we see women make rash, apologetic statements about their ability all the time. The statements are based on what they are taught to believe about themselves before they even attempt some of the things that shroud them in doubt. “I’m not confident to ride on the road,” I hear from a lady who has never tried but has backed herself into the corner of disbelief she will never step out of her comfort zone. A little hand-holding goes a long way in helping women believe that yes, they can just get on their bikes and ride!
By the end of the programs, we see evidence that we have re-shaped that thinking. These women have positive experiences on the bike and they repeatedly hear positive messages that echo their experiences. We tell them: Riding is fun. Riding is easy. Riding is possible no matter who you are or how fit you are. It’s amazing watching the transformation women can make for themselves when they have positive experiences and messages to help them parlay their fear and doubt into confidence and determination.
Let’s delete the word “barrier” from out mindset with cycling. When we believe in our ability to ride and treat the whole experience as not so different than any other fun, new challenge to tackle, it will be easier for women to believe in their abilities. When we begin to treat each new cycling challenge (riding indoors, riding outdoors, riding in a group, riding a different kind of bike, etc.) as “no big deal”, guess what? It won’t feel like that big of a deal. Say it enough — and yes, we will believe it!
Apologies on that long quote, but it all still holds true today. Women need to be encouraged to believe they do not need to go fast, climb mountains, look thin, ride in a bunch, go on the road or be what others tell them they should be. No, you just have to ride your bike…enjoy it and do it your way.
The early years…all but one of these riders have remained at WW.
7. Women can be their own worst enemies — women need to support each other in cycling. To be told some years back that if we supplied some female cyclists for a promotional shoot for a large cycling organisation, but the cyclists needed to be ‘size small or extra small’ as this portrays ‘the image we are trying to reflect’ is astounding! The directive came from a woman, for a shoot to encourage women to ride an event. Last time I looked women did not want to see unrealistic fabricated depictions of themselves to feel good about participating in cycling! Women need to see the relatable…as we always say, you can’t be what you can’t see. This is why the This Girl Can VIC campaign is so important — real unfabricated women getting active: curves, jiggles, red in the face, messy hair. The media needs to be realistic, cycling groups need to be realistic, other women need to play nice!
8. Beginner rides are not 25kmphr down busy roads at the crack of dawn, in a bunch (even if you are sitting off the back of the group). Beginner women cyclists are usually afraid, lack confidence and probably have little bike fitness…that comes with time. Trying to encourage beginner women to ride on the road is often the make or break of the rider for their continued enjoyment of the sport yet so many groups ‘getting more women to ride’ in sist this is the best way. WRONG! A beginner ride in our book is either a short path ride at the park or perhaps even a slow roll around a closed road circuit with a few others. There is nothing like feeling you are not ‘alone’ in the experience. Oh, and it’s usually at about 14kmphr!
Getting the beginner riders out, supported by more experienced riders.
9. Women’s cycling/bike groups work. I think we can safely say that after 10 years we have shown a pretty good ‘proof of concept’. Prior to Wheel Women there were no other women’s groups like us (as far as my research showed…and that was extensive, trust me): coaching and skills sessions coupled with regular rides at all levels to get women started out. We paved the way for others groups to exist, but more importantly our format has meant we have watched hundreds of women leave us for other groups that cater better to their new found skills — that’s a win-win. We have shown that when women get together to support each other in cycling great things can happen. From the comments about it being ‘life changing’ to ‘my medication’ we know our concept works.
10. Getting women on bikes is not about running more rides for women who can already ride. Though there is merit in that, the more women’s groups the merrier I say! However, by simply providing another ride on the road, it does nothing to allay the fears of the woman just dragging her bike out of the shed. That newbie on her old clunker wearing a t-shirt and trackies facing a group of lycra clad women on road bikes: you just lost that rider! Our strength has always been about the process of education, step-by-step by women for women — it’s not about providing rides for those who can already ride (in lycra on road bikes). It’s more than that: it’s a place to feel safe in that t-shirt and trackies, explore your ability, be among like minds, to not be pressured to be something you don’t want to be. Regardless of your bike, your fitness, your clothing.
Wheel Women continues to remain unique. It was a crazy idea all those years ago, but we have survived when others have fallen by the wayside. In an environment of care, free of judgement, positivity, and a belief there are no barriers, we have prospered when other groups have fallen. We provide a cycling environment where those who think they cannot, learn very quickly they CAN. And of that we are extremely proud.
Oh…and here’s 11. Fat chicks are gorgeous and can wear whatever they damn well want! Lycra included.
My role as a This Girl Can VIC Ambassador…a job I take seriously because the message is so important.
Many thanks to those who have supported us and encouraged us over the years:
The Wheel Women Coaching team throughout the years.
Friends and family who have supported this mad idea
Evan Wilson previously of Cyclic Bicycles and now at Lekker for being the first to really believe in us
The team at Specialized Bicycles: Laura Wilson, Tim Webster, Emily Smith, Saffron Button and Jenny Beier for supporting WW since 2014 and believing in what we do...THANk YOU!