In the Netherlands fractionally more women than men ride bikes. In the UK three times more men ride bikes than women. Cycling organisations in the UK want to close this gender gap and there’s now a growing number of women-only bike rides, sportives and get-together sessions. Laura Laker joins a Breeze ride, a non-sporty have-a-go countryside bike ride led by women for women.
A cold, drizzly Sunday afternoon on Hackney Marshes seems more likely the setting for a suspense thriller than a jolly bike ride. Nonetheless, a jolly bike ride is what I, along with my all-female companions for the afternoon (and a little boy), did our best to have.
The Breeze ride I joined – my first – is among many free women-specific rides organised around the UK by British Cycling and Sport England to get more women on their bikes. Run by volunteers keen to share their love of cycling, explore, get fresh air and exercise and make new friends, though I have never met these women (many of whom are regulars) instantly I feel included in the group.
As we don waterproofs youngster Elliot and his grandmother Hazel join us, making our number seven. Not a bad turnout for a chilly November day. Ride leader Lisa goes through a bike check with us, making sure our brakes work and our tyres have enough air. Satisfied we’re on safe bikes we set off across the marshes.
Despite recent successes in women’s cycling in the Olympics, and more cyclists on our streets, three times more men currently ride bikes than women, and the gap, according to British Cycling, is increasing.
Talking to Jill, assistant ride leader, and Lisa, about why Breeze rides are so popular, even in inclement weather, they tell me mixed groups can be competitive, which is perfect for those with aspirations to become the next Victoria Pendleton, but daunting for women who would rather just enjoy a leisurely social ride.
There is certainly no rush on our traffic-free ride, and with no stress of map reading we are free to enjoy the scenery and chat. We ride at the pace of the slowest and there is no pressure to go faster than that. These are not fitness freaks, simply women who happen to enjoy a weekend bike ride.
Young Elliott, I discover, has only been cycling for about six weeks and can’t get enough of it. Grandma Hazel says:
“My husband and I started cycling again a couple of years ago. He likes to go out on fast rides at weekends and I couldn’t keep up. I prefer not to rush, so [Breeze rides] are perfect.”
For grandson Elliott, too, this is a perfect pace and everyone encourages and looks out for him along the ride. As we saunter along the canal towards Hackney’s Ragged School Museum we shoot the breeze, so to speak, laugh and try to stay warm.
At the Ragged School Museum we stop for tea and a look around, and I discover both Lisa and Jill have led Breeze rides for about a year. Jill tells me not only does she love organising the rides but she finds her ride leader training has improved her confidence on the roads:
“I ride much more assertively now. When you are in a group you are in charge and you have to look out for everyone, and that has changed the way I ride day to day.”
There is no need to test those skills today, however, as our route takes us through parks, greenways and canals; it is impressive just how far we ride, traffic-free. The few roads we encounter we push our bikes across.
As this ride demonstrates, there is no reason women should be left behind in the current boom in cycling, no matter their fitness level. Breeze rides are among a range of opportunities for women to get on their bikes in a supportive environment while meeting new people and having fun.
Whether you fancy yourself the next Jess Varnish, or just want a leisurely ride, there is something out there for everyone. You don’t need special equipment, just a roadworthy bike (borrowed or yours), some comfortable clothing, with perhaps some snacks and a water bottle. For some useful tips Sustrans’ Bike Belles website offers information about cycling for women.
Breeze is the biggest programme ever designed to help women get on their bikes for fun. Run by British Cycling it is about improving women’s confidence on bikes. Breeze champions are volunteers across the country who organise free led rides ridden at a pace comfortable for everyone.
Breeze rides are suitable for women with little experience in the saddle. On mainly off-road routes, rides last between 1-4 hours, and are guided, with Breeze leaders providing encouragement and support. Cycling for leisure (and building your confidence while you are at it) is always more fun with a companion, and Breeze rides are a great way of meeting women in your area wanting to cycle. Some rides are organised specifically with mums riding with young children in mind. Find out more on the Breeze Facebook page.
Cycletta runs women-only car-free bike rides for all abilities: 70 percent of last years’ entrants were novices. Whether a stepping stone to sportives or just a social jolly, rides start at 40km, which Cycletta estimates can be completed from one and a half to two hours for beginners (11-15km/h), to less than an hour by regular, sporty riders. During the race support is provided in the form of drink and feed stations and a ride rescue support and mechanics, should you need them.
Victoria Pendleton has written a six week training programme for Cycletta as well as general advice to make the ride easier and more enjoyable.
For those who want a bigger women only challenge for charity there’s the Diva 100, in Sussex on 11th May 2013. With 50km and 100km on-road routes (with traffic), 9am-6pm, riders raise money for Action medical research for children. Lunch is provided, as well as feed stations along the way, event massage and a medal on finishing. Registration fee is £28, with a fundraising target of £50.
SOUTH EAST & LONDON
Women on Wheels in Ealing, or WoWe, was launched early 2012, as a cycling club ‘run by women for women’. It describes itself as a social body to get women of all ages and abilities cycling. After a brief sabbatical more rides are planned for next year. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: 07940 184742 to get involved.
Tower Hamlets Women’s Cycling runs rides and events for women, including beginner women’s sessions and confident women riders on Saturdays 10-12 and 12-15.00 respectively. The group recently started a young women’s BMX club (current members aged 12-22) on a new BMX track next to the Mile End leisure centre, running each Sunday 9.30am-11.30am. All bikes are provided by the Club; sessions are £1 for members (£10 per year) or £2 for non-members. To join, contact Janice Djelloul at THCC on 020 8980 7064 or email email@example.com (places limited).
Bike shop and fitting service Wyndymilla, in Seale, Surrey, runs a women’s only ride once a week from the shop on Wednesday mornings at 10am. Ride lasts a couple of hours, suitable for all abilities. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01252 782960.
For the more competitive, London Women’s Cycle Racing runs rides run March to September. Novice friendly closed circuit events take place at Cyclopark, Hog Hill, Hillingdon and Crystal Palace, or if you’re more experienced work on your form for next year’s 3rd category and above races. Open to riders of all British Cycling road racing categories from anywhere in the country, whether you’re in a team or not.
London Phoenix organises mountain bike, cyclocross and road rides each week, as well as a monthly social. Its women’s group take part in all of these rides, with a Rollapaluzza Christmas party, a track day and a cycling weekend in Wales. Contact email@example.com.
Biking Belles Chichester meet every week for rides of 20 miles-plus for women (riders must be able to manage this distance to join) as well as a monthly pub supper where potential new members are welcome to come and meet riders. Contact Val Harper on 07824 605317 or visit the group’s forum. For local beginner rides contact firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 01243 534694.
Cycle Somerset, a ‘friendly, members-orientated group’ runs womens’ rides of 10-35 miles. This year’s programme has finished but contact club secretary Jonathan on 01823 288973 for details of next year’s rides.
Norfolk Cycling Academy runs a women-only indoor training night with female-only coaching at a traffic-free venue for all abilities to improve confidence and skills. The academy claims to have the biggest female-only sessions in the east of England, with ambitions to become the UK’s biggest and best. There is also a fleet of road bikes in all sizes for free loan.
Hopwood Ladies Cycling Club (near Birmingham) welcomes all women, no matter their age or ability. Dust off your own bike or hire one. Beginners rides take place on weekends and Tuesday mornings, with longer rides on Wednesday mornings. Rides meet at Hopwood Community Centre, Birmingham Rd, Hopwood B48 7TL. Annual membership is £12; interested women can attend five rides before committing to membership. Contact Deb on 07738 982161 or email email@example.com.
Women’s Cycling Sheffield is an informal women’s cycling group for all abilities, whether recreational, track riders or mountain bikers, for rides around Sheffield and the Peak District. Organises a roughly 45 mile ride each month, starting 9am outside Crosspool Tavern, at a steady pace with a cafe stop. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
In Hull, Sunday Girls, is a women-only road riding group which meets on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons at Costello Stadium. Rides under 30 miles.
Bloomers, Manchester provides training in cycling and cycle maintenance to women in Manchester, as well as running rides, with the aim of promoting the benefits of cycling to women. Runs slow-paced 10-25 mile ‘ambling’ rides on the first Sunday of the month, as well as faster paced 20-65 mile ‘roadie’ rides, at a faster pace with climbs, usually on the third Sunday of the month (book in advance by email). Check the website calendar for dates.
Chester Fabulous Ladies has been going since 2008, running rides one Saturday morning each month from Kingsway Cafe in Chester, between 12-20 miles at an easy pace. Rides begin at 10am and riders are usually back by lunch with a cafe stop. Contact email@example.com or call Sue on 07871 452680.
Southport’s Cycling Belles organise rides from Dunes Leisure Centre, Southport. Contact Juliet Jardine on 0151 934 4680.
Wirral Bicycle Belles rides take place one Saturday each month.
Apple Bicycle Belles runs rides around 25 miles on Sundays around Lytham St Annes, contact Mandy on 07905 021 183 for details or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Women on Wheels meets every Tuesday at 18.30 at Tatton recreation ground in Chorley for towpath and quiet country lane rides. Call 07971476721 or email: email@example.com. www.applebikes.co.uk/belles
For beginners there are cycling sessions run on Mondays 13-14.00 in Hyndburn with a leisurely ride on Fridays 12-1300 on the Hyndburn Greenway.
In Preston, a weekly women’s rides run from Moor Park on Tuesdays from 10am, starting in March; for more information ring 01772 906182.
For mud lovers the Trail Divas have mountain bike rides on the second and fourth Sunday of the month, year round.
In Poulton, Wyre Cycles Sunday rides start from a bus shelter opposite the Rivery Wyre public house at 10.30am on Sundays, suitable for beginners. Contact Heather on 01253 885220 during store hours or call 07792 233156.
In Glasgow, Belles on Bikes is an initiative to get women on bikes via rides, social events and maintenance courses. The scheme is run year-round. Contact Victoria at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kelso Cycling Belles organise rides on the second last Sunday of every month from the Abbey Fitness Centre at 10am. Rides are around 10 miles at the pace of the slowest rider. For further details: 07866 689980.
Cumbernauld Cycling Belles provides bikes and training and weekly rides from Muirfield C.E.C on Thursdays at 13.00. Contact Donna on 07783 816929 or email email@example.com.
Prestatyn social riders meet each Monday morning except Bank Holidays. Telephone Debbie Hughes at Prestatyn Town Council on 01745 857185.
Trail Rides Wales occasionally run women’s off-road trail riding days, where riders can bring their own bikes or borrow. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to be notified on upcoming women’s rides.
“IT’S AS EASY AS RIDING A…”
If you’ve yet to learn how to ride a bike – or are feeling really, really rusty – many of the above schemes will be able to either provide hands-on sessions for beginners or point you in the right direction for adult cycle training close to you. You could also teach yourself by following the guidance in Bike Hub’s ‘wee-scoot-balance’ article. This is a long and detailed look at the micro-movements required in order to balance on a bicycle. The article is aimed at parents teaching their tots how to cycle for the first time but there’s plenty of tips and tricks adults could learn from to.
Alternatively, for a fiver, pick up a copy of ‘Teaching New Cyclists’ from Cycle Training UK.