Expert Talk: Women only!

More and more women are taking to the saddle and discovering the joys of cycling. Although the sport is still dominated by men, gradually the boundaries are shifting. One reason for this is women’s bike clubs, a trend that is growing all over the world. So what motivates women to get together to pursue their passion on two wheels? We asked the founders of some of these clubs. By Claudia Sebunk

Exactly 115 years ago, the first women’s cycling club in the Austro-Hungarian Empire saw the light of day, when a group of pioneers founded the “Damen-Bicycle-Club” (“Ladies Bicycle Club”). Their initiative was regarded with scepticism by the gentlemen. The physician Otto Gotthilf described it as a source of “vanity, affectation and the cravings of emancipationists”. Thankfully, the cycling world has changed a bit since then. More and more women are taking to the saddle and discovering the joys of cycling. Although the sport is still dominated by men, gradually the boundaries are shifting. One reason for this is women’s bike clubs, a trend that is growing all over the world. So what motivates women to get together to pursue their passion on two wheels?

Sisterhood and encouragement.

“I believe that women enjoy coming together around their passions. This is where they find sisterhood and encouragement to keep riding and building their endurance” explains Sarai Snyder, who founded “CycloFemme” together with the team of women at Language Dept. in Kentucky, in 2012. The idea behind the club is simple: each year on Mother’s Day (US), women ride together worldwide. It is an invitation to all women that has been spread through a purely grassroots movement. “This is our 7th year and we’ve had rides in over 40 countries. Our theme for May 13th, 2018 is Ride Together. Rise together”, says Snyder, who thinks women and bicycles are a natural fit. “Bicycles represent something very special for women – independence, empowerment and freedom. The bike has always been a tool for women’s empowerment all over the world.”

Bicycles represent something very special for women – independence, empowerment and freedom. Sarai Snyder

Velochicks (c) Martina Siebenhandl

Less pressure.

Eva Rümmele, who together with her friends Theresa Kellermayr and Martina Weinzettl, founded velochicks, Austria’s first mountain biking club for women, back in 2006, sees the trend towards women’s cycling clubs as partly a result of the growing strength of the women’s movement. “Women’s issues are a hot topic today, and as the women’s movement gains ground, women are becoming more self-assured,” says the club’s chairwoman.

Women cyclists, she says, were less and less inclined to gasp their way along behind the men, and the men were not always keen to wait – this discrepancy does often arise, for the simple and practical reason that men are on average, for purely anatomical reasons, physically stronger than women. “Both are perfectly legitimate of course – everyone wants to develop their own skills and have fun,” continues Rümmele. She sees another advantage in women’s bike clubs too: “In women-only groups, women often feel less pressure, and don’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone else.” In downhill cycling the stress levels are often lower too, according to Rümmele, and the competitive urge not such a priority as it can be when testosterone plays a role.

Helpful atmosphere.

“But it is motivating if we can push each other along a bit. You know that your fellow cyclists probably have the same fears as you, and that sometimes makes it slightly easier to overcome them.” The idea for the club arose when Rümmele was working as a personal trainer in a women’s health club. “Many women found the atmosphere there very helpful, so it seemed a good idea to set up a women’s group for mountain biking too,” remembers the sports scientist and mountain bike instructor.

“Women’s participation in racing, as in mountain bike sports generally, was still very small. Part of the rationale for us was to introduce more women to the fun of mountain biking, by offering skills courses and rides for women only. It was a concept that took off – velochicks has grown to almost 100 members across Vienna, Graz and Salzburg. The beginners’ courses enjoy particularly impressive popularity: “It is especially the beginners who value the women-only environment, as they feel accepted, unconditionally. No-one needs to worry about holding anyone up or looking silly if they are not confident about something.”

In women-only groups, women often feel less pressure, and don’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone else.” Eva Rümmele

(c) Petunia-Mafia

It’s all about the community.

Laura Wisner, President of Petunia Mafia Cycling, a Boulder/Colorado based women’s cycling club, shares this thought: “The team started because our founder, Patty Nilsen, wanted to be part of a cycling community that wasn’t ridiculously hardcore. Women need engagement, support and emotive experiences to feel connected to our community. It’s fun to ride with men, but we women crave companionship with other women.” Another reason for Nilsen to found Petunia Mafia Cycling was fashion-based: as an active apparel designer, she wanted to wear a cuter kit than what was available back then, says Wisner.

“We’ve developed this club to be what women want in their cycling life: ride options without mandatory obligations, skills clinics, weekend getaways, relevant sponsors and feminine kits.” The most attended events are the big ones, like weekend trips to Moab and Aspen. “Or rides where we really push the athletic edge. Like riding up Mount Evans, the tallest continually paved road in the USA”, says Wisner. She adds: “Each year I have some women telling me that this team has changed their life. It tells me we fill an important need.”

Women need engagement, support and emotive experiences to feel connected to our community. Laura Wisner

Mitzi & Friends (c) Martina Draper

Stiring things up.

Filling a gap was also the motivator for Stefanie Wacht. She founded the Austrian club Mitzi and friends partly because she wanted female company when she was cycling. “At the beginning I used to ride around on my own. I saw many other women who were also riding alone – or in the slipstream of some man,” says Wacht. So this passionately enthusiastic cyclist began to hand out her contact details on little Post-it notes, any time she met a like-minded female cyclist.

A Facebook group soon followed. As it continued to grow, eventually the club was formed: “It seemed like the time to set up an organisation with contact names and active members, because that had more validity than an online community.” She and her fellow campaigners have a motto: “If it doesn’t exist, we’ll create it ourselves.” Such as a women-only cyclocross race. Cyclocross is the great passion for the Vienna-based Wacht, and while there are many races for men, or for a mixed field of competitors, nothing was available for women only. “Obviously we can complain, but that doesn’t change anything. You can only stir things up if something stirs you up!” says Wacht.

“If it doesn’t exist, we’ll create it ourselves.” Stefanie Wacht

A Plan for action.

So she put a plan into action. And after many hours of work by many committed women, the time came: “Our race took place last November. I am proud to say that it attracted the largest field of women participants of any cross country race in Austria!” There are on average around 3 – 7 female participants in this kind of race, but this time there were 25 women at the starting line. Opening up new territory for women, and breaking down barriers in disciplines dominated by men – Wacht sees this as part of the mission for her club.

One way to achieve this is through workshops where women can learn to overcome their fear of “techy” topics. “We want to show people that changing a tyre, for example, is not witchcraft. That works much better if women are just amongst themselves.” Other workshops such as cycle skills training or “soft banana rides” are proving enormously popular with participants – whose ages range from 20 to 60. “These are informal outings focused on basic skills, designed particularly to make it easy for beginners to join in.” The club’s pro-active team also organises weekend trips, for instance to the Dolomites or to Wörthersee, or even to Mallorca. The next event in the club’s diary is on 10 June: the Ladies Race in the St. Pölten Cycle Marathon.

Female friendship.

The longing to ride with female friends was also the reason for Tina McCarthy to found Wheel Women Australia back in 2012, in Australia. “I realised during my studies for a Masters of Communication, that there were literally no other groups out there for women. Perhaps they existed overseas, but not here”, says McCarthy. “Since Wheel Women commenced, we have seen the popularity of women’s only groups build momentum.” McCarthy sees the reason behind this in the fact that for a long time, the women’s cycling industry has been a male dominated field.

The cycling coach additionally sees cycling as the answer to many of society’s issues, such as obesity, inactivity and mental health issues. “I knew that by sharing my knowledge, I could inspire others to realise cycling gives us independence, freedom and fitness all in one”, says McCarthy. What do the members of Wheel Women Australia appreciate the most? “Our club is supportive and non-judgemental. It provides an atmosphere where women can engage at their own level and follow pathways to progress. We provide something for everyone: beginners to advanced riders, but we do not compete. Most of all it’s just plain fun!“

However much women’s cycle clubs are on the rise, many of their founders are keen to emphasise that men are actually welcome, despite the term “female club”. “It was never our intention to give up riding with men altogether. We love and value our male cyclist friends and partners, and often ride with them too,” points out Eva Rümmele. Stefanie Wacht adds: “Our club even has a few male participants!”

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