Part 5: Five Things I Knew About Women & Bikes*

22 Aug

*But was afraid to write about without data to back me up. This is the final post of the series.

Two weeks ago the League of American Bicyclists released their Women on a Roll research report on women and bicycling. The report breaks down results into five key areas: comfort, convenience, consumer products, confidence and community. Here’s my take on community based on my personal experience.

What I knew about COMMUNITY: Women get more out of bicycling when they ride with friends.

Solvang Century Success

Some Statistics from the Women on a Roll report:

  • 42% of American women say “people to bike with” would encourage them to ride more.
  • 12,500 females participated (39%) in New York City’s Five Borough Bike Tour, America’s largest cycling event, in 2012.
  • 38% of participants in 2012 multi-day bike tours hosted by Adventure Cycling, the nation’s largest bike touring group, were women.
  • Women were more likely than men to be inspired by another person’s example (18% vs 11%)

My Personal Experience: Every major advancement in intensity or skill in bicycling I’ve made is a direct result from riding with friends, mostly women. Peer pressure is an amazing thing. It started when my girlfriends and I challenged ourselves to ride 33 rolling miles in the Tour de Peninsula on my first adult bicycle, a fully rigid hardtail mountain bike. The route had some short steep hills that we weren’t so sure we could clear without walking, but we did it. We celebrated with brunch at the end and all agreed we could have ridden more.

Six years later my friend Deanna convinced me to do my first triathlon, the challenging Wildflower Olympic distance that starts with a steep 400 ft climb in the first mile of the bike course. Within a year of mountain biking with Velo Girls I was dragged into the 24 Hours of Adrenalin mountain bike relay and then cyclocross racing. Pretty impressive considering I’m not that competitive, as you can see in this rare racing footage.

I’m not the only woman who’s succumbed to peer pressure. It took some convincing to get Katie to do the 12 Hours of Humboldt relay with us. She was relatively new to mountain biking but she rocked the singletrack and we came home uncontested winners in our category. The lesson: you can’t win if you don’t show up.

12 Hours of Humboldt

I’m not saying that riding with men can’t inspire women to go farther or ride harder, but it’s a lot easier for women to say to themselves: “it’s easy for them, they’re stronger, more experienced, more daring” or whatever. But when you see someone you consider your peer conquer a challenge it says “if she can do it, then I can.”

That’s why I’ve always gravitated towards women’s group rides and have spent many years organizing them and cultivating women to ride with. The issue I had with riding with mixed gender groups is that the majority of participants were men so they set the pace at an overall speed that was significantly faster than the average woman’s speed. It’s no fun to get dropped from the group or ride at max effort while others are coasting along.

Plus, when I struggled there was too much unhelpful “encouragement:” “C’mon, you can ride that section. Just lift your front wheel over the root” “The hill’s not that steep/long/technical. Just spin up and you’ll be fine.” The way a woman encourages is often different, and it’s certainly received differently by most women. And guys tend to talk about different topics. I don’t want to hear about which tires grip best for 20 miles.

For some of our women’s rides we’d invite the guys to join, but the guys knew that we were selecting the route and setting the pace and the tone of the ride. It’s totally different when women make up 50% of the group and we’re the ones planning it vs being 10% of the group with the fastest and/or most skilled guys planning the ride.

Hitting the Trail

The Impact: Women who only ride with men often think they’re slow or unskilled when they’re average to above average for a women of their fitness level and experience. Here’s a typical reaction from a reader:

“I also get a bit frustrated that I’m weaker than some men when I *know* that I bike more and try harder than they do. I’m car free, so I bike everywhere year round. And I still get to feel like I’m holding them back, and it SUCKS. Even when they’re being super nice about it.”

Feelings of frustration do not bode well for long-term success. Without peers to ride with, women are more likely to drop out of the sport, which makes it even harder to reach critical mass of women riders. And that only adds to other barriers like having few comfortable places to ride, having trouble finding gear that suits them, not getting the professional skills training they want, and not having a bike shop staff that serves their needs.

The value of community isn’t limited to sport riders. In some ways, it’s more important for commuters and errand riders who for logistical reasons are far more likely to ride alone. So they don’t get the information sharing, the moral support and the friendship that comes from riding with a group.

Is riding with a group important to you? If so, how does it enhance your bicycling experience? If not, why not?

Tea Table


Posted by on August 22, 2013 in Issues & Infrastructure, Women & Bikes


13 responses to “Part 5: Five Things I Knew About Women & Bikes*

  1. antijen

    August 22, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    I really enjoy group rides, which have been mostly easy paced, social rides. I’d like to do longer rides, but, given the realities of working full time, volunteering, and being a parent I don’t want to devote the necessary weekend and evening hours to it. The community that’s meant the most to me, though, is the online commuting and family biking community. That’s where I’ve really found my inspiration, encouragement and valuable information. This has led to IRL friendships, both locally and at a distance.

    • ladyfleur

      August 22, 2013 at 9:37 pm

      I’m glad you mentioned online communities. They’re great and especially valuable for people who have tight schedules or live in an area without a lot of people that have similar needs.

  2. Julie Bates

    August 23, 2013 at 8:27 am

    I would have to agree with the wonderful sense of community that women bring every where they go. Irreplaceable. But I’d like to say that riding with men also has some great advantages. I ride a ton with guys, often being the only woman, and it is always a huge amount of fun. And they NEVER mind waiting. In fact, they are often grateful for a chance to rest. So, don’t be intimidated by riding wih men. They bring a different feel to the ride, which is friendly competition, but also a willingness to help. I feel that my skills have continously improved by riding with really skilled guys and I love the silly banter. It’s not all about tire pressure, it’s more along the lines of what a 13 year-old boy would talk about.

    • ladyfleur

      August 23, 2013 at 9:04 am

      I can see the advantage and attraction of riding with men for many women. And there are plenty of women who’d rather ride with the guys than deal with girl culture.

      When I was training for my second Wildflower triathlon I pushed myself to ride with the SVTC groups that were faster and I did get faster. But I didn’t enjoy it. I’m a slow climber even compared to woman of my same overall speed so I knew the faster guys were waiting at the top of the hill there longer than they wanted. And I got zero rest.

      I’ve ridden with less goal-oriented groups as the only woman before and the guys were very welcoming and nice. Part of the problem is that if the guys are more skilled or stronger I don’t trust that I won’t get led into something that’s over my head. I have more in common with the HS girls we led down the Dead Heifer trail that the ones who stayed and tackled the gnarly wet singletrack. I need to accept challenges on my own terms. I’ve gone home and cried after rides after being the weakest rider in the group and being pushed harder than I wanted to be. Not that it couldn’t happen with a bunch of women either, it’s just less likely.

      What I’m also saying is that women who enjoy or even prefer riding with the guys have plenty of opportunities for that. But women who prefer riding with other women have a much harder time finding a group like that. I’ve met women on women’s rides who have been riding for years and said it was the first time they’d even ridden with a group that was majority female.

  3. Laura

    August 23, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    It’s so funny you mention the “I’m holding him back even if he’s super nice about it.” I think I’m a fairly strong cyclist – not a racer by any means but I can hold my own with guys – and I still feel this way! Doesn’t matter what the guys say.

    I really enjoy cycling with other women only because we can talk about balancing family and work and bikes and she gets it. Guys are usually more about just going out already … it’s just different when you have other obligations.

    We can also talk about saddle issues, chamois creams, and other girl issues without feeling weird about it. Good times really.

  4. Cindy

    August 23, 2013 at 10:58 pm

    Thank you for including our picture of the Solvang Century in your article! Always a pleasure to ride with you Janet.

  5. disgruntled

    August 25, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    Thanks for this – you’ve put into words something I hadn’t really consciously noticed. We’ve been running family-friendly bike rides all summer – really short easy rides aimed at anyone from 5 up. As the summer has worn on, we’ve gone from dads+kids to families+kids and the rides have tipped over so more than half of the adults have been women. I have been enjoying them more and more as the balance has tipped – not that it’s not fun to ride with anyone, but it’s nice to be rolling our eyes at the three guys talking kit while the rest of us are wondering which cake we’ve earned at the cafe …

    I did have one summer of riding with two female friends and it was great to ride and chat and the miles would just disappear. It wasn’t about tyre-grippiness either. One poor roadie got stuck behind us (he was too cool to have a bell and too polite to ask us to move over so he could pass) and got about five minutes on which kinds of bra fit best before we noticed he was there … an education for him, I’m sure!

  6. TinLizzie72

    August 25, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    I might not have gotten into biking as much if I hadn’t gone to a really great Ladies’ Night event at Rev Cycles a few years ago. Getting the advice and hearing the experiences of the women talking to a room full of women made it seem like something I could do. It was, for lack of a better word, empowering. Sadly, I don’t have women friends I can ride with for fun. I do work with other women who bike to work, so comparing stories with them is great. We always share products and stuff as well. It makes a huge difference!

    • ladyfleur

      August 26, 2013 at 12:03 pm

      That’s great that you have support for commuting. Now you just need more women friends for the fun rides. Maybe something will spin out of your Team in Training experience. Sometimes all it takes is a few women on an email list or other social media group to get things started.

  7. echo

    August 26, 2013 at 11:28 pm

    I have never gone on a group ride, and have actually never ridden a bike with a woman (well, I did when I was a teenager). I pretty much ride with my (male) partner, and that is exactly how I feel…maybe I should get out there and join a woman’s bike group! I love this post, and this series!

  8. Jean

    October 5, 2013 at 8:31 am

    I enjoy occasional group rides …only several times per year. I was an active member for a women’s cycling group in the Metro Toronto area for 5 years. Part of the committee that organized monthly rides (35-70 km. per ride), workshops and biannual conference that drew 200 women cyclists. I did lead and sweep some rides.

    I’ve been cycling for over last 22 years for transportation, fitness, touring since …we’re car-free even longer than that. I don’t consider myself a swift cyclist since I’m not interested in racing. My partner has been a long time cycling advocate in the cities where we’ve lived and biked, so I have learned from him about cycling routes, multi-modal transportation when we go touring,etc.

    I’ve stayed on the saddle so long, partially because he has been a frequent and patient cycling companion, but also because I must bike out of necessity to work, for shopping, etc. So I cannot rely on cycling with others where I go.

    He also goes on transcontinental solo touring rides for many wks., ….so I have to become accustomed to going on long rides locally on my own.


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