Women in the bike lane

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Women are still a minority in the bike lane, but that is slowly changing, writes Margot McGovern.

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If you look at the statistics it seems the bike world is, by and large, a man’s world. The Australian National Cycling Strategy 2011-2016 shows: “Female participation in cycling is significantly lower in Australia than many other countries—the rate of female commuter cycling is less than one third of the male rate.”

The Women and Cycling Survey 2013 found that 50% of women who hadn’t ridden a bike in the past six months were keen to start and 60% of those who did ride were eager to ride more. However, the survey revealed that these women were being held back by a number of barriers including a lack of confidence, concerns about traffic, lack of infrastructure, having to wear cycling specific clothing and aggressive/abusive behaviour from other road users.

There are other hurdles to overcome, too. In the racing world, women’s pro cycling draws a fraction of the money and media attention of men’s teams and races, such as Le Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia. For a long time women have also been underrepresented in the market, with relatively few brands offering women’s specific clothing and gear. Not to mention that once a girl gets rolling, she often attracts unwanted male attention.

In my experience, this is most common on road rides. Two summers ago when I was riding Melbourne’s Beach Road almost every weekend, there was invariably that one guy would couldn’t resist making a derogatory comment or offering unsolicited (and unwanted) advice: “Not liking that hill much, are you love?” “That gear is too tall for you!” Or some comment about how my bum looked in my knicks, as though I weren’t already painfully aware that Lycra leaves little to the imagination. Almost as invariably, the rider was someone I’d left eating my wheel at the last set of lights.

Fortunately, it seems the tide is finally beginning to turn.

Women’s racing is gradually gaining traction in the media, largely thanks to the efforts of riders, including Anna Meares, Chloe Hosking and Tiffany Cromwell, putting as much effort into promoting women’s cycling as they do into their training. Governments and councils are slowly rolling out new infrastructure projects, including separated bike lanes and off road paths (which let’s face it is good for all riders—not just women), and there’s an increasing number of brands that offer a wide range of women’s apparel and gear, and even a few brands, that cater exclusively to women.

But perhaps the most important change is coming from riders and riding groups themselves. In recent years a number of groups, programs and rides have started up with the specific aim of helping new women riders develop bike confidence and skills in supportive, unintimidating environments. Bicycle Queensland’s BicyGals program offers maintenance workshops and rides, as does the Victorian-based Wheel Women. Meanwhile, New South Wales and South Australia host an annual Gear Up Girl ride and maintenance workshops.

There are also mixed riding groups  which have become particularly popular with women starting out in the roadie scene. Melbourne-based Tenax Ride is one such group.

Tenax was started in 2011 by self-confessed bike nut, Alex Hender, and now has over 400 members on its Facebook page, about 40% of which are women. The group rides Beach Road every second Saturday, and members organisemany other social rides and events too—all of which include multiple speed groups. Hender explains that the philosophy behind the group is simple: “I wanted to create a group that was supportive, but still athletic and challenging, i.e. one that gave the riders the opportunity to develop and learn from more experienced riders without being intimidated.”

To ensure the group remained inclusive and welcoming of all riders, in particular new and women riders, Hender drafted a Rider Respect Policy, which states: “The Tenax Ride is free from sexism, racism, bike snobbery and all other forms of disrespect… Some riders may feel threatened or challenged when a girl rider is faster or more capable… Sometimes a person that feels challenged in this way will make inappropriate and unwelcome comments. If you feel that way, change your perspective…If you can’t do that, find another ride.”

Samantha Winter is a Tenax regular and got back into riding about three years ago. While she loved being out on the bike, she initially felt out of place. “Being a larger person, finding cycling gear that fits is hard and being in lycra is hard and then I don’t actually think there’s a lot of groups that are like Tenax… You look at the trains going along Beach Road and there’s not a lot if chicks in them, and that’s really intimidating.” For her, a women-only ride wasn’t the answer. She tried a few mixed groups, but felt they weren’t right either. Of one group she noted, “They were really cliquey as a group and whilst they said they catered for different speed groups and abilities, they didn’t really. They had what they called a social ride, which was too slow and frustrating… Or they’d do a Mordi [Beach Road] ride and you couldn’t keep up.” As someone getting back into riding, Sam found this frustrating. “It’s about starting and progressing but you have to start somewhere.” Tenax was different. “Even though they know I’m slow, they’ll actually encourage me to go on the rides with them rather than not go.” She said: “The thing I like about the group is that there’s different ability levels and it’s not about how fast you are; it’s about getting out there, and it’s really supportive… The fact that we now have ‘Sam speed’ as an official category, shows that for someone who came to the group a year ago how inclusive they are of someone who can’t keep up.” And she never has to ride alone. “If I’m the only one in Sam Speed, Alex will always ride with me… I remember one day in February, it was pouring with rain and Alex knew I had my Miki [train ticket] and was going to get on the train at Mordialloc, and he rode with me the whole way.”

Vanessa Wong, has been riding for about 11 years and involved with road cycling for six. Tenax was an ideal match for her too. “I was looking for a riding group which was not too serious, had a social side to it, but also included longer rides… What appealed to me about Tenax, before I even started riding with them, was that there were different speed groups, which meant that there was a group to ride with no matter how slow (or fast) I was.” She said this is something fairly unique. “With some other groups, as the overall group becomes fitter, the average speed of the ride increases and if you’ve been away or want to join the group, it can be difficult to gauge where you fit.” And it’s not just about the ride. “The social aspect is also a highlight—everyone is really friendly and meets up at the café afterwards for a coffee and a chat.”

Wong agreed with Winter that it’s hard for women once they’ve gained basic skills and confidence to take the next step. “I find there are far fewer groups that cater for women cyclists who want to do more than just a casual, short ride on off-road paths, who are not beginners, who want to ride regularly but do not want to ride competitively… Joining shop rides can be intimidating, particularly if you don’t know what level the ride is. Tenax is very good at filling that niche as a mixed group using the multiple groups model.”

Better infrastructure and education, a wider range of gear and a greater focus on female pro riders in the media are all important  in motivating more women to ride, but even small steps, such as making women feel welcome and included in your regular weekend riding group can go a long way towards helping us get out on our bikes more and take our riding to the next level.

**The writer is married to Alex Hender**

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One thought on “3”

  1. I would say that compulsory Helmet use is a major detractor for Women – messing up their hair. Relax the law on this and participation rates should increase to representative levels.

    1. As a female rider I have to say that I don’t believe it has anything to do with “helmet hair”. I think safety is a far bigger issue for women and improvements in the infrastructure i.e. more bike paths and safe, segregated bike lanes on the roads would help increase participation rates more than relaxing helmet laws.

  2. Yes Liam, “helmet hair” is so much more of a pressing issue for us gals on wheels – as opposed to the persistent hassling and aggression from drivers and MAMIL riders…..
    I’m 42, and always been a cycling commuter, and know that every single day I will cop some form of derogatory comment, or aggressive machismo, on the road or bike path. My hair doesn’t really rank as high for concern, compared to just getting home with my dignity and self-worth intact……

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