Up and down the country there are women who identify themselves, rather forlornly, as ‘the only girl in the cycling club’. Up and down the very same country there are many women who feel intimidated by the idea of turning up for a club ride.
Merrily meeting outside Beeline Bicycles on Cowley Road are the Cowley Road Condors – a club that answers the needs of women who ride just as wholeheartedly as it answers the needs of men who ride. Headed up by president Cheryl Reid, the Oxford based group is now just over five years old and has 85 female members from a total of 225. The club’s website clearly sets out an aim of striving towards a 50:50 split, and they’re not far off.
Though Cheryl acknowledges that being based next to major universities means the demographic is “mostly young professionals,” who might be “more welcoming to women and less old school” – it’s certainly not luck and a prayer that’s created a club that’s so equal. Five years ago, there were around five women in the club. Two years ago, female membership stood at 22. It was setting a target of 40 women and putting effort into creating beginner friendly introductory courses that seems to have created the diverse club that Cowley Road hosts today.
TWC headed out with the pink and black train for a Sunday ride, to hear more about the members, and to understand what it is they think makes the club so successful. Despite the weather being more suitable for swimming than cycling, 13 women arrived on the day. After a brief explanation of riding formations and hand signals, we split into two ability groups for a two-hour loop around the lanes that surround Oxford before meeting up for coffee and cake.
With the first droplets of an impending downpour spitting onto our handlebars, women’s officer Aimee Fenwick tells me: “I joined from another club. I was in a café once and there was a group of girls from the Condors who had been out on a ride together – so I went up and spoke to them and they invited me on their next ride. I wanted to get into racing, and they were doing a lot more of that” – now Aimee is a category 2 rider who posts competitive time trial results, too.
Discussing what’s available for members, she says: “There’s enough of us that if people want to just go out and do a social ride with a coffee stop, they can do that. If they want to push themselves the facilities and resources are there. It helps that everyone is ridiculously friendly. And all the guys are happy to help, we wouldn’t want it to be segregated.”
Women can ride on the female only rides that are advertised regularly on a women’s Facebook group, but of course they also join in just as much in the mixed excursions. Helen Keay tells me: “I find the men to be really supportive – I don’t feel that I’m treated any differently. There’s been none of that ‘you’re a girl so stay off the front’, or ‘you ride on the inside away from traffic’. And last year when I crashed [Helen broke her collarbone and spent some time off the bike] I had a lot of them giving my tips and really trying to help.”
Speaking of her early experiences, she says: “When I was thinking about joining, I posted something on the Facebook group and got so many welcoming replies. It really calmed down some of my anxieties.”
Jo Lankester has been a long serving member of the women’s committee, but says the men appreciate the female focus just as much as the women: “I’ve spoken to quite a lot of the guys who say they like riding with more women, it kind of brings down the competitive level a little bit and it’s really good for the club to have some diversity.” On her own first ride, Jo says she went out with ‘four other really strong men’, commenting: “they just rode with me – didn’t comment, didn’t complain.” She then went on to help organise beginner rides suitable for absolute first timers on any functioning hybrid.
With us is PhD student Mimi Harrison, she joined only last year, having plucked up the courage following a less positive experience: “Before I joined the Condors, I went to a university cycling event. There were three women there, including me, and about 30 men. The other two women didn’t speak to me or interact with me. That really put me off that club, or joining any club. So when I saw the Condors, I liked that there were lots of women already – but it’s hard to say how other clubs can mirror that.”
Thankfully, one person who can describe exactly how clubs can mirror the success of the Condors, is Cheryl. In fact, she’s come prepared with a list of specific advice. Over a post ride chai latte, she passes on her ‘how to’…