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’…
First there was one
Not-so-shocking fact: there are cycling clubs with absolutely no women on the membership list. Cheryl points out you’ve got to start somewhere – she says: “So first things first, you need to get one woman in the door. I’d recommend someone bring a girlfriend, or a colleague, along for a ride [ideally someone who wants to ride a bike!] – treat them nicely, and they’ll want to come back. Maybe they'll bring their friends."
Run introductory rides (with maintenance training and follow up advice)
Speaking to the riders over coffee after our adventure, anxiety about first rides with a club seems to be a common theme. A lot of the newer riders were recruited via the spring and summer introductory series, which is focused on reducing that anxiety. It seems to work. In fact, these rides appear to be the pièce de résistance. The ultimate ‘how to’ for attracting women to your club.
Many of the women who started out on these introductory courses just a year ago are now super strong, and I spoke to three who were considering racing this summer.
Cheryl explains: “Across spring and summer we ran women’s specific introductory rides. We put together a series of rides, once a week. Every week it would get longer and harder. And we tied in women’s only maintenance training [offered by the Broken Spoke Bike Co-Op] with that. We had three or four groups going out at a time. Quite a lot of the men volunteered to help lead the rides too."
The first series was eight weeks long, but this was cut down to four – Cheryl says: “The idea was to prepare women for social weekend rides - it was pretty obvious they didn’t need eight weeks to get ready – they just needed to gain the confidence to turn up and give it a go. So in the second series we did four sessions and that was plenty."
After each ride, women who attended would receive an email with further advice on common topics – for example gears, cadence or hill climbing.
Invite beginners and nurture them
Without putting words into anyone’s mouth, I’d say there is a tendency for established clubs to try to recruit ‘fast women’, who can slot into the club structure seamlessly, and perhaps form a racing group to fly the flag in local leagues. That’s not what the Condors did. They invited everyone, and nurtured those riders to allow them to develop. Jo says: “[At the introductory rides] you can spot people quite quickly who are clearly strong, and we’d introduce them to [racer] Aimee straight away. The more people you get in, the more likely you are going to start getting some strong riders. Hopefully that’ll help us fuel the racing side as well."
Clubs: it’s understandable to that you want female racers representing you. Just don’t expect them ‘ready made’ – be prepared to support them and train them up.
Have women in prominent positions
The Cowley Road Condors have a female president, and of the ten remaining slots on the board, four officers are female – including Aimee, who is the Women’s Officer. She works alongside two more members to make up a women’s committee. Cheryl says: “Having women on the board gives another perspective on things. It might slightly change the decisions that you make, or make you think a bit wider."
She adds: “Our club has done a lot going on that’s organised by women, for women – but the men are on board too, and encouraging it – and that’s important."
Have a women’s section on the website
Looking for a new cycling club is a bit like shopping for anything – you start by seeking out the available options and then narrow them down by exploring each in detail. In cycling terms, that usually means checking the British Cycling club finder for local groups, then examining each club website. Cheryl says: “I think you have to really actively say ‘as a club, we want women to join’ and be really loud about it. Because if you’re checking out clubs online, you can see straight away that some clubs just wouldn’t be as welcoming."
She adds: “There should be pictures of women on the website, too – so potential members can see women out enjoying themselves, that makes a big difference. When people Google clubs that they want to join, quite often a website is the first thing they’re going to see. So a female presence is really important."
Create a social community
The Condors host regular social nights – next on the agenda is a ‘swap shop’ where riders can give away unwanted saddles in return for greatly desired stems, and so on. Their last social was a race-planning meeting that featured a specific question and answer session for the women who were considering pinning on a number.
An online social presence helps, too – Cheryl says: “We also have a Facebook group just for the women. The main Condors group has over 1,000 people in there, and when things are posted up it disappears within a day. So the women’s group it’s more focused on stuff that we’re interest in, organising rides together, talking about racing, or sharing advice and tips. Stuff like ‘which bib shorts should I buy?’"
Work with local bike shops
The club teamed up with workshop the Broken Spoke to offer maintenance classes, and they asked local bike shops to promote the rides to women visiting. Jo says: “I made some posters, and stuck them up in cafes and bike shops. You just need to get people seeing that it’s happening. It is a bit of a slow burner to start, but worth it."
Set goals and celebrate success
You can't achieve a goal that is unspecified and untracked. Cheryl explains: “I remember two years ago, we had 22 women and the president at the time said ‘shall we try and get to 40?’ – at first I wasn’t sure we could! Then I looked at how we could do it, and myself and Jo came up with the summer sessions. I think knowing what your numbers are, and where you’d like to get to, really focuses the mind. And actually really keeping a track of numbers is important: analyse who is joining, who is leaving, and why."
She adds: “I think celebrating achievements is really important. We’re at 85 women now. When we hit 100, which I think we will do this year – we can put a news article up on our website and celebrate that."
No drop rides
Club members organise race focused, fast rides. But their bread and butter sessions are social spins, and everyone understands that those are not about asserting any form of authority via leg speed. A lot of the women I spoke to were nervous about the idea of joining club rides - if they'd turned up and been dropped, it's highly unlikely they'd have ever returned.
Helen says: “It’s quite simple: you don’t drop people on a ride. We have faster rides; those are advertised specifically as a dropping ride. But they’ll always check people are ok, that they know the way home, and they do turn people away if they’re not confident enough. Social rides might split on the hills, but everyone meets at the top."
It was an absolutely fantastic experience to get out and ride with the Condors - and I really enjoyed the chance chill out on a Sunday club run with other women. It's something not all of us get to do every weekend. If more clubs could take a leaf out of the Cowley Road Condors book, that might change.
You might also like...