Natalie Justice, Women's Network Project Manager for Breeze, decided she needed to get out on her bike when she was employed by British Cycling. Tasked to run a programme designed to tackle barriers facing women, Natalie helps provide as many fun and free opportunities to help women get back on their bikes as she tells The Reluctant Cyclist
While I was developing a career in womens' football I hadn’t given a thought to riding a bike for years. That all changed when I accepted a new job as Recreation Manager with British Cycling. After going to the first few meetings about the project it hit me that I better start cycling and now my own experience as a new cyclist has fed into the development of the network.
We recognised a massive gap in the amount of women cycling for fun and leisure so British Cycling applied for a round of funding from the National Lottery and Sport England under an initiative called ‘active women’.
Breeze’s initial research showed barriers to get women cycling included; safety fears about riding on the road, a general lack of confidence on the bike and of finding people to cycle with. Further to this, access to a bike, knowing what kind of bike to buy and a fear of things like lycra, all came up as sticking points for women when considering cycling.
We want to make sure that Breeze is attractive to women who have never thought about going out on a bike and to continue to speak to women who are competent cyclists. Since we started about 12,500 women have gone on a Breeze ride, about 9,000 of them in the last year alone.
The thing that has been so successful for us is that we train up volunteers with a passion for cycling, who are happy to help other women get out on a bike. We have around 500 champions active around the country and we are just embarking on training another few hundred. It’s been phenomenal, especially the emotive side of things for the women involved. We never wanted Breeze to be a programme that was around for a few years then no-one ever heard of it again, so the key was to get the volunteers on board – they own the network and it is shaped by them.
Breeze Champions are not cycling technical experts who can change a puncture in 30 seconds, but they are people you can have confidence in and who can help you along the way.
Originally, most of our rides were under 10 miles because they were aimed at beginner riders. As the network has grown we want to offer a range of distances to help motivate our participants. As it stands, 60% of rides organised by our Breeze Champions are still 'beginner' rides, with a further 25% between 10-20 miles and another 15% that are 20 miles plus.
A lot of women become involved through word of mouth as the networks are run locally. Beginner riders can also find out more by popping their postcode into the Breeze website to find out where their nearest ride is. Each ride has information about the distance to be cycled and an introduction to the Breeze Champions hosting the event.
We asked Natalie for her top five cycling tips to help get you started.
- Find someone to ride with, it will boost your confidence as you're not on your own
- Find someone who knows a little bit about bikes so you’re not on an old uncomfortable bike with a massive heavy frame thinking that you’ve only gone a mile that you’re absolutely shattered.
- Make sure going out is a social activity so it’s doesn't feel like a chore and you’re not feeling left behind.
- Don’t be scared of it. If you go out for half an hour that’s great – it’s not about speed or distance.
- Build your confidence. Try to find cycle paths, bridleways – cycling off the road is the best way to boost your confidence.
Every single Breeze ride goes at the pace of the slowest rider. The next change to our website will be the ability to search by ride levels; beginner, intermediate and advanced. It won’t be about speed because we always ride at the pace of the slowest rider, but about distance. If a woman is feeling pretty confident she can search for more challenging rides to join. We also work with cycling clubs to encourage those women who are capable riders to have the confidence to join them. We do have links with Sportive organisers to try and make them a bit more female-friendly so if people do want a bit more of a challenge we can point them in the right direction.
The beauty of it, and what continues to be the driving force behind Breeze is the social network. Once women come along, get over the first barriers and begin to enjoy the cycling, they want to continue and push themselves – all whilst in the comfort of a group of cyclists they are happy with. That’s what has happened with a lot of the networks, women ride together regularly, often cycling over 25 miles, but every outing always involves some kind of coffee stop – it’s very very social. It’s not about racing or competing.
The biggest change to Breeze over the last six months has been finding a role in connecting women who already ride bikes, but who want to ride with other women.
Local bike shops have a big part to play in encouraging more women to ride by being able to talk to new cyclists at their level – without the jargon. We have a scheme where we recognise female-friendly bike shops. Unless you are a keen cyclist you often don’t think about going into your local bike shop for advice. For example, people often think a bigger saddle is better but if you’re going to be doing any more than a ride around town it is not the most comfortable riding position, as your legs are too far apart. It’s great to be able to go in and have the confidence to try different products and ask questions.
It seems that seeing more women out cycling is the key to getting more women in the saddle. So too is seeing women ride in different ways, be it road, mountain biking or track, I was involved in recent research with 18-21 year old women who said that they just don’t see women out on the roads, just guys in lycra.
To prove that women cyclists don’t have to wear lycra, Natalie has invited the Reluctant Cyclist on a Breeze ride to see for herself, so Breeze may yet see a new slowest rider to set their pace by.
Want to get involved and become a Breeze champion?
Take part in a fun, one day ride leadership course where you'll have a chance to meet other Breeze champions.
As a Breeze champion you will be qualified to independently plan, deliver and promote rides to groups of women.
In addition to free training, Breeze will provide you with free kit, British Cycling Ride membership and plenty of support along the way.
Furthermore, to ensure you're able to deliver safe bike rides, British Cycling will support you to gain a first aid qualification.
In return, British Cycling ask champions to deliver on average 12 rides over the course of one year to local women in their area.
To become a Breeze Champion visit the Breeze website to find out more.