*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.
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.
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.
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?