When was the last time you woke purposefully before 5am? A few Sundays ago, I woke at 4:45am in preparation for Gear Up Girl, a ride organised by Bicycle NSW and sponsored by the Heart Foundation. I had a hypothesis in mind that I wanted to test. The question has been asked many times, “How do we inspire more women to bicycle in [insert your city]?”
Many articles have been published which explain the social and economic value of having more women on bicycles in cities. The answer is often “build more infrastructure to separate vulnerable cyclists from traffic.” However, the question of how to get more people to use a bicycle, especially women, still stands with or without the presence of infrastructure.
My question/hypothesis was the following: If I were to provide four women with e-bikes, training and support, would some begin bicycling regularly in Sydney? The commonality between all of the women was that they were all well-educated, professional and interested in solutions. Three of the four were mothers and all had bicycled at some point in their lives. And none were super-fit, triathletes, or gym-bunnies.
I organised free-for-hire EZee Sprint e-bikes from Glowworm and Omafiets Bicycles; I spent three hours with each woman. I showed each how to use the e-bike and explained the differences to a standard bike. We also discussed the value of choosing one’s path to ride on cycleways and quiet roads and safer positioning on the road.
We also rode together to a choice destination e.g. Work, meeting, train station. From my own experience, I knew that there would be a greater chance of successful conversion if each woman had incentive to ride to a specific destination. I had also invited each to ride 40km for Gear Up Girl to refine their skills in a safer environment. The roads would be closed for us between Homebush and the finish in Cronulla. I also suspected that after completion of the ride, each would have gained additional confidence in their abilities.
Hence the early wake-up on Sunday morning. I dressed, brushed, washed, makeup, put on sunscreen, packed my pannier bag with extra snacks and water, a speaker to play music and made breakfast for myself. D1 walked to my house to pick up her e-bike. Her apartment building didn’t have storage space for the e-bike. I discovered that she hadn’t eaten breakfast. I was finishing mine when she arrived. I made her some toast with cream cheese and we ate together quietly. She didn’t realise that she would need the energy. We rode to Central together and found L and D2 waiting for us on the platform. We caught the 6:21am train together. There were a few women dressed in Lycra with bicycles.
We changed trains at Lidcombe and walked our bicycles to the platform which would take us to Sydney Olympic Park. This train was packed with women in lycra and their bicycles.
We arrived at SOP and found the lifts to take ourselves and our e-bikes to street level. Dawn was breaking this cool autumn morning. The ladies all remarked at the attention they had received on the train. L. had left the house with her husband who was going on a training ride. His road cyclist friends were all perplexed by her outfit for riding 40km.
We rode together to Bicentennial Park and found the start of the ride. We found M. and S. with e-bikes decorated with flowers. Both were wearing dresses and sandals. A few had asked for style guidance prior to the ride. I said that I would be wearing a dress suitable for Sunday lunch with friends and champagne. I was called to the podium as a ride ambassador and gave a short speech introducing team “Style with Velo-a-Porter.” I explained to the ladies waiting for the start of the 40km ride that we would be on e-bikes and wearing everyday clothes. The response was smiles and cheers.
I had asked S2. and C. to find a train station that was a short ride away from their suburb which would take them to Lidcombe station. In the end, the car was C’s preferred solution. Two e-bikes in a car are a heavy proposition. My husband and I have dealt with this problem in the past by finding a train station closer to our destination with a lift. We have often used this combination if the trains weren’t helpful.
My strategy for the ride was pairing the four inexperienced riders (D1, D2, L, C) with four experienced (me, S1, M, S2) riders. D1 rode with me for awhile. She quickly adjusted to riding in a group. L. had been riding from Bondi to Potts Point all week and she looked confident and relaxed. I asked S2. who had been riding for decades to ride with C. as she was the least experienced of our group.
I was the designated ride leader but I altered this slightly as we progressed. Both M. and S1. alternated as ride leader and sweeper while I floated to make sure everyone was ok. D2 was in the back but was managing well. We found that we were all were using two (of five) dots of power to stay together. It was a beautiful morning and still slightly chilly until the sun finally made an appearance after a week of non-stop rain.
The beautiful morning ride along the Cooks River.
It was also an education for me riding in a group. Communication was important as we were riding single-file. We called out “rolling,” when starting after a stop, “slowing” when approaching a red light, roundabout or stop sign, “pothole, bump, and pedal-pedal” in the face of an upcoming hill. There was also mention of “eye-candy at 3 o’clock” when one of us saw an attractive man.
We stopped at all rest stops for water, toilet breaks and snacks. I encouraged everyone to eat something when we stopped. Not eating enough was a mistake that I made early on when bicycling distances. During previous rides, my lack of appetite meant that I didn’t eat and then I hit “the wall” and didn’t have the energy to continue. The other problem was being super hungry at lunch and/or dinner and overeating and then gaining weight. M. had kindly made delicious protein-rich bliss balls. D2’s grapes were refreshing. I shared my dried fruit and nuts. We all refilled our water bottles.
My goal was to have everyone finish together without incident or injury. We were doing well until the Captain Cook Bridge in Sans Souci. One of the ladies fell. I found out about it after we stopped together for a short break in a quiet neighbourhood after the bridge. She was a bit shaken and showed me the hole in her clothing. As a result, she also couldn’t explain what had happened. She said that she found the bridge very narrow which had freaked her out.
Later, one of the experienced ladies said that she had seen her fall. She said that it seemed she didn’t have enough power to continue momentum uphill on the bridge. In her panic, she may have forgotten to use the throttle as supplement. On our training ride, I had noticed her difficulty in focusing.
I find that I try to focus on one thing at a time on the bicycle. When I dismount, I put the kickstand down immediately. I have the phone mounted on the handlebars. I do not speak on the phone while riding. I brake to slow then put one foot down to stop. There is a conscious order to the manner in which I ride to keep myself, and others around me, safe.
I rode with her for the last several kilometres. I could see that her concentration was at an ebb after the fall. I encouraged her to imagine a line that ran ahead of her front tyre which she could follow. (A practice that I picked up from mountain biking.) Her riding improved as she “followed her line” but as we entered the open road I could see her focus wavering again. I told her that I was placing myself on the outside of the bicycle lane/shoulder next to her to shield her from the traffic. Again, I could see that her concentration was wavering. Fortunately, we were only 200m away from the finish.
We all finished together. It was quite an achievement for the four inexperienced ladies who had started the week before. We ate and drank to replenish ourselves. We all were delighted with our medals. We took a photo with a local MP (never mind that she was a Liberal). We appeared on the podium to speak about our 40 km ride.
A few ladies departed immediately after our interview. The rest of us went for a refreshing dip in the ocean.
The only lycra during our ride was on the beach.
As a result of this ride, two of the three inexperienced ladies have plans to purchase an e-bike to commute around Sydney. One has no storage space but remarked to me that she found herself growing quite impatient at the slow pace of our ride nearing the finish. She was converted.
Interestingly, the woman who fell was a compelling story. A few days later she would ask me to lead a group of her friends on a ride. I was pleased to find her keen. However, I declined because of my schedule and explained that GUG was a special case.
I referred her to Wheel Women and She Rides. I know that more time in the saddle would solve these problems for her. But as her husband remarked that he would be returning the e-bike to the shop, this would not be. 75% success rate? Good enough for me.