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British Cycling introduced Breeze, the biggest recreational riding programme, in 2011 as part of its bid to cut the cycling gender gap. Since then around 40,000 women have joined a Breeze ride and a similar scheme has been rolled out in the Australian state of Victoria. The woman who implemented Breeze for British Cycling, Natalie Justice, talks to Ella CyclingTips about what drove her fresh approach to getting more women on bikes .
LAYING OFF THE LYCRA
Lycra, expensive road bikes and svelte, powerful athletes are familiar marketing tools to promote cycling, but four years ago when outsider Natalie Justice was charged with implementing a new programme to get more British women on bikes she decided it was time to throw out the old formula. The low numbers of women in the sport were evidence enough that it just wasn’t working.
Instead Justice went back to her background in football development to come up with a new plan, one based firmly around an extensive network of trained volunteers. Now nearly a thousand of these volunteer ride leaders, known as Breeze champions, are leading rides of varying lengths and styles throughout Great Britain.
“Nobody can argue with the model because the women that are involved are so passionate. The champions that front the programme, you have got them from all walks of life and people really, really relate to that. That has been the success of the programme,” said Justice, British Cycling’s women’s cycling manager.
“That social side of things, riding with like-minded people, is absolutely key to it.”
Breeze was funded by the National Lottery through Sport England for three years and is now supported by British Cycling. In the first year about 40 percent of the rides were eight kilometres or less, providing an easy way to start. The ease of access for first time riders or those returning to the bike was also reflected in the promotional imagery. Lycra and carbon fibre bikes gave way to jeans, shorts and steel framed bikes with baskets.
Justice said while this was the logic start point the programme is now changing and growing organically. Ride distances are increasing, challenge rides are being incorporated, links with clubs have been built and the lycra images are returning.
“Once you get into it, it is very quick that you want to ride further and they are just doing it as a Breeze group. It has meant that we are able to attract women that are already competent cyclists but are just bored of cycling on their own,” said Justice, who rode as a child and took it up again when she joined British Cycling.
Now about seven percent of the rides are below eight kilometres, with the most popular ride distance at 16 kilometres to 32 kilometres and some extending out to around the 100 kilometre mark.
BREEZE BLOWS FURTHER AFIELD
Breeze has expanded its geographic reach in the United Kingdom, starting up in Scotland and Wales last year, but it has also had an influence much further afield. Cycling Victoria, which wanted to boost its female membership from 18 percent, used the Breeze model as inspiration to roll out its own version of the programme over two years ago.
“It was creating that environment and culture where women could ride outside, where they felt safe and where they had someone within the group that could direct and provide advice,” Mark Drehlich, Cycling Victoria development manager, told Ella CyclingTips.
Rides vary from bunches on the busy cycling hub of Beach Road in Melbourne to mountain bike rides in the central Victorian town of Castlemaine.
Simone Evans trained as a ride leader in November 2012, as soon as the Victorian programme began. She said the most satisfying thing was seeing riders who once needed the security of a planned ride having enough confidence to venture out without it.
“We started off with a big group of beginners, who are now intermediate to advanced riders and are going out on their own. They don’t need me anymore and that’s good,” said Evans, who leads weekly Breeze rides ranging from 30 kilometres to 60 kilometres on the hilly roads out from Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
“When they can fit in riding around their lives, rather than just waiting for that once a week planned ride, they are getting out three and four times a week,” said Evans.
The programme in Victoria, which is one of a number of initiatives designed to give more women the opportunity to get out on a bike, has trained 60 leaders, and 2,400 participants have joined the rides
British Cycling’s Breeze is also part of a larger plan. It has an ambitious target of getting one million more women cycling by 2020, so for Breeze, the push to increase participation continues.
“We want the brand out there a whole lot more. We want it to be more well-known outside cycling and to speak to women on a wider scale,” said Justice.
She said there had been progress in women’s cycling in England with a number of other factors also leading to positive change, such as the positive portrayal of female athletes at the London Olympics and the Women’s Tour.
“We are in a far better position than we were a few years ago but … it’s still not brilliant. We should be grateful that things have changed but we shouldn’t… get complacent,” said Justice.
Movers and Shakers is a regular Ella feature on the women that make the world of women’s cycling go round. The women we write about in this series include team owners, key industry players, race organisers, cycling advocates, journalists, inventors, designers, business owners and the professional athletes that often play a huge role in advancing their sport. Simone Giuliani oversees this series and happily accepts your nominations for Movers and Shakers in the comment sections of these articles.