Men not allowed: women’s only events are on the rise, but are they successful?

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As a woman at cycling events you can get pretty used to being in the minority. It’s not uncommon to turn up to road cycling challenges with hundreds of men, yet count the number of women on your fingers, or to compete at a cyclocross races with multiple healthy men’s divisions yet the women are all in one race. Then there’s the mountain bike race where the queue for the men’s toilets runs out the door and around the corner but women get to walk straight in. It’s not that women are shunned by the organisers of these events, in fact many have attempted multiple initiatives to encourage female participation, but they just aren’t flocking to join in. So some have decided it is time for a completely different approach.

The rate of female membership with Cycling Australia, Mountain Bike Australia, British Cycling and USA Cycling is floating within a couple of percentage points of the 15 percent mark, and Australia’s Bicycle Network said that while one in three of the nation’s bike riders are women, they account for just 21 percent of the participants in their events. Where are you at women?

It’s figures like these that have convinced many that it is time to go beyond initiatives that tinker around the edges of existing events –such as women’s categories or even discounts to increase female participation. Instead, we’re now seeing brand new races and rides that are focussed purely on opening the door to usher more women into the sport. It’s not just about running things the same old way minus the men, either. The marketing is different, the atmosphere altered and the focus is on participation rather than podiums. We looked at three events across cycling disciplines to learn how and why the women’s only approach is gaining traction and to find out if this formula is also delivering results.

The Ascent: A new approach for an established provider*

The Ascent. Bicycle Network

“We thought we could reach equality by providing the same opportunities for both sexes. But it hasn’t worked. We now know you can’t correct imbalance through balance. The Ascent is our chance to take a proactive approach to address the gender imbalance and help remove some of the barriers women face when it comes to bike riding.”
– Bicycle Network spokesperson Anthea Hargreaves

Launched just last week, The Ascent is a fully supported 100-kilometre women’s only road ride in the Yarra Ranges on the outskirts of Melbourne to take place in April 2016. It is going to be put on by one of Australia’s leading event producers, the Bicycle Network, which runs a wide range of events right from the multi-day, family-friendly Great Victorian Bike Ride  to the challenging Three Peaks, which crams over 4,000 metres of climbing into a 235-kilometre course. The organisation’s stated aim is to make bike riding easy for everyone, so when the female half of the population was continuously under-represented at its events, the group decided it needed to take the effort to include women a step further.

“Some women will feel comfortable riding in events like our Peaks Challenge series, and that’s great. And some women won’t have an interest in this kind of program. We’re not prescribing The Ascent as a single catch-all for female riders, but we think that for some this program has the potential to be an important step,” said Bicycle Network spokesperson, Anthea Hargreaves.

What makes this event so different from Bicycle Network’s other events, apart from the fact that there will be no men riding it, is the focus. The 100-kilometre ride is the ultimate goal, but the months leading up to the ride is where the emphasis lies. Bicycle Network wants to do more than attract event-ready riders. They also want to help a fresh bunch of riders build the skills and confidence they need to join in. To this end, they have provided a website with information on skills, training and basic bike maintenance. There are free skill sessions, no-drop weekly training rides and demo days — all aimed at building a supportive community of female riders.

“We’ve done the research and know that women have a different approach to bike riding events than men. This is why The Ascent is about the journey to the event, rather than solely the ride itself,” Hargreaves said.

Event participation on the day is valued but the real aim is much bigger.

“In the long term we want to see a 50/50 split of men and women participating not only in our events, but out on the road. This is just the first step. It’s ambitious but we know it’s achievable,” said Hargreaves.

Removing barriers with Washington Women of Cross

Women racers as far as the eye can see. #womenride #cyclocross #wawcx

A photo posted by Anne-Marije (@amrook) on

“I think for women the bigger emphasis is on community, participation, support, mentorship and empowerment. There is so much more to the experience than just the racing. That is where having a women’s only event means you are really able to better provide that. We are trying to move the barriers other than those on the course in cyclocross. Come on whatever you have and as whatever you are and we will support you.”
– Kari Studley, president of the Washington Women of Cross

Washington Women of Cross has run a women’s specific cyclocross event before the start of the USA cyclocross season for the past three years. Kari Studley, a former masters and single-speed world cyclocross champion, started out with a casual women’s points series to try and encourage more females into the higher levels of racing. Then, amid some local upset about equality of the prize purse in 2012, she hosted a women’s forum where there was much discussion about how to get more women racing. This was the trigger for Washington Women of Cross, which has built a community of women supporting other women to come and race cyclocross.

The group runs an event that includes a cyclocross expo, women’s skill sessions, kids races, women’s races and, my personal favourite, a mom’s race with the category based on the age of their oldest child. It’s held a few weeks out from the start of the season to give women a chance to give cyclocross a try and then prepare for a season of racing in this accessible cycling discipline.

“You really can’t get lost. It is really family friendly and there are so many different ways to race. You can race each other, you can race the course, you can race yourself and you really can’t get dropped. You can have a life and train or you can just show up and race. It’s only a half hour to 45 minutes,” said Studley.

One factor that can detract from its appeal, that Studley has worked hard to change at local races, is having the women and men racing on the course at the same time. Firstly, if you have a family you often can’t race at the same time as your partner because someone has to look after the kids and it is often the women who will step back if combined women’s and men’s categories means there is a clash. Secondly, the race style between men and women tends to be different and this can cause problems.

“Women just race and ride differently to the men. Many are more into the social aspect of doing a bike race than the competitive,” said Studley. “I got my best friend to go and try cross and she got knocked by a man and she has never been to cross since, she had such a horrible experience. Most of the men are great but all it takes is one bad experience,” said Studley.

One of the reasons for the Washington Women of Cross was to show organisers of other events that there were enough women out there interested in cyclocross to justify separate race timeslots at races if you just gave them that opportunity. With more than 100 women taking part in the women’s only event each year the substantial level of interest from women was clear and now separate time slots at other race have become more common. So are healthier women’s fields, as there has been a big increase across the four local series, with an average of 66 women at each race in 2012 jumping to 313 in 2014.

Chicks in the Sticks flooded with demand

Chicks in the sticks

“I think the sheer numbers really showed that there is a demand there for women to have an event that feels inclusive. They want some sort of environment where they are not pressured, where it doesn’t matter if you don’t win. It is all about just coming along and joining in and not being run off the track by some guy who does want to win, because most events are all about the race,.”
– Kylie Jenner, event organisers and treasurer at the Brisbane South Mountain Bike Club

Chicks in the Sticks was a three hour mountain bike race  put on by the Brisbane South Mountain Bike Club this past August. The organisers were budgeting on 70 to 100 entrants, but had to cap numbers at 185 when faced with unexpectedly strong demand.

The level of interest in the women’s only mountain bike event was a surprise, given it is one of the cycling disciplines that has a reputation for being particularly heavily male dominated. It attracted so many that Mountain Bike Australia said it was believed to be the biggest event of its kind. There is no doubt that racing on a winding, obstacle strewn single-track loop, where the faster riders pass at close quarters can be intimidating for many.

“I have raced for quite a while now and I am used to racing with men, I understand their aggressive racing style and I am comfortable enough that I can say ‘if you want to go around you can go around when I tell you to because this is my line’. But whenever I would go to an event the ladies would hit the showers and the most common discussion you heard was ‘oh this guy nearly pushed me off and when he finally went around he was all wild’. That seemed to be the thing that would most often ruin their race or ruin their event,” said Kylie Jenner, one of the event organisers and treasurer at the Brisbane South Mountain Bike Club.

When a friend came back from another Queensland race in the regional town of Gympie called the Hairy Mary and suggested they put on their own women’s only event, Jenner was easily convinced. They set up a committee and set about creating a race that would make more women feel welcome.

“It was about a sense of community more than anything. It wasn’t a race. It was an event that people could come along and be part of and embrace their love of mountain biking with other people who felt the same way,” said Jenner.

This sense of community was fostered by the extensive use of existing social media to welcome and include riders of all levels as well as track practice days where women could not only try out the course but get to know others who were planning to race. There was also a strong interaction between the organisers and people who were interested in participating to allay any concerns about trying something new.

“The whole day was just like a carnival. It was just amazing. Everyone was all dressed up and there was music, stalls and barbeques,” said Jenner. “It was such a different vibe from every other race we have done.”

Chicks in the Sticks, just like The Ascent and Washington Women of Cross event, was not focussed on just getting more women involved on one day but prompting a flow through that boosted numbers at all races and there are signs it has had an impact. Jenner said she saw women who had done Chicks in the Sticks weeks later at the Flight Centre Cycle Epic, as that initial experience had given them the confidence to go and try out another race. The Brisbane South Mountain Bike Club has also taken hold of the lessons learnt from putting on Chicks in the Sticks to try and make their upcoming Bayview Blast more appealing to a greater number of female racers. They have track preview rides specifically for women and a separate women’s race division that will start at a time that means competitors won’t have to worry about being passed by faster racers from other categories.

“I by no means want to have just women’s events and nothing else, but it is nice for them to have one here and there, that you come along maybe as your first event or as something a bit special,” said Jenner.

So are women’s only events a game changer that can help attract new women into the sport and shift the gender balance across the spread of cycling events? It is early days still so only time will tell. One thing that is clear though is that some are drawing in substantial numbers and providing a way in for women who otherwise might not try a challenging cycling event or race. Surely that has got to be a good thing.

Have you tried a women’s only event? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below


*Ella CyclingTips is a media partner on The Ascent


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