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Last weekend around 600 women lined up for the first edition of Bicycle Network’s The RACV Ascent, a 100 kilometre women’s only ride packed with climbing. It was an event on the winding roads of the Dandenong ranges that successfully pulled together so many disparate threads of the existing women’s riding community to support and welcome others in.
For Bicycle Network, one of Australia’s biggest cycling event organisers, it was clear that using the same old formulas just wasn’t going to cut it if they were actually going to make any headway toward their target of having an even gender split at their events and out on the roads. Only 20 percent of the participants at their past events were female, and this percentage dropped into single digits when it came to the more challenging rides.
“We took a really hard look at why that was the case and we had to take a step back, see the reasons why women were not participating, whatever reasons they may be and try and address that,” said Anthea Hargreaves, Bicycle Network communications general manager. “It was very clear that you couldn’t just run a ride and say go and do it, we needed to foster a community.”
There was a determination that while the aim was to even up the gender split, it would not be done by taking the easy way out and formulating a short and easy course to get new riders in. “We didn’t want to go down the ‘shrink it and pink it’ path,” said Hargreaves. Instead, the group would help riders rise to the challenge and facilitate longer term growth and development in the process.
Leaders in the women’s cycling community stepped up to provide months of training and skills sessions so that new and developing riders had the know-how and fitness to tackle the 1,800 metres of climbing on the course just outside Melbourne. However, Sunday’s ride was always meant to be just a milestone along the way. The ultimate aim was to put on an event that was challenging enough to build a cycling habit as well as provide riders with the confidence and networks that would ensure that this one event wasn’t the end of their cycling journey, but just the beginning.
The outreach was extensive and as the word about the event and its preparatory rides spread, attendance ramped up. Even more impressive, though, was the progression of those that were making the effort to get involved. So many short distance riders, struggling climbers and frightened descenders were finding that with a little support, their skills, confidence and capacity to chew through the kilometres was growing quickly.
“To see those women as they crossed the finish line, you can tell they have had a life changing moment. Those smiles on their faces can not be beat,” said Hargreaves
“We are so proud of this event at Bicycle Network and we are so proud of how far these women have come. They have been on this journey and we really, really hope that it goes beyond today and that the lessons they have learned see them continue to ride. That’s the testament of the success of this event, that it goes beyond today,” said Hargreaves. “It’s not done, it’s not over. This is just one part of a bigger movement towards 50/50 and towards that equality on the road.”
Achievements measured in growth, not speed
Those who joined The Ascent can be in no doubt that if they do continue with their cycling, they will not have to do it alone.
There were plenty of fast riders there, in fact one of the world’s fastest women over an hour Bridie O’Donnell, helped lead out the ride. However, any sense of competitiveness was overwhelmed by a feeling that this was an event where the achievement was measured not by speed, but by personal achievement and the number of women on bikes.
“I really felt the difference this morning on the start line,” said Bike it Better cycling coach Cazz Clarke who was one of those that ran training rides in the lead up to the event. “A different vibe was in the air. It was such an encouraging supportive atmosphere. There was no trying to shove to the front at the start … today everyone was hanging back and saying good luck. At the rest stops and the lunch stops people were saying hi, chatting and encouraging each other.”
There were also 40 event ambassadors spread throughout the field, a course laden with marshals who were quick to cheer everyone on their way and locals who set up in their driveways to cheer the riders on. This in particular helped dampen feelings of being unwelcome in the area after a spate of punctures resulting from tacks scattered on the popular 1 in 20 climb.
The ride ended in celebration. At Cherryhill Orchards, husbands and children were waiting at the finish line to cheer on mum as she came in. In fact, everyone working their way up that final gravel climb was welcomed with enthusiastic cheering and clapping, music, good food and hundreds of women brought together by a shared challenge. Many riders lingered for hours after they had ridden past the finish line, as this day wasn’t just about the ride, but the community of riders.
Stories of the ride
There were so many tales of riders who found a riding network, new friends and rode far further than they had previously thought possible. They were challenged with a course that always seemed to have another climb around the corner but rewarded with lush tree-lined forests and picturesque orchards with hot air balloons floating overhead, paddocks full of wide-eyed alpacas and most importantly, the constant encouragement from all those around. These are just a couple of the stories of growth and achievement we came across on the day.
The right opportunity at the right time
One of the families standing on the sidelines cheering was that of Melissa Martyn. The mother of two young children started riding to work about a year ago, taking on the 20-kilometre trip each way once a week. When she was convinced that she would stick with it she bought herself a road bike.
“I was looking to take it to the next level, to get fitter … and I was really looking for an opportunity, but I didn’t have anyone to ride with and I didn’t really have any road skills,” said Martyn. “So an email about The Ascent popped up in my mailbox and I thought that would be a great idea, but was wondering who I would train with. Then I saw that it had training that went with it and that’s when I thought I can do this.”
“It was the right opportunity at the right time. I was actively looking for something like this and the fact that it had the training to go with it has just made it superb,” said Martyn.
Martyn regularly turned up to Fondo’s training rides, initially with ‘a pannier rack and a very basic level of fitness’ but they were so supportive and encouraging that she kept turning up and could measure her progress as the months went on.
“This has just really given me the confidence, the skills and a fabulous group of ladies to ride with, in fact I rode with several of the ladies I met through the training today and we all finished together. It’s been great,” said Martyn after completing her first 100 kilometre ride in more than 15 years.
And this is not the end of her journey, she has already set up regular rides with people she met as she trained for The Ascent, and now knows there is a whole women’s cycling network she can tap into.
“You need the network to sustain the activity … and now I have it,” said Martyn.
It wasn’t me, it was my identical sister
Emma Van Steel has a keen cyclist for a sister, and while her sister Melita’s enthusiasm for the sport probably did something to encourage Van Steel to see cycling as an interesting option, what tipped the balance was Melita’s move to sign her up for The Ascent and a promise to come down from Queensland to ride it with her.
“It was a bit of a challenge. I haven’t done anything like this before as I’d spent probably the last three years doing a lot of weight training and strength training,” said Van Steel. “This was something that was a bit more community involved and outside so I thought ‘stuff it I’ll give it a go’.”
But she didn’t even have a bike at that stage, so to work up her fitness she resorted to spin classes at the gym and went to women’s training sessions focussed on getting ready for The Ascent at The Spin Room. Then, when she got her sister’s old bike about two months ago she started on the training rides and joined in with a St Kilda Cycling Club ride.
Without the training opportunities “it would have been a different journey. It would have been quite daunting,” said Van Steel.
She added that the supportive community, the information that was provided, the chance to get to know other people and ask questions of other riders made it easier. “I am so glad I did it.”
And she didn’t just do the ride, just two months after getting a bike Van Steel steadily worked her way up the climbs looking far too comfortable to be a new rider, persistently hauled herself back into a bunch of much more experienced cyclists and persisted with a smile even when the pinches got steep near the end of her first 100 kilometre ride. Then the next day instead of resting on laurels, she got on her bike again and found some more hills to ride.
*Ella CyclingTips is a media partner of The Ascent