Breaking barriers: How Belgium is getting more girls on bikes

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The Netherlands is the leading country when it comes to women’s cycling. Meanwhile, just to the south, Belgium struggles to get girls on bikes, which is odd for a country so dominant in men’s cycling.

Only 150 girls hold a race license for road cycling in Belgium compared to almost five times as many in the Netherlands. To try to address this, Cycling Vlaanderen, the cycling federation for the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, came up with a program dedicated to young, female riders aged 12-18 years.

Frank Glorieux is the CEO of Cycling Vlaanderen. “I am actually the only man involved in the project,” he starts with a smile. “Everyone else involved, from coaches to soigneurs and mechanics are women. That was also our goal although mechanics were the hardest to find. But we found them and now we have a great team led by Anne-Laure Gheerardyn.”

Along with the equivalent organisation in Wallonia (the French-speaking part of Belgium), Cycling Vlaanderen is responsible for all amateur cycling in Belgium. The pro cyclists and national teams have their federation in the KWBW, which works together with the two regional branches.

“The structure and finances of cycling in this country are about as complicated as the political structure where we have three regional parliaments in three languages and one federal government in Brussels,” Glorieux explains. “Cycling Vlaanderen is by far the biggest of the two. We have 80,000 members where the Walloon Federation has 5,000 members. When we look at girls between 8 and 18 years of age there are only 150 members, [compared with] over 3,300 boys.

“Every year five Belgian male riders turn pro. When we look at the women, we have a world-class rider every five years. We thought the Netherlands had a plan for development because they are world class but it came mostly down to coincidence, we found out to our surprise. We couldn’t rely on coincidence in Belgium so we made a plan.”

The structure in Belgian cycling was and is largely focused on boys.

“You could say that it’s a little bit of a taboo for girls to ride bikes,” says Belgian champion Jesse Vandenbulcke. “The cultural consensus is that bike racing is for boys, that it’s too dangerous for girls.

“Girls don’t automatically choose road cycling so we made it much easier for them in this project. Cycling Vlaanderen asked me to help out. I am still only 24 and close to the age group we are targeting. It’s also great to share my knowledge with a group of enthusiastic young people.”

Belgian champ Jesse Vandenbulck is involved in the ‘Zij aan zij’ project, helping young girls to get into cycling.

As Glorieux explains, cycling isn’t a cheap sport. Financial support is required to get meaningful programs like “Zij aan zij” (“Side by side” in Dutch) off the ground.

“With partners like Canyon we can lend out bikes to young aspiring riders who don’t have a bike already,” he says. “That was an important first step. We also don’t impose membership fees and we give them shoes and clothing.

“The next step was publicity. MNM, a popular national radio station, and [sports broadcaster] Sporza helped us with that. Then riders like Lotte Kopecky and Jolien D’Hoore also used their social media channels to get the project known to our target group.

“We had two test days planned, one in Ghent and the other one in the east of the country. They were a huge success. Our goal was to have 25 new girls who would apply for a race license. Almost 100 girls came to the test days from all sorts of sports backgrounds like football, gymnastics and judo. They all already had that drive to compete.”

One of the girls who went to the test day in Ghent is 15-year-old Hélène Hesters. “My brother saw the advertisement and thought of me,” she says. “I was still training 15 hours a week in gymnastics but already had that lingering thought in my head to quit because I had reached all my goals in the sport. This ad came just in time and this is how I entered the world of cycling.”

Hélène comes from a cycling family. Her older brother Jules is a six-day track cycling specialist and her father Tom works as a mechanic.

“The feeling I wanted to try cycling too came pretty late, despite the fact my family already was heavily involved in the sport,” Hélène explains. “I just loved gymnastics too but I … wanted something new. The project gave me that last push. Also, there are many more races and competitions in cycling than there are in gymnastics so that was a reason too.

“It’s a new challenge for me. In the end I hope to race with the women, to be invited to race for the Belgian national team, and to aim for the podium!”

Many people are involved in the Zij aan zij project to give the girls the most complete support structure. There are workshops in many different subjects like bike mechanics and maintenance, nutrition, indoor cycling, technical skills and training schedules. There are also workshops aimed at parents only.

“Our goal is to get girls to the highest levels of Belgian cycling,” Glorieux says. “The fastest growing group [at a] recreational level are women of all ages. The image cycling is only for men changes fast.

“We get applications from girls whose parents ride already but also from girls from non-cycling backgrounds. That resulted in questions we didn’t really anticipate. Parents were worried about their daughters’ safety in traffic but also about their safety riding alone. These were questions parents of boys hardly asked.

“The fact that the project is run by women only is important to us. We also made groups so girls could meet up and ride together. Gradually we saw everyone get more enthusiastic, from the riders and the staff but also the people at the federation who were maybe a bit skeptical at first.”

Jesse Vandenbulcke guides and trains many of the young, aspiring riders. “Their energy gives me energy too but there is still a lot to learn,” she says. “We teach them basic skills. Things that are so normal to me — like which lever is the front brake and which one is the rear one — need to be taught. The great thing is that you can see the talent and determination straight away.

“I hope many of these girls grow towards a competitive level and that we will have more girls at the Belgian championships in the future.”

Frank Glorieux is even more ambitious.

“We aimed for 25 license holders but we already exceeded this goal by far,” he says. “We are at the maximum number of girls the project can support now. The next step is for us to provide the support structure to the different clubs to further develop these new riders.

“From that point on I have high ambitions. Maybe even one of these girls can compete in the junior category at the Road World Championships in Belgium next year.”

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