This summer, a handful of racers and ex-racers from nearly every local women’s team decided to join forces to offer a women’s development series. In Philadelphia, we saw vibrant communities in both urban cycling on one hand and elite racing on the other, but not much in between. Our local racing teams, limited by time or budget, generally focus on people who are ready to race. This series was designed to bridge that gap.
Over the course of 6 weeks, we started with a 20-mile gently rolling route, and built up to 70 hilly miles with lots of skills practice in between. By Sunday July 20th, 40 women — mostly new to road cycling — pedalled 100km through the gorgeous, woodsy hills north of Philadelphia. By the end of the series, the overwhelming comment was “Keep the series going!”
How did we do it?
First, we capitalized on the range of expertise among mentors. One woman and longtime mechanic taught a fit & bike adjustment clinic, a frequent ride organizer created beautiful cue sheets, a huge donated pile of spandex, and a longtime elite racer shared riding techniques. The existing women’s racing community provided many welcoming, fun ride leaders who were critical in safely managing the large turnout and range of abilities. Frankly, it was also a little bit fun to spend with these women in non-competitive settings.
Second, I think each of the ride leaders recalled the ups and downs of our own cycling journeys. This allowed us to put ourselves in the new riders’ shoes, keeping the ups and deliberately fighting the downs. As one rider commented, the mentors were “ridiculously patient and positive and peppy”.
The overwhelming effect? A beautiful, fantastic community excited to regroup each Sunday morning.
“All the ladies involved as leaders/sweeps (I spent a lot of time with sweeps!) were super cool and very helpful and supportive.”
“A great sense of community…. the few group rides I’ve been on in the city before were fairly cliquish and didn’t feel overly welcoming to ‘outsiders.'”
Road cycling is a complex sport. Learning the skills of bike-handling, navigating the rules of pacelines, dealing with road hazards and difficult conditions, knowing when and how to use various riding techniques – all of these and more form the foundation for skilled, safe, and strong riders that you would want near you in a race or group ride.
We dedicated significant time to teaching and practicing these skills: Riding within 1 wheel length in a 5-person paceline. Then rotating through a double paceline in larger groups. Hovering over potholes. Shifting without tension (and for some riders, how to shift!). Attacking a roller so you get the most out of your pedaling. Descending like a champ.
The added bonus is that while it’s difficult to overhaul fitness in 6 bike rides, you can get a hell of a lot of free speed from technique.
A few key aspects created consistency and growth for riders, while simplifying burden on organizers and ride leaders:
Almost all of them were borrowed from clinics, series, or rides we have attended or helped lead in the past: Savvy Bike, Early Bird, and SF2G in Northern California, Rapha Cycle Club and Kissena Velodrome in NYC, the winter women’s racing ride in Philadelphia. The closest parallel was Tripleshot Cycling‘s 3rd annual women’s clinic in Victoria, BC, where Jen Erlendson gave a generous and thoughtful response to my cold email for advice.
Because, by and large, women downplay their abilities, we explicitly recruited a wide range of fitness and experience levels. Some riders were brand spanking new: “I just bought my bike last week and the girl at the shop said I had to do this!”. Some were constantly hungry for more: when I announced that I was tacking on sprint repeats, a dozen women wanted to learn about sprint technique too. For the final ride, we split into 3 waves and in the future we will look at how to adapt even better to different levels of riders.
A conflicting local criterium was announced after we’d already finalized the series schedule. The women’s race was an open category field and not a great intro for new racers, so unfortunately the very event we had created to grow women’s racing ended up cannibalizing the field a bit. We will reach out to coordinate with the promoter next year.
We had a loose registration process of Facebook RSVPs. We had ride leaders prepared to support slower riders separately, which worked 99% of the time. We didn’t have licensed coaches or USAC insurance for this initial effort. All of these micro-decisions added up to more riding and less red tape.
As a lazy track sprinter, I am constantly thinking about how to draft from or provide a leadout for existing efforts. This series was jump-started by a thread on the Women Bike PHL Facebook group of 800+ members which focuses on transportation cycling, but includes women cyclists of all stripes. It also ended up being a perfect place to recruit participants — 2 out of every 5 riders ended up coming from here. To tie into a larger movement, we targeted the Rapha Women’s 100 (a worldwide day of 6,000+ women riding 100km or 62miles) as the final ride in the series.
Now, let’s turn to the future. In our post-series survey (see results), there were two overwhelming themes. First, the community and people were the highlight, and that there was equal desire for easy and fast rides.
Thursdays: While there is no shortage of group rides, we are hoping to establish a weekly community ride that does one slow park loop, followed by a fast one. Currently this meets 6:45am Thursdays at the skatepark.
Wednesdays: A major initial goal was to provide a gateway to racing, and over half of participants said they were interested in intro to racing clinics. The new Battle for Ft. Washington training race series is a perfect segue, and we are looking forward to a great women’s and men’s turnout!
Next year: We will almost certainly build upon this series next summer, where we hope to see many of this year’s new riders return as mentors and leaders.
Thank you First States Cycling and Women Bike PHL for the organizational support, Peanut Butter & Co. for the delicious on-bike snacks, and anonymous donors for our spandex swap bounty. And to our excellent ride leaders and co-conspirators, without whom we would all still be lost in the Main Line: Melissa Tabas, Caitlin Thompson, Gwyneth Mogg-Hall, Angelia Fick, Linda Molendyke, Nathalie Anderson, Rachel Rubino, Sarah LoGiudice, Lauren Chesnutt, Anna Shipp, Cassandra King, Sam Orskog, Michaela Albanese, Emily Costello, Emily Smith, Shaina Kravitz, Sophia Lee, Elisabeth Reinkordt, Maria Dziembowska.