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British Cycling sets ambitious target to boost women’s cycling

In London last August, the British National anthem rang out at the Olympic Park velodrome as the likes of Laura Trott and Victoria Pendleton received their gold medals. With a total of 10 medals across the last two Olympic Games, Team GB’s women have literally taken the cycling world by storm.

“This has not happened by accident,” assures British Cycling President Brian Cookson, “but as the result of sustained investment in the potential of some extraordinary women. Now the challenge is to use that inspiration to effect significant change in the number of women cycling.”

And that is a very large part of the work of National Operations Manager Jill Puttnam, who explained British Cycling’s strategy during the recent UCI Sharing Platform in Geneva, which reunited nearly 24 National Cycling Federations for two days of discussions.

“British Cycling is mainly known for the success of its Team GB,” she says. “But after Beijing four years ago we decided to really concentrate on women. In particular we wanted to stop the significant drop-off of women cycling once they got to the age of 16 and left school.”

Two different projects were launched, targeting different age groups and lifestyles: “Pathway” is a programme that was launched in schools for girls under-16, while the aim of “Breeze” is to encourage all women to get into cycling, regardless of their age and family situation, through the organisation of fun, flexible and local bike rides throughout the country.

Children welcome

“For example child care can be a problem, so we organise some rides for women with their children, and others just for women,” explains Jill Puttnam. “We need to get them away from the typical club attitude of ‘go out on Sunday and don’t ride less than 50 miles’ which isn’t necessarily attractive to women.”

Some 500 volunteers throughout the country work for the Breeze project as British Cycling qualified Ride Leaders. This year, another 500 volunteers will be trained to lead rides of varying distances for pelotons of women. The goal is, between now and 2020, to inspire 1 million more women to ride, race and be part of the cycling scene in Britain.

That inspiration can come from the programme’s ambassadors, which include 2012 Olympic road race silver medallist Lizzie Armistead and Olympic track cyclist Jessie Varnish as well as other famous personalities who do not come from the world of sport.

“If we can realise this ambition it will go a long way to refreshing cycling’s image so it isn’t seen as a sport only for men in lycra,” Jess Varnish said when the programme was launched. “The best thing about cycling is that anyone can do it, and in whatever form they like. I’m looking forward to seeing more women riding bikes and, most importantly, enjoying every moment.”

For those who get hooked, opportunities will be created to race in regional events. Another aim is to involve more women in the running of the sport – as coaches, volunteers, leaders and officials – as well as in the governing of cycling.

Female-friendly bike shops

British Cycling’s desire to woo women into cycling even goes as far as creating a network of female-friendly bike shops. Aware that some women can find visiting a bike shop an intimidating experience, the British Federation, together with the Association of Cycle Traders, has compiled a list of shops that stock bikes for women and children, female clothing, and bike seats for toddlers. Ideally these shops have a female member of staff, but at least staff who are not condescending when dealing with women customers.

“It is something quite simple but it is important,” comments Jill Puttnam. “And since the Olympics, we have actually had the bike industry approaching us and asking how they can support our projects.”

UCI Women in Cycling Project Coordinator Andrea Marcellini welcomed British Cycling’s vision for women’s cycling. “Federations are increasingly realising the need to nurture women’s cycling. At the UCI Sharing Platform in Geneva at the beginning of May we heard about the work of many different nations in this area. As well as presentations from British Cycling and Sweden, the Federations also worked together on case studies concerning women in cycling. There was a real motivation and desire to move forward not only at the Elite level of women’s cycling but at the recreational level.”

Photo (UWCT Copenhagen Gran Fondo/Martin Paldan): Women ready to set off on the 2013 UWCT Copenhagen Gran Fondo

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