Women cyclists of Bristol, united

About a month ago, a meeting was called. El gathered a bunch of women cyclists together in the upstairs area of Roll for the Soul, to discuss the lack of community among the women cyclists of Bristol.

We agreed that there are plenty of women cycling in Bristol now, and it was time to create a feeling of cohesion among us. We all brought forth ideas, from putting together women-only day rides, to weekend camping adventures, and drinks socials.

We held our first social on 11th May, and I’m really pleased to say that it was a big success! There was a great turn-out, taking over the downstairs area of RftS, where women mingled, drank beer, ate awesome veggie food and got to know their fellow lady riders.

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Holly McGowan talks about the history of women in Bristol

We paused the chatter to have a group-wide discussion, which gave people the platform to promote their own events and groups, and show everyone what’s already available to get involved in. I’ll list these here.

They’re not all women-only, so lads, you’re allowed to join in too (unless we say otherwise):

Food Cycle

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Photo: foodcyclebristol.wordpress.com
  • Open to all.
  • Food Cycle collect waste food from local businesses by bike, and distribute it to various charities and local ‘skipchens’ for use.
  • They also cook and serve their own community meals across the UK.
  • If you have time during the week (or on a Saturday morning), they’re always looking for volunteers to cycle around the city with a trailer and collect food that’s been pre-agreed with the businesses involved.
  • It’s a lovely way to cycle around the city and give something back to the community.

Family Cycling Centre

Family Cycle Centre
Photo: betterbybike.info
  • Open to all.
  • Based on the site of the former Whitchurch athletics track.
  • They give people of all ages and abilities the chance to ride in a safe, traffic-free environment.
  • They have Bikeability-trained cycle trainers on hand to help, and a large range of bikes to try.
  • They also offer family cycling activities and fun days – perfect if you’re looking for a way to get young children confident on their bikes.
  • They also have plenty of volunteering opportunities.

Group Riding for Women

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Photo: eventbrite.co.uk
  • Women only.
  • Training provided by Heidi Blunden.
  • Hosted at the Family Cycling Centre.
  • This event has now passed, but there’s scope for more in future, so keep your eyes peeled.
  • Heidi provides cycling coaching in Bristol, and this event is aimed at women who want to learn or improve group-riding skills.

Cycle the City Tours

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Photo: cyclethecity.org
  • Open to all.
  • There are a variety of tours on offer, to get you cycling around Bristol and learning more about the city.
  • Around once a month, Holly McGowan does a tour which tells the history of women in Bristol.
  • She gave us a taste of this during this social, and I know for sure that I want to join this tour next time it runs.

Breeze Network

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Photo: news.calderdale.gov.uk
  • Women only.
  • This is actually how I met Heidi, who is also a Breeze Champion.
  • These rides usually run at the weekends, and the distance and pace varies greatly, depending on the ride leader and the type of ride.
  • You can find upcoming rides here.
  • Also, if you’re a confident cyclist and able to ride a minimum of 20 miles, you can find details out how to become a Breeze Champion and encourage more women to ride.

Women’s Night at the Bristol Bike Project

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Photo: thebristolbikeproject.org
  • Women (and trans) only.
  • Monday evenings, 6-9pm.
  • This is a safe space for women and trans people to use the workshop and the tools available to work on their own bikes.
  • Volunteers are on hand to help.
  • We welcome all women to either use the space or come and volunteer, to empower other women to learn how to maintain their own bikes.

Cycling Clubs

Facebook Groups

  • Women only.
  • Two Facebook groups you should be aware of:
  • Women Cyclists of Bristol – Closed group for women cyclists, to discuss anything we wouldn’t talk about in a mixed group (from street harassment to periods). They also have their own Twitter account and email address, where you can get in touch if you need advice or want to share something with other women cyclists in the city.
  • Bristol Biking Bitches – This group is full of women who love to get out on their bikes as much as possible, and frequently post in the group to invite others along for the ride. Full of roadies and MTBers, they’re a great group to be part of if you want to go riding with some company.

I wasn’t taking notes on the night, so naturally I’ve probably forgotten a few things. If there’s anything I should add to this, please let me know.

The next social will be at Roll for the Soul at 7pm, on Thursday 8th June. Hope to see you there!

#WednesdayWisdom: Find your people

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Photo: trilondon.com/group-cycling-etiquette

At the risk of descending into a rant, I want to reflect on a recent experience that left me exasperated, because it highlights the importance of finding the right people to ride with, so you get the most out of your group riding experience.

I want to go on more group rides. So far I’ve been on a couple of Breeze rides, a couple of social rides with my fellow Bristol Bike Project volunteers, and of course, the monthly Critical Mass, which is always huge fun.

I decided to go along to a 40-mile group ride on Sunday – I won’t name the group I rode with – and can certainly say I learned a lot from the experience. I’m sure there will be plenty of people who read the following and nod their heads, thinking ‘this is absolutely the right way to ride as a group’. Others will shake their heads and feel as perplexed as I do.

This isn’t a post about the right or wrong way to ride in a group. I don’t know the right way to ride in a group, because I’m not part of any cycling clubs. I just know how I feel about what happened on Sunday, and want to reflect.

Riding as one

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Photo: roadcyclinguk.com

This isn’t specific to the group, and in fact it also relates to some previous rides I’ve been on. In my opinion, a group should ride at the pace of their slowest rider. Otherwise, they become disjointed and the riders at the back can be left feeling excluded and alienated. Furthermore, it’s the job of the ride leader to make sure that everyone in the group reaches each checkpoint before moving on. To me, this seems basic.

On Sunday, our group was extremely disjointed. Before setting out, our ride leader asked for someone to volunteer as a back marker, and a lady immediately offered herself up, stating that she should because she was the slowest. Red flag. She spent the whole day miles behind us, riding alone for a lot of it.

If a group rides together, there should be no need to stop at certain checkpoints to re-group, but this isn’t always the case. Our ride leader would advise us of the next point where we would regroup, and then set off at his own pace.

That was, until he stopped waiting for us at the checkpoints. We reached a point where, upon arriving in Bath, our ride leader was nowhere to be found. A couple of other riders were waiting for us there, and told us where the next checkpoint was, passed down from him before he’d moved on without them.

It was at this point that I remembered at the start, he gave out his phone number and stated “we have lost people before”, and suddenly it all made sense how. To me, this is not how you lead a ‘group’ ride.

Bell-ringers united

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Photo: camulos.com

As we were riding along the Bristol-Bath Railway Path, I started to notice a pattern in the way one of the riders used her bell. At first, she was the only one, and I assumed it was just her way of riding. Whenever we approached pedestrians, or were about to overtake some cyclists, she rang her bell twice.

This didn’t bother me at first. I understand it’s helpful to alert people to your presence. However after a while, a lot of the other riders started doing it. I put this down to the group splitting up; at first she rang on behalf of the whole group, but once we separated into smaller units, each unit gained at least one self-certified bell-ringer.

While bells are there for a reason, they can come across as aggressive if overused. Eventually the group took me to my wit’s end with their incessant ringing. They didn’t just ring politely ahead of time to alert pedestrians to their presence. They waited until they were practically on their heels, and then rang several times to move them out the way. Groups of two or three riders together would ring at the same time.

There were multiple occasions on the towpath (which is extremely narrow and was heaving with people enjoying the sunshine), where I encountered very ratty and hostile people who didn’t want to let me past, because they’d just been harassed by a hoard of bell-happy cyclists ahead of me.

For those of you familiar with the path, you’ll know that there are several bridges with single-file only pathways and restricted views of the other side. At one point as we approached a bridge, three riders in front of me gained on a pedestrian couple who were about to walk under the bridge. Instead of slowing and waiting, they all rang their bells multiple times, forcing the couple to step aside and let them through. As you’d imagine, one of them became very hostile towards the group, swearing at us and claiming right of way. This was met with dismissive comments among the riders: “oh dear, was there an altercation with an angry pedestrian?”

Sigh.

Bridge
Photo: thebogtrotter.co.uk

I use my bell sparingly. If I’m approaching a large group of people and there’s limited passing space, I ring my bell ahead of time, to alert them of my presence and give them time to shift over a bit and let me pass. I ring my bell if approaching a narrow underpass with only room for one person at a time, in case someone is approaching from the other side. Or, I occasionally ring my bell if approaching a person with misbehaving children or multiple dogs, in case they’re too preoccupied to know I’m there. Again, I leave plenty of time for them to become aware of me, and choose what to do with that information.

If I’m approaching a couple walking side by side and need to overtake, I don’t ring my bell. Instead, I call out to them: “Just to your right”, or the timeless classic: “Excuse me, please”. It’s not difficult to do. It establishes a rapport. It’s personal. To them, you become a fellow human being on a bike, rather than a silent bell-ringing wheel-mounted lunatic.

What annoyed me the most on that towpath was that I was riding ahead of one of these bell-happy groups, who were very close behind. If ever I approached some pedestrians, before I got the chance to call out to them, my companions rang their bells on my behalf. As I noted earlier, some of these people had already been hassled by hoards of bell-ringers. Needless to say, these people then thought it was me ringing at them, and diverted their hostility towards me. Thanks, guys.

Name that thing

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Photo: slate.com

As I said before, I’m not an experienced group rider, but it’s my understanding that there are times when it’s appropriate to call out to your group to warn them of a hazard. For example, if you’re riding along a country road and a car approaches in the opposite direction, you’d call out “car down” to alert riders behind you so they can get into single file. The same goes for a car approaching from behind, and “car up”.

I can get on board with that. That makes sense. It keeps the group safe.

What doesn’t make sense, and has no bearing on the group’s safety whatsoever, is to call out “bike down” and “bike up” for literally every other cyclist ON A TWO-WAY CYCLE PATH.

I mean, really? Seriously? Don’t you have anything better to do?

What purpose can it possibly serve, to let the riders know behind you that other cyclists are approaching in a separate lane? If you’re riding two abreast in a group, then fair enough. You need to tell the others to move over. But this wasn’t the case.

This was when we were riding through the Two Tunnels Greenway, which you ride in single-file because they are in total darkness. You expect other riders to come in the opposite direction, many without lights, and you ride in single file. If you’re riding two abreast in those tunnels and feel the need to call out approaching cyclists, you must be an idiot with a death wish.

What’s more, they not only called out every single cyclist in an enclosed, echoey tunnel with acoustics that carry, so everyone else can hear… they also called out things like “cyclist down, no lights”. To me, all this does is call another person out on a mistake they’ve made, and make them feel bad about it. It’s just not necessary. Play nice.

On a lighter note, once we caught on that this was happening, Adam made me laugh hysterically by calling out “dog up” for a dog that was miles away. We continued to play ‘name that thing’ for the rest of our time with the group.

Conclusion

If there’s any purpose to this post other than venting my frustrations, it’s to say that if you decide to get out on some group rides, take the time to find a group of people you can ride happily with. Everyone is different, and groups vary in their etiquette and habits. Make sure the group is for you, and if it’s not, find a way to excuse yourself and try a different one.

/end rant

 

The Long Road to Oxford, or, #WAB2017 Part 1

 

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I did it! I’m so freaking proud of myself.

On Saturday we got up at the crack of dawn and set off on our (what turned out to be) 80-mile journey from Bristol to Oxford. Regina was loaded with ridiculously large Vaude panniers, which I grew to hate with a passion by the end of the weekend, but at this point I was feeling positive about it all.

Thus began the climb out of Bristol! I definitely noticed the difference, climbing with all the added weight on the back. Regina is lovely and light, which is so refreshing after riding my clunky Ridgeback hybrid for three years, however with the added 15kg or so on the back, climbing became quite a chore after a while. Lesson learned #1.

Having said that, something huge happened for me. The first 40-50 miles were undulating hills, which meant I had to get used to descending pretty quickly. If you’ve read my blog for a while you’ll know that I’m terrified of picking up speed whilst going downhill. It all stems from a mountain biking accident I had a couple of years ago, that I’m yet to write about.

(Side note: I actually bumped into that ride leader this weekend, and am going to slowly get back into it. More of this to come.)

So, when we hit the first descent, I had a minor freak out. I rode the brakes all the way down, which felt a bit arduous with the Tiagra shifters, particularly because my winter gloves are too tight across my palms. Lesson learned #2.

However, after I was warned that there would be a lot of descending, I told myself to get a grip. Gradually I held off the braking, just feathering them lightly to keep my speed in check. Eventually I let go altogether, and was rewarded with a thrilling descent through a tree-covered section of road that opened out to a gorgeous, misty area with a farm on the left and a great hill to the right. My description won’t do it justice, it just looked beautiful, and for the first time ever, I felt a real sense of elation from descending. Regina is a lot of fun. Lesson learned #3.

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The route we took went through lots of countryside and beautiful little villages. We stopped in Malmesbury for a coffee and snackage, and had a little wander into the Abbey to visit the tomb of King Æthelstan (a big nerdy moment for me). Malmesbury is beautiful, and we agreed we’d head back there at some point to explore it further.

We also stopped in Fairford for lunch, and had a really lovely meal at The Railway Inn. We were immediately greeted with a warm welcome, and it was such a nice surprise to find they had a vegan option on their menu, so we loaded up on vegetable tagine with cous cous (and an extra helping of chips, because carbs) before heading off on the final leg of the journey.

One thing that was really nice about cycling through the countryside was encountering a huge number of other cyclists who smiled and greeted us as we passed. I’m just not used to that, cycling around Bristol, and it made me feel like I was part of some special club.

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We eventually made it into Oxford, arriving around 5pm. There was one final climb that I honestly struggled with so much, to the point where I stopped halfway up because I had nothing left to give. Thankfully after that it was all downhill into the city.

Not everything was perfect though. We were blessed with gorgeous weather and beautiful views, but still encountered a few atrocious drivers. They were merely drops in the ocean, however. The only really bad thing was how I felt when we arrived. I honestly think I hadn’t drunk enough water and my blood sugar was terribly low. I actually experienced some distorted vision, and making my way through the city was quite scary.

It was like looking through a fish-eye lens – on the bike I felt like I was really high up, and the ground was really far away, but when I looked down it suddenly gained on me very quickly and appeared closer than it should have done. I saw cars with double vision, and signs were a blur. I was in a terrible state for a while and really scared of endangering myself on the city roads. Thankfully Adam got us there in one piece, and then brought me cinnamon knots from the Papa Johns across the road, which completely sorted me out! Sugar to the rescue, would you believe.

Otherwise I felt fine. I was ridiculously tired, had developed some weird hard lumps on my little toes and a blood blister on one of my palms, but my legs and bum didn’t complain too much. On that last note, I took bgddyjim’s advice and invested in better padded shorts. Solid advice, I’m so glad I did. I’m now considering getting bibbed shorts, now I’ve caught the long ride bug. I may have foolishly agreed to sign up for a 200km audax in April… Watch this space.

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In part 2: Of course, the reason we made this ride to Oxford was to attend the Women and Bicycles festival, hosted by The Broken Spoke Co-op. In part 2 I’ll tell you all about that. Spoiler alert: I met a hero of mine, and she was freaking awesome.

Transition, and taking one’s time

These past couple of days have felt a bit like being in limbo. I finished at my job on Thursday – a job that I’d loved doing, for a company I’d loved working for, but was pretty much driven out of by an appalling manager. Tomorrow I begin a new job, for a new company, which I’m excited about and have high hopes for.

But the transition from one to the other has been a strange one, emotionally. While I was applying for jobs and attending interviews, I was absolutely adamant that I needed to get out of my situation, but as my notice period came to its end I felt a deep sadness at leaving behind something that I wasn’t quite ready to give up.

Friday was my one and only day of official unemployment, so I spent a good part of it riding my bike. It was the best thing I could have done for my state of mind. My boyfriend and I rode into town in the morning, indulged in soya lattes and banana bread from Small Street Espresso, and then off he went to work. I popped into Roll for the Soul briefly and bumped into a couple of familiar faces, then slowly made my way up to Clifton with an hour to kill before I needed to be anywhere.

Always in a hurry

One of the things I struggle with when riding, is riding slowly. While I consider myself to be a ‘cyclist’ I’m for the most part a ‘commuter cyclist’. I’m also terrible at time-keeping, which means that generally when I’m commuting, I’m also rushing around like a maniac. I very rarely take the time to slow down and actually experience the ride.

Another reason for my maniacal riding is the fact that when I first took up cycling to work, it was purely driven by a need to somehow squeeze exercise into my daily routine. Therefore when I was cycling I had to be sweating, and any pootling or freewheeling downhill was a no-no.

Now I go to the gym, I take spinning classes, Body Pump, I’m training for a half marathon and just generally am very active. I have no problem burning an average of >2,000 calories a day, and yet when I mount my bicycle I automatically go into manic exercise mode.

Riding it out

Friday was different. For once, I had time on my hands. Plus I’ve been battling with the ill, so I’m allowing myself some time off from obsessive calorie counting and burning. For what felt like the first time (in a very long time), I simply pootled around Clifton’s side streets and took in the views.

I learned some road names and got my bearings, found myself cycling past a house where my friend used to live, noticed a lot of old church buildings now converted into flats, and also some of the strangest modern architecture I’ve seen in Bristol. I took nearly every turning that I came upon, shifted down to my granny gear so I could slowly climb the hills, and then allowed myself to freewheel back down them. For once I was actually just joy-riding my bike, with nowhere in particular to go.

That continued into yesterday, when I found myself with errands to run but again no real rush to get them done. I took a slow ride into Kingswood to pick up a parcel (my wondrous Vaude panniers which I’ll be writing about soon), and then wandered over to Easton to buy some food for the week. With my panniers loaded with more vegetables than I could physically carry, I had the perfect excuse to take an even slower ride back.

Throughout this pootling experiment I realised just how liberating cycling can be. Yes of course, it’s a way of getting around that takes you further than your feet can alone, but it’s also such a great opportunity to completely free your mind. I realised I was mindfully riding my bike, deliberately taking in the view, breathing the air, feeling the bitter cold on my cheeks and blinking the snowflakes from my eyelashes. I felt each turn of the pedals, thought carefully about my posture, and was completely aware of my surroundings. It was blissful.

New beginnings

So tomorrow I start my new job. I’m excited and nervous, and hopeful about the path that lies ahead. Most importantly, I’ve had time to shut down the old, and prepare myself for the new. By learning to slow down and take my time, I also allowed myself a period of much-needed mindfulness and meditation.

Now I feel ready to mount my bike and make the journey down a new path, and I’m going to take my time. Let’s see where it goes.

#ThrowbackThursday – My first bike, or, Why I’ll never be a fearless rider

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As I’ve said before, I’m not your average bike blogger. Bikes didn’t play a large role in my formative years.

I have an awful habit of setting myself impossibly high expectations, planning to be better at things than I actually am, which always leads to disappointment and frustration. What’s worse is that I have a tendency to compare myself to others (don’t we all?). As I gradually get more involved with Bristol’s cycling community, I get to know many confident cyclists and I wish I was more like them. I feel like an outsider who doesn’t belong among them.

I look at someone like my boyfriend and I see a fearless rider. I watch him approach a steep, loose terrain descent, and he gets straight into the drops and lets gravity do the rest. I see him jump on a bike that he’s never ridden before without a second thought, and within minutes he’s tested all the gears, done some bunny hops, some track standing, and weaves in and out of oncoming cars. He instantly gets to know the bike.

I have to remind myself that he’s been riding since his feet could reach the ground. He’s ridden all types of bikes over the years: BMX, fixies, MTB, single speeds, you name it. To him, riding is second nature and it doesn’t phase him to mount a new set of wheels.

Me? I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was at least 9 years old, and even then it wasn’t governed by a deep desire to ride. I most likely wanted a bike just because my cousin had one – we were always in competition with each other when it came to possessions. I think I was on a Dymchurch campervan holiday that summer with her and her parents, and I must have gotten jealous of her bike. My uncle spent some time with me in a field, teaching me to ride. The following September, on my 10th birthday, I received my very first Raleigh.

Was I overcome with a new found sense of freedom? Did I spend every waking hour on my new set of wheels, exploring the area and pushing the boundaries, to see how far away I could get before I was summoned back for dinner? No. I hardly rode the thing. Maybe up and down the garden a couple of times, and there was one occasion where I remember riding to the local park with some of the kids who lived on my street.

The next year we moved to Thanet, and my Raleigh took up its new residence in the garage, where it stayed for years. I dug it out a few times when I was around 13, to ride it down to the seafront. There was a little green area that we called ‘The Dip’ and I sometimes rode up and down the little hills.

I also did a couple of rides to Reculver, where there’s a Roman fort overlooking the sea. The path is completely off-road, along the seafront, and about 4 miles each way. That was probably the longest ride I ever did as a child, and probably the first time I really felt that sense of freedom the bike afforded me.

But even then, it wasn’t enough to keep me riding. The following year, I turned 14. I got into heavy metal, cut off all my hair, painted panda eyes on my face and dubbed myself a goth. Cycling wasn’t goth. Back in the garage it went.

I actually have no idea where it is now, or what happened to it. Maybe we sold it? Maybe it got dumped? I never had any kind of sentimental attachment to it, and honestly couldn’t pinpoint the last time I rode it.

I didn’t get back on a bike again until I moved to Bristol, at the age of 23. Naturally I was a bit shaky, had zero confidence, and relegated myself to the pavements. But with time (and a few free lessons from Life Cycle UK) I learned to indicate, to take the lane and ride with confidence on the road. I’m now a regular commuter and a reasonably confident urban cyclist.

I’ve still got a long way to go though! I know that over the coming years my confidence will grow, and my technique will improve. But I don’t think I’ll ever be what I’d describe as ‘fearless’. The childhood years are the prime time to push through barriers, when you’re scared of nothing. That’s what I unfortunately missed out on. Learning these things as an adult is so much more scary.