Our Cycling Correspondent, Nick Hellen, takes a look at the women turning the wheels of change.
A modern fairy tale for cyclists. Boy meets girl, promises her the earth – or in this case, to buy her a road bike – and as the credits roll, the couple pedal off into the sunset together.
But since this is the early twenty first century, he inevitably lets her down, and there is of course no sign of a shiny new bike. And precisely because these are modern times, in the next scene, instead of moping at home (or pedalling forlornly in her spin class) our heroine takes matters into her own hands.
Helen Sharp, 33, a manager at Transport for London, bought herself a road bike and, in the Summer of 2017, got in touch with a group of women in south west London who were launching BellaVelo, a cycling community for women.
She enjoyed it and found that she was rather good – fast enough to join an international team of women cyclists, the Internationelles, who effectively gate-crashed the 2019 Tour de France. They rode each stage a day before the men to demand their own race.
The founders of BellaVelo had a similar point to prove about gender equality when they launched the group, based in Richmond Park, a little more than two years ago. There are few sports which are as dominated by middle aged men as cycling: the very acronym MAMIL (they are dressed in lycra) rather gives the game away.
Often the arguments for women’s sport get bogged down in debates about tokenism. Put bluntly, the argument runs that the reason it is stuck in the slow lane is because it simply isn’t very popular.
But something special began to stir in Richmond Park. Alison Dex and Belinda Scott, who co-founded the club, were soon deluged with applications. A community became a club, now with 250 paid-up members and more than 1,000 active supporters.
So often we talk about exercise as a joyless calculation of steps walked and calories burned. But for many of the members, it has become a way of life. Saturday mornings at 8.00 sees a grand depart from Colicci at Roehampton Gate for a 100km ride. There’s normally a decent turnout of 30 or so riders at 9.30 on Thursday mornings to whizz around three laps (a combined 32km) at 9.30am.
They may round things off with yoga or a convivial apres-training gathering at La Ciclista cafe in East Sheen. Friendships have sprung up across generations: as Dex puts it: “There’s as much social life on offer as you want to take from it.”
Absolute beginners are taught the basics: bike handling skills, including the art of making hand signals, drinking from a bottle at speed, and of course, the “look mum, no hands!” moment of ditching trainers for cleated shoes. Riders are expected to have the stamina to average 22kph before joining the longer group rides, which roll out at speeds of up to 26kph. [There are plans for a more advanced group at 28 kph]. For those who want to take it more seriously, there is interval training, and ‘chain gangs’ (riding in a peloton) supervised by Jasmijn Muller, the 2017 World 24-hour Time Trial Champion.
Plans are well advanced for the 2020 season. There will be training camps in the New Forest and Majorca, and at midsummer, one of the highlights of the season: the coast-to-coast ride known as Chase the Sun which begins at dawn on the Isle of Sheppey and finishes almost 17 hours and 205 miles later at Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. Sharp explains: “You might start by thinking you are just riding your bike. But soon you have a support network of people inspiring each other to do things. There is no other aspect of my life where you have that.”