Breaking down barriers for women cyclists

Watford Cycle Hub is setting the pace in tackling the fears and obstacles potential cyclists, particularly potential female cyclists can face…

By Cath Harris


Efforts are being stepped up to help more adults and children learn to cycle no matter what their age.

Women are at the heart of new and existing schemes, including the re-launch last month of the campaign This Girl Can, because they are thought less likely to take up, or maintain, active interests.


Men are not excluded and also encounter blocks to participation, such as pressure to be good and have the best kit.

Parents, in turn, often deter their offspring from riding: they fear the unsafe behaviour of drivers yet create their own car-travel environments in which care for other road users is almost obsolete.

Developing many of these initiatives is the Watford Cycle Hub, a social enterprise formed in 2012 to give people the skills and confidence to become regular riders.

Founder Kate Jenkins says women, particularly, face a range of barriers to cycling but that if they ride regularly themselves, they will encourage their children to follow suit.

‘Before we launched the Hub, we saw children passing [the Department for Transport’s] Bikeability training scheme only to be stopped from riding by their parents because roads were “too scary”, which meant the investment was a waste of money.

‘And it was clear that there was less road traffic during school holidays, particularly at school drop-off times, making it easier for cyclists and other drivers.

‘We made it our aim to help shift people from driving and being dropped off, to cycling and walking.’

Mums were made a target group. ‘They perhaps haven’t learnt to ride and might be more influenced by media portrayals of cycling as “dangerous”.’

Absolute Beginners

Gender or cultural norms, or simply a family’s lack of interest, are among barriers that the Hub has witnessed.

‘We had a 60-year-old lady whose family had only been able to afford one bike and that bike went to her brother,’ Kate says.

‘In the 30–40-year-old age group women want to ride with their families and one lady came to us after being in tears because she couldn’t join a family ride because she’d never learnt to ride.

She came to our Absolute Beginner’s course without telling her family. Her Facebook post afterwards was: “Forty years I can’t, forty minutes I can.”

Absolute Beginners 2

People from other cultures face different problems. ‘We ran a course for Muslim women who had not, necessarily, been encouraged into activity in the past and, on top of that, had to negotiate clothing and headwear concerns.’

Fears of failure or injury are other factors and both women and men can be reluctant to admit their doubts.

‘Riding a bike is thought of as being a simple task that everyone can do, so people don’t talk about the fact that they can’t.

‘Or they think they don’t have the balance or that they just won’t be good enough.’

Some women assume only they are unable to ride, while others with symptoms of osteoporosis fear falling and breaking bones.

‘Men also find it difficult to admit to concerns about cycling when they haven’t ridden for a long time. They can be marginalised by peer pressure.’

Finding the right bike can be another obstacle primarily affecting women. ‘Mums can end up with a family bike that was bought for a child, or a full suspension or cheap bike that’s very heavy.

‘And in buying a bike women aren’t always listened to and don’t always have their concerns understood. They don’t want to be sold something just because it’s pink.’

To tackle these problems, the Hub runs beginners’ and confidence booster courses and, if funding is confirmed, will offer more advanced training for those keen to ride a little faster.

The oldest beginner was 71. At the other end of the age scale, the Hub attracts between 15 and 20 youngsters to its Friday evening Go-Ride Club, even in winter.

>> HSBC UK Go-Ride: Where Olympians of the future start cycling <<

Go Ride

In addition to courses and organised rides – some of which are women-only – Kate and her colleagues refurbish donated bikes. There’s a popular volunteer-run workshop, and workshop space, and advice is available on cycling clothing and nutrition.

A bonus of Hub initiatives is that they are challenging the assumptions of some drivers, whose cars wrap occupants in safety bubbles leaving them largely unaware of what is outside.

Kate recalls a Bikeability instructor who ‘was amazed’ to find that children didn’t know whether to ride on the right or left of the road.

‘When we’ve taken people onto the road many say they are seeing life from a different perspective.

‘There are definitely more cyclists out and about in Watford and the town has one of the highest participation rates in the country for guided rides.

We know the appetite’s there. Two boys on our Learn to Ride course last summer proclaimed that cycling “is the best … even better than our Xbox!”’


Cath Harris is a freelance journalist specialising in cycling, environment and travel. Read her work here.


Lesley 10/02/2017

It was 3 years ago that Kate asked me to train as a Breeze Champion (women’s cycle ride leader). I wasn’t sure at first. I then saw what Kate and Fiona do and I thought “Why not?” It’s great to see how ladies progress and gain confidence. I have enjoyed it very much. Thank you Kate and Fiona. X

Linda 9/03/2017

This is fantastic. However if retailers really want to provide quality bikes for women then please source or persuade manufacturers to make bikes based on 650c wheels. I’m short and it geometrically impossible to find a bike with a short enough reach without throwing the front fork out a ridiculous angle or a seat tube shallower than 75 degrees. That’s why I’m stuck with an elderly hand built bike based on smaller wheels. It works because it is perfectly proportioned. I visited some of your London stores recently and you had nothing that fit me.

    Sue 11/03/2017

    Jennifer, you will find Decathlon do very good spec’d bikes at amazing prices and also their bikes have 650 wheels when bike is a small. Check out their website.

Jennifer 10/03/2017

This is really good. I can’t wait until retailers have more female rider knowledge. I have a seriously uncomfortable seat but it is difficult and embarrassing trying to explain to a man which bits hurt and trying to get a solution. The extremely knowledgeable and helpful male shop assistants even in specialist bike shops struggle.


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