On a recent Sunday afternoon, over 30 women ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-60s are gathered at Santa Rosa's Prince Memorial Greenway with bicycles, helmets and water bottles at the ready. In a quick, pre-ride pep talk, Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane declares herself a "BABE," an acronym, she says with a laugh, that stands for "Born Again Bicycle Enthusiast."
It's pretty much the opposite of the Amgen Tour, which comes to Santa Rosa on May 13, and where one thing's guaranteed—you won't see any women hurtling in the peloton among the blur of muscles, spandex and souped-up boneshakers.
Only 25 percent of cyclists in Sonoma County are women, according to a 2011 Sonoma County Transportation Authority report, and shock at this statistic inspired Zane to reach out to the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition with the concept for "Biker Chicks"—women-only rides that encourage beginners to get on two wheels.
"We're trying to get new women bikers out there" says Zane before the cyclist take to the Joe Rodota trail and embark on an easy 11-mile ride past vineyards and the Santa Rosa Creek, "and address different obstacles that impede women from riding in the first place: the fear of breaking down, the safety issues, being able to navigate cars, whether they're physically fit or not."
Pam Everson lives in Healdsburg, is in her mid-60s and a desire to get back on a bicycle after many years inspired her to attend the recent Biker Chicks ride to Willowside Road.
"I just enjoy the wind in my face and all that I remember from riding when I was a kid," says Everson, as she prepares to roll out on a borrowed bike. "I grew up in Fresno, and I used to ride my bike to school. We had a lot of freedom and could ride for a long way. It was a big joy."
Scanning the crowd, Everson comments with surprise at how many women close to her own age have shown up. But what's even more surprising is that so few women ride a bike at all, especially considering that it's the invention that "did more to emancipate women than anything else in the world," according to feminist rabblerouser Susan B. Anthony. What's more, women's sports historian Sue Macy, author of Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom, says about 19th-century cycling that "for all the practical benefits of the two-wheeler, the fact is that it brought about a cosmic shift in women's private and public lives."
So why is it that over a hundred years later, women still need special encouragement to get on a bicycle at all? Tina Panza, director of Safe Routes to School, says she believes it comes down to confidence.
"Women aren't really encouraged to take time to develop that confidence," says Panza. "It's not really something that's emphasized and fostered in girls, growing up, or in women—to ride your bike for either transportation or recreation." Working for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, Panza says, has helped increase her street skills and given her courage to navigate on two wheels around town.
Janae Borba, an employee at NorCal Bike Sport in Santa Rosa and one of the organizers of the Women's Ride Day on April 28 that brought out 50 participants, says that cycling is on the rise among women. "It's becoming popular, and it's sparking a lot of interest," she says.
The April 28 ride accommodated different levels, with a shorter, 20-mile bike path loop through Sebastopol and a longer 40-mile loop up to Healdsburg and back.
Since cycling is still seen as a competitive "man's sport," women can be intimidated, says Borba, but training, encouragement, lessons about safety precaution and most importantly, a sense of fun, go far.
"There are so many women who already ride or want to start," Borba explains. "It's just a matter of going out there and enjoying it. We want to keep people safe and show them how fun it is."
Zane agrees that a sense of camaraderie, joy and self-confidence is essential to getting over the initial hump.
"This is a really fun way to get around, get outside, stay in shape—and anybody can do it," says Zane. "You just learn a few simple things about how to navigate cars, stoplights, bike lanes and trail etiquette, and you are fine, good to go."