Building Community: Women Bike ATL

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We’re rolling through the 5 Cs of Women’s Bicycling from our recent report and, this week, we’re talking about the importance of Community. Nowhere is the power of community more evident than in the success of WomenBikeAtlanta, which has grown from a few members to a large and diverse group with regular rides in five different counties in less than two years. To get some insight on how they’ve done it, we checked in with Sonja Parham (pictured center), the group’s co-founder.

  • How did the idea for WomenBikeAtlanta emerge and how did it get started?

The idea for WomenBikeAtlanta was born out of both divine inspiration and frustration. I was riding with a co-ed group out of my church whose focus was primarily centered on preparing for an upcoming charity ride. I wanted us all to become better riders, to learn more about cycling, and to ride more places. I started with maintenance classes that we held in the community room at REI. At that time, though, these were not a shared interest of the group and I was told: No more classes, or anything else. The second year started much the same way, except we had lost the majority of the women who rode the year before. (I later learned that men who didn’t ride bikes primarily ran our team!) Regardless, I contacted Neil Walker, a local cycling instructor, to see who could come help us be better. He said that he would. Two people registered for that first class besides my son and I.  Neil came out and held it anyway. Three of us were willing participants. My disappointment and frustration were apparent. To make a long story short, Neil and talked and he asked me if I wanted to start a women’s cycling organization with him.

  • I know you’ve overcome some obstacles, both health-related and circumstantial, to keep riding yourself. Does you own story propel your passion to get more women — all women! — on bikes?

Yes, it definitely does. I don’t tell my story for sympathy or my own motives. I tell it to say to other women that I can’t find a reason that you cannot ride, if you truly want to. 

As we prepared with our original cycling team to ride the Cox MS Bike Ride 2010, my son and I found ourselves homeless in an unexpected turn of events. Only a couple of people knew that we were picking our bike up from the storage facility to go on training rides and ultimately the ride itself. Those ride lent us some comfort at a really difficult time. 

In addition to that, my allergies and sensitivities were especially off the chart. I rode wearing an allergy mask or two. I was 50+ pounds heavier (a change not solely attributable to cycling but to adding it to the other changes that I began making), my knees have no cartilage left and I had previously damaged two of the three major ligaments. But I rode my bike nonetheless: A crazy bike modified for my knees, and my inability to bend over very far with the bloated waistline and the asthma. My son built my bike, along with  the team at REI Kennesaw, who helped by showing us different stems and parts for repair of my 1979 steel frame Fuji. Neil showed other modifications and taught me how to ride better. I took his class more than once and a few private lessons to boot. He guided me as I upgraded from that bike to my Raleigh and now my new Novara Strada with 105s. 

So, yes, I can relate. Recently a woman apologetically asked me if she could come on the ride in an allergy mask. Are you kidding? Of course! I still have one in my jersey pocket or at least in the car just in case.

Ultimately, I will continue to share my story if it will help in getting more women on bikes. Anyone can buy a bike and put it in the garage for two or three years and many have, because they perceive that they can’t ride for one reason or another. Many more don’t even take that step. So, I welcome them to see that it can be done. I have the pictures to show for it.

  • The group has grown really rapidly and engages folks in 5 counties — how did you cultivate such a strong following?

Passion

Both Neil Walker, my fellow co-founder, and I love cycling. Obviously, he is far more accomplished that I, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love it!  I rode my bike with friends as a girl and getting back on a bike as an adult has brought nothing but good things to my life. I will share my love of cycling with anyone who stands still.

Acceptance

We accept women where they are. We’re not bike snobs by any definition.  We’ll teach women about their bikes and what else is out there — but we don’t put them off because it’s basic or came from the garage or Wal-Mart. We are equally excited for the accomplishments of our mountain bikers as we are for our road cyclists. We welcome women from other clubs and have often welcomed women to our classes who were feeling a little intimidated in another club.

A regular ride schedule

Last year, our first year, the women of the Metro Atlanta Cycling Club (MACC), graciously adopted WBA and welcomed us to their rides. They did more than that, though — they taught us the nuances of leading a ride. This year, we were able to establish a regular ride schedule of our own, with our signature Beginner Ride the second Saturday of every month on the Silver Comet Trail. Simultaneously, we have Advanced Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced rides on the Beautiful Back Country (BBC) routes, featuring rolling hills that make for a nice place to learn gearing and shifting if you haven’t already. The fourth Saturday of every month is our Serenbe ride. It’s co-ed and features and 8.5-, 20-, and 40-mile routes.  Serenbe is a lovely community built around the concept of sustainability. 

Many of these burgeoning relationships will foster the plans we have always for WomenBikeAtlanta to be an active agent for change and advocacy in cycling.  Equity in cycling for us means recognition of the disparities not only by race, but by gender.

Cycling education

Neil, who is now one of the LAB’s 19 certified cycling coaches, teaches the League’s highly successful curricula. Our rides also begin with early arrival time for ABC Quick Check and basic cycling education that continues on the route during the beginner rides. We take the time to address women’s concerns, because we find that the more confident a woman, or any rider, is on her bike, the better a rider she becomes — advancing from occasional bike rider to lifelong cyclist. A woman confident on her bike and in her ride experience is also more likely to share her experience and invite her friends along and we see that every day.

Building a strong leadership team

Something that Neil had to hammer home was that I could not, no matter how hard I tried, do it all. That was even more so after I started a new job.  So, we have amazing women serving on a number of key committee including: Rides, Events, Apparel, Social Media and Ride Ambassadors. Naturally, Neil is our Cycling Education Chair. I continue to grow and learn as President of Women Bike Atlanta, and there really isn’t much that means more to me. Coming from outside the cycling world, I’ve had a lot to learn and I willingly do so.  

Time

From the beginning, it’s taken time to get the work done, to interact to the women and respond to inquiries, comments, calls, and e-mails. But now we have nearly 600 women involved. Nearly 200 of those are on Meetup and more than 400 on Facebook. Fortunately, we have a concerted team effort and guidelines for handling requests to join, questions, and comments. We’re also now on Twitter @WomenBikeATL.  

Nerve — Just plain nerve  

Even with my first team, others at church were interested in the idea of us riding our bikes. When people ask “What are you doing this weekend?” and I answered “Going riding” there were questions – everywhere.  Followed by the inevitable, “I would ride but…” Now the tables have turned. I ask nearly any woman if she rides — and invite her to join us. I’ll give her our card and tell her how to find us on Facebook, Meetup, or on the trail.  I’d say 98 percent of the responses are positive. My son, Vincent, often thinks I’m nuts when I stop to have the conversation. I know no shame when it comes to talking about Women Bike Atlanta to men or women!

A strong leader with vision and desire to see this through 

Neil has a vision for Women Bike Atlanta. It’s powerful and specific. He will let nothing and no one interfere with the fruition of his mission. No one. That means that I’ve been challenged many times — and on occasion failed. I’ve learned that I don’t always have to know the ‘Why’ or fully understand as is my sometimes anal nature. When it comes to cycling, the cycling culture, and cycling business, Neil is on the mark. I consider myself blessed to have been brought in on this with him. We would not be where we are without his vision and insight. 

  • What makes the group different than other area riding clubs?

Women want to ride and have a different experience. As I tell women all the time: You must be 18 years of age or older — and you must be alive. We can’t do much with a corpse. I say that because we don’t have pre-requisites. She doesn’t have to be a racer, or have a particular kind of bike, or have ridden any given number of miles or years. She just has to want to ride a bike. Then, she has to be willing to come on out and join us. 

Another area where I hear that we are different is that when we say that we are ‘No Drop’ we mean NO DROP. We do not leave anyone. Furthermore, we do not make the woman feel bad because she’s not able to keep up with the group. (Something that has been reported to us as a common experience.) 

Our more advanced cyclists (and truly advanced cyclists) are nothing but kind and giving, as well as continuing the pursuit of their own cycling. Trish Albert, an accomplished cyclist and member of Sorella’s racing team, often comes out to start our beginner rider. That not only sets her apart but is such a welcoming extension of herself that seems to say ever-so-modestly that you can get here, too.

  • In addition to rides, what else does Women Bike Atlanta offer; classes? social events? community?

We offer classes and education and we also have monthly social events. Donna planned and executed a Meet Greet this summer that will be hard to top, complete with prizes and swag. September saw us back for our annual winery tour of Chateau Elan Winery in Braselton, Ga. Tour de Pink Atlanta was our signature charity ride for 2012 and Team WomenBikeAtlanta, a co-ed team, raised more than $1,700.

One thing that makes us special, at least to me, is watching the proclivity of women to build friendships. I didn’t know my own neighbor except to wave at her and her bike — until she happened to join WomenBikeAtlanta. She has since moved to mid-town and rides with and has become friends with her new mid-town neighbor, another WomenBikeAtlanta member. I see this happen over and over and, not to be cliché, but it warms my heart.

  • What’s next for WomenBikeAtlanta? 

For next year, we see growth across the board. Definitely getting more women on bikes and riding confidently and successfully. Personally, given our numbers now, I’d like to see us start the year at 1,000 members. 

Our class schedule is going to change and we are planning to graduate women League Cycling Instructors (LCIs) through WomenBikeAtlanta. We are looking at the interests of our women and expanding program offerings and training rides to meet those interests. Team WomenBikeAtlanta has already signed up for next year’s Tour de Pink, giving us more time to build a larger team and reach even higher goals.

The ride committee will be examining our ride calendar. This year we began developing relationships with companies like KINDSnacks in Atlanta and we are looking to grow that relationship and others like it. Corporate partnerships will allow us to increase our offerings to both the women and the community as we seek to address issues such as fitness, obesity, diabetes and other issues. We also became an Affiliate organization of the Southern Bicycle League and will host an event or two with them in 2014 working closely with Joanne and Walt Massey and their team.  

As you may surmise, many of these burgeoning relationships will foster the plans we have always for WomenBikeAtlanta to be an active agent for change and advocacy in cycling. Equity in cycling for us means recognition of the disparities not only by race, but by gender.

Learn more about WomenBikeAtlanta at http://womenbikeatlanta.com/