CycloFemme and The Power of the Pedal

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As humans we find a special connectedness around stories, especially ones that we can imagine ourselves being a part of. I learned that sometimes telling a really great story can go a long way in overcoming challenges. The story is what people remember, it is what inspires.

Similarly, the thing that grips me the most about riding a bike is the beauty of the story, the beauty of the ride.

We were all taught lessons growing up through fairy tales and campfire stories. Pinocchio taught us that lying brings consequences, the ugly duckling taught us never to judge a book by its cover, and the tortoise and the hare taught us that slow and steady wins the race – unless of course, you are actually in a bike race, sprinting for the finish.

We are usually at our most powerful when we have a captive audience and a really good story to tell, when we can leverage our influence, when we can infect a story with a positive message, even in the most subtle ways.

Many of us believe in the power of the pedal. We believe that bicycles can actually change lives. As a matter of fact, we don’t just believe it. We know it. It is something that we have experienced first hand and often second hand.

We recognize the benefits to our communities, how bicycling makes for healthier, happier, smarter people. We are more connected and aware of our neighborhoods, because we ride our bikes in them. We shop closer to home and support local business because it is an easy bike ride. We know that bicycles reduce traffic congestion and slow movement making for safer streets with reduced pollution.

For many it is an economic issue. Bicycles open doors, providing access to income, education, and healthcare. As US Transportation Secretary Foxx said at the National Bike Summit in March, it “is an issue of equality” ensuring that those who only have a bicycle to get to work can use it.

For some of us, it’s simply the possibility and lightness of heart and mind that we all feel when we take those first few pedal strokes, finding our way to another part town, another state, or even another world.

Whatever the case may be, we all have a story to tell. We are in a better place because we ride bikes. By sharing these stories, we have the opportunity to affect change.

Here are a few of my favorite stories about the power of the pedal in changing lives all around the world.

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Shannon Galpin in Afghanistan

Shannon Galpin – Afghan Cycles

You may have heard of Afghan Cycles. Shannon Galpin is a strong advocate for women’s rights. Since Afghanistan has been identified as the worst place on earth to be a woman, she decided to start her work there. In Afghanistan they have what is called a 3rd gender. This is when a foreign woman is extended the rights they have in their own country. They have almost the same rights as Afghan men. Because Shannon is from the United States, when she is in Afghanistan, she is governed by the rules of our culture and so she is able to have a great impact.

One of the first things she did? Shannon rode her bike across the Panjir Valley in Afghanistan, in a country where women are not allow to ride bikes. By doing this, she was able to start conversations, to tell stories, to begin breaking down the barriers for women to ride bikes. Now, four years later, they have just formed the first Afghan Women’s Cycling Team. These women risk their lives every time they ride a bike. But they do it for the freedom, the independence, and for the opportunity. They aren’t just opening doors for themselves but for women all across Afghanistan.

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Girls on bikes in India. Photo: Alastair Humphreys

Girls Given Bikes In India

In Bihar, India, where in 2007 the literacy rate for girls was just 53%, some 20 points lower than that of boys, girls were give a bicycle in an effort to boost poor secondary school attendance. In just 4 years, the number of girls attending school tripled. The program was so successful that it was soon adopted in neighboring states. And in 2012 India began working to adopt the program on a national level. For these girls, a bicycle has made it possible for them to travel an average of 5 miles to school without creating a burden for their families. As a matter of fact, the bicycle is an asset to the family, often used for other errands after school hours.

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Team Rwanda

Team Rwanda

You may be familiar with Team Rwanda, if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend the movie Rising From the Ashes. It’s one of the most moving stories I’ve ever seen on the big screen. The movie chronicles the rise of Team Rwanda from the 2006 grass roots bike race, where many locals were riding on wooden bikes, to the point where Adrien Niyonshuti attended the 2012 Olympics representing Rwanda in the cross country mountain bike race.

Adrien himself said that their hope is to change the story of Rwanda – from that of a horrible genocide that wiped out ten percent of the population – to one of a proud, unified community around their accomplishments in cycling.

And now Team Africa Rising is focusing on the women in Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea with the goal of sending a female cyclist to the 2016 Olympics. They are focused on junior girls with the intention of filling their lungs, engaging their spirits, and opening their minds to opportunity, keeping them in school, and avoiding early teen marriage and pregnancy.

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Kristen Gavin – Gearing Up

Kristen Gavin – Gearing Up

There is also the story of  Kristen Gavin. While working on her master’s degree, she started a fitness program for residents at Interim House, a residential and outpatient drug and rehab facility for women in Philadelphia. Kristen who is an elite bike racer herself, noticed the amazing impact that riding bicycles had on the women in the program, it was like nothing else. Now Gearing Up, approaching 5 years of operation, provides women in transition from abuse, addiction, and incarceration with the skills, equipment, and guidance to ride bicycles for exercise, transportation, and personal growth.

The results are showing in these women with much higher levels of self-efficacy and lower levels of depression. As Gwen said, one of the Gearing Up Graduates “Once I started riding a bike, I became a different person. I see so many positive changes in myself.”

You’ll notice that a lot of my stories are about women. Which brings me to my last story. One that I’m fairly good at telling because I helped write it.

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My first bike

I grew up in the hills of Kentucky where pedaling a bicycle meant riding around on anything other than paved roads and cement sidewalks. My first bike was red and my second bike was pink. I remember that it had hand brakes and ape hangers, something that you don’t forget after the first time you grab the front brake and go hurtling through the bars. But like many kids, as I grew up, I left my bike behind.

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On my new-to-me Barracuda, Cave Run Lake, KY circa 1997

Several years later, when I went out for my first mountain bike ride, some say I never really came back. Mountain biking became my weekly escape as I worked my way through school. After college I floated around for awhile, sometimes falling victim to my rebellious nature. I had gotten away from riding, I wasn’t focused, I was unhappy, and directionless.

One day, I decided to make some changes. I started focusing on my health and soon headed back to my local bike shop. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew, I was not only riding bikes regularly, but I was actually running that bike shop.

It was a simple progression. The more I rode, the better I was able to keep my creative mind focused. The more I rode, the more I connected with my community. The more I rode, the more I was empowered to think, to act, to lead.

As shown by these stories, I am one of many. One of the first female American bike racers, Elsa Von Blumen stated “Success in life depends as much on upon a vigorous and healthy body as upon a clear and active mind.”

At that time in Kentucky, working at the bike shop, we were challenged by a the lack of organization on the local advocacy level. So, I grabbed my friend Dan Korman, we picked a name, built a website, gained community support and invited others to celebrate National Bike Month. In two short years, Queen City Bike became Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky’s non-profit bicycle advocacy organization.

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True Girl Bike Love – Photo: Jillian Betterly

When I moved to Boulder, Colorado I didn’t know anyone and wanted more women to ride with. So I started a website called Girl Bike Love which is now becoming The Hub and Soul of Women’s Cycling, a national online publication for women on bikes.

Riding a bicycle changed my life and I’ve always enjoyed sharing that with others. I have watched as more and more women are choosing to ride bikes every day. I feel honored to be a part of this movement.

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CycloFemme 2012

I noticed along the way – watching women progress from beginners to daily riders – that strong communities are built around strong women. That women are natural communicators and are more socially, environmentally and locally aware.

As mothers, teachers and caregivers, women have the greatest influence on future generations. More women riding bikes means more people riding bikes.

But a few years ago, it seemed the overwhelming voice for women’s cycling was negative. The discussion was focused around a lack of support, lack of women’s bikes and gear, and around the notion that “women don’t ride bikes because it isn’t safe.” I could see this becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy all around me, segmenting this already delicate cycling community.

 CycloFemme

So the next step was to tell a positive story, to celebrate. Fortunately, I found a couple of like minded women via twitter, Tanya Quick and Jenn Cash of Language Dept., and together, we created CycloFemme. In 2012, CycloFemme was created as a Global Women’s Cycling Day to Honor the Past, Celebrate the Present, Empower the Future of Women in Cycling. It started with a simple invitation to Come Ride With Us.

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As we move closer to our third annual celebration on May 11th we have seen our tribe grow to include rides in over 30 countries and all throughout the US. We have had rides in Rwanda, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Afghanistan, France, Germany, Spain, Thailand, Japan, Turkey, India, Venezuela, all over Australia and the UK. Although CycloFemme is one day, it represents a larger movement to engage and inspire more female cyclists. Riders are united worldwide regardless of gender, age, race, or bicycle preference to come together in celebration.

And Women are united year round by the notion that when ever we ride. WE RIDE TOGETHER.

Because of CycloFemme I have so many more stories to tell. Like the time that a friend of mine, Brian Dierks, went to work with Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan. He was determined to put on a CycloFemme ride, but when he got there they only had one bike in the camp, and none of the local women knew how to ride.

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CycloFemme South Sudan thanks to Brian Dierks

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CycloFemme South Sudan thanks to Brian Dierks

Within two weeks he managed two more bikes. With those two bikes, he rallied the nurses in the camp and they started giving lessons on Sundays. By the time CycloFemme came around two women had learned to ride. While this may have been the smallest CycloFemme ride in the world, the expression of joy on their faces is absolutely priceless. These women were given the gift of a invaluable skill in a country where riding a bike can literally mean the difference between feeding your family or not.

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Kimberly Coats

And there was the time that I reached out to the filmmaker of Rising From The Ashes, the movie about Team Rwanda. I was hoping to learn more about the challenges for women riding bikes in Africa. My email was forwarded to Kimberly Coats, one of the managers of the team, and her immediate response was “OMG. I was wearing my CycloFemme shirt when I read your email”.

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CycloFemme Rwanda 2013

That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. We encourage and inspire one another on a regular basis. Here’s a bit more on Kimberly.

There’s also the story of Jerusa, in Afghanistan, working on an military base. She was determined to celebrate CycloFemme. She rallied a few to join her. But the best part was that later that day she was joined by her sister-in-law riding her bike in New Jersey.

Let’s not forget about the emails. I have been contacted by women all over the world who have been inspired by CycloFemme to do more in their communities, working for safer streets and more people riding bikes. These emails have come from Nepal, Aruba, India, China, Mexico and Ghana all asking for advice, support, suggestions.

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Most of the time all I can offer are some kind words of support, the promise that we are all in this together, and an inspirational story from another part of the world. But surprisingly, that is often just what they need to keep the momentum going.

So, I’m encouraging you to do the same, to tell a great story, to your friends, your family, in your community, through your social media and online. To spend less time talking about the risk and the challenges and more time talking about the reward, defining cycling with positivity and possibility. Connecting riders in your community, in your state, all around the world.

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Last year we created this pledge, it has been signed by riders on 6 continents – we are still working on Antarctica – I hope you’ll join us in signing it too.

I Sarai, swear to invest my energy, strength and passion to inspire one more woman to ride a bike.

I believe in the power of the pedal for positive social change, for building a healthier, happier, smarter world.

I pledge to be an ambassador of the bicycle, to Honor the Past, Celebrate the Present, Empower the Future of Women in Cycling.

I promise to start the revolution, to live the change I want to see, to rally another to ride with me.

I pledge because 1 + 1 = A Revolution.

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By Sarai Snyder – Boulder, Colorado