Posted by Editoress on 08/19/09
Canadian Ex-National Team cyclist Erin Carter wanted to give back to the sport of cycling, and in the fall of 2003 decided to start a women's only cycling group in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The club launched with a bang, with participation rising as high as 85 women showing up for one workshop. Since then, the Velodonnas Cycling Group has seen their membership numbers rise and fall over the last five years.
Getting the club off the ground was one thing, keeping it going, another! Read on to find out what Erin and club co-founder Karin McSherry have learned over the years about starting and running a women's only cycling club.
Erin and Karin
Club name: Velodonnas Cycling Group
Created: Fall of 2003
Current membership: 5 members
Objective: To get more women bike racing in Manitoba.
Organizers: Currently 1-2; in the past, up to 4 people
After many years as a professional cyclist, Erin Carter wanted to give back to the sport. "Because cycling is a male-dominated sport in Manitoba I wanted to create a supportive environment where women would gain the skills to feel more confident riding on the streets and in races."
"The first thing I did was seek help. I knew that two heads were better then one and since I was busy with school, work and training I wouldn't be able to do it alone. I phoned around and received a few names of other females with similar visions. Over multiple coffee and late dinner discussions, four of us exchanged ideas and formed the framework for the first ever Manitoba women's-only cycling club. After much deliberation we settled on a name: The Velodonnas."
When Erin approached Karin McSherry about forming the club, Karin was really excited. "I was big into bike racing at the time and there was not a lot of women participating in the races. I wanted to see more women racing and I saw this as being a perfect avenue to make that happen."
Most women that start racing have to race with the men and elite riders because the participation numbers are so low in the women's fields. When Erin first started bike racing, she had the benefit of experienced bike racers being in the family, so she knew what to expect and didn't get discouraged when she had to race with the men. This was one of the main motivating factors for Erin to start the club. "When I began cycling it was hard to find other girls to train with, let alone race with. Ever since I can remember, in Manitoba, the women raced with the men because there weren't enough women for a separate category. Consequently, over the last few years I have seen many women quit because they become discouraged. They struggle alone, become unmotivated to continue and don't receive the encouragement they deserve for their efforts."
Skill building and camaraderie were two other reasons why the women wanted to start the club. "I've talked with many women who love to ride but for one reason or another find it difficult to ride with their male partners and so they don't get out as often as they would like."
Karin adds: "With a women's group riders can feel more confident that there will be others of similar strength and skill level to ride with and learn from."
There are no age limits, skills or racing-experience prerequisites for Velodonnas members because the Velodonnas encourage all females to join - from entry-level cyclists to competitive veterans, from young teenagers to older adults. "The only prerequisite..." Erin says, "...is that women come with a willingness to learn, to improve, to work as a team and most of all, to have fun."
The club was created to provide a supportive and confidence-building environment for all women interested in bike racing and improving their cycling skills. The goal of the club was also to make cycling a safer and less intimidating activity for those starting out. The club tries to accomplish this via ongoing workshops, programs and group events.
"They have given me confidence and taught me some good road riding skills. I have met more people at my skill level and we support each other at events." confides new member Candace Trussler. "It's a very supportive and inclusive group - regardless of skill level or experience, there is a spot for everyone in the club. On group rides no one gets left behind. Seriously, we all go out together and no one gets dropped. All the experienced riders make a point of reaching out to everyone on the ride. They are practical and down to earth, mixing fun and socializing with some good, challenging rides."
Any advice for other women wanting to start a group?
The club originally launched with a website, some local promotional news pieces and a workshop which resulted in 85 participants showing up. Karin laughs when she recalls that day - "we just didn't expect so many people - we had only prepared sandwiches for about 20-30 people - so we were really happy and surprised by the turnout."
Over the past five years Erin and Karin have seen the membership go up and down. "Some years have been great and then others have been slower. Last year was one of our best because we introduced a Women's Cycling Boot Camp - a 12 week program with three levels: a learn-to-ride group, a learn-to-race group, and a train-to-race group. It was fantastic and each week there was a focused lesson plan for what the riders would learn at that session."
1. Define your club's target member/participant and their goals
Last year's 2008 workshop had something for everyone but was very specific about the goals and objectives of each workshop in order to appeal to specific riders and their skill sets. Erin thinks that is why it was so successful. "I think the obstacles (in the past) were that we were trying to be too much to too many people. We were trying to be a recreational club and a competitive club at the same time."
Looking back, Erin regrets that perhaps the club didn't start off being specific enough as far as skill level and cycling discipline. "Know your audience. Know what you are offering and whom you want to target. Be specific. Target a specific group."
Having leadership is a key element to a successful club program - have riders that can provide guidance and instruction available to the membership. Developing leaders within the membership is also something that helps new members push themselves to evolve their skills and, at the same time, keep the club growing and evolving.
Karin appreciates Erin's racing experience and leadership qualities. "Erin's depth of experience from her cycling career has been invaluable not only in terms of improving the skills and confidence of our members but also the skills and confidence of our leaders so that every year we can improve our workshops and the instruction we offer to Winnipeg's female riders."
3. Developing a Community
"When I began, I was lucky." Erin explains. "I had three instrumental female cycling role models: Clara Hughes, Tanya Dubnicoff and Sue Hill. These individuals were motivational because of their exemplary athletic resolve, encouragement and support in teaching me the ABC's of cycling. I now see myself in the position of being a role model and I hope that I am following in their footsteps - and in 2003 I was determined to take it one step further. I wanted to create a long-term collaborative group where all female cyclists could go for instruction, information and inspiration."
"I was looking for cycling advice and the discipline of a scheduled ride. The fact that it was a women's only club was a bonus since I didn't have the confidence to ride with the guys until I had mentally taken off the training wheels!"
- Candace Trussler, joined in 2009
"Biking seems to be predominantly a male sport. It is nice to feel the camaraderie of the women...even if it is only one or two out of 20ish men on a ride. The presence of women changes the dynamics considerably...at least to this newcomer."
- Lara Forchuk, joined 2009
The support of the group is also very important. "For someone new into the sport, The Velodonnas provided me with the skill set and the sense of community I needed to get out and make riding that much more enjoyable and fun!"
- Krista, joined in 2009
The Velodonnas are trying something new this year and offering private or semi-private road lessons for $5.00. This lesson provides an introduction to cycling geared to make riders more comfortable on their bikes and on the road. Summer workshops are on the schedule and include some road and mountain bike events listed on the Velodonnas' website. To see an updated schedule for ride schedules and workshops for July and August, check out http://www.velodonnas.com for information.
Velodonnas Facebook - join the Velodonnas' community and find out like-minded women. Search under "Groups" for "Velodonnas" on www.facebook.com
Velodonna's Website & Blog
Do you want to tell us about your women's cycling club, team or event?
Just email Leigh Hargrove at Leigh@canadiancyclist.com and tell us all about it...We may just feature it here in the women's section of CanadianCyclist.com! Please include your name, phone number and e-mail address for us to contact you.
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