Club life: Why do some cycling clubs attract so many more female members?

Many clubs say they want to expand their female membership, but some have far greater success than others. Amy Sedghi finds out how these clubs get it so right

Penge cycling club ride
(Image credit: ​Alessandra Bucci for Future)

“When I first started [cycling], I had no confidence,” recalls Julie-Anne De Thomasis, 58, of Penge Cycling Club. She leans in and stresses: “none.”  She fingers the yellow cap she’s wearing under her helmet - a prestige bestowed upon those in the club who’ve led at least ten rides - as we wait for her riders to assemble in Kent. She’s been explaining what in particular makes Penge CC - one of the most popular clubs in south east London - such a welcoming place for female riders. A willingness to open their doors to less experienced riders and invest in their development through a mix of friendly encouragement and club activities is key, I’m told, not just by Julie-Anne, but also by the other women - and men - who’ve joined us for a sunny ride out in the lanes.

With 28% of the club’s membership identifying as female, Penge CC are up there among the top mixed cycling clubs in Great Britain with a significant female contingent. A lot of clubs say that anyone is welcome on their rides, regardless of kit, bike, or speed - but the reality is riders who don’t fit the norm can find themselves abandoned on country lanes or feeling inadequate from the get-go. At Penge CC, the sentiment is genuine. “We had someone turn up the other day on a Brompton,” smiles Ann Ferris, adding with obvious admiration for the 16” wheel rider “she kept up quite well.” Sixty-nine year-old Ferris is legendary in the club for being a dedicated leader of the Sunday steady ride: a starting point for many newbies that averages a speed of 10-11 mph. 

There is a lot of tokenism [out there]. [Clubs] need to genuinely want more women and think ‘why do we want more women?’, ‘what do [the women we want to attract] want from a club?’

penge cc

(Image credit: ​Alessandra Bucci for Future)

Although Penge’s roots lie in being a family focused club, and numerous members tell me that there is no pressure to compete, Penge CC does also boast a healthy racing scene. “I never thought bike racing was for me before I joined Penge,” enthuses Sophie Roberts, who has plunged herself into both crit and cyclo-cross competitions since joining a couple of years ago. Seeing fellow Penge CC cyclo-cross racer Emma Porter consistently on the podium, as well as encouraging words and invitations from other female club mates, spurred Sophie on to give these racing disciplines a go. In fact, she recently competed at the LCCA Team Cyclo-Cross Champs at Ardingly, where Penge CC were one of only a handful of clubs that fielded a full female team.

So how can other cycling clubs learn from Penge CC’s example? There is no simple recipe, but there are some essentials that need to fall into place first according to various chats with a number of Penge CC members: female and male, casual riders and those topping the club’s Strava leader boards, those in their 20s and those nearing 70 years-old. First and foremost, the cycling club has to be a welcoming club that wants to be inclusive and live by those values. “We want to be one big club,” says  Penge CC diversity and inclusion officer Katie Ferguson. Where other clubs fall down, she says, is when they view it as simply a box ticking exercise. “There is a lot of tokenism [out there]. They need to genuinely want more women and think ‘why do we want more women?’, ‘what do [the women we want to attract] want from a club?’”

This story forms part of Cycling Weekly's Women's Special; to read the full feature, buy the special edition of the magazine, it's on sale now in newsagents and supermarkets and online. If you want more content like this you can subscribe, save on the cover price and get it delivered every Thursday. 

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