Most women cyclists are new to the sport and it’s a big jump from general riding to racing (or even just club riding depending on the club). When competitive women start racing, it’s difficult to keep motivated in the entry-level races, especially when there aren’t many women-only entry-level races, or races cater for a wide range of abilities (e.g. women E1234 races). Racing alongside elite women can be off-putting when you’re a Cat 1 racer, and complete beginners (cat 4) find it very difficult racing with cat 1 racers, let alone the elite. However, there are only a small number of women racing at the moment so race organisers find it difficult to justify putting on separate category women’s races, but it’s likely there will continue to be only a small number of women racers due to them being discouraged due to the mixed category races. Agghh! Vicious circle! So what can be done?
Create a racing pathway for women that allows them to get stronger slowly with training, encouragement and support from experienced racers, and provide more women 3/4 races (after sufficient research to check it won’t clash with others – see “Promoting Women’s Races“)….or help someone who’s already working on a pathway (e.g. The Racing Chance Foundation)
Heather Bamforth has set up a charity to provide a pathway for competitive women in the UK. Below, Heather shares why she set it up, how, what it does, and how you can help if you’d like to:
Tell us a bit about yourself
I started racing when I was 15 and was probably more of a track rider, spending around 8 hours a week (3 or 4 evenings a week at some points) at the velodrome in Manchester. I did road race, but I found it very restrictive for women, and it was often demoralising turning up to race against women who were full time riders and much older than me. By the time I was 17, I knew that a career in cycling wasn’t going to make me any money, so I concentrated on my education. 19 years on, I work for an international accountancy firm in the Restructuring Services team, helping (in the main) businesses and individuals who are in financial distress, something which is far removed from bike racing!
Outside of my day job, I am a Trustee (and co-founder) of The Racing Chance Foundation, which aims to provide training and racing opportunities for women in competitive cycling.
Do you still ride?
I don’t ride as much as I would like to due to work commitments and various health hindrances but I try to do half an hour three times during the week, plus around 5 to 6 hours at the weekend, depending on whether I’m racing or not.
Do you race?
I try to race at least 3 times a month, and I try to get a decent number of time trials in within that as I find it really helpful for road racing (my teenage self would never have believed how much I actually enjoy time trials nowadays)!
What’s The Racing Chance Foundation?
The Racing Chance Foundation is a registered charity in England and Wales (number 1156835). It was set up to provide opportunities for women in competitive cycling. In order to achieve that, due to us only wishing to concentrate on helping women and therefore potentially alienating 50% of the population, there was a risk that we weren’t fulfilling the Charity Commission’s public benefit condition. It took us about 3 months to provide them with sufficient information but by the end of April 2014 we had achieved charitable status.
What happened that triggered you to start setting up Racing Chance?
A distinct lack of opportunities for women and a lack of an organisation which provides a common voice for what is still a minority female sport.
How did it start?
Colin Batchelor asked me about setting up a fund akin to the Dave Rayner Fund however I felt that women needed more in support than just financial assistance. It was something that I had been thinking about for a while, Colin just provided the push I needed.
What have you achieved so far?
We’ve coached over 200 women (with the invaluable assistance of Huw Williams) helping over 100 of those to take up racing for the first time. We’ve provided assistance and advice to other women’s series in the country (I’m currently helping riders in the South West to develop more of a road scene) and we’ve provided support and encouragement to women who are racing.
In the North West, we have a developed a road racing scene for women, which although it isn’t massive, it’s drawing in new riders every race. We’re really proud of the community that we’ve built in the North West, and the #partyontheroad concept, where we try to encourage everyone, seems to be working.
What’s your biggest challenge at the moment?
It’s twofold: the cycling world thinking that the women’s competitive cycling scene is bigger than it actually is (around 1,200 women have a racing licence, compared to around 150,000 women playing football or netball regularly) and, more specifically to the Foundation, people not understanding what it means to be a registered charity or a trustee (by being a charity, those in charge cannot personally benefit from it).
What are you planning next for Racing Chance?
We’re rolling out a winter training programme, which is a series of structured rides over a 12 week period (the rides are fortnightly) which are free to join but you must sign up first. The aim is to carry the #partyontheroad over winter and help riders with their fitness. At the other end of the spectrum, we’re lucky to have received a donation from the Fred Whitton Challenge which is paying for two trips abroad this season.
I’ve read that there’s a big percentage of women who start racing and then stop. Is that what you’ve seen? What do you think puts women off and how do you go about keeping them motivated?
I think it’s a common problem in most sports, but due to the small number of women competing in bike races, it seems like it’s more prevalent in cycling. I think there’s a variety of reasons why women don’t come back: some times it’s the fact that you tend to get dropped for the first few races, there aren’t enough opportunities/ there are large gaps in the calendar, some get put off by other women riding for teams, but on the whole it’s down to a lack of encouragement from others. Women can be their own worst enemy at times and having someone there telling you that you are doing great is worth its weight in gold. I do think that the emphasis on being in a team needs to change – it can sometimes do more harm than good, but that’s a whole different conversation.
Is there anything similar to Racing Chance in other parts of the UK?
Not that I’m aware of (mainly due to us being a registered charity).
What would you say to supporters of women’s cycling who want to speed up progress? What are the best things that every women’s cycling supporter could do to help speed up progress at the grass roots level, whether its riding or racing?
The major influence in getting women into sports stems from the national governing body – there was a large increase in the number of women and girls over the age of 14 playing cricket (increased to around 63,000 a week) following an initiative by the ECB. There was a similar increase in football. Until cycling’s governing bodies really want to do something similar with the competition side of the sport (as opposed to the participation side – there’s a difference), then progress is likely to be limited.
- So firstly, supporters of women’s cycling need to keep saying “this isn’t good enough” rather than settling for what is essentially the hard end of the bargain.
- Women need to get more vocal, but in the right way; ie the way the Federation makes changes. There’s no point complaining about something on social media if you’re not willing to turn up to your regional AGM and ask what your region can do for women.
- Get involved with the running of your club, or your local racing scene organisation or even stand for election for your region. Don’t be afraid to get involved – it helps your own personal development (it will give you more confidence) and then you might get to actually implement what women want as opposed to what everyone else thinks they want.
- Support organisers who are trying to support you. It costs a lot of money to promote a road race and a lot of nerve for an organiser to put a women’s race on, knowing that the race is unlikely to break even financially. Unfortunately, if the organiser doesn’t get support, they may not bother again, especially if it isn’t financially viable. Don’t rely on everyone else to enter first, because if everyone thinks the same you’ll never get anywhere!
If someone wanted to help you with Racing Chance, what would you love them to help you with?
Mainly fundraising, as I’m not great at asking for money.
If someone wanted to create something similar to Racing Chance, or just to start an initiative to provide a pathway to women, in their local area what advice would you give them?
Get in touch. We cover England and Wales and are keen to help implement a structure that works. Our email address is email@example.com
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