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Closing the Gap

Women's cycling gains momentum in Idaho


Women's bicycle racing in Boise has taken a beating. The number of female racers has dropped in the last year, and local women riders are baffled but determined to get the numbers back up. The possible solution? SWICA Velo Women, a new organization aimed at bridging the gap between the high number of recreational women riders and the dwindling number of competitive female racers in Boise.

The first clinic is September 15, but understand, it's not a club. No one will be asked to pledge, there's no clubhouse, no fees, and no one will be saddled with a ridiculous nickname. Instead, local women cyclists will form what the group's new coordinator and director, Marti Stephen, called "a think tank" of about a dozen female cyclists who want to involve more women in riding and racing.

An offshoot of Southwest Idaho Cycling Association (SWICA), the SWICA Velo Women's group is an effort to boost the number of women riding in Boise. SWICA, a nonprofit organization, brings together Boise's nationally recognized cycling clubs to help promote amateur racing in Boise. The aptly named Velo (velo the French word for "bicycle") Women's group hopes female cycling will gain some momentum from clinics and organized rides aimed at increasing confidence in racing among local women.

"If you show up [to a race] and you know three of the women around you, and you've ridden with them before, it's a more comfortable situation," said Stephen.

Stephen is enthusiastic that all women cyclists are welcome to join the clinics, whether they're motivated to race or not, but helping female riders become more comfortable with racing is the main goal of Velo Women. There are plenty of women riding bicycles in Boise and loads of riding clubs for women to join, but the number of women who participate in racing is dropping; according to United States Cycling Association (USCA) licensing statistics, the number of women who bought licenses to race in Idaho has fallen from 24 in 2006 to 19 in 2007.

Stephen and her crew aim to foster independence and increase confidence among women cyclists through a series of free clinics to be offered throughout the fall and winter. The clinics will focus on a series of skill sets for cyclists. The September 15 clinic will center on being able to maintain and repair a bicycle, what to bring on a long ride, road riding skills and etiquette. There will be a regular indoor spin class during the winter when the weather gets ugly, offered by Liz Williams, a category three racer and cycling instructor.

Jim Crouch is a USCA-certified cycling coach and runs Next Step Cycling, a cycling coaching organization in Boise. He volunteered to teach the first clinic. "Growing the capacity of cycling in the community is something I want to be a part of," said Crouch. To that end, the group aims to draw in both long-time cyclists as well as new or recreational riders by offering them the skills and training to empower them to ride and join in the local racing scene.

Stephen knows that giving women independence is a long-standing theme in the world of cycling. A fan of Frances E. Willard, one of the leaders of the women's liberation movement in the late 1800s, Stephen referenced Willard when describing the independence women have gained through the bicycle in the last hundred years.

Willard first learned to ride a bicycle at the ripe age of 53 and quickly became an enthusiast of what suffragists called "the Freedom Machine." The bicycle had transformed women's perceived status in society, liberating them from the corset, full skirts, chaperones and the sedentary lifestyle expected of proper young women.

Stephen resonates with the joy that Willard found in riding a bicycle. Women on bicycles are no longer controversial—like they were in Willard's time—but there's still a distinction between men and women in the cycling world.

"Sometimes women have the same strength as men, but women still get [left behind] by men. It's a lot better to race with other women," said Stephen.

Crouch recognized that cycling for women extends beyond what they gain physically. A new level of fitness is only part of the freedom and power women can find on two wheels. Increased confidence, a sense of accomplishment, and independence are all the fruits of communing with the bicycle.

"[Riding] transcends the bicycle," said Crouch, "to family life, relationships and work issues. Bicycling gives women a sense of self. That is the modern-day translation of women's liberation."

Though the roles of men and women are slowly changing, finding time is another issue facing women who want to ride. Many women fit a ride in when they can, but face schedule restraints when it comes to becoming a competitive rider.

"Women are just so busy. They're working, raising children and training [to race]," said Ellie Rogers, one of the dozen women who have joined in the Velo Women's crusade to get girls on bikes and in the races.

Many women riders are only recreational and haven't even tried racing. The current number of women who do race is so low that female divisions are often dropped or competitors win by default for lack of a contest.

"USA cycling and road cycling have multiple levels," explained Crouch. "The goal is to have enough women to have those multiple categories and not have to lump them together. Maybe 10 or 20 or even more and they can be split into smaller groups.

"There's a very large gap right now between the women racing community and the general recreational cyclist," said Crouch. "Instead of jumping into the deep end, [new riders and racers] can progress to a level they're comfortable with."

The idea of taking small steps to reach a bigger goal is applicable to any part of life, but for SWICA Velo Women's and anyone who's ever wanted to race but didn't know where to start, the clinic on September 15 is the first leg in the long ride to strengthening women's racing in Boise. In some ways, it's also a nod to the women who, through the years, have found liberation through the bicycle.

September 15, Women's Cycling Clinic, FREE. For information on time and location, contact Marti Stephen at, or 208-362-9775.