Happy New Year! 2017 is going to be a vintage year for women’s cycling. We can feel it in our calluses.
2016 was a difficult and distressing year for many, and I know a lot of us are finding it hard to be optimistic about the future. If you need a helping hand, listen to the ‘reasons to be cheerful’ podcast we recorded with Sarah Connolly back in November.
It’s almost inevitable that we spent the New Year period looking back over the highlights of 2016, and reminiscing over the highs and lows of a year that saw The Adventure Syndicate grow from an offhand email exchange to a thriving community and a successful business, with friends and followers all over the world and dozens of people devoting their time, energy, talent and enthusiasm to help our work succeed.
One of the crowning glories of our year – a moment we felt we’d truly made it – was when bikepacking.com named us ‘Ambassadors of the Year’, in the illustrious company of Jill Homer, Mike Hall and our hero, Lael Wilcox.
But for me – and I say this from the bottom of my heart – the real highlights were those moments when we realized just what a big, brilliant and beautiful world women’s cycling is becoming. International recognition is one thing, but it didn’t match the warm glow that I felt watching three friends we met at our Bristol Long-Distance Ladies event setting out on a mission to ride the length of Wales last month.
(They made it, by the way. Read Eleanor's write-up here.)
Or the thrill I felt at the top of the Bealach na Ba (one of the UK’s toughest road climbs) back in September, in the company of several women who’d thought they’d never make it up, and were now (literally and figuratively) on top of the world.
Or the awe I experienced whilst editing the personal pledges that will feature at the back of our journal (to be published later this month), each of them a solemn promise that someone will step out of their comfort zone, wherever it might happen to lie, and do something they fear they might not be capable of it.
It’s sharing people’s journeys that’s the best bit.
In the blog post I wrote back in November, I talked about how “we’d created something much, much bigger than we anticipated”. I’d like to revise that, I think, because this enormous, long-overdue boom in women’s cycling is definitely not something we created – it’s something that’s happening all around us. We’re part of it, yes, and we’ve done our bit to help it blossom, but none of this would have happened without a lot of other women getting involved. None of our sold-out events would have sold out if there weren’t people interested enough to buy tickets.
When we were setting up The Adventure Syndicate we weren’t exactly sure what it was we were creating (“Is it a team? Is it a collective? Is it a speakers’ bureau? Is it a political party?”) but we were very sure that we wanted to be more than just an inspirational website.
“Inspiration is only the first step,” I heard myself saying again and again. “What we want to do is actually get out there and meet people – talk to them, ride with them, find out what their dreams and ambitions are, and then look at how we can help make them reality.”
And as it turns out, that’s been the best bit. I haven’t kept count of the people we’ve met over the past 12 months, but it must be hundreds and hundreds. And getting to know all these other cycling women hasn’t just been great fun (though, oh my goodness, it’s been great fun!), it’s also been very helpful to us in planning our next year of activities.
One of the questions I find myself asking again and again, when people tell me about their cycling ambitions, is:
“So what’s stopping you?”
“Can we help with that?”
Over the last few months, we’ve learned quite a lot about what’s holding women back. Often it’s something vague, like ‘being afraid of what might happen’, or ‘just not being that sort of person’. Sometimes it’s very specific, like not knowing how to fix a puncture or plan a route. Very often it’s the conviction that everyone else will be faster, fitter, stronger and better dressed. (I still feel this myself, all the time.) We sent out a survey after our Long-Distance Ladies events, and found that by far the most common barriers were:
- real-life commitments, like jobs and families.
Some of these things are easier for us to fix than others. We can teach a class on how to repair an inner tube, but we can’t convince your boss to give you a pay rise, or look after your kids for a week.
But we’re finding solutions – or at least moving in the right direction. We addressed these two barriers very specifically when planning our Girona training camp. We’re offering a weekend-only option for those whose families and jobs wouldn’t allow them a whole week off.
And for those of you who have limited money, but an abundance of time and talent, we created a bursary scheme (kindly sponsored by Leigh Day), and several woman are now coming on the camp for a drastically reduced fee, paying the remainder in services to the Syndicate. Some will be writing blog posts, making films and taking photographs; others will be helping us with the running of the Syndicate – delivering workshops, writing funding applications, organising a speaking tour, and helping out with all the behind-the-scenes admin that means Lee and I are usually crouched over our laptops, and rarely get to ride our bikes any more.
The training camp kicks off on Monday, and the bit I’m most looking forward to, by a long way, is spending time with all 23 women who are joining us, talking to them about their plans and their fears, and watching as they lay the latter to rest, and put the former into action – and realize that they’re capable of far more than they thought. It’s going to be a big year of cycling for all of us, in all sorts of different ways, and it’s a huge privilege for us to be part of people’s journeys.
And if you’ve missed out on the training camp, don’t worry – we have so many more events in this year’s calendar, and we’ve listened to what people have told us, and tried to make them as accessible as we possibly can. There will be more bursary schemes, and free places at most events. There’ll be rides for people of all abilities and fitness levels. We’ll be travelling all over the UK, so you don’t have to travel hundreds of miles to join in. We’ll be working with local partners to help us engage with each community on its own terms, and make sure they have a network to plug into once we’ve moved on. We’ll carry on catering for people who have more time than money, and also for those who have more money than time.
And we’re looking forward to welcoming even more talent, passion and dedication into the fold than we did last year. Very early on, we realized that this project would be far bigger than just me and Lee, than our four directors and 12 athletes. The Adventure Syndicate is turning into a huge, beautiful, diverse celebration of women’s cycling, and of all the talent, energy and individuality that each of us brings to the community. We can’t wait to meet more of you in 2017, to talk with you, ride with you, work with you, and welcome even more people into the fold. We'll be starting tomorrow, with a blog post from one of the women who's joining us on our training camp.
Oh yes, it’s going to be a very good year.