“The Women’s 100 returns with a rallying cry to female cyclists around the world: we might be riding solo, but never alone.”

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This Sunday, September 6th, the eighth edition of the Rapha Women’s 100 will be taking place in a format adapted for the unprecedented times we’re living in. The event started in 2013 as an effort to encourage women to come together, claim road space, and push their endurance limits. This year, the clothing brand that organizes the ride has had to follow the lead of numerous other cycling events and find a way to overcome the challenges of physical distancing rules and restrictions.

Determined to celebrate the women’s cycling community come hell or high water (or a deadly virus), they’ve adopted a thematic underpinning suited to this year’s unique situation. Though group rides are still encouraged where coronavirus restrictions permit, Rapha will also be motivating cyclists to do their own Women’s 100 KM solo ride with a Strava challenge —
and they’ve assembled a wicked group of inspiring women to spearhead the event.

The invisible peloton

Leading the charge are five women ambassadors, including Transcontinental winner Emily Chappell. Undoubtedly one of the most interesting and influential people in the cycling community, Chappell is a bike messenger turned ultra-endurance racer and she is committed to using her acquired expertise to help other women succeed.

Detailed in her latest book, Where There’s a Will: Hope, Grief and Endurance in a Cycle Race Across a Continent, she recollects the challenges she was required to overcome and the lessons she learned while racing the Transcontinental. In addition to the memoire aspect of recounting her experience, she also offers up a trove of useful advice on everything from her bike setup and nutrition to how she pushed herself psychologically and emotionally to keep going when she felt like giving up.

Mobilizing her philosophy as a framework for this year’s Rapha Women’s 100, Chappell is determined to help participants succeed even when confronting the challenge of doing a long ride alone. Employing a tactic she refers to as the “invisible peloton,” in her toughest moments on the bike Chappell focuses her attention on the women who inspire her. Including both women she knows personally, and others she has never met, she summons to mind a cast of cyclists, activists, scientists and politicians who have captured her attention over the years. She imagines that this dream team is riding along beside her, urging, challenging and encouraging her to keep going.

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Who’s in my #invisiblepeloton? The Cowley Road Condors have made it their mission to be the friendliest sports club in Oxford, and have succeeded where so many other cycling clubs have failed, in being genuinely inclusive. A third of their members are women, including President Cheryl Reid, with whom I had the great pleasure of riding in Le Loop last year. I am a massive Condors fangirl. I love the amount of work they put into making their club friendly, diverse and welcoming. I love the attitude of the members I’ve ridden with (especially Cheryl, Jo, Jen and Becci on Le Loop), and the strength, cooperation and humour with which they get through difficult rides. I love how they all support each other – lots of Condors turned up unofficially during Le Loop, to cheer their club mates on from the sidelines, or to pick up the pieces afterwards. I also love how they have broken the mould of the traditional cycling club. They do all the usual stuff like chain gangs and time trials and cyclocross – but they also encourage their members to expand in other directions, and you’ll often see the distinctive pink Condor plumage streaking round a mountain bike trail, or overtaking you on 500km audax – or finishing a massive self-supported ultra-race, as James Illman did last week (#gbduro20). I’m always so happy when I get a chance to ride with @cowleyroadcondors. I hope there will be many more in future. Who’s in your #invisiblepeloton?

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As she puts it, “the Invisible Peloton was born of that desperation you feel when you reach the bottom of the tank, realise you still have much further to go, and start frantically grasping at anything that might possibly keep you going, just a bit longer. You don’t have any strength left of your own, so you start borrowing other people’s.”

If ever these words rang true, it is in a year when we’ve all had to confront the reality of doing things alone that we’re used to doing with the support and help of loved ones. With pandemic restrictions meaning more people have been riding solo than ever before, the ability to harness the unseen encouragement of inspiring figures seems like just what the world needs. It’s an approach that will surely be what helps many riders at this weekend’s event reach their goal.

Highlighting the diversity of women’s cycling

Equipped with plenty of inspiration for any participants looking for women to round out their invisible peloton, the Rapha Women’s 100 is also fronted by four other formidable riders. Described by the organizers as “wildly inspiring women who stand tall in aid of diversity and inclusion within cycling communities and beyond,” they’ve certainly found a crew worthy of that large order.

Alongside Chappell, you’ll find Shuhena Islam, a lawyer and cycling enthusiast advocating for more Muslim women to discover the joy of cycling; author, presenter, and activist Jools Walker, who has made it her life’s work to make cycling more inclusive; Kadeena Cox, a Paralympic medallist and track world champion; and Lyndsey Fraine, a producer who has used cycling as a means of coping with, and raising awareness of, endometriosis.

Showing their commitment to more than just optics, Rapha also spoke out earlier this summer expressing their commitment to diversity, inclusion and greater equality, pledging to spend 50 per cent of its 2021 athlete sponsorship on riders from underrepresented groups, including Black, Asian, minority ethnic, and LGBTQ+ cyclists and women’s teams.

In the meantime, all focus is on making this weekend’s ride a success and getting as many women involved as possible. As the event’s mission statement proclaims, “in the year of lockdown and social distancing, riding together – online, on the road or otherwise – has never been more important.”

How to get involved in the Rapha Women’s 100:

If you’re feeling up for the challenge, it is not too late to join the 700+ women already on board and sign up to the Rapha Women’s 100 Strava Challenge. You can also learn more about this year’s unique event on the Rapha’s Women’s 100 page.

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