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Building Women’s Cycling Initiatives from the Ground Up: Breeze UK

By Megan Flottorp

When British Cycling adopted a policy of getting more women on bikes in 2011, they weren’t messing around. Determined to narrow the gender gap in cycling, they started Breeze rides. Now in its 9th year, the volunteer-supported programme has succeeded in encouraging thousands of women to cycle. The UK-wide programme, which offers women of all abilities the chance to get back into cycling via fun, free, women-led bike rides, has been experiencing steady growth since its inception and is poised to keep going.

Of course, many women who live in places other than the UK would also benefit from these kinds of initiatives and might even want to start one themselves — it can be tricky to know where to start, though. In order to learn more about the ins and outs of this successful experiment, We Love Cycling talked to Karen Harvey who manages the programme for British Cycling. We discussed what makes a good leader, why women-only programmes are important and how these rides are rewarding for everyone involved.

Clearly, part of what has made Breeze successful is that it is open to riders of all levels. What strategies are leaders encouraged to use to help build the confidence of new cyclists?

Ride leaders (known as Champions) undertake a one-day training course, the Ride Leadership Award. This teaches them the necessary skills and techniques to lead on a guided bike ride. The rides are by their very nature friendly and the welcoming nature helps to instantly give a confidence boost to new riders.

Breeze leaders are encouraged to give as much detail as possible in their ride descriptions so new riders feel comfortable coming along and know what to expect. As part of the training, leaders are taught fundamental aspects of planning great routes, keeping the new rider in mind with lots of routes utilising cycling infrastructure and traffic-free routes to really help boost their confidence.

How did the recruitment and training of volunteers gain momentum? What is the process of becoming a Breeze champion?

Since 2011, the HSBC UK Breeze programme has trained over 3,500 women to lead Breeze bike rides. More and more women became involved having participated in the rides and then they too wanted to give something back to cycling. This has meant the network of Champions really understands any hesitancy and apprehension about first coming along to take part, and really try to put people at ease.

To become a Champion, women complete a short application form detailing cycling experience and letting us know why they would make a great Champion. If successful and offered a free place, they are asked to complete a short online training course before completing a one-day assessed Ride Leadership Award course.

Why is it important that Breeze remains a women-only initiative?

It is important at this moment in time because, despite huge progress being made in recent years, there is still a sizeable gap in gender participation rates in cycling. We are constantly assessing and re-evaluating the suitability and effectiveness of our programmes, and our research and insight show that many women still feel much more comfortable taking part in women-only activities and, without such an offer, might not take part otherwise.

How has Breeze evolved over the last 9 years? Have there been any unexpected challenges to overcome?

From the very first ride in Manchester in 2011 to the growth of the programme across Wales, Scotland and more recently Jersey, the programme seems to go from strength to strength. We continue to strive to offer more and more opportunities for women through Breeze including introducing mountain bike rides and coaching sessions over the last 9 years to add variety to the programme.

One of the biggest challenges has simply been keeping pace as women have progressed so much in their cycling abilities! However, we always seek to support the original ambition of the programme by advising our wonderful Champions that a proportion of the rides they lead on annually should be traffic-free and/or less than 10 miles to ensure they are open to women new to bike riding.

What advice would you have for women trying to organize similar initiatives in other parts of the world?

Do it! Every day we hear from women who tell us HSBC UK Breeze has changed their lives. This is not just the participants but also from the volunteer Champions too. None of this would be possible without their dedication, energy and enthusiasm and we really can’t thank them enough. As an organisation, we want to see more and more women get out on their bikes right across the world and will happily speak to anyone and offer our advice and learnings from the programme.

A big thanks to Karen for taking the time to speak with us! If we know anything about the cycling community, it’s that there’s no shortage of enthusiasm and a strong commitment to helping the sport grow. If you’re in a position to share your knowledge about bikes, cycling etiquette, and local trails with other riders, there is no time like the present to get started. Breeze has provided the template, now it’s up to others to keep the momentum going!