The WCC welcomes the male and female cyclist equally but for all of our similarities men and women are different. We all struggle to find just the right helmet that fits our style, but most guys have probably never had to grapple with how to fit a ponytail through the helmet straps. Clearly, women face some different challenges, and if you’re new to the sport, you’ll probably appreciate some friendly female advice. What I have learned about cycling has come through advice from my husband, asking a lot of questions from those more experienced and a bit of trial & error, so I’d like to share a few of the things I’ve learned to save you the trouble. After all, making a rookie mistake is like having food stuck in your teeth: how are you supposed to do anything about it if no one tells you?
Hopefully this advice will help you avoid some awkward situations, but please, take these tips with a grain of salt. I am not a pro cyclist, mechanic, doctor, or fashion expert. I simply offer some suggestions from my own experience and the knowledge provided by the professionals:
1. Anatomy of a woman: There are many subtle differences between the anatomies of women and men which affect how they ride bikes. Women have shorter arms which on a standard bike can cause fatigue in shoulders and back from reaching and can make the bike more difficult to control. Ensure the geometry of the bike you ride has a shorter top tube and a shorter reach to the brake hoods. Many women have small hands so look for an appropriate diameter handlebars and grips to keep hands happy over long distances and on extended descents. Wearing women’s-specific gloves can also help with smaller hands. Not only are women typically 20% lighter than men on average, they also carry their weight in different places. Typically women have a lower center of gravity because they don’t have as much upper-body muscle mass. Bike geometry and suspension tuning need to be designed with these considerations in mind. The bottom line is: women are different from men, and their bikes should be as well.
2. Etiquette of Group Riding: Your actions will make an impression on others and contribute to how people view women on bikes. There are many things we can do to contribute to a positive impression, aside from (obviously) looking so good in spandex and if you haven’t experienced riding in a group yet, the WCC insists that you learn from the best at a novice ride on Wednesday nights. First rule of thumb is simple: do not make any sudden moves. This means do not brake suddenly (instead coast, use the wind or feather your brakes lightly to slow down if needed); do not suddenly move laterally (if you need to move laterally, plan ahead, do so gradually, and if possible give an indication to the rider behind you before you move; otherwise, hold your line and follow the line of the riders around you). Pointing out obstacles in the road to riders behind you also helps avoid sudden movements in the group and is considered common courtesy. Generally, be as predictable as possible in your actions. This ensures your safety, the safety of others and will be appreciated by all around you (cyclists and motorists alike). If you have trouble riding close to others and using the draft, partner with someone whose wheel you trust. Follow his or her wheel for a whole ride to get a feel for how to move around in the group. Follow the wheel, but don’t stare at it. Keep looking ahead to anticipate obstacles or changes in direction, and be aware of those around you. If you know how to use the draft and are comfortable in a paceline, for goodness sake take a pull at the front. No one likes a wheelsucker. (If you’re not there yet, let others around you know that you’re working to get the hang of it.) Remember, if you’re following the rules of the road, holding your line and riding safely, anyone who yells at you is a jerk, and should be ignored. If you’re really questioning your riding behavior, ask a cyclist you trust. Under no circumstances should you let that jerk ruin your ride.
3. Pain & Discomfort: Having a proper bike fitting and finding the right saddle shape/width is a key component to prevent pain and discomfort as your saddle time increases. To avoid most issues from occurring, such as bruising the sit bones and genital numbness, you want to make sure you have a Lycra short with a chamois that is seamless and try shifting your position while riding to provide some relief. Chafing of the skin at the upper/inner thigh can result when sweaty skin rubs against clothing or the saddle. Sometimes this friction is experienced as an uncomfortable sensation of heat, and sometimes it can actually cause raw sores where the top layer of skin has been rubbed away. Also, saddle sores are caused when chafing and pressure result in an open sore which becomes infected. Left untreated, and with continued irritation (i.e. more hours in the saddle) these can progress to larger infected abscesses. If this happens, give yourself a break! Stop riding until the infection clears up. You can try taking a hot bath with Epsom salts (available in any drug store and most groceries). You can apply a medicated balm to aid the healing. Your saddle’s shape is key. If you are experiencing numbness or pain, you should find a saddle with a cut-out or groove in the middle. This design decreases pressure on the perineal area giving some relief to the perineal nerve which runs through the perineum. The width of the saddle may also be an issue. Depending on how wide your sit bones are, and depending on your position on the bike (far forward or relatively upright), you may choose a narrower or wider saddle to meet your needs. The crucial thing is to address this issue as soon as it becomes apparent. Keep in mind that the issues you may face can vary with your position on the bike, your saddle choice, the amount of hours you spend riding, etc. So as your cycling habits change adjust your regimen as necessary. And please don’t be embarrassed to ask for help from the veterans at the WCC! Whatever your issue, they’ve probably been through it before!
4. The Chamois: The chamois is the most bizarre item in a female cyclist’s wardrobe. It’s really just glorified underwear with a giant pad sewn into spandex shorts. Yet, as a cyclist, I wear my chamois more often than my favorite Lulu lemon pants. First and foremost, all chamois are not created equally. Find a good one. The bigger the chamois, the more chafing you’ll experience: NOT good. On the other hand, too thin or small, and the chamois won’t do its job. Find one that fits you. Aside from size, look for flat, smooth seams around the chamois, because poor stitching will really cause you problems down the road. Invest in a good quality chamois from the start. You’ll thank me later. Second, wear the chamois as it is intended – with NO UNDERWEAR. This may sound awful and very unladylike but so is the discomfort and ridicule you will endure if you don’t heed this point. Trust me. Lastly, the chamois is a single-use item. Once you’ve worn your chamois for a ride, it goes straight to the wash. Never, ever EVER wear a dirty chamois. Once you’ve finished your ride, you should get out of the chamois and into dry clothes as quickly as possible. This is much more than an issue of style and taste: it is an issue of health. We’ll leave it at that.
5. Chamois Cream: If you do experience chafing, chamois cream can help. With the many formulas available, you’ll have to find the one that works for you. If you have a choice, buy the tube, not the tub. If you have the tub, for goodness sake, no double-dipping! You can apply it directly or onto your chamois – experiment and find what works best for you.
6. Know how to change a tube (even if you let the guys show off their gentlemanliness sometimes):
At this point, I have to admit that I understand the theory of how to change a tube but I have yet to be in a situation where I had to do it all myself. While I am perfectly capable of changing my own tube, I admit that I am not very quick or proficient in the process. In particular my cyclists’ arms don’t help much in terms of pumping up the new tube very quickly. I am therefore quite thankful when someone (usually my loving husband) steps in to take over the task. While it is perfectly acceptable to accept the help of someone more skilled than you, it really is imperative that you know how to change a tube yourself. Have someone show you how to properly change a tube, step by step (the mechanics at one of our bike shop sponsors would be a great resource). Then, set aside some time to practice a few times so you aren’t “practicing” by the side of the road when the sun is going down. It is really important to always ride prepared. You cannot count on using your feminine wiles to flag down a motorist or other cyclist for help. Pack a saddle bag with the following items, at a minimum: 2 tire levers (helpful for those of us without gorilla hands), 1 extra tube, a pump (or CO2 cartridges), and a small multi-tool. Be prepared, hope for the best, and if a kind gentleman offers to help you change your flat, by all means, enjoy the flattery. If all else fails, make sure you have the number for CAA in your cell phone – they will come and rescue you!
7. Know your bike and how to maintain it: You should be at least vaguely familiar with the basics of your equipment to be able to maintain your bike on a daily basis and to at least diagnose major problems before they ruin a ride. Know how to: check if a tire is safe (not too worn or cut); use the barrel adjuster on your rear derailleur and brakes; properly lube and wipe down your chain; pump your tires to a proper pressure; and change a flat. Our local WCC bike shop sponsors can offer instruction on each point.
8. The 3 pockets on your Jersey: Wondering what goes in the pockets of your jersey – everything but the kitchen sink! The contents may vary depending on the length of your ride and the time of the month :) but in general you will want to carry with you a cell phone, tissue, money for extra water or a butter tart, food (gel pack, energy bar, banana, fig newtons, etc.), arm-warmers, vest or jacket (weather dependent) and sunscreen/chapstick.
9. The Tan Line: If this is your first summer of cycling you are about to experience the cyclist’s tan because if you ride with any frequency, it is inevitable. The guys seem to embrace and emphasize the tan line as a symbol of dedication but if you’re like me, you may not want to look like you live in your jersey and shorts. So, to minimize the tan line, first train in a sleeveless jersey when possible. Only do this on hot days when you’re not tempted to wear arm-warmers (major faux-pas to wear arm-warmers with a sleeveless jersey!). When wearing a regular short-sleeved jersey and shorts, change the hem height by rolling it up to different heights. This will help fade the contrast of the tan line. Finally, make time to sun a bit in your bikini. This will even out the tanlines, and boost your body’s production of Vitamin D, which, as some studies have shown, can help your athletic performance. Of course, be smart about wearing sunscreen and managing your time in the sun.
10. SUNSCREEN!: Wear it and reapply it. You don’t want to be mistaken for a pedaling piece of beef jerky before the age of 40, and you certainly don’t want a battle with skin cancer. The face in the mirror will thank you for those few minutes you spend each day applying the stuff. Don’t forget the sunscreen for your lips – the summer sun and heat can really cause discomfort if there is no protection.
Hopefully these few tips will encourage everyone and in particular the women of the WCC to enjoy every minute that they are on their bikes. Ask us anything – we will do our best to help you with your questions. In case, the information above is not enough to convince you, below are a few testimonies from a few WCC Women who are passionate about their cycling:
Becky (Group 6) wrote this when asked to share why she chose cycling…
“Well, I don’t really know where to start, so the beginning makes sense. Being overweight is tiresome, unhealthy, and makes you feel just plain old. I started working out at the gym in winter 2010, and was able to lose 45 lbs. Then the summer hit (…exactly…UH OH). I love to be outside, and with the patio and bbq calling, I found it quite difficult to get to the gym. Who wants to be inside on a gorgeous summer day anyway? I needed to do something to keep me active. After some talks with my husband, who has always been a biker, we threw around the idea of cycling. I didn’t do much research on the sport of road cycling, and didn’t know how much I would enjoy it, but, at the end of the fall in 2010, I bought a road bike. Yes, as you can tell, I really only bought a road bike because my husband bought one, and I wanted to try and keep up with him. Of course, after the first few rides, I couldn’t keep up with him; I needed something to boost my confidence and improve my cycling. So, I joined the Waterloo Cycling Club. Once I found riders at my own level, I barely rode with my husband anymore. The reasons for cycling became endless. I have made countless friends, and gone on many rides touring the countryside. I have had fun while staying active, not to mention be able to keep off the weight I worked so hard at losing. At the end of a long hard day at work, nothing feels better than getting on my bike for hours and riding as fast and hard as I can; cycling is a form of stress relief. I am continually improving and am now able to hold my own on a ride, and yes, keep up with that husband of mine. My experience has been incredible, and has brought me nothing but joy. Cycling will forever be a part of me.”
Grace (11 yrs) wrote this about her experience in the Fast and Female Mountain Bike Program….
“On Saturday, June 2, about a dozen girls aged between 9-17 years old participated in the Fast and Female Mountain Bike Program at Hardwood Hills in Barrie. There were groups of 2-4 girls and one terrific Ambassador. We used a worksheet to discuss our goals and dreams and how we are going to achieve them. Then a Zumba dance class took place. It was very fun! Finally, the best part came…going mountain biking with your group Ambassador! We learned lots of new techniques when hitting the trails. Our Ambassador was Andréanne Pichette who is a professional Mountain Biker on Team Opus! She therefore had some really good techniques to share. When it was over, all the girls had learned a lot about having confidence in their abilities to play sports and reach their goals. If you’re a girl between the ages of 9-17 you should go to their next event!”
Stef (Group 3) wrote this when asked to share why she loves cycling…
“What I appreciate about cycling is the fitness level and power you gain. The sensation of your body working together with a machine and powering over hills and down roads. It’s also a great time to be alone with your thoughts. As a woman it’s nice to be truly alone. No pressures, no kids, no husband, just the bike.”
Claudia (U17, provincial team and Group 3) wrote this when asked why she cycles…
“I love to cycle because it allows me to spend time outside, it improves my physical wellbeing and with clubs like WCC it allows me to meet many people. I also enjoy the competitive side of cycling in races. This year I have had 5 podiums in my races and I will be representing Team Ontario at the Tour of Rimouski in Quebec.”
Julie (Group 6) wrote this when asked why cycling after all her successes in other sports…
“My husband has always been an avid mountain biker. I had never understood this so called “sickness” of all the up and coming exciting gear, the urge to push so hard to keep up and the passion that one holds to this so called love affair. I had honestly tried mountain biking, but never felt comfortable with my bike handling skills. So awkward and clumsy! I had competed very successfully in the sport of CrossFit and Power Lifting, but had felt that it was time to move on to something else, I just didn’t quite know what that looked like. My husband, Clay, travelled to Utah quite extensively for a work project. He lived his teenage dream and got to ride in Fruita, Moab, Hurricane etc. Clay was stationed in Salt Lake City where there’s an infamous canyon road, spoken of as one of the “must do” climbs in the USA….”Big Cottonwood Canyon.” He then decided to break on through to the other side and ride on “skinnies.” He climbed the canyon road and was instantly hooked. The search for yet another hobby was launched. When he purchased his bike, it got me thinking that perhaps this is it….maybe this is the way for me to embrace cycling, so dear to Clay’s heart. Clay took a chance and ordered me a bike in the winter of 2011. I can honestly say, there’s no looking back now! I always have found that joining a group makes one accountable. I cherish the friendships that I have built riding with WCC and take great pride inspiring others to give the sport a go. I love the opportunity to go on a “date” with Clay on the quiet countryside and quick wave hello to Mennonite families in their daily routines. Cycling brings me peace, it challenges mental strength in a way that nothing else quite has. I am so fortunate to have the countless opportunities cycling has brought to our lives. The next step…trying to keep up with my three children on the Hydrocut!”
Lorraine (Group 3) wrote this when asked what makes her so passionate about cycling…
“I get to experience the rural landscape and countryside up close and at a relatively leisurely pace (slower than in a vehicle).I usually cycle with friends and get to chat with them about all sorts of different topics (a lot can be covered on a 125 km ride).I can push myself up the hills if I’m feeling so inclined, and then get a fast ride on the downhills.
Cycling is relaxing and quiet when there are no vehicles in the vicinity. It is fun to be part of a cycling group (especially in Tuscany!). It feels good to be able to hang with a cycling group for as long as possible on a Tues. night ride.”