By Laurel-Lea Shannon
When Michelle Ward moved to Collingwood, Ontario twelve years ago, one of the first things she did was look for a women’s mountain bike club to join. She soon discovered there weren’t any — not in Collingwood, not in Ontario, not in the whole of Canada. Disappointed, but undaunted, she launched Fly Gurlz, the first women-specific Ontario Cycling Association (OCA) mountain bike club in Canada, and the first Canadian Cycling Association (CCA) national mountain bike trade team in North America.
Five years later, in 2002, a second OCA-affiliated women’s cycling club, the BikeFit Sunflower Squad, started pedaling in and around St. Catherines. The club’s founder is cycling coach and trainer Jenny Brown, who, after retiring from pro-elite mountain bike racing, recognized the need for women-specific cycling programs. “It was my goal to get more women involved in the sport,” Jenny says. “Not just in mountain biking but in cycling in general.”
The two club founders have a passion for cycling, and share other goals — a heartfelt commitment to promote the sport to women, and a fiery enthusiasm for the friendship, confidence, and support women cyclists gain through women-specific clubs.
Why Women Only?
“Women are different than men,” Michelle explains. “We learn differently, we play differently, and we teach our children these differences at an early age.”
You can see this acted out in the playground. Mothers are more protective of their daughters than they are of their sons, who are expected to take tumbles and roughhouse with other boys. Girls are socialized to be less active and more timid when they play, and don’t tend to learn the same athletic skills at the same age. “When we get older we don’t have the same confidence as men,” Michelle continues. “Fly Gurlz cycling camps provide coaching to help women gain confidence so they can learn the skills they didn’t learn when they played as children.”
In fact, the clubs are as much about friendship, building self esteem, and setting goals and achieving them, as they are about cycling. Women learn those skills alongside the technical skills of on- and off-road cycling in a nurturing and supportive environment. You won’t find this same taking-under-one’s-wing approach in other bike clubs because the members of those teams are predominantly male.
Women-specific bike clubs are “necessary right now,” says Jenny. “We’re creating opportunities for women. We’re building equal participation in the sport, so separate clubs are needed to accomplish that goal.”
The Club Programs
Both cycling clubs are divided into adult and youth divisions that range from 63-year-old women to 8-year-old-girls. Some youngsters quickly catch up to their moms to form dynamic mother and daughter cycling duos.
BikeFit Sunflower Squad
The BikeFit Sunflower Squad offers an entry level program, the Confidence Booster, where basic cycling skills are taught, and an intermediate level, the Groove, for riders who have acquired the necessary cycling skills and fitness to go faster. A third category, the Single Track Sizzlers, is a highly competitive race division committed to pursuing the Ontario Cup Race Series in road cycling and mountain biking.
Jenny talks enthusiastically about a new division called the Seed Accelerator. This program requires added commitment and training from girls who are interested in pursuing the Ontario Cup, and it qualifies for the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit.
Fly Gurlz operates province-wide, with chapters in Halton, Durham, Collingwood, Toronto, Barrie, and London. Their club is four programs rolled into one — a mountain bike club, a race team, a women’s-only mountain bike camp where cyclists are coached in MB riding techniques, and an annual MB relay.
The relay, hosted by Fly Gurlz, is the only women’s-specific mountain bike relay in North America. “It’s our venue to introduce women to racing in a fun, non-intimidating and pretty silly environment,” says Michelle. “We have a theme every year. This year it’s the 80’s, last year it was disco. There’s music, everybody dresses up and has a good time.”
Sponsorship and Funding
It takes a lot of commitment, hard work and many volunteers to get an official cycling club off the ground and spinning smoothly. In the early years of Fly Gurlz, Michelle often funded the organization out of her own pocket as sponsorship slowly grew.
The Sunflower Squad’s title sponsor, BikeFit, promotes the team and provides cycling products for silent auctions. Trek, a major cycling manufacturer, is a sponsor, and this year GM provided a grant to help pay for coaching. Local restaurants and businesses get involved too. Last year a vineyard assisted a promotional event with wine tours.
Through their affiliation with Big Brothers Big Sisters, the BikeFit Sunflower Squad obtained another grant that offers barrier-free memberships and bike loans to Big and Little Sisters who want to enjoy the healthy benefits of cycling.
“You feel so passionate about it, you could have no money and no sponsorship and it would still exist,” says Michelle. “It’s about so much more than that.” Both women emphasize the life-transforming changes that come through being part of a cycling community.
It’s About More Than Cycling
For Heather Pardon, one of the founding members of Fly Gurlz and the co-author of The Power Of Women United, completing a grueling 24-hour cycling event was a turning point in her life. “For me, it was a powerful example of having a big goal that you may have formerly thought was beyond what you were capable of, and finding it’s quite achievable. Completing that event catapulted me into the belief that I can run my own business and I can succeed in other areas of my life.”
The club members become loyal friends who share life’s joys and hardships. They support each other, not just through cycling goals but through pregnancies, divorces and other life changes. “These women become part of your personal story,” says Michelle. “There’s an emotional and spiritual depth to women’s organizations that’s really wonderful.”
Each year Jenny takes photographs of her team. “You can see them change in so many ways,” she says. “They’ve slimmed down, they’ve trimmed up. They are happier. They’ve gained a sense of leadership, and they want to encourage other women.”
These women are all forming bonds that go far beyond just the camaraderie of cycling. This year, printed on their club cycling shorts, jerseys, and leg and arm warmers, Fly Gurlz sums it up with their heartfelt message: Friendship Is Forever.
“It’s not just mountain biking. It’s not just road riding. It’s not just learning a skill,” says Michelle. “It’s about self-esteem and getting to know yourself on a whole new level. You realize, ‘Hey I can do that.’ Then you take that experience into your business life, into your parent life, into your relationships. It makes you a better person. That’s what so great about it.”
Founder: Michelle Ward
BikeFit Sunflower Squad
Founder: Jenny Brown
St. Catherines, Ontario