Motorists have a habit of shouting, “Hey, Lance Armstrong!” at Imelda March as she passes them on her bike. Which is weird, because she’s a woman. Then again they’re not completely off base, because she also happens to be a member of an all-female cycling team.
March and her teammates, who ride for Team Kenda presented by Geargrinder, are a bit of a curiosity in the cycling community. Of the approximately 800 – 1,000 registered racing cyclists in Illinois, March estimates that “maybe 15 to 20 percent are women,” emphasis on maybe. That’s one of the reasons she’s organized a Women’s Cycling Social, Feb. 27, at Heritage Bicycles, 2959 N. Lincoln Ave., 6-9 p.m.
“New entrants in women’s cycling have to find it fun and exciting,” she says. “Let’s be more inviting.”
With the Cycling Social, March, who lives on the North Side, hopes to provide a venue for newcomers to learn more about the sport. “The purpose of the event is to get women together who are interested in cycling. There’s a lot of commuters, a lot of charity riders, maybe a runner who wants to do a triathlon,” she says. “They might want to race, but who knows where to start.”
Where women now make up more than 40 percent of marathon runners, March points to a number of barriers that have kept the number of female cyclists comparatively low.
“The big elephant in the room is that women’s cycling is not on TV,” she says. “For the average consumer, if it’s not on TV it doesn’t exist.” Who knew, for example, that there was a women’s version of the Tour de France? (Canceled after the 2010 race for want of a sponsor.)
In addition to a lack of exposure, March points to the relatively high cost of entry as another obstacle. “You can buy a pair of running shoes for $30,” whereas in cycling, “the minimum to buy a clunker is $500.”
Then there’s the mechanical issue. “You have to be able to change a tire, fix a flat, fix a derailleur. You need to know the anatomy of a bike,” says March. Though there are increasingly more clinics to teach these skills, she adds, “It’s an easier sell to have a woman train for the next fun run.”
Ironically running is what led March to cycling. A track-and-field athlete in college, she took up duathlons, which are similar to triathlons, just swap out swimming for an extra round of running. “I was getting clobbered on the bike,” she says. “I thought, ‘I have to work on my cycling.’” Once she started riding more frequently, March was hooked.
Elite cyclists can reach speeds of 35-40 miles per hour, with beginner and intermediate riders racing at 25-30 milers per hour. “It takes a certain type of woman who wants to take on that risk,” admits March. “What I enjoy the most about sports is the competition, the adrenaline. My drug is the competition, the euphoria. It’s very therapeutic.”
Now she’s on a mission to spread that passion to other women, particularly as the push for sustainability has more and more people taking to their bikes. Whether they want to race, commute or just ride their bike for fun during the summer, all interested women are invited to the Cycling Social. In the spirit of making the event as welcoming as possible, March chose Heritage as the venue specifically because its vibe is far less intimidating than the typical bike shop. “It’s not a testosterone-heavy shop,” she says.
The Cycling Social, which is free, will feature a Q&A session with veteran female cyclists, prize raffle and plenty of time for mingling and networking. An RSVP is requested, though not required; only registered guests will be entered in the raffle.