Breeze Beyond Barriers

Sunday, 11 March 2018

"There are clearly many women wanting to cycle more, or to start, looking for confidence to make that first step or pedal, wanting the support and camaraderie that cycling with others can bring.  There is without doubt a need to press for progress and close the gap in women’s cycling."

2018 was to see the launch of my Beyond Barriers, health & well-being campaign.  A social campaign and collection of projects all with one common goal of encouraging and supporting people facing barriers to existing opportunities and activities, to get active outside.

I’ll never stop shouting about the many benefits being active outside can bring, and I believe it can be and most certainly should be, accessible for all.  Many people feel they face barriers to being active and getting outside, these can include disability, physical health, mental health, age, gender, financial and social barriers.  My campaign goal is to encourage, inspire, promote, lead and show, that there’s always a way, that we are all Beyond Barriers.

At the end of last year I began my training for what I believe is a cornerstone of my bigger campaign picture, a project on its own but also an important part of moving forward with ideas, thinking and progress.  Part of my plan was to train and qualify to become a cycle leader.  Not knowing how to go about this or even if it was possible, though of course I do believe anything is possible, it’s a case of having to find your way, I researched my options and began to see a possible route.  In doing my research and finding out about necessary skills and abilities to become a qualified ride leader, I did not see any reason why, as a disabled person and as a handcyclist, I could not meet the necessary criteria, along the same route as any able bodied cyclist.  Of course I knew this would take a little open mindedness and that I may have to adapt some practises, but as far as I could see, it was possible.  Now for me, becoming a cycle leader was about many things, and one important thing was that it wasn’t about disability.  It was about being a cycle leader.  As in, I didn’t want special treatment, I didn’t want my own course only for disabled cyclists, to lead disabled cyclists, progress is inclusion, in every area of life and while we are all very different, we are also all the same and I knew that what I could offer as a cycle leader; to support, encourage and take people on great rides for all abilities, had nothing to do with disability and everything to do with passion.

My research lead me right back to British Cycling, though on the recreation side.  I had discovered the Ride Leadership Award, summarised as: “The Ride Leadership Award is for people who love cycling and want to share their passion with others.”  Box ticked.  Now to convince course tutors and governing bodies of my grand idea.

My training and assessment took me to Wales.  Following some online learning and testing, I found myself back in a classroom, pen and paper in front of me and our course tutor sharing and teaching the theory of being a competent ride leader.  I shared my course with around ten other women, of all ages, all beginning their own Breeze journeys.  Once ready, we took our training to the streets of Cardiff, as a group going through scenarios we would face ourselves and learning in real time.

The second part of my cycle leader training took me back into Wales, Abergavenny to be exact, for a very cold few days in November where I trained in First Aid in the outdoors with Borderlands Outdoor.  My chosen course far exceeded the required ‘First Aid for Leading Rides’, but like I say, this is part of a bigger picture and I relished the challenge and knowledge it brought to me.

From an idea, a what if.. a let’s see how I can make this possible.. a passion for something, I am proud to now be a qualified ride leader.  This is the first step onto the next and enabling me to follow a path alongside my racing career of supporting others and sharing my passion for getting out on a bike and riding.  As I said before, becoming a ride leader was about many things.  I have proven to myself that I can, I have, I am.  I hope within my leadership training and role I can inspire others who may think the only options are inside the box, to look for ways outside of it, and to use my new role to support, encourage and lead the way to sharing the purest joy of getting on your bike and going for a ride.  With new friends and new adventures, happy and healthy, and smashing down those barriers, that’s the great thing about cycling, you can always find your way..

As I mentioned earlier, my route to being a qualified ride leader took the path of a Breeze journey.  British Cycling launched Breeze to inspire women to ride for fun and fitness, offering free bike rides, friendly support, and great people to ride with.  As a qualified ride leader and volunteer Breeze Champion, I have set up my own Breeze group for women.

This week celebrated International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.  The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.  A call to #PressForProgress

In celebration of International Women’s Day and a demonstration of our Press for Progress, today I lead my first ever ride, as a ride leader, as a para-cyclist and as a woman.  Today launched the first of my HSBCUK Breeze rides for Women.

When I created my first ride through the Let’s Ride website, I honestly didn’t know if anyone would sign up.  Even now after smashing down my own barriers to get to this point, I doubted myself and questioned if anyone would want to ride with me.  My doubts were soon dismissed and replaced with a new excitement as places began to be booked.

This ride and all of my Breeze rides are not about my training, what I love is they are not about me and so much my cycling.  These rides are ran on my days off.  They are not fast, not particularly endurance, there is no pressure.  They are about encouraging all women to get out on their bikes and come for a social ride, gaining confidence, new friends and fitness and sharing the love of cycling and everything it brings.  Today I had eight ladies booked on my first ever ride, a full house within my ride leader remit, an accomplishment in itself.  Just before 10.00am at my set meeting point, all were ready and looking keen for our Saturday morning cycle.

I had set a simple yet scenic route for our first ride. Once bike checks were done and a few instructions and hand signals shown, we set off, first negotiating our way safely though town and the Saturday market, before heading out into the countryside and nearby hamlets. I was excited about taking this first ride and to meeting my eager participants, but I was also feeling a little into the unknown. After all, this was my first lead ride and I was responsible for the group, it was no longer just me looking out for myself, I certainly felt a whole new level of responsibility and professionalism to uphold. It doesn’t matter how in depth you do your risk assessments and route planning, out there in real time there’s only so much you can plan for and control, and I wanted this ride to run smoothly and safely.

In all honesty, out there, it all came naturally. My fears were definitely bigger than the here and now and by the sounds of the chitter-chatter behind as I lead along the lanes, this was going pretty well. I was able to move through the group with ease, making sure everyone was ok and marshalling junctions before taking the lead once more. My ladies really were amazing and made my role very easy indeed.

Listening to them talk was enlightening and reassured me in my underpinning ethos, to push beyond barriers. A common theme was one I had also experienced, a more mental than physical barrier. Many of these ladies spoke about wanting to have some kind of a cycling group that they felt comfortable in, yet all they had available to them were cycling clubs, many of these still heavily male driven and have felt they wouldn’t be good enough to join rides or had been made to feel they wouldn’t be. Now I know this is not always one sided, we are our own worst critics and self-doubters and often afraid of failure or looking silly and can easily ‘think’ others are doubting us as much as we are ourselves. Though I agree there is also a certain amount of closed thinking still out there, ‘assuming’ we wouldn’t be able to keep up, still a lot of male egos that can be intimidating and sometimes dismissive towards female cyclists. And while cycling clubs have their place, there are clearly many women wanting to cycle more, or to start, looking for confidence to make that first step or pedal, wanting the support and camaraderie that cycling with others can bring. There is without doubt a need to press for progress and close the gap in women’s cycling, and I fully commit to doing what I can to support that change.

Our ride today went perhaps even better than I’d planned, everyone told me how they’d enjoyed both the route and the group, aided by coffee and flapjacks at our post-ride pit-stop.

New ride buddies were made and plans for the next Breeze ride eagerly anticipating, everyone with their own reason for wanting to cycle but all sharing the simple passion for getting outside and riding a bike.

Today was a first on many levels. Today marked my first lead ride and the launch of my Breeze group for International Women’s Day. As far as I am aware, I am the first and only handcyclist qualified as a British Cycling Ride Leader. As a para-cyclist and handcyclist, I lead a group made up of both able-bodied and para-cyclists, simply women supporting women.

On a day looking to lead the way, we pretty much trail-blazed it.

We are Breeze Beyond Barriers.

Images © Hywel Jenkins

My role as a ride leader involves navigation and route planning which I’m able to do through OS maps with Ordnance Survey.  If you’re interested in today’s cycle route, the route link can be found here.

Earlier this week I was invited into the BBC Gloucestershire studios to chat about my Beyond Barriers campaign and upcoming Breeze launch.  You can listen to the interview here from 2 hrs 11

I’d like to give a special mention to someone who has been part of my inspiration to explore this adventure along my journey.  A chance meeting to help a group of female cyclists with a flat tyre, on my first trip to my own spiritual home of discovering the possible, the Isle of Arran.  Janice Small’s passion and commitment for encouraging women to get on their bikes and believe in themselves, alongside new friends, in setting up the Isle of Arran Belles cycling club in her retirement is a true example of today’s and tomorrow’s female role model.  I have been lucky to ride with Janice and the club whenever I get to visit Arran and am proud to be an honorary Belle.  I am also proud to have Janice as one of my role models and as my friend. ∼ Honorary Belle, Mel.