Women and Cycling

When Jacki Paolella moved from New Jersey to attend college at ODU, she didn’t have a car, but she had a bicycle. Riding her bike on campus gave her independence as she cycled to classes and band practices with her keyboard and book bag strapped to her back.  Her friend, Ashley Berkman, a California transplant, had pedaled to and from the parking lot as an employee at Disneyworld and didn’t think of herself as athletic. But three years ago, when Jacki and Ashley met a Midwesterner passing through Norfolk on his round-the-world biking tour, that chance meeting opened their eyes to a new possibility: the bicycle could be a mode for adventure, transportation, community building, and changing the world.

May is National Bicycle Month. With weather just right for outdoor sports and activities, women in Tidewater are strapping on their helmets, slipping on their gloves, and cycling everywhere—from suburban bike shops to the Dismal Swamp, in races all over the East Coast, with stories to tell and an open invitation to all. Bicycling is one of the easiest ways to get exercise and fresh air, make new friends, and experience life up close and natural.

CYCLING FOR CHANGE

When Jacki and Ashley started taking longer bike rides with a non-profit called Bike Virginia, they became inspired to use their bikes to see other parts of the state, as well as to help others. After their ride on the “Crooked Road” tour of Southwestern Virginia, Ashley says they were hooked.

“All the Bike Virginia rides are fundraising events,” Jacki explained. “You pay a small fee to be included in the food, support, and rest stops, and you help them with their cause, which is safe biking for kids and better biking awareness.”

On the Bike Virginia tours, Ashley and Jacki were among the youngest cyclists—with many of the participants in their 50s and 60s and in much better shape than these two twenty-somethings.

“These were seasoned cyclists, retired people, who had lots of time to train all year—but I don’t think you have to be one to enjoy this,” Jacki said.   
In December 2008, Ashley learned about a greater challenge, Bike and Build, a program designed for young people between the ages of 18 and 25, combining cross-country cycling and volunteering with building and bike education projects. Ashley had just turned 25, so the trip would have to happen the summer of 2009. Joining the trip required a four-month stretch and a commitment to raise $4000 each in funding for affordable housing.

“It was pretty complicated,” Jacki explained. “We had to give up our jobs, give up our housing, and convince our parents we weren’t crazy.” “And at the time, all the trips were full,” said Ashley, “but I thought there was a reason I found out about it. So we went ahead and applied.”

The women got physicals and wrote essays and committed to accumulate 500 miles before their trip—with at least one ride over 70 miles. They contributed sweat equity, working on a Women’s Build project in Winchester and a demolition site in Petersburg.

The Southern U.S. Bike and Build ‘09 route stretched from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Francisco. Jacki and Ashley set off on new, elite cycles designed for women, quite a change from their vintage Raleigh road bikes. Riding at least 8 hours a day meant discomfort became routine.

“If your butt stops hurting, then your knees or hands start hurting, but it becomes part of life and you don’t really notice it any more,” Jacki said. “Your tolerance for being uncomfortable changes completely.”

“It was a really demanding thing,” agreed Ashley. “You’re so far away from home. There’s no privacy. You’re in a communal environment with so much to see and so much going on.”

Ashley said that most riders on the trip came to one breakdown moment, which actually became a breakthrough. “One day in Nevada, we had been on a long, long hill all day. I could see the top,” Ashley shared. “We had been bothered by an aggressive RV that started trying to run us off the road—and I just had to get off my bike and cry. But you can’t quit. You’re with 32 other riders. You’ve made a commitment.”

Despite the challenges, Ashley, Jacki, and their team completed Bike and Build, jumping into the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay, thousands of miles from the warm Atlantic Ocean. They made great new friends, worked on Habitat projects, and conquered their own fears. In the process, they also filmed their trip, funded with $700 in seed money from a student grant at ODU. On March 27th, Jacki and Ashley’s documentary, titled “Bike and Build: Be the Change” won top honors in ODU’s Student Film Festival.

THROUGH THE YEARS

While Jacki and Ashley have met an important cycling goal in their 20s, some women ride through their changing years, becoming energized senior riders with great attitudes and healthy bodies. Carole Taylor, 65, and her friend Pat Byrne, 79, are active members of the Tidewater Bicycle Association, a long-time club for riders of all levels and ages. TBA is dedicated to teaching bike safety and offers rides every day of the week, many of which start at local bike shops.

Carole is a fit, enthusiastic, retired kindergarten teacher, who served as education chairperson for TBA for twelve years and as the president from ’94-’97. After completing more than a dozen Bike Virginia trips, Carole completed a cross-country ride from Seattle to Rehobeth Beach, Delaware, at the age of 58. She is an avid cyclist, urging other women to get pedaling. She rides several times a week, often 20-25 miles at a time in the winter, but now that the spring is here, she’s planning 30-50 mile rides.

“People think that’s a lot,” said Carole with a lingering New York accent, “but I always say, if you can ride 10 miles, you can ride 20. You just have to know you can do it. It’s not that you can’t do it; you have to know you can!”

“And it’s not worth taking the bike out if you’re not going to go at least 20 miles,” Pat added.

A lifelong lover of exercise and sports, Carole has been riding with her friend and various club members for many years. Pat, who says she was never a competitive athlete, affirms part of her motivation: riding keeps her healthy and her weight in check. “We often say we ride to eat!” Pat said, laughing.

“Riding a bicycle burns about 400 calories an hour, and it’s great for cardio exercise,” Carole said. “You know, after people have a heart attack, they often put them on a stationary bike in the hospital, and it’s not so stressful on the knees and joints.”

Carole and Pat are “C pace” riders, clocking about 13-15 miles per hour. But Carole also enjoys riding with absolute beginners to encourage them in the sport and in safety. She is a fierce advocate for helmets.

“On TBA Club rides, you are not allowed to go without a helmet,” Carole said. “In Europe, they don’t always wear them because cyclists are more respected there. But any doctor in an emergency room will tell you how important they are.”

As enjoyable as it is to ride alone or with another person, Carole says being on club rides helps people pay attention to traffic, riding with the flow of the cars instead of against them, as many bike riders learned in earlier times.

This month, the TBA celebrates the 34th annual Knotts Island Century ride on May 15. Riders can take their pick of a 32-, 64-, or 100-mile ride—with all riders enjoying a post-ride dinner, police support, stocked rest stops, and the joy of exploring the country roads through Chesapeake and around Currituck Sound.

And if that sounds a little too much, Carole suggested the Wednesday morning rides along the Dismal Swamp Canal, organized by TBA’s Y.E.S. group: Young Energetic Seniors.

“It’s on the old Route 17 and one of the safest rides in Hampton Roads,” she said. “Most of the time that ride is from 16-40 miles, depending on the wind and the weather.” “And we have lunch after!” added Pat.

Cycling, friendship, exercise, and food—who could ask for more?

THE THRILL OF COMPETITION

Some cyclists love the thrill of competition and the satisfaction of winning. One of racing cyclist Emily Joyner’s favorite moments on a bike happened on a steep hill not far from her family’s home in Gettysburg, Pa. Her two sisters got in the habit of stopping halfway up, but Emily had a plan.   

“I would always ride as far as I could,” she explained. “It was this incredible goal for me to get to the top. And I remember the time I got there. I never wanted to get off my bike.”

In her college days, Emily says she was “one of the only girls on a bike at Radford,” where she challenged herself, timing her routes to and from classes. She enjoyed seeing how fast she could get around.

These days, 29-year old Emily—married, the mother of a 3-year-old boy, and a full-time math teacher in Northampton County—pushes herself in a different way with a brand new team of racing women cyclists, sponsored by Virginia Asset Group. The weekend after Easter, she came in first in a 350-meter street sprint in a race known as “The Rock Hill Omnium” in Rock Hill, South Carolina. On April 3, Emily came in 2nd in her group in the Downtown Smithfield Hammer Fest, and she’s gaining speed and confidence with every race.

“I started riding with [bicycle] shop groups after college, and I’d ride a little further and faster each time,” she said. “Then one Tuesday night, I went to watch a women’s race, and I thought, ‘I could do that.’”

At the time she started racing, there were very few women in Tidewater to mentor her, so Emily joined an elite club in Richmond led by Emily Helmboldt, a strong cyclist who helped her discover what she could do on a bike.

“I would have never thought to push myself as hard as I did without seeing where she was and having her show me the ropes,” she said. Last fall, Emily decided to create a team here in Virginia Beach, supported by Bike Beat, a bike shop with locations at Hilltop and Kempsville in Va. Beach.

“My goal is to do that for women in this area—to set goals, promote cycling, and meet those goals with other women,” she said. “Eventually, I want to have at least six riders in the developmental program and six in the elite program.”

Emily mentioned the importance of eye protection for racers, along with essential gear. “One time when I was riding without sun glasses, I was hit in the eye, and I couldn’t see out of it for the next ten miles,” Emily said. “And the gloves are important, not only for your grip, but if you do take a spill, they protect your hands from road rash.”

Emily has great support from her husband, Steven, who’s a U.S.A. Cycling Certified coach for her team. Their 3-year-old son, Bruce Joyner, newly empowered by his ability to manage a bicycle with training wheels, says proudly, “I’m a racer, Mama!” Emily’s forward motion as a racing cyclist draws her family and fans to races and brings more attention to professional women’s cycling in Tidewater.

At the turn of the last century, when women were seeking the right to vote, riding a bicycle was synonymous with being daring and bold, like bobbing your hair. Maybe as this new century rolls on, getting back on a bike could be the best new habit to add to your life.

For more info:
• Bike and Build - bikeandbuild.org
• Bike Virginia - bikevirginia.org
• Tidewater Bicycle Association - tbarides.org
• To see Jacki and Ashley’s film, go to vimeo.com and search for Bike and Build: Be the Change.
• To follow Emily Joyner’s team, visit tradewindsracing.blogspot.com

Kathleen Fogarty is a frequent contributor to Tidewater Women. She lives on a farm in Virginia Beach.

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