THE TO CHANGE
ON April 21 more than 100 female cyclists are expected to ride up Mt Buffalo in North East Victoria’s alpine region, as part of the inaugural High Country Women’s Cycling Festival. The three-day all-female event will be based in Bright, the popular tourist town that continues to build its reputation as one of the best on and off-road cycling destinations in Australia. Along with riding tips and workshops on bike maintenance and the like, the festival promises more than just cycling related activities and is packed with local foodie goodness, post-ride pleasures of great coffee and wine, plus ride recovery and reward ‘after parties’ at local venues.
A lot of that might sound like the ultimate girls’ weekend away but there is a much greater purpose behind the event than women just enjoying themselves in a spectacular location. Cycling is a sport dominated by males with just one in three bike riders being women, and when it comes to events that figure drops drastically with females making up just 20 per cent of race competitors. Despite the organic growth in women’s cycling, in an alpine environment where road riding is more challenging, the gender imbalance is strongly evident in cycling and cycle-tourism. The aim of the High Country Women’s Cycling Festival is to work towards closing that gap.
The event’s organisers Michelle Armstrong and Clare Holdsworth may be 250 kilometres apart living in Wangaratta and Melbourne respectively, but together they share a passion for cycling and have been riding for almost the same length of time, about 15 years. Armstrong took up the sport when she moved to Wangaratta from Sydney having been a keen ocean swimmer and runner while Holdsworth made the switch from spin class enthusiast to cycling after deciding she wanted to ride to work.
After purchasing her first bike, Holdsworth quickly fell in love with cycling and in 2005 she journeyed across France on two wheels, an adventure that saw her take a job with the company she travelled with, Wide Open Road Cycling Tours. Five years later, in 2010, Holdsworth took over the business and it’s through her sponsorship of Victoria’s 7 Peaks Ride, an at-your-own pace cycling challenge to the top of seven Victorian alpine resorts, that she and Armstrong eventually met.
“Michelle and I didn’t know each other but were put in touch by Tourism North East because we both talked about the same type of issues, a love of the region and passion for women’s cycling,” Holdsworth said. >>
“The concept of the festival grew organically and here we are.” The main reason the two women linked up was because the tourism body was looking to build female participation in cycling after identifying that women weren’t coming to the North East in the same capacity that men were. The Audax Alpine Classic, which is staged in Bright every January, is the biggest noncompetitive race in the region attracting almost 2000 riders - it’s one that Armstrong has ridden for the past 10 years and says has always had a significantly higher ratio of men to women although it appears to be changing.
“I started off on the 130km ride where there wasn’t a whole lot of other women and then when I started doing the 200km ride you could almost count on one hand the number of female riders,” she said.
For this year’s ride, Armstrong went back to the 130km distance and said, across most rides, there was noticeably more women than she could remember previously. While the number of women riding in the High Country anecdotally looks to be increasing, one of the reasons thought to be stopping more females from taking on the challenge of riding in the Alps is the climbing aspect.
“In sport in general, I think women tend to underestimate what they can do,” Armstrong said.
“There are a lot of women who probably ride on the flat or on undulating terrain but don’t feel confident enough to ride up a mountain. I’ve taken so many women on climbs for the first time and they have ended up saying it wasn’t as hard as they thought. It’s just about doing it for the first time and believing in yourself and if you get in a good rhythm on a bike with good gearing, which most have these days, it’s even easier. Also with a woman’s smaller and lighter physique compared to most men we’re probably better suited to climbing.”
Safety is believed to be the other reason why fewer females take up cycling and that’s why Vicroads, who understand the importance of cycling safety, will partner with the High Country Women’s Cycling Festival. Armstrong said the event will include detailed planning, traffic management and safety protocols, under the guidance of Vicroads to ensure a safe, exhilarating and enjoyable experience for all riders.
“We really want to make the weekend as safe as possible without having closed roads,” she said.
“We also didn’t want closed roads because women who don’t
have good road skills need to learn to ride with traffic. There’s also going to be a lot of safety messages going out about women regularly checking their bike, being visible by wearing bright clothes and having a flashing rear light which we are making compulsory.”
While the High Country Women’s Cycling Festival and other events like it have been held to encourage more women to cycle, organised rides put on by retail stores and cycling clubs as well as the live broadcast of women’s racing have helped too. Add to this the growing number of entry to mid-range and mid to high-end bikes for ladies on the market, and an ever-increasing range of good looking and functional women’s cycling clothing and accessories, the gender gap among men and women on the road is narrowing.
For the women heading along to the High County Women’s Cycling Festival, particularly those who haven’t done much climbing, the ultimate goal will be conquering the 72km return ride up Mt Buffalo from Bright. Holdsworth said women were different to their male counterparts in that they are happy to focus on the joys of riding, the experiences that come with it including the sights, sounds and smells. They’re proud of the achievement of where they have gone, rather than the time it’s taken them, their top speed and max heart rate.
The toll-booth at the foot of the Mt Buffalo National Park is where the true climbing begins on the way to the Mt Buffalo Chalet and from there, it’s just one natural wonder after another in a unique landscape of imposing granite tors, towering cliffs, waterfalls, lush eucalyptus forests, wildflowers and native ferns.
The High County Women’s Cycling Festival (April 20-22) is a celebration of women’s cycling with a focus on fun, fitness, and friendship and to encourage more women to ride and to experience the beauty of the High Country by bike.
“We want to share our knowledge, build confidence, push boundaries and help women discover new ride destinations with new friends,” said Holdsworth.
“We want to create opportunities for new riders to achieve something they never thought was possible and inspire women to ride more mountains.
“We’re expecting a mix of ages and riding abilities and we’re sure it’s going to be a really supportive and encouraging environment for women, and both Michelle and I look forward to welcoming people and seeing the looks on some of their faces when they say they made it.”