Today on International Women's Day, Claire O'Leary shares about her experiences racing and doing solo adventures as a women. She recently started a new FTW gravel camp where she's working to encourage and equip more women in cycling. Hear more of Claire's story and check out her new event here.
By Claire O’Leary
Last week, I was chatting with a bike shop manager and he said to me, “I don’t need to see more men in cycling. I want to see more kids, bigger FTW (femme/trans/women) race fields.” It stuck with me. He was referring to his work coaching a junior cycling development program, and I was talking about my own plans to encourage more women-identifying riders to explore gravel. But it takes everyone creating safe, welcoming environments to grow this sport for everyone.
On International Women’s Day (March 8, 2023), I can’t help thinking about my own experiences riding and racing this past year. In the spring, I had the opportunity to attend a free women’s gravel camp in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. I love big solo gravel adventures and fast road rides hanging with the guys, but this hit different. We were encouraging each other up mountain climbs, and smiling and sending it on the way down. It was the first time that fitness, skills, and confidence had come together for me on the bike, and I’m a better rider and a better person for the experience.
With a few days off between jobs in June, I headed up to the North Shore for a few days of solo adventure. My big ride of the trip was riding two-thirds of the storied Straddle and Paddle bikepacking route in a single ride. Afterward, another rider sent me a message that she barely rides around Minneapolis by herself. That comment made me sad, but also made me want to share more about going on adventures that make me question the root of my fear.
Last summer, I wrote about how amazing it was to have a big field at Freedhem 76. I’ve been at gravel races where I looked around at the start and didn’t see any other FTW riders. This was not one of those races. At the finish line cookout, other riders remarked about how cool it was to have so many strong women trading pulls.
And in August, I got to be a part of the 1,000 Women of Gravel. When Gravel Worlds (the “real” one in Lincoln, Nebraska) announced their plan to get 1,000 women registered across all distances, a lot of people wondered if they’d hit that mark. But as the initiative progressed, the race promoters showed that it was more than a hashtag. The elite women got to line up at the very front and lead the entire field out of town. In the final minute countdown before the race started, I looked around that front corral with the biggest smile on my face.
These experiences churned around in my brain while I rode countless hours last fall. As I started a spreadsheet to plan 2023 adventures, I jotted down a few overarching goals. One of them: “Encourage more women in cycling.” I didn’t know what that would look like at first, but as I talked with other riders, we shared stories of gaining competence and confidence–and the kind of environments where our confidence blossomed. I wanted to create a space where riders wouldn’t be afraid to ask questions or tackle terrain that scared them. From there, a plan hatched to create a women’s gravel camp in the Driftless Area this spring. As I’ve talked with potential riders, themes are emerging. They wanted to build community and learn skills in a supportive environment–one that they might not have found yet.
It takes momentum to encourage and equip women in cycling. The Nxrth has published countless stories about strong women racing and adventuring, including Lisa Gose-Nelson’s account of overcoming medical challenges to finish The Filthy 50, and Nicolete Reker’s epic Driftless bikepacking trip. We need more women (and that means all people who identify as women) out riding bikes and creating more of those stories. And that starts with every one of us.