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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  11/1/2004

Real Women on Real Bikes

Remember the old one liner: "Real women don't ride women's bikes"? It still resonates with me today, some 20 years after the "real men/real women" jokes were in vogue.

Although I was never alone in that mind set, there were times when I despaired of ever finding companionable female riding partners. Thankfully those days are gone for good. Women today represent more than 50% of the bicycle and accessories market. Better yet, there's a club right here in the Bay Area exclusively for women. It's called VeloGirls.

The VeloGirls club is the brainchild of Lorri Lee Lown, an East Coast transplant who, like yours truly, has discovered that cycling is her true passion. Originally from Elmira, NY, she attended Ithaca College, got her MBA at Syracuse, and became a theater business manager at such notable venues as the Kennedy Center in DC, and more recently the San Jose Repertory Theater.

She got hooked on cycling while doing the CAR7 AIDS ride in 2000. It was the social aspect of the ride that got her excited. "I wanted to re-create that feeling [for] people who had no other connection for riding."

Lorri Lee Lown
Photo courtesy of
Tiffany Bianco

VeloGirls is a club "where women and girls can share their love for cycling in a safe, friendly, encouraging environment," she says. Now in its third year, the club boasts about 300 members from all over the Bay Area and some 800 subscribers to the club email list.

These enthusiastic females range from brand-new beginning riders to pro racers, from the North Bay to the City to Silicon Valley and Coastside. CitySports magazine awarded them the Bay Area's Best Bike Club of 2002 and 2003, and USA Cycling honored VeloGirls as their 2003 Women's Club of the Year.

The club focuses on fun, recreational riding, with the opportunity to attend cycling skills clinics to improve riding and overall fitness. The monthly ride schedule offers excursions for all levels from beginners and recreational riders to racers both on- and off-road. And they ride all kinds of bikes -- even "women's" bikes (which nowadays are just as well-designed and usable as the ones with top tubes). In addition to the web site, the VeloGirls Groove newsletter lists the monthly ride schedule. (Just make sure to check the online updates because, as the site states, "after all, we're women and it's our prerogative to change our minds, right?")

The schedule features mostly road rides, the vast majority of which meet at sponsor Summit Cycles in Burlingame. Distances range from a quick 15-mile workout to 100 km (62 miles) of serious pedaling. There are several mountain bike rides, too, in Marin and on the Peninsula.

The rides are supposed to be for women only, and mostly they are. The exceptions that prove the rule are the ones specifically designated as coed rides, of which there were 10 in October out of a total of 45.

Racy Riding

The main reason Lorri started VeloGirls was for the racing. "I actually founded Velo Girls because I wanted to race and couldn't find a team of women I wanted to race with (okay, it was a selfish motivation)."

She also wanted to coach. "I've been trying to race since 2002 and life just keeps getting in the way. But I've been coaching racers since 2002, so I guess you might say I'm living vicariously through the women on the team."

The VeloGirls team has shown exceptional results, earning a reputation as a team to reckon with in Northern California. In just two seasons, they've garnered top rankings for both individuals and team in categories 3 and 4. Last year VeloGirls had 16 wins and 59 podiums out of 56 Races. They even boasted a Women's National Cyclocross Champion! This year they were the Number One women's CAT 4 team in Northern California.

Photo by Glenn James

Thirty-five women have joined the team this year, with at least a dozen members entering any given race. "We even have two juniors this year," Lorri told me, "ages 11 and 13." Unfortunately, they get stuck doing lots of time trials, with no strategy training because there just aren't enough juniors out there to field teams. The oldest team member, BTW, is 54 and "she usually kicks my butt," Lorri lamented.

Coach Lorri thinks women who are just getting started riding and racing in their 30s and 40s have a distinct advantage. "Women peak a lot later than men, typically in their 30s, when men are seen as too old to be racing professionally."

All the racers have one thing in common, she emphasized: "the desire to challenge themselves with a group of supportive, positive women." Indeed, the team is open to any interested woman but only once a year. "Recruitment rides" take place in late summer and early fall so potential racers can learn more about the team and the VeloGirls culture. Intensive training starts in November, including skills, tactics, and teamwork.

If you're interested in racing with Velo Girls in 2005, Lorri recommends that you join the club, volunteer at the races, and get to know the team.

Racing brings visibility, which in turn attracts sponsors. Probably the most prominent sponsor is Summit Bicycles. Lorri credits Summit's owner, Leslie Austere, as "instrumental in supporting Velo Girls since before it's inception." (He even gave her a part-time job.)

Other sponsors (among others):

Pretty in Pink

Thanks to those last few sponsorships, VeloGirls get to wear a new club jersey every year. You know the ones I mean; you've seen them all over the Peninsula and quite a lot in the South and North Bay areas. They're pink. I mean, peeeenk! Along with pink socks and pink helmets and I swear I've also seen pink shorts.

Okay, I admit that pink is my least favorite color. But if that's what it takes to get more real women on real bikes, I'm down with that.

"There's a movement in this country where women's organizations are coming up," Lorri believes. "More women now seem to be saying, 'This is my thing, something I do without the men, kids and other responsibilities in life.' These women will challenge themselves more in an encouraging environment than they ever would otherwise.

"The most important thing is helping women succeed. When we succeed in one part of life, we're happy in the other parts of our lives." And her fellow VeloGirls are proving her right.

One San Jose rider said: "Your vision and cycling club are having an amazing impact on my strength and self-esteem as a woman."

"It's always a little intimidating to start something new," said another, from San Mateo. "...[you] have been so friendly, welcoming and helpful in providing advice to this new beginner."

Lorri's goal is now to cut the club loose from her "ownership," turning it into what she calls "a traditional cycling club." There's now a coterie of other VeloGirls pitching in, leading rides and otherwise volunteering for all the additional tasks it takes to run a bike club.

As for Lorri, she's eager to get on with her own coaching and clinic business. But that will be hard; she's so dedicated to the whole VeloGirls concept that even her dog's name is VeloPup. And did I mention, guys, that she's AVAILABLE?

"I'm impressed and humbled every single day by the women in VeloGirls," she told me. "My goal in founding the club was to provide a safe, encouraging environment for women of every ability level to explore the bike. I believe that by providing an opportunity for women to succeed and have fun, at whatever level, we improve our self-esteem and confidence, and that makes us more successful in every aspect of life -- as spouse, parent, child, friend, employee, or world citizen. I'm honored to coach this amazing group of women!"

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net



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