Women at the heart of growing phenomenon
MAMILs beware, more women than ever are getting in on the biking action, writes Joanna Kiernan, and now there is a tailor-made cycling course to suit most beginners
Ireland's population of lyrca-loving female cyclists is growing by the day, and with promises of buns of steel and dazzling scenery, what's not to love?
Well, there are few things more daunting for the uninitiated than getting on a bike and taking to the roads. Confidence is key and it's not just about being brave enough to wear the often unflattering lycra kit complete with bum pads - there are also steep hills, rough roads and all of those road rage-addled motorists to contend with, not to mention the large percentage of highly competitive middle-aged-men-in-lyrca (MAMILs as they are now known) knocking about.
But once you get out there, there is nothing that can beat cycling; the freedom, the fitness and the food along each route, which you can happily consume in the full knowledge that you will burn it off on the way home.
Cycling is now the biggest growth leisure activity in the world, with experts estimating that a brisk hour-long cycle can burn away approximately 1,000 calories.
However, it can be an expensive sport for beginners, with good road bikes setting you back anything from €600 to a couple of thousand and that's before you get started with your clothing, gloves, helmet, shoes and your safety and rain gear.
Eimear Kelly used to commute to her work in a bank from Artane to Baggot Street each day, but gave up when she moved to Swords, Co Dublin. However, she was inspired to get into leisure cycling last summer after her brother suggested she cycle the Great Western Greenway, a 42km almost entirely traffic-free trail in Mayo.
"I just loved it, so ever since, I have just progressively got more into leisure cycling rather than just cycling to work and it's so enjoyable," Eimear explains. "Although, when my friend and I did it, sure we went off without proper gear on us, we didn't have a pump with us or anything, so that was a real eye opener!" she laughs.
So in order to improve her knowledge, Eimear enrolled on a course with the Irish Centre for Cycling.
Last year, the Irish Centre for Cycling, which is based in Dublin, launched an eight-week women's only cycling programme for better health, fitness and cycle training, tailored specifically for women.
The course, which is the first of its kind in Ireland, covers all aspects of cycle training and aims to give even the most reluctant beginner the confidence to take to the roads.
"The course is really great because it builds your confidence as well as giving you all the skills you need," fellow student Orla Mooney, from Glasnevin, explains. "I did do a lot of running in the past and got a bit fed up of doing that, cycling is less of a strain on your body too, but it can be daunting.
"There is a lot of stuff that might put you off - having to get the gear, the traffic, all of that. So that's why it was so good to do the course and learn everything and get comfortable with it."
Hannah Ormesher (25) from Hertfordshire in the UK, who is currently living in Portrane, is one of the instructors on the course. Hannah has noticed an explosion in the amount of women taking up cycling since the 2012 Olympics.
"It is a great time for women's cycling, with more events being held and women-specific saddles, bikes and clothing being offered," says Hannah. "The more women we see riding bikes the more will be encouraged to give it a go; - it's a kind of snowball effect. It is a very social sport and a great excuse for a coffee stop and some cake".
However, there are common issues experienced by many beginners.
"A lack of confidence when riding with the traffic is fairly common and having problems selecting the right gear for the terrain too," Hannah explains. "Proper nutrition is also key to enjoying your time on the bike. Sometimes you can feel tired when exercising, simply because you have not eaten or drank enough water. If you are comfortable on the first saddle you try, I'd say that's a miracle! Keep persevering, there is one out there that is right for you - you don't choose the saddle, the saddle chooses you."
Hannah had cycled to work for years before taking it up as a sport.
"I was keen for a challenge, so after commuting to work by bike for a while, I signed up to do the London to Brighton Sportive in 2012," Hannah explains. "I really enjoyed the experience of riding on the road in a group, so I joined my local cycling club North Road CC - after that I became fully addicted to the sport. I now race for DID Electrical Ladies Racing Team here in Dublin.
"Cycling is a great buzz! It's very rewarding to train, race and achieve your goals. There is also a wonderful sense of community in cycling - when I moved to Ireland last year, I felt at home straight away because cyclists are a very welcoming and friendly bunch of people wherever you go in the world," she adds.
"I immediately had an opportunity to make friends with people who have similar interests. Without the sport I think it would have taken me far longer to feel settled here."
So what is Hannah's advice for beginners hoping to get into the sport?
"Firstly, have fun - don't take it too seriously when you're getting started - massive improvements come easily in your first year of cycling in terms of fitness and riding skill," she says.
"Secondly, ride with friends or join a local cycling club - it is really motivating to go out with a group. You push each other, learn so much and motivate each other to keep developing as riders. You also won't want to let each other down, so you'll go out on the bike rather than stay at home on the sofa.
"Lastly, I'd recommend learning how to be self-sufficient on the bike - it is empowering to learn how to change a tube and carry out basic repairs and adjustments to your bike, so you can carry on with your ride if you get a puncture or some other hiccup happens.
"I still carry a phone and a tenner on me in case of emergencies, so I feel confident when I head out on the bike."
Margaret Sheehan, a homemaker from Cork, who is living in Dublin, enrolled on the course so she could accompany her daughter on cycles.
"I cycled when I was younger on the country roads in Cork, but I wasn't confident about going out in traffic in Dublin. I was never a proper cyclist, but I did really like it," Margaret explains.
"I always wanted to teach my little one. She is seven now and she has a new bike and I wanted to be able to go out with her and for her to enjoy it, so I thought the only way that could happen is for me to get on a bike and cycle beside her. I learned so much and I consider myself a cyclist now,"
Margaret laughs. "I wanted to get into it for fitness too. I am 42 now and I just thought it would be nice to have. Some people play golf, I just wanted something to do for myself. When I got up on that bike, it was just so exhilarating and I was back to my childhood. It was a lovely feeling, the exercise is a bonus and it is so sociable as well."
Margaret has even found herself becoming a bit of a cycling evangelist of late.
"It's keeping you fit but it's so enjoyable, you don't even realise that is what you are doing," she says. "I don't want to be a bore talking to my friends all about cycling, but I kind of feel as if they are missing out. I would love if they would get out cycling because it's just great."
Patricia Byrne, an accountant from Leopardstown, Co Dublin has also completed the course and is now on the hunt for her first proper road bike.
"A flyer came in the door just before Christmas and I looked at it and thought it was interesting because I hadn't cycled a bike since I was in secondary school," Patricia explains. "So I kept it and put it to one side and after Christmas I looked at it again and gave them a call.
"I don't even have a bike yet, but they supplied one for me. It has given me huge confidence on the roads and taught me how to use the gears etc.
"I would have been very nervous before, but we've done everything, roundabouts, minor junctions and major junctions and passing out - all of that - and it really helps," Patricia adds. "I am delighted with myself."
The Irish Centre for Cycling's eight-week course is €130, including all equipment hire, and if you join up with friends in groups of five or more, you can avail of a special group rate offer of €100 per person. For further Information, visit: irishcentreforcycling.ie/cycle-tone-fit or call (01) 816 8345.