As Katie Rowe, found the issue is compounded by the realisation that riding a bike is something you can forget how to do and it now hurts when you fall off.
Ms Rowe, who is finalising her PhD with the University’s School of Management and Marketing, looked at Women’s Cycling Participation in Australia, specifically examining influences on women’s cycling participation.
“These women often cycled as kids, but found cycling as an adult to be a completely different experience,” she said.
“They would purchase a bike and either end up with a something that didn’t suit their needs or that they didn’t know how to use because bikes had become a lot more complex since they last owned one.
“Women often felt retailers were geared towards experienced cyclist and many found the experience of entering a bicycle store completely overwhelming.”
Ms Rowe interviewed and then tracked 33 women in Melbourne and Sydney who participated in AustCycle courses, a program funded by the Healthy Communities Initiative, as they gained the skills to ride a bike.
“The thing is as you get older, you think about falling off and you have to grapple with the roads and traffic as you are no longer allowed to ride on the footpath,” she said.
“The thought of cycling near cars can be terrifying without the skills, knowledge, confidence required. Like driving a car, you need to understand the rules and techniques needed to be safe.
“There are so many skills involved in riding a bike which most cyclists take for granted, things like how to stop safely, turn a corner or use hand signals.
“You could see as women went through the education course they thought ‘wow’ if I started with my foot in that position I can take off safely,’ ‘if I do it this way I can stop without feeling like I’m going to fall off.”
Ms Rowe said once the women had learned the skills required they then faced the next barrier which was finding somewhere safe to ride their bike.
“You have to realise there are different forms of cycling, commuting, recreation and sport,” she said.
“For women who wanted to use the bike to commute the biggest barrier they discussed was mapping a safe route to their destination and not mixing with fast moving traffic.
“Women who lived in Brunswick seemed to find this was easier than say women who lived in the outer Melbourne suburbs, Burwood for example.”
Ms Rowe said hills were another big issue.
“One 76 year-old woman was effectively trapped in her own home at the base of two large hills, she didn’t have the strength to pedal up the hill,” she said.
“Gears were a huge issue.
“Once women learned to use gears in an education course, the doors opened up for them.”
Ms Rowe said even using a bike for leisure riding wasn’t without its problems.
“If women didn’t live near a bike track, not all felt strong enough to lift the bike in or out of the car, nor did they have a tow bar to hold a rack, to get the bike to the bike path,” she said.
“Bikes now are high tech pieces of equipment, yet no-one had shown these women how to take the front wheel off, change a tyre, use gears or hand brakes.”
Ms Rowe said once women finished their course they often looked for a socially supportive setting to improve their skills only to face another hurdle.
“Cycling clubs were perceived as being for a different kind of cyclist, one who wanted to ride quickly, wear lycra, and race” she said.
“Women thought bicycle user groups might be worth exploring but again they worried their lack of fitness would mean they wouldn’t be able to keep up, and they would be a burden on the group.
“Even with their own friends and families, these women felt they would be too slow and ‘hold them up’.”
Ms Rowe said once or if they women found the social support they needed and developed their skills, they blossomed.
Competitive cycling however wasn’t on the horizon, instead they looked toward social group and event rides where they could ride with likeminded people, enjoying the experience rather than racing to the finish line.
“Sports are good at what they do, but to engage women, perhaps opportunities exist to think more about how sport-like activities can be taken out of the competitive space to focus more on community participation for health and wellbeing benefits; building skills, fitness and networks in socially supportive environments,” she said.
“In terms of engaging more women in cycling the cycling retailer seems to provide a key capture point where entry level women could be referred to AustCycle courses and low level social riding groups to ease their transition into different forms of cycling.”