Cycling for women: the essential guide

Everything you need to know about getting started, riding on your period, finding a community, and more

Clock08:00, Tuesday 27th June 2023

Women’s cycling is thriving, with more women riding and racing bikes than ever before. But cycling as a woman isn’t always easy. With the help of professional cyclists Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and Kate Bates, as well as some wise words from Kate Veronneau, the head of women’s strategy at Zwift, we’ve put together all the info you need to get into cycling.

Getting started: find a community

At one level, getting started in cycling is as simple as heading out of the door with your bike. But to get the most out of it, it’s best to find a community of cyclists. Most cycling clubs put on a women’s ride, but for a lot of us, the easiest way to connect with other women is online.

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, who rides for AG Insurance-Soudal QuickStep, says Zwift is the best place for women to find a cycling community: “My advice for newcomers and particularly women is to try and find a community or a group that you can join, and I think at the moment, Zwift represents the best opportunity for this.”

Moolman Pasio mentioned her own community on Zwift, Rocacorba Collective, which hosts regular women’s group rides and is free to join. The objective of Rocacorba Collective, as Passio puts it, “is to create a fun and inspiring space for women to come together”.

Kate Veronneau agrees that Zwift is a great platform for women seeking a cycling community, especially for those of us who live in places without safe roads or a local community. But if you live somewhere with a lot of cyclists, Veronneau suggests reaching out: “If you do have group rides, go to your local shops, look on social media, Strava connect with local women as well.”

Kate Bates, a former professional track and road rider, encourages women to reach out to other women on community groups on platforms like Facebook, so new riders can benefit from the knowledge of others.

“It can be a little bit intimidating, especially for the women, but there's a lot of people, a lot of friendly faces, to help you break down some barriers.

“It is the age of social media,” she said. “There's some really great apps out there now that provide that kind of connectivity, whether it's something like the Chicks Who Ride Bikes app that literally is like a ride buddy finder – you put your details in and try and find somebody to ride with – or whether it's something like Zwift where you can join a women's only ride or just a broad Community ride. It takes a little bit of courage to get out there but once you're out there you find that you belong.”

Saddle comfort

Finding a comfortable saddle can be a real challenge for a lot of women. In fact, Bates says that it’s “the most asked question ever”. She advises women “to never accept if you're in pain”.

“Saddles are not comfortable when you first sit on them, but they're not supposed to be uncomfortable either,” she added. “Anatomically, we're all really different, and if you walk into a bike shop and there's someone selling you a saddle who can't relate to you and doesn't really understand the issues you have, you have to walk out and go somewhere else.”

Saddle comfort is about cycling shorts too. Bates recommends trying a range of brands, then buying a few pairs of the one that works for you.

For Moolman Pasio, finding a comfortable saddle meant straying from traditional road saddles: “I’m on a time trial [saddle] on my road bike, totally breaking the rules, but it’s what works for me.”

Like Bates, Moolman Pasio stresses that it’s a process of trial and error: “It’s really, really important just to keep trying until you find that solution and that combination of saddle and chamois that works.”

Cycling on your period

Riding a bike while on your period can be tough, but it doesn’t have to stop you from getting out on the bike. GCN’s Manon Lloyd recommends menstrual cups instead of tampons – you can leave them in for a lot longer, they collect more blood, and they’re reusable, which is of course better for the environment. In the pro peloton, they’re really popular.

It’s not always easy though. Moolman Pasio spoke about the difficulties she’s had combining a hormone cycle and an inflexible racing calendar.

“It has been a real limiter at times because if it does come to a really big event and you end up having your period during the event, it can be the reason for holding you back and not necessarily getting the best out of yourself.

“Having said that, again it's pretty much trying to figure out what works for you; it's quite individual,” she continued. “For example, in my case I just don't respond very well to the contraceptive pill – it just affects me badly, and mentally it makes me more inclined to be depressed and not really feel myself – so I've made the decision not to be on the contraceptive pill, which then makes it even more difficult to control the hormones and to control the times at which you you're getting your menstrual cycle.

“It's just again learning how to properly manage it. There's a lot of literature out there at the moment. Stacy Sims has written a lot of stuff about how you can even change your diet and [...] supplementation to better handle PMS and stuff like that.”

Moolman Pasio suggests that if you struggle with PMS (premenstrual syndrome), it’s worth finding out which painkiller works for you. Once you know which medication works best, be “proactive with it rather than waiting until the pain gets really bad”.

It might feel like a limiter, but you can still be at the top of your game when you’re on your period.

“Contrary to what you think you're actually often your strongest, especially the day before,” Moolman Pasio said. “And then, even while you're having your period, if you can manage the pain, you are actually super strong in those situations. I think that's what helps me to get through it, is to realise that it's actually not debilitating me in terms of strength.

“It's important to be comfortable to talk about it, you know. Don't be afraid as as a female cyclist to bring it up in conversation and to ask what other people's experiences are because maybe you can learn something from it.”

Building confidence

For Kate Bates, confidence comes with nailing basic skills like taking a hand off the bars to drink or indicate, or riding out of the saddle. “When you put that all together you just feel so much more comfortable that the confidence comes like a wave, but without the basics you're just waiting for it to all come undone,” she said.

For Kate Veronneau from Zwift, confidence comes from constantly pushing yourself, and learning from more experienced riders: “Number one is just get yourself out there and ride with people that are stronger and more experienced than you. Ask questions, watch videos, try new things, challenge yourself.”

She continues: “Work with other riders that are willing to give you feedback on your form, on your safety, on how to get stronger. If you don't push yourself, you're not gonna get stronger. If you don't put yourself in slightly uncomfortable situations, you're not going to get more confident.”

Making it fun

Cycling might seem like it’s all about going hard and ‘smashing’ miles, but more than anything it’s about having fun and getting out there. Stop for coffee and cake, enjoy the scenery - there’s a lot more to cycling than emptying yourself on climbs.

We asked Kate Veronneau about how to keep cycling fun: “Don't take yourself too seriously, number one. Wear fun kit, number two. Make sure you mix up the rides. Don't always just go hard all the time. Cycling is a beautiful, fun sport. It's a social sport, it's a joyful sport, there's coffee stops, donut stops.”

She went on: “There's plenty of time to go hard, but there's plenty of time to go easy and enjoy the people you're with. Enjoy the scenery. Take it all in. Know that you're making friends, making fitness, and just enjoy every moment. It's an incredible sport that you can do for your entire life.”

Toilet stops

It’s a question we get all the time. How do women go to the toilet during races? We asked Moolman Pasio.

“Generally, the way it works in the peloton while we're racing is that if someone needs to go to the loo – you have to wait for times in the race where it's a little bit calm or quieter or it's a stretch of sort of flattish road – usually it starts off by someone going, ‘I need a pee, do you need to pee?’” she explained. “The message starts getting spread around the peloton about who needs to pee, or there's someone stopping for a pee break. So we try and gather a couple of people – and especially across different teams – to all stop at one time so that it kind of neutralises the racing and makes it not super stressful.

“Then, yeah, it's an interesting one, and this even differs amongst the peloton in how people approach it in a race. I'm the type of person that tries to do the ‘pull the bib shorts wide enough that you can…’ – you don't have to undress yourself. But there are plenty of girls out there who are still a bit uncomfortable with that because they're worried about what happens if it goes wrong.

“Usually we're quite supportive of one another and we all kind of stop together so that there is less stress and we can actually have a pee in peace.”

For non-racers, it’s far simpler. A lot of women’s cycling groups will schedule in a wee stop mid-ride, usually at a cafe. If you’re riding with a group, just keep the communication open, and you’ll find that your riding buddies, whatever their gender, will be happy to stop and wait.

What does it take to succeed professionally?

We asked pro riders Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and Kate Bates what advice they had for women looking to take their riding to the next level, start racing, and maybe even pick up a pro contract one day.

“For me, the advice is always to really enjoy what you're doing because cycling is not an easy sport,” Moolman Pasio said. “There's so much that's out of our control, so we do all the hard work and preparation, you might arrive in a race as the favourite or in the best condition to win, and then some bad luck with a crash or a mechanical happens. So to pick yourself up out of those really disappointing and challenging periods, you really need to love what you're doing.”

For Kate Bates, making it to the top of racing takes assertiveness and a bit of networking: “You've got to be determined but I think the biggest thing is to knock on doors. [...] Send emails, make phone calls, put your hand up, because joining a team now isn't just about your physiological capabilities, it's also about how you fit into a team: your personality, your spunk, your determination.

She added that if you “work hard the physiology will work for itself”.

“You've got to bring the rest [...] and you've got to show people that you have it.”

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