By Tori O'Leary
I think being a female in cycling is impossible to do alone. Many women count on each other and the community of female cyclists to get through. That's why when I got the opportunity to volunteer at the NorCal NICA GRiT Ambassador Camp I couldn't turn it down. Of course, in typical me fashion I had no idea what I was going to be doing but I was excited to just be around younger female cyclists and help them to continue a successful cycling experience.
The camp takes place on private property with exclusive trails and a pump track, which was already cool enough — not to mention that all of the girls were an absolute blast. We started the day with bike and helmet checks. It was a great way for me and the other volunteer, Larissa Connors, to meet each girl while the girl running the camp, Hailey, checked everyone in and made sure they had their tents. I was terrified I wasn't going to fit in because I was 7-8 years older than the campers, but it was easy to talk to each girl. Turns out, relating to other female cyclists is easy.
For an ice breaker, we played Have I Ever, a game where each player takes a step forward if they had done something and a step back if they hadn't — and we were all almost on the exact same level. We'd all been the only girl on a ride before, we'd all fixed a flat before, and we'd all even podiumed at a race before. It was weird, feeling like I could say something about cycling and have an entire group relate and understand what I was talking about.
On the ride I decided to sweep because, ya know, might as well so I have excuse to go slow. No one was ever left behind, someone always stayed with someone, so "sweeping" basically didn't need to exist. It was nice to be in a situation where no one felt left out or like there was an awkward silence. There was always a question or something to talk about — whether it was about how hard it can be to ride with a group of boys and just be fighting to keep up because they're going full gas or how detrimental social media can be to female cyclists. Apparently we all get those instagram suggested ads of girls posing next to a bike in a full-face of makeup who aren't sweating at all. Meanwhile, we were at camp in dirty chamois with helmet hair.
Being in Northern California for a camp like this was a totally new and fun experience. For dinner, we went to a farm nearby and we made our own butter and pizzas in a brick oven. I, for one, was stoked to pet their family cow Belle. It was nice to see the girls want to be involved and talk to one another, none of the coaches needed to say anything to get them into the conversation. They were asking each other questions and talking about their hometowns, their racing, and we just got to listen. No matter how fast or slow anyone went on the ride or what their race results were, everyone was just stoked to be there. It didn't matter which team you were on or at what level you raced, they were just happy to be talking to other girls who loved bikes.
I think we could learn a lot from the GRiT girls. I did. At the start of a race don't just stand there with the other girls around you, freaking say hi, because they are probably just as nervous as you are. We all go through the same struggles, and I think together is the only way women's cycling is going to keep growing. If we don't stick together and support one another, who will?
Being a girl in cycling isn't easy, as much as I wish it was. It sucked to hear that these girls had experienced the same issues as I had, like when you're struggling on a section and a man passing by makes a comment, feeling so discouraged after a ride, or hearing them talk about how unhealthy french fries were. I remember when I wouldn't want to eat french fries because I wanted to stay super fit or how awful it felt when I walked a section and a random guy on the trail commented on it.
Feeling alone in all of that was miserable until I found other girls who rode bikes and understood it. Getting the chance to tell girls how to get period blood out of their chamois or how I also struggled with sizing on cycling gear was rewarding, because they didn't need to feel the same loneliness that I did when I started riding.
It was a reminder that girls are freaking awesome, and that all we have to do is just talk to other female cyclists. Seriously, support and take care of each other, and never forget to be real and genuine because it will attract the same energy.