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  • 09.12.14

    Meeting the Kent Velo Girls

    How a rapidly expanding women's cycle club has set an example from which others might learn

The lanes of Kent increasingly are illuminated by the distinctive pink jerseys of one of the country’s fastest growing cycle clubs.

Its members are organised, ride in disciplined formation, and range in age from their late teens to early seventies. Each has completed a mandatory induction course on the etiquette of group riding. The majority are uninterested in racing, but many take part in the club’s dozen or so 100-mile ‘long’ rides each year. The Kent Velo Girls have grown from one to nearly 200 members in just six years and are, in the words of founder, Bee Gregorie, “a force to be reckoned with”.

Bee Gregorie, Kent velo girls, interviewBee Gregorie formed the Kent Velo Girls six years ago. The club now has nearly 200 members, ranging in age from late teens to early seventies

Gregorie is one of life’s leaders; the type of person, it occurs to Rouleur, who could restore peace to troubled lands, armed with little more than common sense and a ‘can do’ attitude, if only cycling left her with a little more free time. A mother of three, a British Cycling Level Three cycling coach, and sports masseur, Gregorie is by any estimation the type of personality that our sport – any sport – should cherish.

KVG began as a response to Gregorie’s frustration at being dropped by the male members of a triathlon club with whom she was preparing for an Ironman event (Gregorie has completed two). The sensation of seeing other riders disappear over the horizon she recalls as “utterly demoralising” and “utterly miserable” – descriptions any who themselves have been dropped will recognise. “When I set up the club, I just wanted some women to ride with,” she says. “I thought there’d be 10 or 12 of us. I had no idea I was going to create this monster.”

Build it and they will come. While Gregorie’s ambitions for the KVG extended no further than a training group, the club has grown with impressive speed. Club rides are staged almost every day of the week, graduating from an easy ride on a Monday to a climb-laden ‘advanced’ ride – ridden at around 15 or 16mph – on a Friday.

Kent velo girls, members, cycling clubBee Gregorie formed the Kent Velo Girls six years ago. The club now has nearly 200 members, ranging in age from late teens to early seventies. pic: Bee Gregorie, used with permission

For those preparing for events, the KVG also run stay-at-home training camps, another concept adopted from Gregorie’s period as an Ironman triathlete. “You can go home every night, give your kids their tea or whatever, and come back and ride your bike all day the next day,” she says. “We have about 50 people come to that every year.”

Other activities include an annual, fully supported, one-day tour of 100 miles (last year’s took the KVG to the cobbled ramp of Mont Cassel), and a multi-day tour, which last year took the form of a three-day ride to Paris, and this year will take them to Mallorca. There are turbo sessions, maintenance evenings, and, for Gregorie’s six-strong committee, occasional meetings at the Velo House in Tunbridge Wells. She admits to a degree of ‘control freakery’ but is determined that the ethos of the KVG will not be diluted. The club’s Facebook group has eased email traffic to her in-box by answering many common enquiries. And she is quick to praise the support of her committee.

Many of KVG’s members are gym exiles, and a handful are what Gregorie describes as ‘defectors’ from traditional cycling clubs. For most, the KVG is their first and only experience of cycling. The fee-free, turn-up-and-ride culture of club cycling comes as a pleasant surprise to many. “They ask, ‘Where do we sign up? Do we have to book in?’ and we say no, you don’t sign up, you don’t book in, but if you’re late, we won’t wait for you.”

pink and white jersey, kent velo girlsKVG's striking pink jerseys have become a feature of the lanes of Kent. Almost all of the members wear club colours, circumventing the minefield of seasonal kit choices

Club kit is worn almost uniformly, both for convenience (a neat sidestep around the minefield of assembling from scratch a wardrobe of cycling kit broad enough for the British climate), and for its appearance. “The people who make it say they could sell it at shows,” Gregorie smiles. “Everybody wants our kit.” The striking pink, white, and black jerseys also serve as mobile advertising for the club. Many who contact Gregorie do so having seen the Girls on the road.

Each club ride is led by a designated ride leader, who is responsible for the route and pace. While some members regularly assume leadership duties, each rider is required to ‘step up’ two or three times a year and lead a ride. Eight members have qualified as coaches with British Cycling, but this is not compulsory.

While the cycle industry has traditionally flogged equipment to men on the basis of its use by pro riders, Gregorie says the KVG members have little or no interest in cycle sport. Few have been inspired to ride by the achievements of Armitstead, Trott et al. “The majority have no interest in anything competitive,” she says. “They want a bit of fitness, a lot of social, someone to chat to; a purpose.” Neither are they interested in riding in mixed groups. Few turn out for the regular Sunday fixture with the Kent Velo Boys.

Coffee, table, kent velo girl club memberShops that offer bad advice or a patronising attitude to one club member are unlikely to enjoy the custom of her clubmates. The Velo House in Tunbridge Wells hosts KVG committee meetings.

The support of local bike shops is essential to any club, especially one in which the majority of its members are new to the sport. Some members will face maintenance challenges beyond the ken of the home mechanic. Almost without exception, the bike shops that surround KVG’s Sevenoaks ‘hub’ are supportive, Gregorie says, offering a friendly, non-patronising service. Personal recommendation among members is key, she adds: shops that have given bad advice to a member are unlikely to enjoy the custom of her clubmates.

KVG is an innately practical response to the practical issue of being dropped by the more selfish members of a group. Gregorie’s experience will doubtless have been shared by many male cyclists. Would the traditional cycling club, typically male dominated, benefit from the KVG approach?

“The boys go at 15 or 16mph and if you can’t keep you, then don’t come again,” Gregorie says. “There is a mass of people who can’t ride fast enough to go. There would be a massive take up if we ran a 13mph ride for men, but there’s no one to take them out. I’m not doing it, and no one else is prepared to run a slower ride for them.”

Bee Gregorie, back, kent velo girl, cafeGregorie is the KVG's driving force, but is quick to praise the support of her family and her committee. “I thought there’d be 10 or 12 of us," she says. "I had no idea I was going to create this monster.”

The Kent Velo Boys was formed, almost inevitably, by Gregorie, essentially to create an opportunity to ride with her husband. She refers to its membership as HABS – husbands and boyfriends. “They’re a lot less organised than the girls,” she laughs. “Their rides are less structured. Their group riding is awful, where the girls ride in quite disciplined groups.” Most have come to cycling through similar channels as the KVG membership, she says: gyms and triathlon. With a membership of around only 30 members, pre-ride induction courses are impractical and any tuition is delivered on the ride.

Part of the success of the KVG, Gregorie believes, can be attributed to the greater value women cyclists place on group riding. “Women don’t like riding on their own. Lots of people don’t ride at all outside of the group. They don’t even ride to rides, a lot of them: they’ll drive to the ride because they don’t want to ride on their own.”

The surprise then is that the success of the KVG is not being replicated the length and breadth of the country. Gregorie is convinced that there is nothing endemic to Kent in the growth of the KVG, and believes that Sheffield and Edinburgh have similarly successful clubs. Surely, areas without women’s cycling clubs would do well to seek out her advice? “A few people have, but what they really want is for me to come and set it all up for them, and I haven’t got time to do that,” she says. “They want me to write a blueprint.”

Gregorie, of course, has little time for writing blueprints. The expansion of the Kent Velo Girls’ membership shows no signs of slowing, and new challenges lie ahead. There are many who will wish to follow her example, but they must do so by their own efforts. All Gregorie’s time will be focused on the girls whose pink and white jerseys have become a fixture on their home roads.

Kent Velo Girls

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