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Grassroots initiative comes as Gerard Vroomen urges elite women's calendar should reflect male one...

British Cycling has announced a new project that aims to encourage 80,000 women to get back on their bikes, or take up cycling for the first time, thanks to nearly £1 million of National Lottery funding made available by Sport England.

The initiative, called The National Women’s Cycling Network, will enable women, whatever their age or ability, “to organise fun, recreational group bike rides for other women in their local area,” says the governing body.

As part of the project, during the next three years, 1,000 women will be trained as “cycling champions,” helping them develop skills to organise and lead group rides, with the programme also drawing on the success of the country’s top female cyclists.

The programme, one of 20 being supported by Sport England as part of its £10 million Active Women campaign aimed at closing the gap between the genders in sports participation, and will operate in every local authority area in England, with the ultimate aim of getting 20,000 women cycling at least once a week.

According to Sport England, one in eight women in England regularly participate in sport, compared to one in five men, and the gap is even more pronounced when it comes to women from disadvantaged communities, where fewer than one in ten women participate regularly.

Despite an increase in cycling generally over the past couple of years, it has also been found that the number of women cycling at least once a week has declined during that period.

Ian Drake, chief executive of British Cycling, commented: “We are delighted that Sport England has awarded us funding to roll out this ambitious project designed to get more women on their bikes.

“We have had significant success in increasing participation in cycling through Sky Ride, developed with our principal partner BSkyB, and we will take our experience in this area to launch a bespoke programme for women that will be delivered by women.

“Our female athletes are the best in the world and we want to use that as an inspiration to attract thousands more women to our sport,” he added.

According to Sport England’s chief executive Jennie Price, “For many women with children or those managing a tight budget, sport – and time to themselves - can slip down the list of priorities.

“The projects we’re funding today have asked local women what is preventing them from getting involved and what sports interest them, before coming up with an offer that is appealing and accessible.”

Minister for Sport and the Olympics, Hugh Robertson MP welcomed the announcement, saying: “We have many fantastic female athletes in this country, but not enough women participating at sport’s grassroots.

“More needs to be done to encourage women to participate in sport, particularly those from disadvantaged communities. The £10 million being invested by Sport England will give women the chance to try out new sports as part of a dedicated programme and hopefully keep them in sport in the future.”

Gail Emms, mixed pairs badminton silver medallist at Beijing also expressed her enthusiasm for the aim of encouraging more women to take part in sport regularly.

“As a new mum, I know only too well how difficult it can be to make time for yourself and to get out there and play sport,” she explained. “The projects receiving investment from Sport England today will make a big difference because they’ve really thought through the challenges women face in becoming regular sports participants.”

The announcement comes during a week when women’s participation in cycling at the elite end of the sport has also been a topic of discussion, with a lively debate on Twitter ensuing from comments made by Cervélo co-founder, Gerard Vroomen, that in order to boost women’s cycling, there should be “No ProTour [sic] race without women's race & No ProTour team without women's team.”

Like HTC-Columbia, Cervélo TestTeam ran a highly successful women’s squad alongside its men’s team, featuring riders such as Great Britain’s Emma Pooley, winner of the rainbow jersey in the time trial at the World Championships in Geelong last year.

Pooley, like a number of her team mates, will race this year for the women’s squad of Garmin-Cervélo, but not everyone is convinced that women are up to the rigours posed by some of cycling’s big races.

Photographer Graham Watson, who has covered more miles on cycling’s big races than most – albeit from the back of a motorbike as he snaps the action – tweeted, “sorry, I cannot see 80 women racing the cobblestones of Roubaix!,” to which Vroomen replied, “If I can do it, millions of women can!”

As road.cc’s own editor Tony points out, when he did the amateur version of Paris-Roubaix, there were plenty of women riding it – okay, they weren’t exactly smiling, but then again neither were the men, and they were more than up to the rigours of the cobbles.
 

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.