Road Cycling

‘I probably wouldn’t be on a bike today’: This women’s biking group helps conquer fears, form community –

This profile is part of four-week series on local women’s groups in honor of Women’s History Month.

After a successful six-month battle with stage-four cancer, Ashley Vogel set out to buy her first commuter bike. She was nervous about riding through city streets, but Vogel yearned for the empowerment that comes with hopping on a bike and cruising around whenever and wherever.

So, with one month left till her final day of chemo, Vogel bought a brand-new, baby-blue Breezer Bikes hybrid and enrolled in an urban bike-safety class. It was actually her second such experience — the first, pre-cancer, left her so terrified that she relinquished the idea of city biking altogether.

Fast-forward five years to today, and the 28-year-old is a regular rider, a member of a road-racing team, and a full-time employee at cycling advocacy nonprofit the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. She’s also a leader of Women Bike PHL, a group whose mission is to inspire female, trans, and non-binary Philadelphians to bike — and who curated the safety classes that gave Vogel the confidence to ride.

“Without that community, I probably wouldn’t be on a bike today,” Vogel says, sipping a cup of tea after a recent human-protected bike lane event.

Launched in 2013, Women Bike PHL took shape as a Facebook page. It was a Bicycle Coalition initiative spearheaded by Katie Monroe, a former education fellow who wanted to make biking feel more accessible to women.

“There’s a significant gender gap in bicycling across the U.S.,” Monroe says. “Having a community where women could feel comfortable in asking questions — whether it’s about safety concerns or riding to work in a pencil skirt — felt important to breaking down some of the barriers to entry.”

Over the years, Women Bike PHL has grown to 4,200 members, who post about bikes for sale, upcoming cycling events, street closures, and personal stories. The Bicycle Coalition trains volunteer moderators who oversee the page, ensuring it remains a safe and inviting space. Members ask and chime in on a range of questions: how to ship a road bike, which apps are best for route planning, where to rent a mountain bike, what electrolyte boosters people prefer. As the weather warms up, bikers often turn to the page to find others to join them on rides. The group also has a racing team.

Women Bike PHL hosts its own Bicycle Coalition-sponsored events, too, including two annual cycling series curated by the Women Bike PHL racing team. Cyclists ready to step it up a level can enroll in the Women Bike PHL Racing Development series, which mentors first-timers interested in racing. Those of all skill levels can join the Philadelphia WTF 100 Ride series, weekly road rides designed to ready participants for the Rapha Women’s 100, a 100-kilometer (62-mile) ride celebrated worldwide.

Katelyn Repash, left, and Women Bike PHL Racing teammate Jess Crawford, right, pose after finishing the Mainline Bike Race in summer of 2018.

Katelyn Repash, a 30-year-old South Philly cyclist of four years, participated in both series, completing the 100 Ride in 2017. That inspired her to enroll in the Racing Development program, through which she met her current roommate.

“I’ve gained so much confidence in my riding skills, but I’ve also gained a really incredible community of friends — people who I not only ride with regularly but invite to brunch and birthday parties,” Repash says. “You’ll also see posts like, ‘Hey, I’m stuck with a flat tire. Is there anyone that can bring me a spare tube?’ and multiple people will respond.”

Repash initially joined Women Bike PHL after purchasing her first road bike. Now, she’s a mentor for this spring’s Racing Development program. She’s eager to inspire more women — cis, trans, and otherwise — to give racing a try.

“They make it very clear that there’s no tolerance for sexism, homophobism, racism, or any of that, and that no question should make you feel ashamed,” she says. “A lot of races and the resources that go into developing cyclists are geared towards men … which makes it intimidating to ask questions and get started.”

Vogel says there’s a cycling gender gap even outside of racing. Observational research conducted by the Bicycle Coalition in 2018 indicates that only about one-third of Philadelphia’s bike commuters are female. Safety is often a major concern. Dealing with harassment on a bike is also an issue, and related stories surface regularly on the Women Bike PHL page, where members can commiserate with one another.

Vogel recalls her very first ride on her own after completing her bike safety classes. Ten minutes into it, a guy stopped her and started criticizing the style of her bike. He then proceeded to tell her she should be riding on the sidewalk. It caused Vogel to pause and second-guess herself.

“When I got home, I posted to Women Bike PHL [Facebook page], and people immediately assured me that the guy was grossly wrong and just a jerk,” Vogel says. “It was nice to have a community to restore my confidence.”