Women’s Bicycling Forum kicks off with inspiring speakers

2014 National Bike Summit-2

450 people have signed up for this year’s Women’s Forum,
twice as many the first year in 2012.
(Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)

BikePortland coverage from Washington D.C. is made possible by Planet Bike.

The Opening Plenary of the third annual National Women’s Bicycling Forum opened today with a series of TED-style presentations from an impressive line-up of female leaders.

About 450 people have signed up for the Women’s Forum this year, that’s over twice as many that attended the first edition in 2012. They’re hear to learn and be inspired by a full day of speakers, networking, and break-out sessions.

Before the opening plenary got started this morning, League of American Bicyclists President Andy Clarke said that their Women Bike program is “transforming the League and transforming our movement.” For the League, Women Bike has become a key pillar of their larger equity initiative which includes efforts to broaden the bicycling and advocacy tent to welcome women, communities of color, and kids.

2014 National Bike Summit-1

Carolyn Szczepanski of the League.

Carolyn Szczepanski, the League’s Communications Director and founder of the Women’s Forum, charted the growth of the event since 2012. That first year had 200 participants, there were 350 the next year, and this year there are over 450 people signed up.

Those who made it here to D.C. through a major snow storm were treated to inspiring stories from six female speakers — from a former Olympic cyclist to a National Geographic Explorer.

Dorothy Nichols, the National Sales Manager for Shebeest and creator of the NORBA National mountain bike series told the crowd to not take things so seriously. “Get out and have fun and enjoy the moment,” she said. Nichols also shared her favorite quote (by Eleanor Roosevelt): “Do something everyday that scares you.”

2014 National Bike Summit-4

Afghan Women’s Cycling Team on a training ride.
(Slide from Kristin Gavin’s presentation.)

Another speaker, Kristin Gavin, started an organization called Gearing Up that brings bicycling to women in prison and transitional homes and who have struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. In 2009 she knew biking could make an impact on these women, but she wasn’t sure where to start: “Have you ever been in a situation where you recognize biking can make an impact in people’s lives but didn’t know where to begin?” That was where Gavin was in 2009. She started with five bikes in a women’s home in Philadelphia and the program was a big hit. The bicycle has special appeal to incarcerated women because, Gavin said, “It makes them feel normal.” Beyond that, bicycles given women a way to become healthy, connect with their community, and create relationships.

Today, Gavin works with 200 women per year and in 2011 she established an indoor cycling program inside a women’s prison. And it all started, Gavin said, “Because I had a passion for biking and an intuition.”

If you think women in prison face barriers to bicycling, another speaker, Beth Gordon, spoke about her experience in making the running industry more welcoming to women. She told the story of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run a marathon in 1967. Gordon relayed the cultural taboos and challenges that surrounded Switzer’s historic effort. “It was 1967!” Gordon said sarcastically, “You couldn’t run, your uterus would fall out!”

If you think being in prison or being the first woman to run a marathon was a challenge; there can’t be any more daunting place in the world for women to pedal a bicycle than Afghanistan. In fact, it’s been ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman. That’s why the last speaker of the morning, Shannon Galpin, started her work there. Galpin runs an organization called Mountain 2 Mountain that brings the revolutionary power of cycling to women in conflict regions.

Galpin spoke about the “power of the bike, beyond sport” and shared that her experiences show that bicycling can be a very powerful tool for social change. While many of us see Afghanistan as a war-torn country dominated by the harsh religious laws of the Taliban, Galpin said slowly but surely, bicycling is doing the same thing for women in that country as it did for them in American 100 years ago. When women first took to cycling here in the U.S., they were called immoral and promiscuous. Despite even harsher consequences in Afghanistan, Galpin told stories about the Afghan Women’s Cycling Team who are training for the Olympics on remote highways — with male family members and the men’s cycling team riding behind them as a buffer zone.

The focus of the Women’s forum is to inspire women advocates to share cycling with women in their communities. After hearing this morning’s stories, they probably can’t wait to get home and get started.

— Follow the Women’s Forum via the #womenbike hashtag on Twitter. And you can follow all the Bike Summit tweets via #NBS14.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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10 years ago

Shannon Galpin’s work sounds absolutely incredible. Wish I could have been there to ask about how someone goes about starting an organization with such a challenging scope. Where does she get funding? How does she deal with language barriers, and as an outsider, how do you know who to start talking to when you approach a new community? Hope we get to cheer for the Afghan Women’s Cycling Team in Rio 2016.

Thank you for this awesome coverage, Jonathan!

10 years ago

Kathryn Switzer was the first woman to enter and run the Boston marathon.

10 years ago
Reply to  L

I think Roberta Gibb was the first, but I think it was unofficial.

10 years ago
Reply to  scott

The article said the first woman to run a marathon. Not true. Women had run marathons – just not Boston and not officially.

10 years ago

Just completed LCI at a very inspiring coaching session at O’Reilly in Sebastopol, CA. Attendants were split 6/6 female/male and LCI assistants were 2/2 under guidance by a male instructor and a female facilitator. The range of perspectives from racing to MTB to commuting was rich, and there were sometimes subtle, sometimes very distinct teaching and learning differences as well as riding perspectives between us ‘girls’ and ‘boys.’ At the core of what I learned is that there are so many layers to bicycling safety, education, and advocacy it can boggle your mind!

I remember living through the period where the auto industry finally realized that even if men bought more cars, women drove the majority of all purchase decisions one way or another. I think bicycling is in the midst of a similar evolution – beyond “women-specific bikes” – where females play an important role in everything from politics/advocacy (i.e. SRTS) to soft- and hard-goods design to various riding (commute, cross, road, MTB, etc.). It’s nice to see this growth and leadership!