Words by April Drage
When I was probably too young to receive it, my mother offered me the advice “you need to know that you can make it on your own”. This was provided in the context of relationship advice, and I took it to heart. Making a choice because it’s a preference, is quite different from trying to meet a need; this advice served me well in all kinds of contexts. Having gone bike crazy many years after my mother’s death, I’ve wondered what she would make of my rather extreme interpretation of her words; knowing I can “make it” literally on my own in the great outdoors. The knowledge that I can leave the comforts of home on my bicycle, alone and not only feel safe but also deeply joyful, content and connected is overwhelming and enormously empowering. Even if I chose never to take a solo journey again, there is something to be said for knowing that I can; that my travels with others are by choice rather than necessity.
Taking on the fun task of leading rides for the Rapha Cycling Club earlier this year and I commenced a little passion project/experiment to see whether there was an opportunity to build the adventure and gravel cycling side to that community here in Adelaide. Within a short time of playing with this concept, I instinctively felt that there was a cohort (of women in particular) out there with enthusiasm and interest but not the confidence to know where or how to get amongst it. Make no mistake, this is not some mission to encourage people to get out there and go solo in the wild, but the simple process of supporting people enough so that they feel confident to lean into that sense of fun and get involved in these playful, joy sparking fun fests to whatever extent they choose, without being held back by their perceived barriers to entry. I can thank my anxiety for teaching me the lesson that being scared in and of itself isn’t a good reason not to do something.
In considering this experiment, I turned my mind to how I got started. It wasn’t so long ago that I was nothing short of terrified to ride off road at ALL, let alone to random places by myself and often in the dark. I realised that the patience and kindness my friends have shown me over the years, has given me a foundation to draw on when I’ve needed it. The voices of these friends are never far from my mind; my mate David reminding me “bum back and send it” when he can tell I’m panicking, Flic telling me “boobs over bars” on steep, sketchy UP, Silvia reassuring me that my chunky tyres will stick to a climb “like shit to a blanket”, Margaret reminding me to “live a little” when she knows I’m doubting, Julia (MTBing veteran!) telling me for YEARS to “look through the corner” when she can see I’m gonna make a meal of it. On top of all of this timely advice, I reflect on the help offered by Port Adelaide Cycling Club celebrity Gemma, volunteering her time to answer my many questions and teach me how to sort out things like my tubeless tyres when I could barely change a tube. Empowerment happens in tiny increments and involves the right people, at the right time.
I’m very aware of my own limitations. I’m no coach, I’m not the best at making routes that aren’t hilly (I get carried away being “creative” on Ride With GPS) and of course, I’m only one person; not a recipe for safety if you’re trying to take a bunch of newcomers out all at once. The other factor that the Adelaide grapevine had served up to me was that because I ride perhaps a little more than most, this was getting in the way of people feeling confident enough join me on rides. I sat with these conclusions and felt sure that the right conversation would happen, with the right person/ partner in this project at the right time.
Skip ahead a few months, I’d pieced together a flash-packing weekender route purely for the fun of making it, knowing that it was in the intermediate/advanced category but delighting in the stitching together of a lot of fun places whilst also being entertained by the challenge of trying to make the route manageable for most during daylight hours in autumn. Sharlene Harding, a fellow adventurer I’d heard of but not met (who is incidentally, a coach for the local She Rides program AND a bike education instructor for Bike SA) contacted me with much apprehension, keen to get amongst the fun but feeling strongly that the route presented a substantial personal challenge for her. We talked it through and with more than a little encouragement, Sharlene agreed to come along.
The day panned out exactly as it was supposed to, the second ride leader for the journey (who else but the amazing Margaret Easson) took charge of the front of the little contingent on that grizzly day and Sharlene and I walked, rode, got wet, dry and wet again over hours and into the fading light. All the while feeling a strong sense that there was really something to this partnership; we have very different skills sets but the same agenda, sense of humour and passion for all things empowerment and adventure; this was the meeting that needed to happen.
Within a matter of days, many messages exchanged, brainstorming and insights. Within weeks, a chat over hot chips at a bonfire, more laughs and a plan! The Girls Go Gravel beginner flash-packing weekender was born. A place to start. Sharlene worked her magic on a route, I added just a couple of enhancements. We agreed that to make sure people felt totally comfortable, she would take the reigns for the event, I would help with the promo and stick to tail end Charlie. Within 24 hours of the event going up, we were overbooked and running a waiting list.
We connected the women with each other and created an event at Treadlite Bike Bags where we took along a whole bunch of our own bike-packing stuff for people to play with whilst getting to know each other and us. As this opportunity was the first such adventure for many of these women, the bikes on board for the excursion was a delightful mix of endurance road bikes with CX tyres, CX bikes, E-bikes, gravel and mountain. The standout was a rim brake, 26 inch mountain bike we all affectionately referred to as “Hilda the Hipster”, complete with royal blue panniers; I was of course loving all of this and helped as best I could to answer all the questions of the how, what, why, tyres, tubes, things and stuff. Identifying the barriers to getting involved and picking them off one by one was the order of the day in the lead up to the event. In the 24 hours before, all the messages, nerves, shakedowns, last minute gear sorting and all sorts.
The morning itself, all 14 gathered in Sharlene’s garage before roll out almost brought a tear to my eye; so much enthusiasm, positive energy and people trusting in Sharlene and I enough to step out of their comfort zones. Rolling through bike paths, hearing all the chatter of getting to know you and gear talk felt so FUN; the vibe we were hoping to create was HAPPENING and only improved as the day wore on. Tunes going, snack sharing and all the photos. It seemed that no one was feeling rushed; there was no threat of getting ‘left behind’ (which seemed to be a very common fear). We rode together like a bunch of old friends all the way to Tanunda.
There was a ‘school camp’ kind of energy at the caravan park as new friends became old ones and the laughter continued. Evening bike adjustments and jokes about my ‘tardis’ bag and the many things I might pull out of it next, added to the entertainment. The route for the second day also seemed to be subject of much evening chatter, with the crew conscious of the incoming wet weather, the one steep climb of the trip and my little 5km “route enhancement”. I knew that Sharlene was a little apprehensive that people would NOT enjoy the wet weather and some consideration was given to changing the route. Bless Sharlene for agreeing when I suggested that we needed to give people challenges to rise to and that maybe they’d find out something about themselves that they didn’t before, even if the weather was a little adventurous; I think we would have short changed these capable women by short coursing.
A tailwind up the climb whilst the weather was dry seemed to ease the nervous energy, the views from the top offered a reward that far exceeded the expectations of the. After the climb, came a fire track that traversed some paddocks with roaming livestock, some gates to climb over, water to roll though and some stick covered pinches to ride over. This was a lot to take in for some, I heard nothing but encouragement and gentle advice from those more experienced, as ebikes were lifted over gates by helpers, awkward gate hopping was met with cheers upon completion and when Hilda the Hipsters picnic basket was inadvertently tipped upside down on one such up and over; laughter ensued. When everyone made it safely over the last gate of this 5km section that had so many worried that I was leading them into the middle of nowhere, never to be seen again, there was utter shock, a sense of relief, surprise and pride when we came upon a road. “Is that it, have we made it through the adventure bit?!” I was asked. I overheard conversations during the rest of that rainy morning “they’re never gonna believe us when we tell them what we did”, “That was awesome”, “what’s a 65 year old woman doing out here like this…. Beats sitting in front of the TV… I think I’m hooked”.
Even when the rain came and went and came again, there was still so much positive energy, laughter and encouragement offered. The amount of confidence seemed to have grown markedly since the previous morning, in spite of the fatigue that was no doubt felt. This all-star line up were feeling so invigorated by the experience that they were keen for a little bonus adventure as we approached Gawler.
When I asked this crew for some of their highlights, Julia offered this, “…seeing Shar’s mind tick over for something different in Gawler. You could see the smile come over her face as she led us to a short section of single track into the creek and out again. It was just a little bit more adventure, and it was of course, awesome!”
Some of the other highlights:
“…the dozens of sheep and their lambs scampering across the hill faces so close to where we were riding… the coming together of such a supportive group of like-minded women and the friendships that were formed… The generous sharing of knowledge… and the amazing support”. Cherie
“…would I do it again? Absolutely, do I recommend it? You just gotta do it!!” Dani (who incidentally is a badass adventurer and my new BFF).
Building on the feel good friend fest that was this amazing weekend, this crew are talking about arranging their own adventures; one of these women wants to ride the Mawson Trail solo, but wants to sharpen her mechanical skills and knowledge before she attempts this. To address this (evidently very common and valid concern about stuff breaking on bikes), I’m cooking up new and exciting ways to play my part to remove roadblocks to freedom just like this one, in the same way that Dear Gemma did for me and no doubt for others too. As for my new BFFs Dani and Shar, Sharlene oozes patience and calm and has a gift for what she does. I’m quite sure this dynamic duo will continue to inspire others with their ongoing adventures just about everywhere (look out USA!) and will surely be taking others along for the ride with them in one way or another with their contagious energy.
I’m so excited to see where this all goes. Once I started doing things I never thought I could, I started wondering what other assumptions I’d made about myself that weren’t based in fact; maybe, just maybe this has occurred for one or two of these brave souls as well…..
As they say in the Rapha Cycling Club “it’s never just a ride”.
You can follow April and her cycling adventures HERE