“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride,” said President John F. Kennedy.
Susan B. Anthony said of cycling, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
But a recent People for Bikes Survey found that of the over 100 million American adults who own bicycles, few make riding a regular activity. The number one impediment? Fear of automotive traffic. Among women, the next biggest fear is being attacked by a stranger. And while the gender gap in bike riding is shrinking, these fears still keep too many women from putting on their helmets and heading out on two wheels.
If you own a bike in western Pennsylvania, those excuses just won’t cut it anymore. The region is blessed with hundreds of miles of non-motorized, recreational bike paths, including plenty of flat rail trails. All a local woman needs to vanquish her fears is a bike, a helmet, and a friend to bring along.
Whether you’re traveling the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, or the Montour Trail — spanning 46 miles from Coraopolis to Clairton — or smaller trails such as the Greene River Trail along the Monongahela River or Fayette County’s fledgling Sheepskin Trail, you can’t help but notice women of all ages riding together.
They ride for the physical benefits — cardiovascular fitness, increased muscle strength and improved joint mobility — but they also ride for more intangible reasons. Biking in nature has been found to offer stress relief, reduce anxiety and improve mood. Studies demonstrate that time spent outdoors has health benefits. Often called “Nature Therapy,” it is readily available at virtually no cost.
Of course, it is also a way to have fun.
“It’s a great experience with the other women – sharing, learning about each other, laughing, eating, drinking. What unites us is our shared joy in biking and being outdoors.” – Kay Owen
On a recent weekend, a group of Pennsylvanians hit the trail. Made up of women from different backgrounds and of different ages, the squad started four years ago with a simple question posed by Toni Henry, 66, of East Brady: “Want to go on a bike ride?”
“One of my friends was turning 60 and I thought it would be fun to plan an outdoor outing to celebrate,” recalls Henry. “The first trip was about a dozen ladies. We had so much fun, we decided to repeat it the next year. We started inviting others.”
The women in the loosely organized group — some have been riding since they were children, some are new to biking — now plan one or two large weekend group rides per year. Most have also become regular riders. They meet each other one-on-one or in small groups for day rides on local trails.
Kay Owen, 63 from Templeton, has attended three of the annual trips.
“It’s a great experience with the other women – sharing, learning about each other, laughing, eating, drinking,” she says. “What unites us is our shared joy in biking and being outdoors. I enjoy the connectedness but the separateness, too. We have the freedom to enjoy the time at our own speed. Some like to ride hard and fast, some like a more leisurely pace.”
Carla Morris, 57, of Grove City, joined the ride for the first time this year.
“There is nothing like the companionship of a group of women who are self sufficient,” she explains. “I felt fully accepted with no judgments, lots of helpful encouragements and camaraderie. I never thought of myself as a group kind of gal. These women changed my mind about that.”
It was also Cathy McCollom’s first time with the group. McCollom, 62, of Confluence, echoes Morris’s sentiment.
“I watched four women putting their bikes on a bike rack in the rain,” she recalls. “Each had a different way of approaching it, but they worked together until they got it done. There was no arguing. No one tried to give orders or take over. Not sure you would have seen that sort of cooperation if this had been a co-ed trip.”
McCollom, who leads the River Town Program in the Monongahela Valley, sees increasing numbers of women on trails along the river and throughout Greene, Westmoreland, Fayette and Washington Counties. She hopes that trend continues.
“Trails bring economic opportunity to the towns they pass and raise the quality of life for residents and visitors alike,” she says. “We are lucky to have so many trails to choose from.”
One example is the Greene River Rail-Trail along the Mon River which starts in Millsboro. With trailhead parking at the Greene Cove Yacht Club, this picturesque 5.2-mile course winds along Ten Mile Creek and the west bank of the river. Riders of all skill levels can enjoy a level, shaded and well-maintained 12-foot wide path with views of the water as they cruise into Crucible. The trail is expanding to include nine more miles into Nemacolin, and there are plans to take it further in the future. Riders can cap their trips with a drink and a meal at the Greene Cove Bar and Grille or drive a few miles to the Riviera Restaurant or other eateries in Fredericktown.
Another option is the Sheepskin Trail in Fayette County. Parking is available along Railroad Street in Dunbar. Currently 2.1 miles long, the trail will, upon completion, stretch 34 miles to connect the Great Allegheny Passage to the Mon River at Point Marion. It is being developed by Fayette County and the National Road Heritage Corridor, and is currently maintained by the Yough River Trail Council.
“Trails bring economic opportunity to the towns they pass and raise the quality of life for residents and visitors alike.” – Cathy McCollom
Along the Dunbar section, riders can view the remnants of the coke ovens which were such a large part of this area’s industrial heyday. Both Dunbar and Connellsville offer options for a hearty meal, including Ed’s Diner in Connellsville and Hutch’s Tap Room in Dunbar.
Don’t have a bike or are unsure what equipment you need? BikePGH has a list of resources for rentals, classes, shopping and local riding groups. Maps of Pennsylvania’s extensive bike trail system can be found here. Have nobody to ride with? Local outfitters such as Venture Outdoors offer group cycling trips and Meetup groups such as Bicycling Pittsburgh organize rides on local trails. Women-only bicycle touring groups, including the aptly named Womantours, offer all-inclusive trips for novice riders; adventure travel companies such as Sojourn offer women-only tours in the U.S. and abroad.
Asked for advice on a woman starting to bike at mid-life, Morris was direct.
“You start by starting,” she says. “It is no different than starting anything else, at any age. Start solo, enlist a friend or find a group and then go do it.”
Owen echoes her new friend.
“Accept where you are in terms of your conditioning and start from there,” she adds. “You do not have to be an athlete to enjoy biking.”
Sarah Heppenstall, a retired Presbyterian minister from the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh came to biking later in her life. Riding with women who love the outdoors and are “diverse, intelligent and supportive” is what she finds the most rewarding part of her time on two wheels.
Now, call a friend, put on your helmets and ride!
WENDY DUCHENE is an attorney with offices in Allegheny and Somerset Counties. She is also an avid user of the many hiking and biking trails in western PA, where she can often be found on her recumbent bike or walking her dog Sander.
Lead image by Jim Cheney, uncoveringPA.com
This story was created in partnership with the Keystone Edge.
It’s a 90 minute drive outside of Pittsburgh, nestled between the Monongahela River and Cheat River. “It” being Point Marion – a town once known for its role in the Pennsylvania glass industry. Today Point Marion is filled with historic sites and architecture, not to mention trails and fishing opportunities. And in a new development that will really resonate with nature lovers, Point Marion has something else to offer this beautiful summer – kayak rentals that allow people to explore this beautiful public space via the water.
Local resident and now entrepreneur Vicky Evans has been the driving force behind this new paddling launch point. Throughout 2017, Vicky has worked under the umbrella name of Mon River Rec while tapping into the Mon River Town organization as a local resource. Vicky has a degree in recreation and parks management and a long history of working in the outdoors as a conservationist and an outdoor recreation planner, mostly with the United States Department of Agriculture. It’s safe to say she’s “always been interested in the outdoors and in helping people get out there and enjoy them as well.”
As a resident, Vicky quickly realized through her own experiences that the town’s location makes it one of the best places to kayak in western Pennsylvania. Point Marion sits near a fork in the Monongahela River, providing kayakers with more places to paddle as they journey up and down the water. That’s because in addition to splitting off into the Cheat River, the Mon meets up with Dunkard Creek near Point Marion. And both the creeks and the quiet Cheat River are traffic free – no boats, no barges, no locks…nothing but water!
Ironically, the woman behind the kayak boat launch project is relatively new to the kayaking scene. She admits to being “mostly a dry land kind of person” in the past, as her experience prior to running Mon River Rec involved more biking and hiking.
“It’s added a new dimension to my life,” Vicky says about the project. “Now instead of waking up in the morning and going for a bike ride or walking the dog, I’m calling up friends to go on the river.”
Paddling up and down the Mon has never been easier in Point Marion, thanks to the kayak rental that opened in June 2017. A reservation made through Vicky ensures that visitors can use one of her six flatwater recreational kayaks during their exploration. (No tandem kayaks are available, so paddlers must be comfortable using a single kayak.)
Here’s how it works once a date and time is set: paddlers meet Vicky in Point Marion at the kayak boat launch. She brings the boats and life jackets, and kayakers bring any extra items they may want as they explore the local creeks and paddle up and down the Mon. Vicky then sends paddlers on their way, and meets them back at the launch at the end of the trip. It’s a simple but effective system, and Vicky has been thrilled with the response to the launch so far. One person stands out in her mind – a woman who came on a Monday for a couple of hours. “The lady came back on Friday with her son, and they went out for another two hours or so,” Vicky remembers.
But perhaps the most touching part of it all is how important this project really is to former land-lover Vicky. Mon River Rec has given her a chance to work with her son and to continue – even in retirement – to help people enjoy the beautiful nature scenes around them. And she already knows what she would like to do as the project continues.
“We definitely want to be environmentally friendly,” according to Vicky. Now a regular paddler, Vicky has already come back from her adventures in boats overflowing with trash. That’s why, “In the future we definitely want to plan a clean-up paddle, because it’s important.”
Clean-up paddles would certainly add an entire new dimension to Vicky’s work – and would fit in perfectly with her current adventures in Point Marion, as there’s “just a whole new area for me to explore and make a positive difference.”
Are you interested in exploring the beautiful waterways around Point Marion? It’s easy to make a reservation and get out on the water. Contact information and pricing is listed below – so be sure to get in touch and plan your day-trip before the summer’s end!
We recommend bringing the following items with you when you kayak:
- A Hat
- A Wetbag
- Water Shoes
If you wear a bathing suit, an overshirt or tank top is recommended – the sun can be quite hot during the summer!
Be advised that all kayakers are required to be fitted with a life jacket before their paddle. All visitors will want to work with Vicky during this process to ensure that their life jacket fits and is fastened correctly, both to comply with state regulations and to guarantee that the jacket will keep paddlers afloat in the river should an accident or emergency take place during a paddle.