“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.