‘Being outdoors is amazing’: how British Cycling is helping more women enjoy life on two wheels

<span>British Cycling’s Breeze initiative organises rides for women of all abilities.</span><span>Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images</span>
British Cycling’s Breeze initiative organises rides for women of all abilities.Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images

The wind whipping through tangled hair while freewheeling down country lanes, penny sweets and a menagerie of soft toys nestled in the basket – bicycles were, for so many of us, a mainstay of childhood. Learning to ride was one of our earliest physical tests and offered a delicious first taste of freedom.

However, while bicycles are not gendered toys, girls often put the brakes on for good when they become adults – in fact, three times more men than women cycle for fun. But British Cycling – the national governing body for cycling sports in Great Britain – is redressing the balance with Breeze, an initiative that launched in 2011 to encourage more women to get back on the saddle and hit the road on two wheels.

“We’ve welcomed more than 350,000 women on to more than 80,000 Breeze rides, helping them to build up their confidence, stay active and make friends for life,” says Amy Gardner, sport and participation director at British Cycling. “We’re incredibly proud of the programme, which continues to change lives and break down barriers every single day.”

There are Breeze groups across the UK with routes to suit everyone – from five-mile spins to 50-mile outings. No expertise is needed – beginners are not only welcomed but encouraged. And getting involved is simple: just find a group via letsride.co.uk, introduce yourself and book on to a ride. You don’t need a flash bike, just a roadworthy steed, comfy shoes and a helmet.

One of the biggest benefits of cycling is the health and fitness boost – from increasing muscle strength and joint mobility to reducing rates of cancer, diabetes and heart disease. But Breeze is about more than just moving your body and your bike. It also provides companionship, fresh air, epic views and countless chances to fuel up on coffee, cake and Kettle Chips.

Jane Isaac, 70, who lives in the Scottish Borders has been part of Kelso Breezers for two and a half years. She spent much of her life working with horses and wanted a replacement form of exercise. Isaac had done very little cycling and found mixed-gender cycle rides didn’t hit the spot. Then she discovered Breeze.

“When I realised there were groups specifically for women, I knew that was what I needed,” says Isaac, who goes out with the group once a week – although she stresses that there is no pressure to do so. “It’s a friendly, non-intrusive environment. You don’t ask about people’s age or previous lifestyles, you’re just a group of girls out cycling. Also, how ever hard you work, there’s always coffee!”

The beating hearts of Breeze are the 1,200 volunteer group leaders, known as champions, without whom, says Gardner, the entire initiative “simply couldn’t happen”. These women plan the routes and the rides and lead the group when out, offering both practical advice and words of encouragement along the way.

#PedalWithKettle this Summer of Cycling

• Kettle Chips is the official supporter of British Cycling and will be encouraging chip lovers across the country to #PedalWithKettle on guided rides throughout summer – offering free and friendly local bike rides, led by a trained ride leader, where riders can enjoy community socialising and build their confidence in riding.

• The eight-month partnership aims to inspire Britain’s families to get outside for a Summer of Cycling and enjoy grassroots sports before putting their feet up at home and supporting Britain’s cycling professionals.

• With a focus on bringing people together through their love of sport (and of course cycling), Kettle Chips will be fuelling the adrenaline on the roadside and on screens with plenty of Kettle’s Gourmet Krunch this summer – watch out for the Kettle Chip team in and around the sporting action.

“Their boundless energy, enthusiasm and commitment to getting more women on bikes has positively impacted hundreds of thousands of lives, and we simply can’t thank them enough,” says Gardner.

Alex Aiken, 59, is Breeze champion at Breeze North Wales. She’s been part of the initiative since 2018 – not long after her first ride, she trained to be a champion. “I got a tricycle for my third birthday and since then have always had a bike,” she says. “However, I’m more connected to cycling now – it’s part of my week and it’s more woven into my social fabric than it has been before. I’ve met lifelong friends through Breeze.”

Aiken believes cycling with a group keeps people accountable. “You know if you have a ride planned, you will go. It’s fantastic motivation and brilliant for mental wellbeing. No matter how you’ve been feeling, once you go out on one of these rides you always feel better afterwards. It puts everything into perspective.”

Aiken also speaks of the inclusivity that is central to Breeze. “The motto is: ‘Never leave anyone behind,’” she says. “We keep pace with the slowest rider because it’s about being part of a group. You’ll see someone who has maybe lacked confidence come on leaps and bounds once they see they are supported. It’s a broad church.”

Many women take to cycling thanks to it being a low-impact exercise – ideal for anyone concerned with nurturing joint health.

Mary Elliott from York has always cycled for convenience but she’s been cycling for pleasure for 12 years and is both a pensioner and a Breeze champion. She used to be a hill walker, but her feet started to hurt on long treks, leading her to consider exercise that isn’t weight bearing. “I can cycle any distance without feeling any pain,” she says. “I’m not restricted when I cycle.”

Not that being technically brilliant or super speedy is the point – Elliott echoes Aiken and the Breeze rule that the groups always go at the pace of the slowest rider. One of the benefits of this non-competitive ethos is that participants feel truly present.

Related: From traffic-free group rides to Team GB fanzones: 12 ways to get involved with British cycling this summer

“Just being outdoors, seeing nature and wildlife – hares in fields, birds of prey, wildflowers,” says Elliott. “It’s just amazing.”

For some women, Breeze has proved a lifeline. Laura Nisbet, 48, is Breeze champion at Kelso Breezers. Although she has cycled since childhood, a health scare in 2017 saw her go into cardiac arrest, which propelled her to want to achieve more than just mileage on her bike.

“I struggled mentally,” she recalls of her recovery, adding that what helped was a determination to help others. “I did my Breeze champion training and by early 2018 I led my first ride. Doing this allows me to help other women and that helps me. Breeze has changed my life.”

Kettle Chips is supporting the Summer of Cycling, and there are hundreds of free ways to enjoy cycling this summer. From local guided rides to cheering on Team GB, there’s something for everyone, no matter your age, ability or location. Get involved at britishcycling.org.uk