Rapha Festa Della Donna Ride, CCSYD

Bright, friendly chatter flowed out of the Rapha Cycle Club Sydney at dawn. It was upbeat and encouraging on the hills. It became louder on the descents, rising above the wind. If you paused for a moment on the flats, you would realise this chatter surrounded you here as well.

Comfortable conversation permeated a scenic 50km route through the city’s coastlines, along mysterious boardwalks, up punchy back streets and past the colours of shipping containers. As the sky woke over the ocean we replenished our lungs with the salty sea breeze.

When the Rapha Cycle Club Sydney hosted their second Festa Della Donna ride on Sunday it wasn’t effort, challenge or speed that defined the journey. It was friendship and encouragement.

Several fresh faces joined this ride to celebrate International Women’s Day. But for repeat riders, something had shifted. There was familiarity. What had developed over the last twelve months was a large and inclusive network of cycling-minded friends. Nervous excitement from a year ago had grown into a sense of pleasure, belonging and ease.

These special occasion rides draw people in, but it’s the friendships formed on regular weekly rides that have created continuity in between. A space has been created that’s free from suffering, anxiety or the (sometimes thrilling) effort to hold on. It’s not just happening in one location. The sense of connection that characterised Sunday’s ride is something that is laying its roots in several other cycling communities too.

For Rapha-Focus Cyclocross rider, Lisa Jacobs, this new experience of community is palpable in Melbourne too. “It’s given me a great sense of belonging to meet other women who love getting active, love coffee and are normal people too,” said Jacobs, who has spent most of her cycling career riding with a very different group of ‘elites’.

“I love competitive rides with my mates, but the Rapha rides aren’t about smashing each other. It’s a really supportive and friendly environment. Everyone cheers on other people as they improve.” The fastest, most determined riders need time to relax too, and regular Thursday morning rides with women in Melbourne are providing a unique space to do so: “I always leave the ride feeling energised by this little happy community.”

“It’s really great to hear so many stories shared out on the roads and afterwards at the coffee shop,” added Hannah Geelan from Adelaide. “It is inspiring each rider to take on new roads and challenges in their cycling life, but also life in general.” Friday morning rides for ladies have become a regular fixture in the South Australian capital, too.

“You never know whose day you could brighten,” said Geelan. Her attitude to riding is synonymous with living.

Cycling is the context for these groups to come together, but what’s happening out on the roads is extending far beyond the world of bikes. These rides have carved out a time and space for women to get together and simply feel happy and at ease.

Our sport is so often dramatised for its tales of suffering. Take the suffering away some days, and you’ll find it’s a sense of connection and lifestyle that compels people the most. Keep the suffering at bay for too long though, and you’ll find that riders will get restless. Challenge is healthy and there is also enjoyment in having something to aim for.

This year’s Rapha Women’s 100, taking place on 26th July 2015, will see women around the world setting out to ride 100km on the same day. The sense of togetherness will remain strong but completing the distance, for many, will be an achievement in itself.

In addition to year-round rides in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, regular rides in the Waikato region of New Zealand will commence next month.

“Last year we had one of the coldest winters on record. Conditions were really tough, and I was amazed and impressed with the determination and resilience of the women who rode with us in the Women’s 100,” said Rapha ambassador Emma Bryant. She will be leading weekly rides from Cambridge and Hamilton. “There are already plenty of women riding in this area but there are limited opportunities for women to come together and ride. We’re hoping to change that.”

While the Women’s 100 has milestone written all over it, it is an event that, once again, builds connection, belonging and a healthy appetite for more. “I’m really looking forward to seeing some familiar faces and meeting some new friends,” said Bryant. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited about the prospect of a good lunch at the end of the ride too.”

Each conversation, each turn of the pedal, each surprising view. While a great ride is a bright point in its own right, it’s the momentum and connection between women that’s creating a wave of its own. The very thing that makes a large number of riders feel unusual in some cycling communities is making them find a home in this one. A home with a bright, colourful welcome mat, that’s there to stay.