It was five o’clock on a sultry evening in August, and a group of women was gathering in the back parking lot at Dan & Whit’s Country Store in Norwich. Companionable chatter competed with birdsong and the sound of what passed for evening rush hour traffic on Main Street. Bikes came off racks, shoes changed, helmets strapped on. The riders were ready to roll.
The ride would travel the hills of Norwich by New Boston Road to Stowell Road, circling back via Academy and Campbell Flats. The organization responsible for bringing this coterie of women together is the Upper Valley Women’s Cycling Club (UVWCC). Formed in 2014, the UVWCC is “a cycling group for self-declared women of all ages and abilities in the Upper Valley that promotes a positive and inclusive image of women’s cycling by organizing group rides, hosting social events, and facilitating skills and maintenance clinics as well as gear demos and more.” Since 2020, UVWCC has been under the umbrella group Upper Valley Cycling Club (formerly Upper Valley Velo).
The UVWCC draws riders from all over the Upper Valley, including Norwich residents Nicole Torres and Peggy Sadler.
Peggy joined in 2019 with the intention of joining the slower rides. “I knew a couple of the faster riders who encouraged me to join, saying things like, ‘you’ll never get left behind.’ Even so, I was intimidated.” Between her full-time job as co-owner of Designer Gold Jewelry Design and her devotion to the sport of rowing, Petty hasn’t had a chance to participate in any group rides yet. “I’m hoping to join in some of the rides next summer.”
The UVWCC was the brainchild of Becca Mateo, a triathlete and women’s cycling advocate who has since moved out of the area. She enthusiastically invited women to join the club, go on the rides, be on the board – get involved.
“At that time, the board was huge. Eventually, we honed it down to five members,” said Jen Barden, one of the founding board members. When Jen discovered the club and showed up for her first ride in April of 2014, she was nervous. “I had never ridden with anyone. I didn’t know anyone; I didn’t know what the skill level would be.” Convinced she would be too slow, Jen was delighted to find that, “I had such a great time. I just kept going back.”
The group has grown steadily over the years. Rides were initially organized on Meetup but transitioned to Strava and Facebook, where the organization has a public club and a private group. The public presence allows the group to promote their activities and attract new members, while the private group is a safe space for members to connect with each other.
Nicole came to cycling to help recover after an injury. After riding a Peloton indoor bike for a while, she was coaxed outside by a friend. “While the downhills were a little terrifying, and I was insanely slow because I didn’t have a proper road bike, I loved the challenge of the climb.” Before long, “I was hooked!” She was excited to see that after the 2020 hiatus from group riding, the UVWCC would be having a 2021 season.
“It was wonderful to meet new people. Everyone was welcoming and supportive. It was nice to have the option to challenge myself with the A group or enjoy a more leisurely pace with the B group,” she says. “Everything just seems a little more beautiful when I’m on my bike!”
Rides are held weekly on Tuesday evenings, beginning as early in the spring as the weather allows and going into the fall until the days become too short. The groups start from different locations throughout the Upper Valley; some favorites are Dan & Whit’s in Norwich, Dewey Field lot on Lyme Road in Hanover, Watson Dog Park in Hartford, Lakeside Park in Enfield, and the Northern Rail Trail terminus in Lebanon.
According to the numbers on the Facebook group, there are 243 members in the UVWCC. Alix Norris, board member, ride leader, and elite cyclocross racer, estimated that there are about “100 to 125 active members that we see in person at some point in the year.”
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel… the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.
~ Susan B. Anthony
Alix came to the group from the world of cyclocross racing. She got into road cycling while at Wake Forest University getting her Ph.D. in cancer biology, traveling every weekend to race. After graduating and starting a family with her college sweetheart, Alix had it in her head that her racing days were over – and cycling with it. How could they travel and race with an infant? Enter cyclocross, a sport where races are short and family-friendly and the community welcoming. Alix realized that cycling is a lifestyle and doesn’t have to be a luxury.
She brings that ethos to her work as a board member and ride leader, encouraging all comers to the group. “Women are a demographic that, on the face of it, need more support or motivation. Every day I meet women who don’t know how to change a tire, who don’t know the area or how to plan a route,” Alix said. “Women come [to the rides and clinics] because they recognize that lack in themselves and want to change it.”
Sherry Fiore, cyclist, and board member noted the importance of the UVWCC in bringing women into the sport of cycling. Women’s riding groups are a place for women to ride who otherwise wouldn’t. “We’ve got women who show up for our rides but don’t go on other group rides. They won’t ride by themselves.” Sherry pointed out the long history of cycling as an avenue of empowerment for women. In the early history of cycling, bicycles were a way for women to move about independently. “Historically, cycling was very important because it allowed women to leave their homes.”
Jan Proctor’s involvement in the UVWCC has been sporadic over the years, but her roots as a cyclist go way back. She began racing in the eighties, mostly criterium, or “crit” races with the Sunapee Bike Club. She traveled the crit circuit all around New England. Jan is not one to toot her own horn, but she racked up several wins. The accomplishment Jan is most proud of is when she won bronze in the individual road race at the USA Cycling Masters Road National Championships.
As a rider whose experience goes a little farther back in time, Jan has an important perspective on women in cycling and athletics in general. She remembers when it was just her and a handful of other women racing. “What’s important to realize is the impact of Title IX,” she said. “We were the crest of the wave.”
Younger women might not realize it’s more than a clothing brand. Title IX is a federal civil rights law that was passed in 1972. It said, “No person in the United States shall, based on sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” What this meant was that schools had to spend equivalent money on programs for both boys and girls.
The impact of this legislation has been profound. “I didn’t do sports in high school,” said Jan. “I didn’t think I had any athletic ability. Girls weren’t encouraged.” It wasn’t until Jan began racing that she realized her potential. “I discovered I was pretty good at it.” Since Title IX, all over the country, millions of girls and women have discovered that they do, in fact, have athletic abilities. The UVWCC rides are an outlet for women who discovered their athleticism early as well as for women who are just finding theirs.
After the official UVWCC group rides come to an end in September, some riders continue cycling as the weather and their personal cold tolerance allow. Others transition to winter sports. The board will meet again early in spring to coordinate details for the 2022 season. And when the kickoff party rolls around in April, these women riders will meet again and reconnect, ready for another summer of riding.
A few years ago, the UVWCC offered kits of jerseys, cycling bibs, and socks for sale, and Sherry was the board member responsible for the design and ordering. The socks, green with purple writing to match the green and purple highlights of the jersey and bibs, have a slogan on the instep: Free. Untrammeled.