Two hours before cycling in Birmingham for the first time, I receive an unsettling email. It contains research gathered from police forces across the UK, which suggests that the West Midlands is one of the most dangerous regions for cyclists.
Shortly after, I receive a response from a reader about my article that asked why more people in Birmingham don’t cycle. He explains that it was only last October that a 32-year-old doctor at the local children’s hospital was killed when she was involved with a collision with a lorry while cycling during the evening rush hour.
So I begin my first ever ride in Birmingham somewhat unnerved. But two hours later – having been joined by 10 other women all early on in their cycling journey – I feel hopeful. It seems people in the city are working to build confidence, take control of their bikes and tackle the roads when they feel ready.
The free women-only ride is organised in partnership with British Cycling and Big Birmingham Bikes (a council initiative). The group aims to improve people’s cycling confidence - which sounds perfect – so I join a ride in Handsworth on a beautiful, sunny Thursday evening.
“Have you ever cycled before?” Sham, a member of the group asks me. I explain I restarted this year and am building my confidence up. “Me too, I had a 20-year gap, now I need that push to get back on my bike,” she says. It’s good to feel I’m not alone.
Sham explains that she has joined the group because she wants to teach her eight-year-old son to ride, “I thought, how can I teach him if I can’t even ride a bike properly myself?” she says. “So I set myself a mission, to learn to ride again this year and teach my son.”
Teenage twins learning to ride for the first time tell me they get on a bus for an hour every week to get to the group. Another woman tells me she’s building up her confidence ahead of receiving a free bike from the council. “I think I’m ready for it now,” she says.
Janice tells me she started cycling a few months ago: “I can run, swim and do everything else, so why not learn to ride? I’ve been coming a few months now to this group and it has really helped me.”
While some British cities, like Cambridge, try to make themselves welcoming for cyclists, many others are still playing catch-up on building an infrastructure that encourages cyclists and makes them feel safe.
When I started cycling again earlier this year; after a couple of near misses with cars and large red buses, I decided the smart thing would be to sign up to a skills session. Those few hours worked wonders: not just because of the practical skills I learned, but because they also helped build my confidence.
That’s essential in a city where cycling can seem “dangerous” or “scary”. And in Birmingham, a city with one of the lowest proportions of people cycling at least once a week, similar skills sessions seem to be encouraging people – and women particularly – to get on (and stay on) their bikes.
In Handsworth, instructor Catherine chats to us about our abilities, and the group splits into those able to ride, and those who need some support to get going. Then we head to the sports court – not the road – to focus on building our skills.
Bikes for the session are provided (for free) so we hop on and start meandering in and out of cones. “It’s all about control,” Catherine tells us. “Slow down and control as you go through the cones.”
We practise a range of basic skills: riding standing up, staying in close to the cones, turning through tight corners, signalling left and right, and changing gears. It’s all quite simple – but these are essential skills to grasp if the riders are going to tackle the city. I find myself wobbling a great deal more than I would have imagined, because I haven’t practised this slow and controlled technique for a long time.
What I love is the sense of community within the group. Everyone encourages and praises each other, and I feel incredibly welcome. By 2023, Birmingham wants 5% of all trips in the city to be made by bike: they’re helping make that a reality by teaching people how to use their bikes properly, giving them the confidence to get out there and creating a community of people willing to support each other.
At the end of the hour-long session, I peek through onto the other court. I see a woman who at the beginning told me she had never learned to ride. Now she manages to cycle a few metres unaided on her own. She beams with joy.
I’m not denying that the city, like many others, might be a scary place to cycle at times, but these women give me hope that it’s not enough to put people off their bikes forever.
HuffPostListens – Birmingham
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