Three women walk down the steps at Queen Mary’s hostel on a sunny Friday afternoon to meet me. They’re about to head out on a cycle around Battersea park. At the beginning of the year, two of them didn’t know how to ride a bike.
“It was the first time I had ridden in years,” Michelle, 48, who has been at the hostel for seven years tells me. “I wanted more skills. It was really good when we first got on our bikes again and went out in the fresh air.”
She looks around at the women sat next to her. “I like being in a group where people join in, I like having activities like these.”
Last year, Queen Mary’s homeless women’s hostel, which is run by the housing association Riverside, approached Sustrans charity to provide support in setting up and running a cycling club for women. Many of the women at the hostel have low levels of fitness and all have survived challenging situations ranging from social isolation to dependence and abusive relationships.
“We were excited that the hostel staff were keen to develop cycling to boost the women’s personal confidence and help give them access to other spheres of society, such as college, community groups or paid employment,“ Maia Tarling-Hunter, senior project officer at Sustrans, tells me. “Cycling was recognised as being a more holistic model of wellbeing benefiting women’s physical and mental health, as well as helping them become more independent.”
The model works with 10 women in a 10-week block, where they provide lunch and snacks to encourage people to take part. The long-term ambition is that women will regain independence and head out cycling on their own, “perhaps even to job interviews or training by bike”. The hostel provides each of them a bike to ride, which they can use any time once they are confident and competent in cycling.
At the club, all the women are all working towards Bikeability Level 1 which enables them to control a bike safely enough to progress on to quiet roads, making turns and negotiating traffic. In some sessions the women learn about map-reading and planning journeys, pumping up tyres and other basic maintenance. Today, they’re heading out for a ride around Battersea Park.
Charlene, 37, who has been at the hostel for one year, tells me she was anxious to get back on her bike having not done it since she was a child. “I was nervous at first but after a few rides I got the swing back,” she says, smiling. “I love the fresh air, the socialising. I’ve learned loads and I hope to use it in the future, maybe to go to a job interview. Hopefully.”
“I cycled when I was six years old and now I am cycling again - it’s fun, it’s been a lot of fun,” says Patience, 55, who has been at the hostel for two years. “Last week, we cycled around a square in London and I was so surprised I managed to go on the road.” Patience tells me she hopes to get a bike of her own and use it instead of the bus, “it’s a lot of fun, exercise, cheaper and I’m happy to learn. It helps my mental health.”
As we walk out and get the bikes ready for the ride, she adds: “I always look forward to this day, it’s amazing.”
Kelvin O’Mard, the hostel’s area manager, has seen how beneficial the cycling scheme has been for the women. “I have just seen their confidence grow,” he says. “One lady used to ride on her BMX as a child and didn’t ride for years, but this has enabled her to get back on it.”
The charity have ambitions to replicate the model nationwide, although the one drawback is funding. Last year, the cycling programme was funded by a trust, and this year it has been funding by Transport for London. “We need dedicated funding on a regular basis,” says Maia. “Women do less cycling than men. We need projects like this to support women from different backgrounds. We need training to make sure it’s accessible for everyone. Cycling isn’t just a sporting activity, it’s a gateway to a wider network to the rest of the city.”