No Contest: A Bike Ride That Welcomes All
We track the Rapha bike ride that went global and found a place in the hearts of female cyclists everywhere
By Emily Chappell
Like so many successful ventures, the Women’s 100 was originally intended to be something very different. Laura Bower, Rapha’s Head of UK Marketing, wanted to encourage more women to enter L’Étape du Tour – a world-famous sportive where amateurs get to ride the route of one of the Tour de France stages. So in 2013 she created a one-off campaign where 100 lucky women were sent to France to ride L’Étape itself, and everyone else was encouraged to ride 100k on the same day, wherever they happened to be in the world.
Eight years later, l’Étape is still male-dominated (only 7% of participants were women in 2019), but the Women’s 100 has become a phenomenon in its own right and has gone from strength to strength. The limited-edition jersey and accessories that Rapha releases annually to coincide with the event sell out more quickly every year. So many women sign up to join the group rides that depart from Rapha’s clubhouses that multiple ride leaders are now required. And perhaps the surest sign of success is that the initiative has overspilled its branded origins. On W100 day (which now falls in mid-September), regardless of whether they’ve ever spent any money on a Rapha jersey, women all over the world will ride 100km, with their cycling clubs, with friends old and new, and on their own.
Part of the beauty of the event lies in its flexibility, and the fact that riding 100km means different things to different people. For some it’s the sort of distance they cover every Sunday, no big deal. Others will be attempting their longest ride yet, taking advantage of the psychological boost of a shared goal. And many of those for whom this distance is a walk in the park – the racers and audaxers and ultra-cyclists – will be helping them through it, recalling the days when they rode their first 100km, and taking delight in initiating others into the long-distance sisterhood.
When the Women’s 100 first started, I was used to riding alone. You saw fewer women on the roads back then, and I had rarely met anyone who was interested in joining me for more than a couple of hours. It’s hard to overstate how much things have changed in less than a decade. In 2019 I led a Women’s 100 ride in Mid Wales, and despite our remote starting location, places were booked up within days of my announcing it. In 2020 – that strange year of estranged solo riding – I took myself off for 100 miles around the Cotswolds, and was delighted to pass dozens of women, on their own and in small groups, very clearly riding with the same purpose. We all beamed and waved at each other as our paths crossed. And this year I will ride with my sister – one of the huge number of women who got into cycling during lockdown. This will be our first big ride together.
There are certain annual rides which track the progress of my life and my cycling, remembering who I rode with the previous year, which bike I took, and how much faster I rode than the year before. The Women’s 100 is where I take the pulse of women’s cycling as a whole. Each September, I see how far we’ve come as a community in the last twelve months.
When I asked on social media if there was anyone for whom W100 had played a significant role in their cycling life, I was bombarded with responses from women all over the world.
“It was my first time riding in a group of all women, and it connected me to friends I still have now,” said Sarah.
“2019’s Women’s 100 was my first group ride and my first 100k. I didn’t know it at the time, but it did start something big for me because it showed me what I was capable of,” said Corryn.
“I did my first W100 a few weeks after I started riding in 2015, and now I am in my second season of racing, and on a mission to get more women cycling,” said Chloe.
Zainab Arian completed the Women’s 100 in 2020, having only previously ridden 60km in one go. Anxious that she wouldn’t keep up with a group, she planned a route that was mostly on bike paths, and rode with her sister-in-law for mutual support. “That sense of achievement spurred me on. I started to train more, and build up my endurance. Now, when I ride at the weekend, 50 miles is the norm. I was talking to some of the women I’ve met over the past year, through local cycling groups and through Strava. We decided that we want to do the Women’s 100, but let’s take it a little bit further – let’s do 100 miles.” Less than two years ago Zainab was a self-confessed ‘armchair cyclist’. Now she has a coach, is planning a multi-day tour of the UK, and serves as a trustee for a Muslim women’s cycling group.
“For me the most satisfying thing is to see how capable different women are and how they grow through the sport,” says ride leader Agi Woznicka, who has been leading Women’s 100 rides since 2015, and loves the variety of women she’s met. “Riders that I might have taken out on their first 100k ride many years ago, have become leaders themselves and they take out their own Women’s 100 groups. The proficiency and confidence that they’ve gained since I saw them the first time is really impressive. It’s almost like chickens,coming out of a coop, and I feel like the mother hen.” Agata was already an amateur road racer when she began leading Women’s 100 rides but, inspired by the women she has met, she is now contemplating a career change and is studying to become a coach. It seems that, no matter how experienced a cyclist may be, the Women’s 100 is capable of changing their life.
And as people’s abilities and experience evolve, so do their reasons for riding the Women’s 100. Two years ago, influencer Jools Walker rode her first 100k with a small group in the relatively safe environment of London’s Richmond Park, “to see what I was capable of.” Last year, she joined thousands of women who rode together remotely, and enjoyed being part of something bigger, during the isolation of lockdown. “This year,” she tells me, “I am not doing this for anyone but myself.” She goes on to explain the mental toll the last few months have taken on her and how, like many others, her anxiety has made her apprehensive about joining a group. “I just need some time out from a lot of things at the moment, and maybe 12th September is going to be my little slice of that. 100km of me time!”
We both laugh at that, and I remember that, back in the mists of time, long before the Women’s 100 was founded, 100km was the first big distance I rode on my own. I was terrified at first, and then glowing with achievement when I realised I had it in me after all. I look forward to sharing this glow with the many women I’ll no doubt pass on the road this weekend, and wonder what their stories might be.