AGE NEWS. Bicycle commuter on the bike path at St Kilda avoiding heavy traffic on her way to work. 13 October 2006. Photo by Mario Borg.

Kitted out ... a bicycle commuter in St Kilda. Photo: Mario Borg

My regular training partner for cycling is about half my weight, three quarters my height, on the other side of 50 to me, and probably one of the tougher cyclists you're likely to meet.

Most weekends will find us riding around Ku-Ring-Gai Chase national park, with me glad she's tired from a track meet the night before, or that we're only doing 90km – I usually start to flag around 120km, which is when she appears to hit overdrive.

Lately, we've both been noticing an interesting thing – more women out cycling. It's an entirely anecdotal observation, of course, but it's an intriguing perception, because the gender imbalance in both recreational and utility cycling always seems so stark.

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"Getting outside" ... exercise, fun and enjoyment are cited as some of cycling's many attractions. Photo: iStock

Since my first big cycling event, Melbourne's Around The Bay In A Day in 2007, where I counted 55 men and five women on the boat carrying me from Queenscliff to Sorrento, it's been apparent that cycling in Australia is male-dominated.

Last week, the Cycling Promotion Fund, in association with the Heart Foundation, released a “Women and Cycling Survey”, in which they asked 1000 women about their views on cycling.

It's a pity there isn't a corresponding poll of men, which would allow a clearer understanding of any gender divides in the perception of cycling. Nevertheless, the survey is an interesting and thought-provoking read.

Most encouraging is that more than 60 per cent of the women surveyed said they would like to cycle more often, citing exercise, “getting outside” and fun and enjoyment as the attractions.

So why don't they, then? Issues of personal safety and lack of confidence in cycling ability rated significantly. Some 66 per cent cited concerns about motor vehicles, especially in terms of speed, volume and distracted drivers.

An overwhelming majority of respondents felt that more needed to be done by authorities to make cycling safer – not just infrastructure (which costs money and can be controversial) but simple things like driver education campaigns and changes to road rules.

Australia's cycling gender imbalance becomes obvious when one visits countries in Western Europe. Bicycles aren't seen as dangerous, daggy, or some leftist political statement. Helmet use is optional, unlike Australia's near-unique mandatory helmet laws (another key issue for women utility cyclists, as mentioned in the survey). Bicycles are just transport. As a result, the cycling demographic appears to run close to the population demographic.

On my last visit, I smiled every time I saw a grandmother rolling along on a bike with a shopping basket on the front, or a mother transporting her children in a bicycle trailer. It's crazy that such a normal activity in other countries can be fodder for a tabloid TV program here.

There's truth to the old saying that you never forget how to ride a bicycle. But what we do often lose is the confidence created by practice - especially when contemplating a road environment that appears daunting and maybe even hostile.

My training partner is the president of a cycling club, and a strong advocate for women's cycling, so I asked her for some advice to give a novice. Here's what we came up with:

1. Take a cycle course. Another friend took a half-day practical course, and now confidently commutes 10km to work several times a week.

2. Find a club or bicycle user group in your area. Many clubs and “BUGs” have confidence-building outings and are great sources of local info about commuting routes. But do some research to make sure the group you approach is friendly to beginners and women - some clubs are purely hardcore racing packs. Here's a handy resource for finding groups near you.

3. Find other women to ride with. Especially if they're more experienced than you.

4. Learn to fix a flat. I blush to say I only acquired this skill after a couple of costly cab rides. Learn it at home, not under duress on the side of the road!

5. Make sure your bike fits right. Most bike shops will help to set you up - a simple thing like correct saddle height can make a vast difference. Also, seek out women-friendly and even women-specific shops.

6. Online forums are useful resources. Check out the women's forums at BNA - not just to post queries, but also to read though past discussions. While you're online, check out a newish site called Total Women's Cycling.

And that's enough from me. Over to you.

Is there a gender divide in Australian cycling, and if so, is it narrowing? What is needed to encourage more women into cycling?

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