Bristol’s Cycling Sisters is a group of Muslim women who support others in their community to get cycling. By offering free training and a network of support, they want to show other Muslim women that cycling is something that they can not only do but that they can really enjoy too.
Bristol's Cycling Sisters is a group set up by Muslim women to show others in their community that cycling is for them. (Photo supplied by Cycling Sisters)
Here, the group tells us how and why they got started, and what it means to some of the women involved.
They also share their advice for others who might want to start a similar group.
Where it all began
One of us – Aumairah Hassan - expressed that she wanted to get back on her bike, as she hadn’t ridden for a few years.
We all agreed that that it would be good to help other women in the community too.
So we took to WhatsApp and asked on a group of over 200 Muslim women: “Does anyone here cycle?”
From this one question the responses we got fitted into two categories:
1. Yes I can, and I would like to go for an accompanied bike ride or I’ve not ridden for years and need support
2. No I can’t but would love to learn, are you organising lessons?
It was clear that there was an appetite for cycling amongst the women in our local community.
So from here, we created two new groups - one for those who could already cycle and one for those who wanted to learn.
These two groups had different needs - one wanted to learn to ride so we facilitated this by offering free cycling lessons.
The other group had the ability to ride but wanted support with practising or riding in groups.
So we created a support network for them to engage with other women in similar situations where they could buddy up with one another
Baggator and BMCS’ advice and support were instrumental in making Cycling Sisters a success. Baggator also offered their space for free until we could secure funding.
This enabled Cycling Sisters to run the project and get it off the ground without the added pressure of trying to find funding first, which is something we are still working on.
The venue we’ve got is ideal as it has a private and secure courtyard.
This is perfect because we don’t have the added stress of members of the public watching us whilst learning to ride a bike.
Finding a suitable venue was essential - somewhere where the women felt safe. (Photo supplied by Cycling Sisters)
Finding funding and volunteers in the local community
We’ve had wonderful support from the local community.
Two local businesses, Bristol Sweet Mart and Pak Butchers, donated some money so that we could buy our first three bikes.
They have also kindly offered us a second sum of money to buy helmets and more bikes.
A local lady spent around £250 on two bikes to donate to the project, and we've had a bike and helmet donated from another local lady.
We’re really lucky to have the support of BMCS volunteers.
Seila Mañana, Samantha Mclean, Abiir Shirdoon and Rebecca Waters are all currently volunteering their time every Sunday afternoon to support our members to cycle.
People learn at their own pace
We now run two sessions every Sunday and are planning to offer support during the week soon too.
We have two balance bikes, which Baggator’s bike club arranged for us by taking the pedals off normal bikes.
Once the ladies have mastered the balance bike they move on to a regular bike where they are encouraged to achieve a few meters of successful cycling.
And once they are confident on the bikes, we go through a checklist to get them ready for cycling independently.
There’s no set number of weeks that we expect women to learn in.
We support women to learn at their own pace, in their own time.
Not being restricted to a timeframe that may or may not work for an individual has allowed the women the freedom to progress without unnecessary pressure.
Of course, we encourage our ladies but some women take longer to learn and that’s ok.
The women all learn to cycle at their own pace. (Photo supplied by Cycling Sisters)
More than just learning to cycle
The sessions are more than just learning to cycle.
Many of the women have bonded and has been very therapeutic for some, particularly with the Covid pandemic going on.
Samantha Mclean, one our volunteers, said:
“For me personally it's great to meet different people and reconnect with those I haven't seen for a long time.
“I used to volunteer before the Covid outbreak at Bristol Muslim Scouts, so it's nice to be back to help within the community again, also seeing other members of different backgrounds and cultures helping towards the Cycling Sisters cause.
“Muslim or not we are all Cycling SISTERS!!”
After a week of work, and being the supportive mother, daughter, wife, sister, for some of our women, cycling is downtime.
It’s something that is just for them and an outlet or a goal that they have set for themselves.
We’re are able to support them with this, which is a real privilege.
One of our members explained it like this: “It allows me an hour a week to focus on me, my health, and learn a new skill. As a mother, this doesn't happen very often.
“It allows me to set the target and vision of going cycling with my children and role modelling cycling as a form of exercise and travelling in a way that is good for the environment.
“It also allows me to meet and socialise with other sisters from Bristol, which has been really nice for me as I am not originally from Bristol so don't know that many sisters.
"It’s been great to see the support from everyone, giving you confidence and self-belief that we can do this.”
The sessions give the participants some time to socialise and to do something that is just for them. (Photo supplied by Cycling Sisters)
Looking to the future
Since starting we have successfully taught seven women, the majority of whom have gone on to purchase their own bikes.
And we have a waiting list of over 30 women.
By March 2021 we’re hoping to receive instructor training, bike maintenance training and ride leader training.
This will enable us to offer further skills to women in the community, such as bike maintenance classes.
As well as this, we hope to offer over 55s lessons, a decision that’s been heavily influenced by the covid situation.
We also felt that it would better to have smaller learning groups for over 55s so that our instructors could dedicate more time to each individual in this group.
And we also want to organise charity and family bike rides next summer.
Cycling Sisters’ six top tips for anyone thinking about setting up a group like this
1. Identify a need
Speak to people in your community to see if there is an interest.
2. Find volunteers
You’ll need them to help you. We couldn’t run the project without them.
They are cyclists themselves, have years of riding experience and also have experience teaching other people to cycle.
3. Find a suitable venue
Cycling Sisters provide a private, secure venue in the heart of the community.
This makes an ideal setting for our ladies, as not only is it local for them.
It also offers them the privacy they need as most of them wear hijab, abayas, nikaab.
Having the privacy to be able to take off their abayas if they choose to, coupled with the fact that they are being taught by women they know and are familiar with, is key to this working.
A lot, if not all, of the women, really don’t want to be seen by members of the public whilst they are trying to learn how to ride a bike.
See if there are any venues that would be willing to provide you with their space for free until you can secure funding.
If you don’t get any luck, perhaps look into acquiring some donations from local businesses to contribute towards paying for a venue, at least until you can secure some funding.
When exploring venues, try to negotiate some secure lockable storage for your bikes.
4. Get some bikes
We are really lucky and are able to store the bikes at the venue we use.
Storing your bikes at or very close to the venue is important so you don’t have to worry about collecting them beforehand and dropping them afterwards. Unless of course, you have the means and time to do this.
You could also look into any other bike schemes that might be running locally, like bike loan schemes.
5. Look for funding
Get in touch with your local council or search the internet for funding for cycling projects.
6. Go public
Set up social media accounts, contact the local news and local papers.
After Cycling Sisters was featured in Bristol247 – a local news outlet - we had such positive responses.
We had two bikes donated, and we had someone contact us about volunteering.
More women asked to join our waiting list too.
Raising your profile can really help get the word out.