How O.C.’s Women-Only Cycling Clubs are Driving Fitness & Friendships

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Sandy Awerkamp

Empty-nest syndrome hit Sandy Awerkamp hard. With no more meals to cook or games to attend after her two boys left for college in 2011, the stay‑at‑home Mission Viejo mom had a shocking realization:
At age 46, “I had no real friends or hobbies!”

Awerkamp cried for three months. Her weight climbed to 257 pounds, and she plunged into a deep depression. Her depression counselor prescribed three things: Stop watching morning TV. Turn on happy music. Try your husband’s hobby—mountain biking.

The last one didn’t seem like a good idea. “My big, fat butt on a tiny bike seat—in public?” The discomfort got worse when her excited spouse tried to train her. She couldn’t shift gears; he got impatient. They got in an argument, and she decided not to ride with him again.

She watched videos about how to change gears and went out again the next day. Over the next few months, she was riding four days a week and consulting for a line of women’s cycling clothes. Eventually, she dropped 35 pounds and made a dozen close friends with whom she now rides and socializes. She has experienced bad crashes and injuries, and can spend hours detailing her scars, surgeries, and comebacks. Her transformation is astounding. And it had nothing to do with her husband, she says.

“It all happened because I talked to an old friend from high school who told me to look up the Trail Angels.”

With 250 members and more than 1,000 social media followers, the Trail Angels is the biggest mountain-biking club in Orange County. Among the rules for membership: Only women are allowed.

“Men can be too competitive and intimidating,” says the group’s founder, Jacke Van Woerkom, a Lake Forest life coach, registered equine therapist, and 55-year-old grandmother. She began road biking, then switched to dirt trails and founded the Angels in 1999.

“Women have a lot of insecurities with learning something new and physically challenging, and we respond better to a safer, more nurturing approach that comes from other women. Men tend to be more like ‘just do it.’ ”

The Trail Angels grew as Van Woerkom spread the word, and she says the club was put on the map in 2004 when member Anne Hjelle was mauled by a mountain lion at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Foothill Ranch during a ride. The other members helped raise money and awareness of the dangers of riding at night. Hjelle survived and still rides.

Pictured from left to right: Kendall Madsen, Stephanie Fleischaker, and Priscilla Savord of Team Unlikely Cyclist at Back Bay Loop Trail

Today, participants range in age from late 20s to 60s, with most women in their 40s and 50s.

“Sandy’s story is very common—we get lots of empty nesters, non-fit types,” Van Woerkom says. “You come in inexperienced and fearful. But after two hours of falling, getting up, and trying it again, you’ve accomplished something, learned some skills, connected with other women, and forgotten all your problems. It’s life changing. Mountain biking is great fun, but not easy. When you get home, you walk taller, hold your head higher. Then you tell your friends.”

The club stages weekly rides for cyclists of all levels, as well as bike maintenance and skills clinics at Rock n’ Road Cyclery in Irvine. The women take trips to races and places with popular biking trails, such as Moab, Utah. And the group hosts a Christmas party and the Courageous Women of Dirt, an annual festival with exhibitors and introductory rides. The club’s $35 annual fee provides access to events, networking, and the website’s ride calendar, though anyone can join the rides for free.

For local women who don’t mountain bike but would like to ride in an all-female group, Lisa
Fleischaker has you covered. In 2012, she opened The Unlikely Cyclist shop in Costa Mesa. One of just six all-women’s road bike retailers in the U.S., it also carries women-specific city bikes. Its in-house, dues-free road club, Team Unlikely Cyclist, now has more than 600 members, with 50 typically participating in its Wednesday night and Saturday morning rides and its more difficult rides on Sundays in Palos Verdes and Malibu.

Similar to the Trail Angels, Team Unlikely Cyclist includes women from their late 20s to late 70s, with most in their 40s and 50s. It offers a “no-drop” rule on rides, meaning no one gets left behind. Fleischaker believes road biking is better suited to women than mountain biking because it is inherently based around drafting, cooperation, and group riding. It also facilitates socializing and has less risk of injury. Keeping men out reduces the issues with ego and “peacocking” that Fleischaker experienced in coed groups.

Three-year cyclist Cheril Hendry, 59, of San Clemente, says her thrice-weekly rides with Team Unlikely gave her a new body (she lost 30 pounds) and a new social group. “I’ve never had sports friends before, and friends of such diverse, fascinating backgrounds,” she says. “After the ride, we hang out at the bike shop or go to Starbucks. My staff (at her Newport Beach ad agency) has gotten used to seeing me in cycling gear.” She wants to plan a cycling trip to Europe with the club, and leave her non-cycling husband home.

“Having women’s-only groups is a big reason why more women are jumping into the sport,” says AJ Sura, who founded the dues-free Girls Ride 2 road- and mountain-bike clubs out of her G2 Bike Shop in Aliso Viejo. Girls Ride 2 acts as the Orange County sister club of the country’s biggest women’s-only bike group, Los Angeles-based Girlz Gone Riding, giving it access to that organization’s vast lineup of weekly rides and events. Girls Ride 2’s local Saturday-morning, women’s-only off-road and pavement rides generally lure 25 riders. Last summer, a 100K road ride drew about 60 women, Sura says.

Trail Angels at Morro Bay State Park for a weekend mountain biking trip

Anecdotally, most agree there has been a population explosion of Orange County women on wheels. “We have no hard data, but it is clear to me and my rangers that the increasing crowding we’ve seen on the trails in the past few years is largely due to two reasons: more women mountain biking and more families hiking,” says John Gannaway, OC Parks division manager.

Nationally, women are the fastest-growing demographic in cycling and the outdoors, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, with participation rising 20 percent from 2003 to 2012, and purchases of women’s-specific bikes and gear rising 5 percent in just one year (2014 to 2015). Leigh Donovan, a former pro downhill rider, says she will train more than 1,200 women at her all-day O.C.-based I Choose Bikes mountain-bike skills clinics ($75) this year, up from about 400 three years ago.

“Women are actually better students than guys,” Donovan says. “Whereas men will get impatient and muscle through the drill, women will invest the time to do it over and over until they are comfortable. They look at mountain biking as an acquired skill like golf—and you always hire a golf pro to give you lessons.”

“Women think differently,” agrees Heather Hawke, who helps organize skills clinics for Girls Ride 2. “Guys learn fast because they do it and suffer the consequences; but girls think of all the bad scenarios. They don’t rush. So they need teachers who think like them.”

And ride like them. “My husband introduced me to cycling 10 years ago, and I fell in love with it,” says 48-year-old Julie Stokes of Irvine. “But I ride with AJ and GR2 because he’s too fast.”

Sometimes the women get too fast for the men in their lives. Donna Busher, 52, of Mission Viejo was a bike-path-cruising mother of three in her early 30s “with no social life” when she met Van Woerkom in 1999, just as she was starting the Trail Angels. “I instantly fell in love with mountain biking when we rode Aliso Woods together,” Busher recalls. “The trails were right there, close to home—and now I had friends!” She rode three times a week, excelled, and started racing cross-country and downhill on the weekends. Busher rode mountain trails in the Dolomites in Italy with 15 Trail Angels in 2004 and won the 40-and-over class at the famed Sea Otter race in Monterey.

With all her racing, Busher says her children began to resent her absences, and she resented that her husband wasn’t into mountain biking. She divorced him and found love with a mountain biker.

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” Busher says. “The Trail Angels changed my life. I’ll be riding with them when I’m 80—on an e-bike!”

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