Waratah Masters Cycling Club has always welcomed women, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try something different. That was the attitude of club volunteers when asked to host separate women’s races at their flagship annual event, the Erik Mather Cup, earlier this year.
The club, which has over 200 members, hosts races like clockwork every Sunday morning in Sydney (COVID restrictions permitting). These are usually mixed-gender events, where men and women are divided into grades according to their ability.
According to Jackie Bezuidenhout, a racer and volunteer from the club, the existing numbers hadn’t justified separating men and women.
“There’s maybe 50 men riders and five women riders, so you can’t really put on a separate women’s event just for five riders, and those five riders might be spread across three different categories,” said Bezuidenhout. “That’s why it’s always a been a mixed event because there’s not enough people per event.”
But when the Erik Mather Cup came and went, the club took the feedback on board and looked for a way to run a standalone event for women only.
Brett McMurtrie, another volunteer, was one of the organisers behind the project. He said some members were initially hesitant because the club had tried running women’s races before, without success.
“If it was easy, we would have done it already,” McMurtrie countered. “Sure, it’s failed [in the past], but what have we learned from it?”
With that can-do attitude, McMurtrie brought together an organising committee including Bezuidenhout, as well Dayna Davidson from Southern Cross CC. McMurtrie said it was important for him, a man, to listen and allow the women to take charge.
“I think … women and men think differently,” McMurtrie said. “In the past, we tried to organise it through a male brain. Even though I am a male, I listened to the females and approached it with the idea that the women were making the decision.”
Safety was a clear priority in the committee’s discussions. To attract new women riders, they wanted a race course that was suitable for beginners. Heffron Park, they decided, was too technical. Eastern Creek is at full capacity, so there wouldn’t be enough time to add more race categories before motorsports took over on Sunday mornings. That left Lansdowne Criterium Track, the club’s other regular venue.
They decided to host four grades of women-only races immediately after their regular mixed races. The committee settled on a date—13 June—enlisted volunteers, secured first aid and the all-important coffee cart, and advertised the event to bring in as many women cyclists as possible.
The turnout, McMurtie said, completely outstripped expectations
“We worked out a measure of success. Aside from running a safe race, it was about the numbers,” McMurtrie said. “30 would be a success, 40 would be fantastic.
“We ended up with 55 ... blew it out of the water.”
Bezuidenhout credited the success to the friendly and welcoming environment created by the club, which dispelled many of the fears about racing.
“I’d spoken to a lot of the ladies beforehand,” Bezuidenhout said. “A lot of them were very apprehensive about racing and feeling very intimidated by the whole concept. But once they got there and got into the swing of things and actually did the race, a lot were so amazed that it was quite a lot of fun and wasn’t as intimidating as they were led to believe.”
Bezuidenhout said the more experienced racers took on a teaching role.
“We had a lot of ladies who went out not to race for themselves, but to guide the more inexperienced,” she said. “If we were passing slow riders, we’d say, ‘we’re passing on your right.’ The women were really good at treating each other with patience; they knew there were people there who were not going to be as fast as them.”
McMurtrie said the women’s race also boosted numbers in the mixed races, as family members attended together.
“We had a huge turnout in the mixed race, because their better half would race in the ladies’ [event]. When the ladies started, there was a cheer, and when they finished it was standing room only,” McMurtrie said.
Encouraged, the club now plans to add women’s racing as a regular fixture on its calendar, alternating with Southern Cross CC. The next women’s race hosted by Waratah Masters CC is planned for 5 September.
“The ladies afterwards said ‘wow,’” Bezuidenhout said. “They were so excited and wanted to come back for more. I think it was fabulous.
“So, I think we have a lot of ladies now who are going to change their mind about racing ... it was brilliant.”
Photo: supplied. Words by Ryan Miu.