VeloFemmes rides draw a diverse crowd of bike enthusiasts

Biking with men who are hard-core cyclists hasn’t been Jennevieve Schlemmer’s thing since she took a short ride with one a few years ago.

“He was telling me I was shifting wrong and I needed to do things differently,” the Tacoma resident said. “And I was just thinking, ‘I’m not riding with you again. This is not fun.’”

Schlemmer didn’t want to join a club either. She didn’t want to pay dues, wear a cycling jersey or go on 100-mile rides. She just wanted to enjoy short rides.

So Schlemmer started heading to Point Defiance Park to ride. Alone.

Until about a year ago, it seems, this wasn’t an uncommon story. Teri Stopoulos of Tacoma said she thought she and a friend might just be the only women cyclists in town.

But that’s not really the case, as a grass-roots group called VeloFemmes is proving. Only 11 months old, this loose-knit group is quickly filling a void in the South Sound cycling community with a simple mission.

“We came up with the tag line, ‘Tacoma women. Having Fun. Riding Bikes,’” said Kristina Walker, group regular and manager of Tacoma’s Downtown: On the Go. “And that’s as complicated as we are going to get.”

The group started last June when Walker, Diane Wiatr (active transportation coordinator for the city of Tacoma) and others were brainstorming ways to promote bicycle commuting. One issue they wanted to address was that considerably more men than women (about three times more, Walker said) ride bikes.

So they planned a bike event for women and promoted it by emailing their friends who bike and asking them to help spread the word. More than 40 women showed up for the June 20 ride.

“We were there for about five minutes before we realized this was bigger than just one event,” Walker said.

VeloFemmes was born.

Don’t call them a club. It implies all those things like dues, long rides and matching Spandex that turned off people like Schlemmer.

There are no officers, no registration, no expectations and no limits.

Walker says the group is open to all bike-related activities. Challenging rides, easy social rides, mountain biking, overnight touring or whatever else somebody wants to organize.

But mostly the rides are short, easy and only as fast as the slowest cyclist.

“There is no typical VeloFemme,” Carina Liljengren said. “We are open to everybody.”

Nobody seems to know just how many women comprise the group. “I’d say 10-200,” Stopoulos joked.

The high end for a group ride is about 30 people. “But sometimes it’s a different 30 than the time before.” Walker said.

“It’s come together organically and I’m just blown away by it.”

The women stress the group is open to cyclists of all ages and fitness levels. They’ve had cyclists in their teens and in their 60s on the same ride. Even men are welcome to tag along but “we are lady-focused,” Liljengren said.

Events are typically short rides announced on the group’s website and Facebook page, or conversation seminars where cyclists can learn about purchasing bikes, commuting, maintenance, touring and other subjects.

One of the smaller gatherings is Monday mornings at 10, when the group takes a lap around Point Defiance Park. “And if we’re feeling good, sometimes we might go around again,” Liljengren said.

Sarah Weeks has helped plan events for the group and says “the great thing about it is that anything you want to do and bring up, there is usually somebody in the group who wants to do it too.”

“It’s just a very relaxed fun group of people.”

Weeks says the group has helped eliminate obstacles that seem to keep some women off their bikes.

Some riders don’t know if they have the right gear, how to ride safely in public or “they think they need special equipment,” Weeks said. “But if you can just get out there and find a buddy, you’ll do fine. That’s what’s great about our group. People feel safer starting in a group. There’s safety in numbers.”

“And we’re not scary at all,” Stopoulos said.

Schlemmer considers herself an outsider (even though the regulars don’t see her that way) because she only participates in the Monday morning rides.

“It’s really open and comfortable,” she said of VeloFemmes. “You can just show up without knowing anybody and fit right in.”

That’s what happened with her.

“I used to do this ride by myself,” she said shortly after finishing a loop on Five Mile Drive. “But now I have friends with me.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497