On a Sunday afternoon, whether the skies are cloudy or clear, a group of women come together to ride bikes.
It might not seem out of the ordinary for Canberra – the footpaths are often filled with cyclists on any given weekend – but this group has a deeper purpose.
The women are participants of Girls on Bikes, a free learn-to-ride program which aims to mobilise and connect migrant and refugee women, female identifying and non-binary people in the Canberra community in a safe and supportive space.
The program is modelled on Pedal Power’s Cycle Well Learn to Ride program, which teaches basic bike skills to adults who have never ridden a bike or want to refresh their beginner skills. In the Girls on Bikes program, participants are provided with a free bicycle and helmet to help them continue their cycling journey at the end of the course and participate in monthly social rides.
The program is run by a team of passionate volunteers, including previous Girls on Bikes participants who have now been trained as cycle instructors. The idea was formed in 2016 by Canberran Sophie Fisher, who was teaching English to migrant and refugee people when she discovered many of the women had never ridden a bike.
As a keen rider, she knew the benefits of cycling and decided to share her passion while connecting the community. Since its launch in 2017, 150 women have successfully completed the five-week program, meeting in groups of about 10.
One of the program’s longest serving volunteers, Jessica Abramovic, said getting involved with Girls on Bikes was “really close to her heart.”
“There’s a lot of obvious benefits and changes in the women, but one that we didn’t realise was that some of the participants would become good friends,” Jessica said.
“Two women in one of the groups actually realised they were from the same country and lived just two doors away from each other. They now catch up together with their kids regularly.”
Jessica said some of the volunteers had been participants in the program who are keen to pass on their knowledge to others.
“It’s amazing what riding can do, and in a lot of cases it can transform lives or make lives easier,” she said.
“Some of the women can now go for rides with their children when they didn’t used to. That’s a skill they want to pass on.”
Jessica said most participants have not only been grateful for the skill of cycling, but for the lifelong friendships.
“One piece of feedback I received was from a woman who said she was so thankful that we have been by her side,” Jessica said.
“She told me, ‘we feel so at home and so free with one another.’ It was incredible to hear something like that.”
Girls on Bikes is supported by volunteers, donations from the Canberra community and grants, including from the ACT Government Women’s Sport and Recreation Participation and Leadership Program grant in 2019.
Find out more about the program here: https://www.facebook.com/GirlsonBikesACT