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Portlands Women on Bikes program encourages female cyclists

by: Merry MacKinnon Retiree Maggie Eshelman, a Lake Oswego resident, puts her bike on a TriMet bus to get to Portland where she joins with other female bicyclists for group bike rides coordinated by Portland’s Women On Bikes Program.

In bike-friendly Portland, where more than 6 percent of commute trips in 2009 were by bike, more bicyclists with gray hair peeking out from under their helmets are pedaling alongside the younger crowd.

Lavinia Gordon, 62, regularly bicycles downtown to work from her Irvington home. 'I've been a serious commuter for the last four years,' says Gordon, manager of transportation systems for the Portland Department of Transportation. 'It's a pleasant ride.'

Gordon, who rides a sleek touring bike, could be termed by bike enthusiasts as one of those 'fast and furious' bicyclists, leaning into the wind, undeterred by traffic and rain.

As aging baby boomers seek healthier sustainable activities, Gordon isn't unusual. Many of Portland's boomer women are reintroducing themselves to bicycling. Some even get rid of their cars and use their bicycles for transportation.

'I sold my car, and I have never regretted it,' says 52-year-old Portlander Lauren Clark, who has been commuting to work by bike for three years.

Although Clark's husband (who commutes by scooter) still owns a car, even those with no spare car languishing in the garage, such as 63-year-old retired paralegal Maggie Eshelman, express no regrets about switching from driving to bicycling. Without the expense of owning a car, Eshelman says she can now do the other things she enjoys, such as touring Italy by bicycle.

'Bicycling is also healthy,' says Eshelman, who lives in Lake Oswego. 'So I'm not only saving from not having a car, I don't have to pay for a gym membership.'

Promoting healthy activity is one of the goals of a Portland program called Women On Bikes. 'Riding a bike is a way to keep you healthy,' says Janis McDonald, Women On Bikes project manager for the city's Department of Transportation.

Women on Bikes encourages women to bicycle by offering free clinics and organized bike rides. Between 700 and 800 women, many of them over 50, have participated in the program since it started in 2005.

'We have women who haven't been on a bike in 30 years,' McDonald notes.

Besides teaching rules of the road and basic bicycle maintenance such as changing tires, clinics offer advice on choosing the right bike. 'Think about what you want to use the bike for, your physical state and if a step-through might be a better choice if you have hip problems,' McDonald says.

Safe riding is also taught during group bike rides along bicycle-designated routes (called Neighborhood Greenways) throughout Portland.

'One thing I hear a lot is, 'Oh, I haven't ridden a bike in 20 years. I can't go that far.' And I say, 'Just come with us and you can stop.' And they're always surprised that after 8 to 9 miles, they've done the entire ride,' McDonald says.

Women in the program eventually gain confidence to take advantage of all that Portland offers to bicyclists. Eshelman, for instance, now coordinates bicycling with public transportation. Undaunted by the distance, Eshelman participates in Women On Bikes' sponsored rides, even when the groups rendezvous in North Portland - far from Lake Oswego. She just puts her mountain bike on TriMet buses and gets off at Peninsula Park.

'It took me awhile to build up my courage to put my bike on the front of the bus,' Eshelman recalls. 'Now it's a piece of cake.'

Learn more

For more information about Women on Bikes, visit www.GettingAroundPortland.org.

See also www.PortlandSundayParkways.org.