When Sandra Lupien was living in Oakland, she decided to go green and bicycle to work.
"I never considered myself a particularly athletic person, and the last time I rode a bike was in high school," she said. Plus, she was daunted by Oakland city streets.
Lupien asked a biking friend to ride along and discovered, "Once I started doing it and riding correctly, it felt quite safe. People in Oakland are accustomed to seeing bicycles and sharing the road. And it's urban, where the speed limits are lower and bikes go at the same pace as traffic."
Then she moved to Santa Rosa and had to get used to "more suburban, wider streets with fewer bicyclists."
Now she lives in Graton, which calls for rural riding, with "fewer cars but winding narrow roads."
Her experience is useful in her job as outreach coordinator for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.
"When you're encountering a new environment, it's typical to be nervous at first," she said, "especially for women, who tell me their key concern is riding on the roads."
A national and local advocate for women bicyclers, Lupien was part of a national bicycle forum for women this spring in Washington, D.C. Locally, she organizes group rides, including the Biker Chicks, the brainchild of Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane.
Though bicycling is relatively inexpensive with virtually no age limit and is something many women did as a kid, it's a male-dominated sport.
"Nationally, 24 percent of bicyclists are women," said Lupien.
And in Sonoma County, where the No. 2 tourist draw is bicycling, only 21 percent of cyclists are women, according to the Sonoma County Transit Authority.
That low number propelled Zane to approach Lupien and start Biker Chicks.
"The goal is to inspire women who haven't been riding but wanted to ride to try it again," said Lupien.
Upwards of 50 women of all ages and abilities have joined the rides. The fourth Biker Chick ride took place last Sunday and will be followed by one on Aug. 12. Go to BikeSonoma.org for a ride schedule.
Surveying Sonoma County women on what it would take to get them cycling, Lupien found they would prefer to ride with friends in a group, and they want to feel comfortable riding on the roads.
Sonoma County hosts world-class events such as the Amgen Tour and Levi Leipheimer's King Ridge GranFondo, but it can be a worrisome place for cyclists. So far this year, four bike riders have been killed by cars on county roads.
Still, safety experts maintain that bicycling, especially with a helmet, is less risky than many other activities. In terms of fatalities, motorcycle riding is the most dangerous, and taking a train is the least. In between is bicycling, according to the Bureau of Transportation.
"When women try new things they want to do them with other people, and they often prefer other women," said Lupien. "They don't all feel like trying it with guys. Our perception is that guys are stronger and faster. That may be wrong, but women don't want to start something where they worry they'll be left behind."