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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."

Group rides

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.

Less risky

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."

Zane said group rides also reassure women who fear riding certain stretches of a bike trail as much as they worry about traffic.

"There are places where some guys are hanging out and drinking, and you feel threatened. That's the reality in which we live."

Kim Dow organized the HillJillys women's bike club four years ago, which focuses on the casual camaraderie of riding.

"If you're going out to hammer, work out or train, you're probably not for HillJillys."

Second nature

Dow, a graphic designer who lives in Forestville, started racing bikes when she was 5 and said, "Bikes are second nature to me."

But five years ago, she broke her hip when she tumbled from her bike barreling down a steep trail in Armstrong Redwoods Park.

It took her a while to get back on a bike, but she said "it gave me a whole appreciation for the fear some women have" in starting to bicycle or getting back on one.

At the same time, she was working at a bike shop and met women "who were trying to learn to ride a bike. But they'd come in with their boyfriends and seemed intimidated with the equipment, the range of choices."

"It can be difficult to learn a new skill from your significant other," she said. "So I decided to start a woman's club."

The HillJilly rides (hilljillys.com) are scheduled every Saturday morning at different locations in the county. A favorite is the Bakery Ride from Flying Goat coffee at Railroad Square to Wildflower Bakery in Freestone.

All levels of women riders are welcome. At the back of the pack is a sweeper rider so that no one is left behind.

Dow offers instructions before and during the rides.

"We'll work on road etiquette, talk someone through shifting her gears, show them how to fix a flat," Dow said.

As to the old adage that you never forget how to ride a bike, Dow said, "It's true, but bikes are more complicated now than they were 20 years ago. You want to find a bike that fits right. Learn the gears."

After that, she tells women, "Bring a good attitude. No whining."

Dow doesn't think there's much of a gender difference in cycling. "I think the concerns are more age-related. The kind of fearlessness you have at 20 changes when you're 40 and have a couple of kids at home.

"I had a friend who stopped riding mountain bikes after she finished nursing school because she couldn't bear the thought of having a crash and messing up her hands. She still road bikes."

Age with bicycling

Dow, who is 37, appreciates that "you can age with bicycling. I know people in their 80s who are still riding strong."

French native Danielle Murray didn't grow up riding a bike in the steep, busy streets of Monaco.

"Nobody had bikes," she said.

It wasn't until her west county women's walking group decided to bicycle, too, that Murray started pedaling at age 60.

"I was very stiff and was running into posts, and some of the women had all these fancy bike clothes," Murray said. "But I thought what the heck. I just kept going, and I got better and stronger."

Five years later, she rides with two bicycling groups plus casual solo trips from her house in Forestville to places like the Sebastopol farmers market.

"I still don't like to ride alone on main roads," she said. "But the more you ride, the more confident you get. I have lower back pain but not when I ride my bike. I think it's because when you ride you have to suck your stomach in."

And though she hasn't lost weight from riding, friends tell her she looks slimmer.

"I say it's the bicycle shorts."

Susan Swartz is a freelance writer and author based in Sonoma County. Contact her at susan@ juicytomatoes.com.

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