Breeze beyond barriers

Mel Nicholls

Newly qualified Breeze Champion Mel Nicholls is a volunteer with a difference. She joins a network where everyone is enthusiastic about getting more women cycling and supporting everyone to get the most out of their cycling journeys. But she also happens to be a member of the Great Britain Cycling Team, a two-time Paralympian, and leads her rides on a handcycle. In this article, a version of which was first published on Mel’s blog, she describes the journey leading to her first HSBC UK Breeze ride – and how it went.

This year I’ve launched Beyond Barriers, a social campaign and collection of projects all with the common goal of encouraging and supporting people facing barriers to get active outside.

I’ll never stop shouting about the many benefits being active outside can bring, and I believe it can be and most certainly should be, accessible for all. Many people feel they face barriers, including disability, physical health, mental health, age, gender, financial and social barriers. My campaign goal is to encourage, inspire, promote, lead and show that there’s always a way, that we are all Beyond Barriers.

At the end of last year I began working towards what I believe is a cornerstone of this bigger campaign picture, qualifying as a ride leader. I researched my options and began to see a possible route. I didn’t see any reason why, as a disabled person and as a handcyclist, I couldn’t meet the necessary criteria. For me, becoming a cycle leader was about many things, but one thing it wasn’t about was disability. I didn’t want special treatment, and I didn’t want my own course only for disabled cyclists, to lead disabled cyclists. Inclusion is progress, in every area of life. While we’re all very different, we’re also all the same; and I knew that what I could offer as a ride leader had nothing to do with disability, and everything to do with passion.

My research lead me to British Cycling and their HSBC UK Breeze programme. Their Ride Leadership Award was summarised as: “for people who love cycling and want to share their passion with others.” Box ticked! I convinced the course tutors and governing body of my grand idea, and set off to Wales for my training and assessment. Following some online learning and testing, I was back in a classroom, pen and paper in front of me and our course tutor sharing the theory of being a competent ride leader. I was joined by around ten other women, of all ages, all beginning their own Breeze journeys. Once ready, we took our training onto the streets of Cardiff, going through scenarios as a group and learning in real time.

Later I was back in Wales for a very cold few days in November where I trained in First Aid in the Outdoors with Borderlands Outdoor. My chosen course far exceeded the required ‘First Aid for Leading Rides’, but like I say, this is part of a bigger picture and I relished the challenge and knowledge it brought.

I want to use my new role to support, encourage and share the purest joy of getting on your bike and going for a ride. 

I’m proud to now be a qualified ride leader. I’ve proven to myself that I can, I have, I am. I hope I can inspire others who may have thought their only options were inside the box, to look for ways outside of it. I want to use my new role to support, encourage and share the purest joy of getting on your bike and going for a ride. So as a qualified ride leader and volunteer Breeze Champion, I have set up my own Breeze group for women.

In celebration of International Women’s Day and a demonstration of its #PressforProgress theme, last week I led my first ever Breeze ride.

When I created the ride through the Let’s Ride website, I honestly didn’t know if anyone would sign up. Even after smashing down my own barriers to get this far, I doubted myself and questioned if anyone would want to ride with me. My doubts were soon dismissed and replaced with a new excitement as I saw places being booked.

On the ride I was joined by eight ladies, a full house for a solo ride leader, so an accomplishment in itself! Just before 10.00am at my set meeting point, everyone was ready and looking keen for our Saturday morning cycle.

I’d chosen a simple yet scenic route for our first ride. Once bike checks were done and a few instructions and hand signals agreed, we set off, negotiating our way safely though Tewkesbury and its Saturday market, before heading out into the countryside. I was excited about the ride and meeting my participants, but it was also a pedal into the unknown. After all, this was my first led ride, and I was responsible for the group. It was no longer just me looking out for myself. I certainly felt a whole new level of responsibility. It doesn’t matter how thoroughly you plan and risk assess a route, out there in real time there’s only so much you can control. I wanted everything to run smoothly and safely.

In all honesty, out there, it all came naturally. Judging by the sounds of the chitter-chatter from behind as I led the way along the lanes, things were going pretty well. I was able to move through the group with ease, making sure everyone was ok and marshalling junctions before taking the lead once more. I have to say my group really was amazing and everyone made my role very easy indeed.

Listening to the women talking was enlightening. It reassured me about my underpinning ethos, the need to push beyond barriers. A common theme was one I had also experienced, a mental more than physical barrier. Many of the women spoke about wanting to find some kind of cycling group they felt comfortable in. Many felt – or had been made to feel – they wouldn’t be good enough to join local cycling club rides. While clubs have their place, there are clearly many women wanting to start cycling, or to cycle more, looking for confidence and wanting the support and camaraderie that cycling with others in a more informal setting can bring. Without doubt there’s a need to press for progress and close the gap in women’s cycling, and I fully commit to doing what I can to support that change.

Our ride went perhaps even better than I’d planned. Everyone told me how they’d enjoyed both the route and the group, aided by coffee and flapjacks at our post-ride pit-stop. New ride buddies were made and the next Breeze ride eagerly anticipated.

Last week’s ride was a first on many levels. It marked my first ride as a qualified leader, and the launch of my HSBC UK Breeze group. I led a group made up of both able-bodied and para-cyclists – simply women supporting women.

On a day looking to lead the way, we pretty much trail-blazed it. We are Breeze Beyond Barriers.

Interested in joining hundreds of other inspirational women and training as a Breeze Champion? Find out more.

Top two images: courtesy of Hywel Jenkins