Shibden Wall in West Yorkshire is a brute of a hill, the kind that can break the heart – and the legs – of the toughest cyclist.
Half a mile from start to summit with an average gradient of 15 per cent, it is surfaced with wheel-jarring cobblestones that “sort the men from the boys”, as one rider put it. Vicky Mathwin might disagree with that description.
When her all-women cycling club, the Queensbury Queens of the Mountains, makes its annual ascent of the 130-metre hill there are no boys and a notable absence of men.
Meet Annie Simpson: The cyclist from Bingley with a part-time job preparing to ride with the eliteWhat isn’t lacking is a sense of steely determination among the riders as they push upwards towards glory and the chance to claim the title Queen of the Mountains. Steep gradients and harsh weather are bread and butter to the Queensbury Queens, who take their name from a village perched on a hill between Halifax and Bradford.
Mathwin, 33, who started the club two years ago, says the village primary school enjoys a reputation as the highest in Britain so the Queensbury Queens like to bill themselves as the nation’s highest cycling club.
“You can’t get away from the hills up here,” she says. “But it makes for stronger riders.”
Altitude isn’t the only factor that sets the Queens apart from most cycling clubs. Underpinning their relaxed attitude to riding - “don’t worry about your ability or level of fitness, as long as you’re on two wheels it’s fine” - is a determination to get more women into the saddle and achieve “parity and equity for women in sport”.
That commitment runs deep. The Queens’ official club jersey – a striking garment designed by the Australian professional cyclist Tiffany Cromwell – is vivid green and purple, the colours adopted by the suffragette movement.
The best places to watch the Tour de YorkshireLast weekend the Queens underlined their mission by dressing up as suffragettes – safety helmets were cleverly concealed under bonnets, dresses were pinned back – and riding across Ilkley Moor.
“Unless you see women out there doing this [riding] others won’t be encouraged to do it,” says Mathwin, who says the suffragette ride was planned to mark last month’s International Women’s Day, but was postponed due to heavy snowfall.
Mathwin, who works for the NHS when she isn’t in the saddle – she’s head of business intelligence for specialised commissioning in the north – was inspired to form the Queensbury Queens by her experiences riding with another Yorkshire club. Like many cycling clubs it was predominantly male, and Mathwin found the possibility of being left behind – ‘dropped’ in the parlance of the cycling world – “rather intimidating”.
“More clubs are trying to welcome women into the fold, but usually clubs are aimed at people who have a certain level of fitness and can keep up,” she says. “Our attitude is ‘don’t worry about it. Come along because there’s a group you can go out with’.”
Revealed: The Tour de Yorkshire holiday let hotspotsThe Queens are divided into four groups based on ability. The Steady Group, which rides at less than 10mph, is the entry level. At the other end of the spectrum are the Speedsters who go long and hard and eat hills for breakfast. As well as the weekly rides on Wednesdays and Sundays, there is a Queensbury Queens book club, a slimming club and a pilates class. Rides often end at The Raggalds pub where hot chocolates or gin and tonics are consumed depending on the weather.
“It’s more of a movement, a community rather than just a cycling club,” says Mathwin.
The Tour de Yorkshire has done wonders for the club’s membership. Last year the route passed through Queensbury where the Queens served tea and coffee at their pop-up cafe.
Membership rose by more than 20 per cent as a result and now stands at more than 120. The oldest Queen is 70, the youngest is 19. For this year’s race – which begins on Saturday – the Queens will be assembling at a pub in Ilkley to cheer on the competitors in the women’s race.
Mathwin has seen women transformed by the club. At the first meeting one prospective member asked nervously if she would have to wear lycra. The same woman turned up a few months later in full club kit.
“I know women who started last year and were still finding their balance who now wouldn’t think twice about riding 60 miles on a weekend,” says Mathwin. “It has changed lives. Many women are working full time, they’ve got families and they don’t have a lot of time for themselves. What they get from the club is some freedom – it’s fantastic.”
Mathwin admits to being “pretty obsessed” by cycling, although she’s not mechanically minded and has managed to limit herself to owning just two bikes. She feels “a bit lost” if she misses a ride. “It’s sort of meditative,” she says. “I’m not the sort of person who relaxes by sitting down and when I’m riding around here all I can think about is keeping my wheels turning. It gives me distance from everyday life and when I get back home I have some perspective.”