They say every great journey begins with a single step, but for an unexpected fraternity of Leeds women, it felt more like the push of a bicycle pedal, writes Rachel Steinberg.
When Fiona Hoare and British Triathlon put out a call for weekly open-access swimming, cycling and running sessions in the city’s Cross Flatts Park, they didn’t expect every contestant to be a woman, yet minus the Muslim majority.
Salma Hussain, 36, is one of 12 women who took the Sunday classes that transformed the group – most of whom were new to cycling – into passionate and confident athletes.
“When I first started, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t do this. Why am I living in the Dark Ages?'” the mum-of-two says.
Hussain lives with lupus, an autoimmune disease that leaves her feeling tired and breathless. At first, she had to stop every ten minutes. Four months later, she can complete full laps without stopping.
“It was really intimidating. And I kept thinking, ‘Will I be able to do this? Am I ready for this? Is this the right time?
“But I saw everyone persevere. And there was this amplification of the sisters in the attitude and mindset of the group, supporting each other and seeing each other triumph.
“The moment I started riding a bike was so emotional. It was such an emotional experience, like a roller coaster.
“And then I said to Fiona, ‘Teach me to roller skate. Teach me to ride a hoverboard, teach me to ride an electric scooter. Because all of a sudden, a whole new realm opened up for me where I knew I could step into the unknown and I could be OK. Maybe it’s just fun.
The project in Leeds also includes a partnership with two mental health charities in the city, the social charity Zest and the early intervention program Leeds Aspire, which provides support for young people experiencing a first episode of psychosis.
Hussain is open about her own challenges, many of which stem from a move from London to Leeds which left her feeling lonely and in a ‘dark place’. The sessions were a lifesaver.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, it goes way beyond just us coming for physical activity,” said Hussain, who was able to find empathetic ears among fellow novice cyclists, many of whom are from other moms.
“We connect, we spend time together. After each session, more or less, we go to the cafe here and have a drink and chat.
“The week before last we sat down and had an hour-long discussion about feminism, where we are at. It’s just wonderful to hear everyone’s opinions on such a sensitive topic.
Swim, Bike, Run Activator Hoare grew to appreciate how vital – albeit accidental – the female element of the collective has become.
She said: “We are breaking down all these communication barriers.
” It’s given [them] the confidence and the space, the personal space, to become themselves.
“There are no or very few inhibitions in having men around. In terms of culturally what they wear, maybe the language they use, they are much more free to speak.
“And we have very frank and honest conversations about women, about women’s rights, about cycling issues, about cycling physiology, about life.
“It was a friendly listening.”
The women themselves, Hoare said, were the “driving force” behind his attempts to start the swimming portion of the program in January, but their enthusiasm ran into practical problems.
“Access to the pool is difficult,” she explained, “especially on Sundays because it’s so crowded with families and children. But they really want to do it.
“Because it’s an all-female group, and mostly Muslim women, I try to do it in a way that I have female lifeguards and we have privacy.
“I’ve seen the progress of cycling, and I’ve taken about five or six [Aspire] customers who went swimming and [saw] changes in their level of confidence. It was just phenomenal.
However, despite the very real barriers, we feel, nothing will prevent this fraternity from diving into the deep end.