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Liberating Experience : Women in the WOMBATS mountain bicycling club revel in the freedom of cruising the hills on two wheels.

October 02, 1992|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff is writes regularly for Valley Life

"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling," women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony said to reporter Nelly Bly in an interview for an article that appeared in the New York World newspaper on Feb. 2, 1896. "I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. . . . It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. . . . The moment she takes her seat, she knows she can't get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."

The sentiment of that statement still rings true today among a group of women bike riders known as the WOMBATS--the Women's Mountain Bike & Tea Society. These spirited cyclists take to the hills around Southern California twice a month to ride their mountain bikes along dirt trails free of cars. After each ride, they have a spot of iced tea before going their separate ways.

"My bicycle was my personal freedom tool, even though in the beginning I resented it," said Jacquie Phelan. A racer since 1981, she founded WOMBATS in Northern California's Marin County in 1986 to foster the opportunity for women to ride with other women. Phelan, 37, a.k.a. Alice B. Toeclips, grew up in Tarzana and attended Taft High School.

"My mom was a reluctant driver--learning at 30 how to drive in L.A.--and she didn't buy into the whole chauffeur routine, which was probably quite common then in the '60s in L.A. I didn't get to join the kids on the street in a car pool. I rode my bike to high school, which was a real blow. I had to endure three miles of people waving out of the back windows.

"But somehow the bike always does this--everybody that you'll talk to will tell you that their bikes seduced them. I learned to love that bike. Eventually I was riding from Geyser Avenue to Wells Drive to Topanga and over the mountains to the ocean and then back. At 15, that was just like going around the world as far as I was concerned. Sentenced to ride a bike, I became a cyclist."

Phelan and fellow WOMBATS of the local chapter, which has more than 100 members, insist that one does not have to be a champion racer or work out with a personal trainer to join the group and enjoy a ride.

"When I started bike riding, I was a smoker. On my first mountain bike ride, I thought I wasn't going to get enough air," said Rebecca Chamlee, 40, a graphic designer who took part last weekend in a WOMBATS co-ed ride in the Verdugo Mountains in Glendale that attracted 19 bicyclists, two of them men. "Mountain biking changed my life. I quit smoking."

"The club hopefully coaches women to help their friends, co-workers and sisters onto bikes. It's a snowball scheme--everybody is going to be the expert and learn from somebody else and pass it on," Phelan said.

Her goal when she began the club was to "really demystify this disgustingly macho sport," she said. "Mountain biking was just about to form a wave and crash, and I wanted to make sure women were seen riding on that wave."

Tea was incorporated into the organization because "it fit the acronym well, and it immediately telegraphs humor and whimsy," she said. "It sifts out the potentially lethal, boring, serious, gnarly, get-out-of-my-way types, and helps to cancel testosterone in the sport in general."

"You know how men are. They ride rough and tough," said Jeanie Bartholomew, 34, who bought a mountain bike five years ago initially for "just cruising around the neighborhood." She began the local WOMBATS chapter with Darice Bayer and Yvonne Velez. They had been teaching at the Hollywood YMCA, showing inner city kids how to ride on trails.

The Los Angeles chapter's first ride was on Mother's Day three years ago. Bartholomew was worried that no one would show up for the event, which was publicized in bicycling magazines and bicycle shops and by word of mouth. But about a dozen women did. They have had as many as 40 cyclists on some rides.

"When we started out, there wasn't much for women mountain bike riders, and I just wanted to ride with women," Bartholomew said. "We had a fun group. We had theme rides, and a poetry reading once. I looked forward to eating some sweets afterward and socializing. In honor of Jacquie, we had silver tea sets and chocolate eclairs."

As Phelan began leading groups in the winter, she served hot tea with pastries after each ride. The pastry was donated by a local baker.

"Of course he knew what advertisements we were for his bakery because we ate a lot of the stuff, and we looked great."

Velez likes the adrenaline rush she gets from being outdoors and seeing nature, which has included coyotes, bobcats, deer and snakes.

"There's the challenge of not falling, and not breaking your neck," Velez said. "You get together with other women who are athletic and have a common interest."

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