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Sarah Gravelle-MacKenzie

After rediscovering cycling 6 years ago, Sarah Gravelle-MacKenzie, a passionate advocate for senior women's health, took the initiative to start her own cycling club in Winnipeg, Canada. Collaborating with her local bike shop, Bikes and Beyond, Sarah identified a need for a welcoming community that would promote the mental and physical well-being of senior women. Recognizing the numerous benefits of cycling, she embarked on a mission to create a supportive space where senior women could come together, enjoy the outdoors, and improve their overall health.

Just shy of her first season operating, her dedication and vision have already made a significant impact on the lives of many senior women in Manitoba, fostering a sense of camaraderie, empowerment, and well-being within the cycling club. We've caught up with Sarah Gravelle-MacKenzie to learn more about her and her program.

Sarah with her cycling friends

Liv: How and when did you discover cycling?

Sarah: I learned how to ride a bike when I was 5 and spent a lot of time cycling when I was younger right through my teenage years. I always loved the feeling of freedom that riding a bike gave me. With post secondary school, working full time and then starting a family I became more of a casual rider.

As I was approaching my retirement, I decided to get what I thought would be my retirement bike; a step-through cruiser. I loved it and started spending more time riding. Once I retired, the time I could spend riding really increased. I realized I had outgrown my bike and purchased a fitness hybrid bike. From there I just kept going. My rides (all solitary) kept getting longer until I did my first metric century. I couldn’t believe I had done it and wanted to keep going so decided to get my Liv Devote - best decision I ever made.

The feeling of accomplishment is amazing. I realized I had subconsciously bought into the belief that as women get older, they can’t accomplish significant fitness or athletic goals. I was wrong; I had underestimated myself and of course other senior women.

Liv: Tell us a little bit about Cycling with Sarah and how it all came together.

Sarah: As my cycling distances were increasing, I reached out to cycling groups and found the process very frustrating. I wanted to find people to ride with and to have more experienced cyclists mentor me but the messages I received were that my bike didn’t fit the requirements of the group, I wasn’t fast enough for the group rides and could simply be just a bit too old to keep up. I didn’t fit the demographic.

When I had the opportunity to apply to be a Liv Ambassador, I mentioned to my friend Rose McDonald that I wanted to start a group for senior women and she jumped onboard right away. I wanted the cycling club to be welcoming without a lot of restrictions. A woman could ride any style of bike, the pace would be an easy social pace and only when the group got stronger would the pace increase.

Early on, I learned if I said the rides would be 15-20 km long many women doubted they could do that but when I said the rides would be around 45 minutes to an hour everyone immediately said they could do it. It showed me that we, as senior women, can put up unnecessary barriers for ourselves.

When I spoke with women, I said the number one goal of Cycling with Sarah was to have fun; to rediscover that joy and happiness we all felt when riding a bike as a young girl. I also emphasized that this group would be about supporting and empowering each other and that we would grow together and that is indeed what has happened. We’ve increased the time and distance of our rides, and everyone has gotten stronger and more confident.

Holding a Know Your Bike workshop and a Bike Cleaning Clinic has also gone a long way to increasing women’s confidence. I have watched friendships develop and grow between the women in the various groups and the sense of community around our bikes is very apparent.

Sarah riding with her friends

Liv: Why is creating more opportunities for senior women important for you?

Sarah: I think society often doesn’t see senior women as having the same value as younger women or men. So many of the women who are riding with Cycling with Sarah have said they feel invisible. I truly believe that our “third act” in life comes with so much wisdom and knowledge. We’ve experienced so much in over 5 decades of life and have so much to offer.

Equally important we now have the time for more self care. This includes our physical, mental, and emotional health. For me it’s so important to help women create the best “third act” possible. Be active, be social, feel supported and feel seen and heard. Cycling together does all of that and I don’t think there’s anything more important than that. It benefits every woman directly but also benefits everyone else in their life.

Liv: What would you say to a non-cyclist or someone who is just getting into the sport to encourage them?

Sarah: The first thing I would say is to believe it is possible to learn something new or to rediscover something you did years ago; like cycling - as a senior woman. To take a chance and not let your fears stop you from trying. To not believe all the subtle - and not so subtle - messages we are bombarded with everyday about aging. I would talk to them about the power a group of senior women can have together, all the support and encouragement that everyone would give to each other. We’ve reached the point in our lives where it is not about competition but about building each other up. Wanting everyone to succeed.

Also, I would share that I think sometimes as senior women we underestimate ourselves and our abilities. So many women hadn’t ridden their bike in years, in some cases decades, but they did a try out ride. They could not believe that they just rode for an hour. They made comments that it went so fast, it was easier than they thought it would be and the most frequent comment has been: “Being with other women made all the difference”. Sharing these success stories is a good way to encourage someone contemplating trying a ride.

Women riding bikes together

Liv: What are the next steps for Cycling with Sarah? What do you envision for 2024?

Sarah: Next year, all members will be able to order a Cycling with Sarah jersey, which I think will have a powerful impact. It’s hard to feel invisible when you are riding in a group of senior women all wearing the same thing. It will make an incredible impression on the community about the strength, power, and commitment of senior women.

I hope to empower more ride leaders and sweeps so I can expand, grow, and develop a sustainable program. I have had discussions with them about setting up chapters of Cycling with Sarah. My main goal when I think about growing the cycling club is to not get too big too fast and lose the original intent which is a personal, supportive environment. Being able to connect with everyone and get to know them is really important to me.

Finally, I started winter cycling 2 years ago and I have been talking to all the women about trying it out. It’s a bit of a hard sell considering our very cold winters in Winnipeg, Manitoba, but my idea is to introduce senior women who are interested to fat biking on safe trails. To keep our groups connected and the fitness level high, I am also going to offer hiking, snow shoeing and cross-country skiing through the fall and winter for our Cycling with Sarah members.