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Paige Onweller empowers women in cycling with 'Rosie Up'

Paige Onweller

Paige Onweller: So, I signed up for a gravel race in August 2021. I went and did that. And I was terrified. I had never really ridden in a group or done a master start gravel race.

Jack Travis: It's intimidating!

PO: It's so scary. Yeah, I remember it saying, I told my coach at the time. Alright, 'If I have fun, and I don't die, maybe I'll try this again.' And I literally was afraid. And I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know how to draft. I was sitting on the back of the pack working so hard, thinking, oh man, like, 'How are these all these other people so much stronger than me?' And the reality was I didn't know what the heck I was doing. But I was fifth in that race. And I had fun and didn't die. So I was like, Alright, let's try another one.

Slowly, I learned that the gravel cycling community is amazing. And you go to the race, and it's not like, okay, road racing, where you have categories, the pros race, and then there's like no one else around, you go home, that's it. Gravel, you have an expo the day before the community comes out. There are group rides- everyone's mingling and talking. And it's just like welcoming and supportive. But yeah, there's definitely a competitive side of it, too, which, you know, is important to me. And so I just kind of fell in love with gravel and the community and the opportunities because, in road racing, there was a lot more rigid structure with how you would progress. And I was in my mid-30s. Really strong but I didn't have the capacity to race every weekend in order to gain the experience nor travel because I was in Michigan, there wasn't opportunities to race road. There's just way more opportunities to race gravel, and I needed that experience. So that's kind of what drew me more to gravel.

JT: Let's take it to maybe some- you know, you said it was amazing. You said it was great, and you had a lot of fun, but I'm sure that it wasn't without its obstacles, right?

PO: Oh, yeah. I mean, let's be honest, many tears were shed in this process. Mostly because, you know, when you start riding bikes, it's so confusing. And it's scary. Like, it's not like lacing up a pair of shoes and going for a run. You have to figure out, okay, how does a bike operate? What is the chain doing? Like all these things? And, you know, just so many things that- there are so many stories, I could tell, you know, it rained, and I didn't know you had to dry your chain or cassette, right? So mine rusted in place, and I went to go ride the next time. And it was like, literally, like cemented to the cassette. And I'm like, oh, man, what did I just do? They're just little things like that, which to me now seems so silly. But when you're new, and you've never been taught those things, you don't know what you're doing.

JT: And bikes are expensive.

PO: Yeah, they're very expensive. And it's really hard to ask questions. You feel dumb, especially as a female; I feel that there's, it's a male-dominated sport, you know, you don't have safe places to ask. You're dismissed a lot, is my experience. And, you know, that's part of the problem. And that's why there's not a lot of women that ride bikes right now. And that is changing, hopefully, in the future. And there are things we can talk about that that can be better. But yeah, and to be honest, it is frustrating when you're strong, and you're not winning or doing the best that you could because there's a lack of experience. And that's what's unique about cycling.

JT: What does need to change in cycling culture? And what are you doing to help change that?

PO: Yeah, I think the biggest thing for me in the cycling space right now is the gender disparity. This is something that is a huge problem. And I am really passionate about this. I want to get more women on bikes, right? You just look at a gravel race, participant, and you know, it's 10% of women and 90% of men. And you'd think that this would be a big giant uptake, and there's some improvement, but I've pulled stats on this. It's not that great.

JT: You're saying that as gravel cycling increases in popularity, you're expecting to see more women, but that's not the case.

PO: Yeah, and the number of women is improving compared to the number of women in previous years, but so is the number of men, so I like looking at the percentage. So this year, what was the percentage of women, right? And so it's a lot less. And you know, it's 10% and 20%, like 30% can be really good for an event, but I'm sorry like 30% is still not that great. Yeah, but you're comparing it to a little. Most years, it's in for most events, eight to 10%. So it's really sad to me, but I think there's a lack of opportunity for women. But I've been working on a project called The Rosie Up initiative. This is part of the reason we're talking because I'm in the corporate cohort at the University of Arkansas and launching Rosie up for this year. So this is a new business that has been in the works for a while, and I'm finally pulling the plug on it this year, which I'm really excited about. It's a multi-year business kind of plan that I have. And there are a lot of layers, or what I refer to as pillars of this project. But the whole project is aimed to get more women on bikes and to really improve the gender disparity in cycling, specifically gravel cycling because that's my space and realm that I'm focused on. There's an opportunity for other sports to kind of take a similar model and use this. So there's potential for this to grow into other areas as well. But yeah, Rosie Up is basically, you know, a female-led initiative, and it's going to get more women on bikes, but more importantly, more women to empower other women. And that's the barrier that we're seeing now: if you are a woman and you ride bikes, if you want to go fast, you probably have to ride with the guys right now. And that's kind of the mentality, and a lot of group rides or women-led initiatives are either mountain bike-focused or youth-focused. Or they're kind of what I refer to is the quote, pink it and shrink it mentality, like take the men's version, let's make it pink, it's smaller. And it's for the ladies now. And a lot of times, those are group rides that are no drop casual. Let's chat and have fun.

JT: What does no drop mean?

PO: No drop means you show up, and everyone stays together; no one's going to try to drop another rider. So drop means you pick up the pace, and the other rider can't keep that pace, and they fall off or drop off. So that's kind of a common term in the cycling industry, and the world is drop rides versus no drop. So anyway, the Rosie Up initiative is taking communities across the US. So there'll be 10 for the first year- 10 Rosie Up champions that are selected and communities that are selected. Each of those communities will have a Rosie Up champion who leads a monthly Rosie Up ride. And that group ride is a gravel group ride. But it's kind of a blend of a drop and no drop ride. What I mean by that is it might start off casually with everyone catching up and talking. There's there's a community aspect to it. But the middle part of the ride is always skill-focused or paceline-focused or cornering, eSpeed-focused. And this creates an opportunity in a safe place for women to be curious and to try going faster. Doesn't have to be signing up for a race or anything like that. It might mean that right now, they're scared when they approach a corner on gravel because it's loose and they're a lot of falls. They slow down. And that's a barrier for them to, like, you know, ride faster. So this allows women to have the tools and a safe place to learn how to corner into the paceline. And to do some of these things and ask questions. And it's fun because it's women teaching other women. And it's community-based and casual, so it's not as threatening. And we've seen really good success. I've tried this in three or four different communities. We're doing some in Bentonville right now. And it's gone very, very well. And there's not a lot of group rides that are structured or being executed like this right now. So that's kind of the premise of the community model. And there are a lot of other pillars that the roadmap initiative will execute in the coming year. So, for example, down the road, we'll do skills clinics in Bentonville where women can come from all over the US and have a Rosie up skills clinic; there's probably going to be an execution of an all-female gravel race. So it'll be a circuit-style crud style through which people can watch, which will be team-based. So instead of racing other women against other women, the women have to team up, so that's teams of women against teams of women. And then there's a lot of other aspects to like a coaching element or pillar that women have access to and just different branding and merchandise for the women to be collectively a part of this across the nation to so a Rosie up helmet and the branding is going to be specific so that these women show up to a race So they might see someone else wearing a Rosie up helmet and they immediately connect with that person, right. So, just creating safe opportunities, and there'll be development aspects of talent ID. But then also scholarships, so women that can't get to races, we can help them with that. Just different things of that sort. So yeah, it's multifaceted, and it's been really fun to explore.

JT: So, two things before we finish up. First, how do you first see this playing out, like on a website and an app-based thing? How are you thinking about that?

PO: There'll be a website for sure that the other one will be on; we'll also have an Instagram. Each community hub will have a public channel or, like, more of a private channel for their community. So the women like let's say, there's one and Bentonville, then they'll have a Facebook group that's specific to their group of women that can kind of communicate and ask specific questions. Or there might be, for example, a Rosie Up slack. So, all of the communities have access to talk to each other. So that's part of it. But yeah, a lot of it's going to be community-driven to those ten hubs that all kind of funnel in and get mentorship and direction for me. For example, the coaching platform is on a platform called Training Peaks. So that's all done virtually. So, there are multiple forms of communication that an execution will have.

JT: And then, where did Rosa Up come from? Where did that name go? What does that what does that mean?

PO: Yeah, so as I mentioned, I was pretty, pretty passionate about gender disparity ever since I entered the sport. And I saw it as an immediate problem. And I want something that bothers me. It's just like seeing my mind, right? If I'm passionate about it, like I want to do something. So last year as a privateer, you get to design your own kit and the kit that you wear, and you race with, and it's kind of funny because when you're on a team, you're given a kit and you've no say like, this is what you wear as we look like. But as a privateer, your image is kind of like your identity in the peloton. And so I was really thankful to the clothing company that I worked with; they worked with me and put a Rosie the Riveter on my shoulder. And so when I was raised, I had that visible. And then, on the back of my jersey, I always put a female empowerment quote that says she believes she could. So she did, and my competitor saw that in the back of my jersey, and that's okay with me. I want them to be strong and do well, too. And then, on my helmet, it also has a Rosie up. So I'm an Avis helmet. And they're one of my sponsors that I've had for the last several years, and the guy, Greg Davis, they went, and they just designed this beautiful helmet for me, with the Rosie the Riveter on the top. So when I'm racing and my heads down, you can just see that, so it kind of became part of my, I guess, image, you could say. And then it's just Rosie the Riveter; if you ask anyone what that stands for, you're gonna get some form of female empowerment from that image. So when you see that image, that's what you feel, right? And that's kind of the branding of Rosie up: we want people to see my company and immediately think this company is driving the needle to change and empower women. And maybe it's on gravel. Maybe that's something else down the road, you don't know, but the whole goal is to have females empowering other females, and right now, that focus is on gravel.

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

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Jack Travis is a reporter for <i>Ozarks at Large</i>.<br/>
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