Photo: Pamela Palma

This last November I was thrilled to go to San Francisco to Sponsor the SF Street Sweep, the giant Thanksgiving charity bike race held annually. While there I was lucky enough to chat with some of the amazing women organizing that event and others. A big thank you to Kacey O’Kelly for answering some questions about her women’s bicycling group called the “Ladies of Leisure” and other community building in the city by the bay. 

Nona Varnado: Why did you decide to form the group?
Kacey O’Kelly: There used to be a regular ladies’ ride through Pushbike ( A few women were talking about how great those rides were after an all-women alleycat in San Francisco last fall, so I organized a ride, and described it as a “leisure ride” to set the tone. Riding with other women was critical to helping me build confidence and skill on my bike, and I could to give that back through organizing this ride. I picked a date, figured out a route, and asked everyone I knew to spread the word through Facebook and email. 15 women showed up, and most of them did not know each other. The ride went great and everyone expressed interest in doing it again, so Alice Stribling and I decided to set up a Facebook group  to connect women who ride bikes. And women started coming out of the woodwork to join. Now we have the Ladies of Leisure.

NV: How is membership decided?
KK: We stress inclusiveness. Membership is open to all women and transgender cyclists; it doesn’t matter what kind of bike you ride, how fast or slow you ride, how long you’ve been doing it, what you wear, what your favorite band is, or what you had for breakfast. You just need to show up and ride with us. We have close to 100 members in our Facebook group, which is how we get the word out about rides. Anyone can request to join the group.

NV: How do you keep the group together? How are decisions made?
KK: It’s intended to be fairly autonomous, but it is in its early stages so there doesn’t seem to be a lot of autonomy in action yet. Alice and I moderate the Facebook group, and I’ve been organizing periodic rides. Our hope is that as women get better acquainted and gain skill through coming on our group rides, that they will use the Facebook group to organize themselves and find others to ride with any day of the week they like.

When we ride together, the most important dynamic is creating a comfortable, positive environment where people feel good about themselves regardless of their skill level. The
second most important dynamic is getting in a great ride that has both challenges and rewards along the way. I give people an idea of the route before they show up so that they know what to expect and can come prepared. Before we start out, we talk etiquette. Our rules are: 1) Easy pace; 2) If you get ahead, wait at the next intersection or top of the hill; 3) Take a break at the top of each hill to allow the group to get together again and refresh; and 4) Leave your competitive attitude at home and be prepared to congratulate each other.


Photo: Pamela Palma

NV: What projects have you done in the past?
KK: So far, Ladies of Leisure have only done group rides.

NV: What projects are you looking forward to?
KK: Now that winter is dissipating, the weather will allow us to do a lot more group rides. My hope is to offer a broader spectrum of easy/difficult routes so that we can get more ladies to come out, and to enjoy riding for fun. Commuting by bicycle is great, but there is so much more to experience. We also plan to organize some skill-sharing rides, like hill repeats and practicing techniques like pacelining. Alice and I are hoping that with Ladies of Leisure, we can foster a participatory environment where members feel they have a stake in the group’s success and are comfortable sharing leadership to keep the rides going. The group is young (we only got started in October 2011), so there’s time to grow into this.

NV: Can you introduce each member and what they bring to the group?
KK: One of the interesting things about this group is that a completely different set of women show up to each ride — we have a lot of online members, but haven’t seen all of them out yet. We typically have 10-15 ladies on each ride. My friend Alice and I actively moderate the online group (and she designed our stickers!), and I have been organizing the rides. We’ve got a couple of regular riders – Karen Rosenblum and Marin Voth, who come out and spread the positive vibes. And there’s also Amanda Lanker who used to lead the original Pushbike ladies’ rides, and rides with the Ladies when she’s not buried under law school text books.

NV: What makes you a bicycle organization and not (for example) a public policy advocacy group – or how is it both?
KK: We’re inclusive and we don’t care what kind of bike a woman rides, or how well she can ride it. We aren’t promoting our group, we’re promoting each other. Sounds cheesy, I know, but it makes everyone feel really good, and capable.

NV: What is your philosophy on bicycling?
KK: Sinatra got it right: “I did it my way.”

NV: What kind of cycling do members of the group participate in?
KK: The women participate in a lot of different styles of riding. We’ve got randonneurs, bike campers, commuters, cyclocross, casual urban cyclists. Advanced, intermediate, and inexperienced.

Photo: Pamela Palma

NV: Do you do any advocacy work?
KK: The group doesn’t do advocacy work directly, but many are involved in other bicycle-centric activities in our community, and with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. I’ve done other event organizing — I joined up with Jenny Oh Hatfield in 2008 on the Supermarket Street Sweep and have been working with her on that every year since. Alice is a part of the volunteer team for the Street Sweep too. I also worked on organizing the San Francisco Bicycle Messenger Association’s annual Quake City Rumble fundraiser  in 2010. I learned a lot about organizing from working with Jenny on the Street Sweep. Jenny is also a group member and organizes a bunch of community rides herself.

NV: How are things different in Northern California?
KK: The weather in San Francisco is mostly mild but can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, which makes rides interesting and requires preparedness. We’ve got a lot of hills, which can be intimidating if you’re not from a similar terrain. Our streets have a decent bicycle infrastructure that is expanding. In terms of cycling culture, I’m not sure there’s a fundamental difference between here and anywhere else, but we do have a very large cycling community in the Bay Area because it’s a great place to be on a bike.

NV: What changes would you most like to see in cycling & everyday life?
KK: Being a cyclist in San Francisco is already pretty great. But there’s always room for more harmony and flexibility. While outlaw attitude and racing is fun, there are cyclists out there who have a bit of an image problem. We wouldn’t mind seeing more cyclists be positive ambassadors by learning the rules of the road, and following at the very least ‘polite’ road etiquette. We’re not advocating stopping at every stop sign or light, but at least pass on the left, signal intent, be safe and ride predictably. The media is having a field day over two recent

pedestrian deaths in San Francisco attributed to cyclist negligence. We need a more positive image than that.

NV: What are you doing to positively affect those changes?
KK: We try not to be idiots when we’re riding bikes, or at all. It’s important to share and to respect other people’s right of way.

NV: What do you think are the obstacles to achieving them?
KK: Apathy and a lack of critical thinking.

NV: Do you have any advice for other girls who want to form their own bike gang/organization?
KK: It’s intimidating to take on something like this by yourself. It helps to get involved with others who want the same things and to work toward it together. When we decided to create our group, we had clear ideas about what we wanted people to get out of it and that has set us off on the right foot.

Photo: Pamela Palma

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