It’s hard out there ladies. Urban cycling has taken off in the last few decades, with ridership up dramatically around the country. In some parts of New York City alone, more than 18,000 people use bicycles daily. With increases in cycling have come improvements to city streets- like bike lanes that are clearly marked and protected, greenways that take cyclists off the streets and into park like settings, incentives for bike-friendly workplaces, and bike share systems popping up all over the country.
As with any group there are a lot of dimensions to what I will refer to as ‘bike culture’. A great many activists continue to lobby for improved bike infrastructure in isolated and underserved areas, others seek better policing of vehicles that maim and often kill cyclists. There are leisure clubs, fitness clubs, clubs for kids in poor neighborhoods to learn how to build bikes and gain life skills, clubs for long distance touring; there are rides for charity and for activism. New York City in particular still has a major contingent of bicycle messengers despite the fact that modern technology has largely replaced two wheels as the fastest way to transport sensitive documents around the city. There are shows and events for weird bikes, homemade bikes, and fancy bikes. There are new frame builders creating beautiful lines and simple machines that have, quite literally, changed my life.
Sometimes I sit and think about all of the ways to be part of bike culture and I wonder why there aren’t more women on the streets with me. Mind you- there are a ton, but for every lady on a bike there are 10 men, and many of my friends say they would never start urban cycling for a variety of reasons. Since the invention of the bicycle it would seem as if women have been discouraged either explicitly or implicitly from shedding their training wheels as it were and hitting the pavement in the big city. Indeed, we have been warned of “bike face”, we have had arbitrary rules crafted for us, and we have received some of the most foul-mouthed harassment I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing when bicycling.
But the bicycle as a pathway to freedom, the future of increased mobility and adventure is a key component to women’s empowerment. After a conversation with my roommate the other night in which we discussed how we felt on bikes, I started asking some of my other friends who ride (or don’t ride) bicycles about their experiences. I wanted to talk more about the barriers to greater visibility of women in the bicycling world, and about the great rewards of integrating bicycles into our lives. Some common themes have emerged from these conversations: as women we experience specific sexual harassment on bikes, we find that shops often treat us with condescension, we have difficulty finding gear and bikes that suit our needs and our personalities, and we see few representations of women in the cycling world that offer us a diverse idea of how we might find joy and health on two wheels. We enjoy bicycling because it keeps us healthy, because it is a challenge, and because we get to be outside and see new places. We enjoy it because we like going really fast, because we get panic attacks in the subway, and because we do it for a living. Understanding a few things about the bike world by now, women actually enjoy biking for many of the same reasons as men, we just aren’t noticed nearly as much.
I lived in New York City for almost three years before I got my first bike. Let’s use the term ‘bike’ loosely here though. With the help of a good friend I salvaged an absolutely ancient Motobecane from a barn somewhere upstate. I gave it blue handlebar tape, and for some reason named it Jaques. He was so French. This bike wanted to kill me, and indeed almost did four or five times with faulty breaks, an absolutely insane bottom bracket, and a bent fork. Jaques finally went to the Bike Rack in the sky after I rode him through the floodwaters of the Gowanus Canal during Hurricane Irene.
Having a troublesome bicycle taught me a lot about bikes. I learned that the machine will always break. I learned that this is often because of user error, and I learned that if you dedicate yourself to understanding how the bike works you can reduce those first two down several percentage points. I felt competent fixing my own flat tires. I felt like I was part of the club, that elite and mysterious group of people who can manage to commute 30+ miles per day and not only NOT look like a rat drowing in their own sweat but be glowing.
I also learned that when you start becoming a person who bikes as their main form of transportation you are going to be hungry all of the time. I was eating everything and I was getting stronger. Holy crap, I had muscles in my thighs and I could see them and they could get me over bridges. Damn bridges. I felt strong, I felt powerful, and hot damn I felt really beautiful on my bike.
I’ve been a cyclist for 4 years now, primarily as a commuter. I do it because 9 times out of 10 my bike is just as fast, if not faster, than the subway. I do it because even if it is slower, it has a breeze and I can avoid the insane crowding of rush hour trains. I do it because it provides enough exercise that I can eat basically whatever I want and not see my physical health decline. It gives me freedom, it gives me a boost of energy, and reminds me that while there are things in this world that are out of my control, when I am on my bike I am quite deliberately in my own hands.
I have noticed however, that I get treated differently as a woman who is a cyclist. The greatest difference is the street harassment. I am more boldly, more vulgarly harassed when I am stopped at a light or riding past a group of men than I have ever been walking around the city. I have never seen a male cyclist experience the vitriolic objectification that my lady friends and I receive. No, you cannot have a ride. Ugh. I am treated differently in bike shops as well. Sometimes staff will use a tone of voice that I might expect from someone addressing a petulant child, or a person who asks really plainly obvious questions. I am not asking if the sky is blue, I am asking you to explain to me the difference between this or that part, or service. I am asking you to be very clear about the kinds of things you are going to do to my trusted machine, that I care very much about, and that I expect you to care a lot about too. Many of my friends lament a lack of mechanics that are women, and of women’s specific gear (clothing, parts, accessories). It can be difficult to feel like part of a group if your voice, your body, and your personality cannot be represented by it.
How do we break down these barriers and increase both physical and perceived access to cycling for women everywhere? I believe that encouraging and supporting women-owned bicycle shops and groups like WEBike and Recycle A Bicycle (Best Lady Mechanics Ever) would be a great start to creating spaces and businesses where women feel they have shared interests and goals. Local shops could consider stocking riding gear like panniers and messenger bags that focus less on the sporty and speed-oriented aspects of a considerable part of the bicycling world- the growing prominence of gear that is focused on commuter-friendly styles and colors that can go from bike to other situations (work, a night out etc) is encouraging, but these brands sometimes have to be dug out of what feels like the bottom of very specific Google searching. I would love to see more articles, interviews, and videos showcasing women who totally nailed their Century, who are in Cross races, who are messengers, who are riding just as hard and fast as anyone else out there on the road.
Bicycling in an urban environment can be intimidating to anyone. Reflecting upon the experiences of women is not meant to discount those of any other group of cyclists. In a sport and culture geared primarily towards men, there are no doubt countless different stories to be told from the perspectives of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and even the kinds of cycling involved. There are incredible organizations doing work centered on delivery cyclists, cycling for parents, and the disabled. I hope all of them find voices and visibility: I want bike culture to reflect the diversity of the people out there on the road, and women are a big part of that.