(by Sara DeShong)
The 2012 National Bike Summit launched the National Women Cycling Forum, which got the conversation stirring between more than 200 riders from all over the nation on misconceptions, intimidation factors, how women interact with each other – and why for every three men on a bicycle, there is only one woman who rides.
The Incomplete Picture
The inaugural National Women Cycling Forum was hosted by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, and League of American Bicyclists as a way to provide support and engagement to all current and potential female riders. The prestigious all-female panel included a published author, a professional world-champion racer, a design planner, a few spectacular advocates, and the General Manager of Giant Bicycle, Inc. It was an impressive collection that spoke to the seriousness of this long overdue discussion on the under-representation of women in all realms of cycling. It has also inspired ACA to initiate a women’s cycling forum here in Austin this coming summer.* As it was the first national forum of its kind, the discussion was very organic and dealt largely with barrier identification, such as a lack of safe infrastructure or lack of positive encouragement and education.
We also noted that there was a large gap of representation for ‘everyday’ female riders in recent advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as a shocking shortage of suppliers willing to construct commuter apparel (which differs from regular athletic apparel) in women’s cuts and sizes.
Collectively, we were able to come up with a few actions that can be taken immediately to influence the generally accepted image of female cyclists. We need to speak up about our needs and wants as riders outside of the extreme realms of competition and fashion. A tendency that women have is to listen more than we speak, the moderator noted, but in moving forward we must learn to speak up in instances where we may have otherwise instinctively kept quiet.
Of 11,453 women surveyed by the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycling Professionals, 59% use their bicycle for daily trips in their community** – which begs the question, why aren’t women marketed to or recognized as daily errand-running, heading to the office, grocery-getting, dropping-the-kids-off-at-school kinds of cyclists?
Businesses and retailers must realize that in between the flowing skirt and heel-wearing cyclist displayed in fashion ads and the hard core, spandex-clad competitive cyclist propagated by the bike industry, there lies the majority; those of us who have simply decided on a better way to get things done, and are just taking it day by day, and mile by mile.
The Shop Experience
A good point was made by Marla Streb of Team Luna Chix that bicycle shops are quite often the first point of contact for many new riders, and a bad experience there can turn a potential rider off for an indefinite period of time. This is especially true for women, as we often encounter an all male staff (intimidating), dismal women’s sections (disheartening), and store layouts that can leave one feeling disoriented and vulnerable. Streb noted, “If a bike shop can look like Lululemon, women are going to come in and feel welcome.”
As for myself (and many of my female companions), a bike shop of any variety is one we feel comfortable in; but perhaps it is by riding that we have learned not to be intimidated. However, if the more timid among us put a toe in and have a shockingly cold experience, it will be that much harder to get them in the water the second time around – when the happy notions of innocent enthusiasm and loving words of encouragement have all been replaced with a bad memory. Even worse, many times this bad memory is accompanied by feelings of incapability and deflated confidence.
A bike shop’s employees are as much assets to the local community as the shop itself, and they possess a great ability to influence the way we ride. The best experience I have had at a bike shop involved me asking an East Side mechanic about the workings of internally geared hubs. Instead of brushing me off or dumbing down the response, he took me behind the counter and showed me an exploded diagram of the component and compared the moving pieces to the orbital patterns of a solar system. I understood it easily, and am forever grateful to him for simply explaining how and why, instead of just telling me what.
It’s not totally about the retail experience either.
Proper education about legal issues, responsibility, equipment, and attire go a long way in creating enjoyable and safe first experiences for first time transportation or recreation cyclists (this is a gender neutral point). Positive first experiences can also help with customer loyalty, which is never a bad thing for any retailer. Local shops and dealers can obtain free educational materials and references to road safety clinics, classes, and group rides by contacting a local cycling non-profit, like the Austin Cycling Association.
Austin is fortunate to have such a variety of local shops run by genuine people, but keep in mind that no one is a mind reader. Whatever necessity you are searching for, be it a cargo bike or a specific trailer, lace bike shorts, or a helmet covered with tweed fabric – be vocal with your favorite local shop and let them know what YOU need.
Female riders already out on the road (or trail) may consider the experience of riding in a male-heavy setting a bit lonely. Past any gender isolation argument, there remains the persistent observation that women in female only group settings act differently than in a mixed gender setting. Within the National Women Cycling Forum, participants noted that in female only settings, they are
- More apt to try new techniques
- More comfortable asking questions
- More likely to speak at a faster rate and higher pitch (the panelist who noted this also noted that this may likely happen because we tend to make connections and jumps in conversation quicker with other females than with males)
- Better able to relate problems and concerns
One of the best ways to get someone more comfortable on a bike is through communal rides (aka ‘social’ and ‘hosted’ rides), and they are a fantastic tool for increasing a rider’s comfort level on the road or trail. By adding a social element to riding for exercise or transportation, the rides themselves are turned into the first makings of a community, and a foundation for support. If you are a Greater-Austin area female looking for some like-minded cyclists to ride with, check out these free, all-skill level, women-only groups:
- Ride Like A Girl series (trail) from the Austin Ridge Riders, weekly May- October:
- Bikin’ Betties group (road), from Social Cycling Austin, Monday nights all year
- Lady Bike series (shop skills), from Austin Yellow Bike Project, check schedule
- Austin Flyers Cycling Club, which exists to “promote and elevate cycling for women in Central Texas.” http://www.austinflyerswomenscycling.com
Or, simply extend an invitation for short neighborhood roll to a female that you know (young, old, or in between) who has been contemplating getting on a bike.
Female riders need not be looked at as an ‘indicator species’ for safety on the road, but rather as an ‘indicator species’ of their local culture and perceptions. Austin’s culture is one that encourages the strength and diversity of its women, but our voices need to be a little bit louder. For every one of us one the road right now, there are several more on the sidelines looking to us for encouragement, guidance, and to watch how it’s done. It is important to note that not one of the issues mentioned is isolated from any of the others. The answers and approaches we use moving forward to address this rather large disparity will need to be as broad and complex as the problem itself.
*To become involved with an Austin Women Cycling Forum, email email@example.com.
**Women Cycling Survey: Results Analysis
The author would like to thank Gail and Jim Spann, Preston Tyree, Stanton and Susie Truxillo, and a generous anonymous underwriter for the opportunity to represent the Austin Cycling Association at the 2012 National Bike Summit; and special thanks to Nadia Barrera for editing this article.
Sara DeShong is the Outreach Coordinator for Austin Cycling Association.