Confessions Of a Woman in a Bike Shop (Plus Strategies to Get More Women-and men- Into Shops + On the Road)

bike blueHe pointed to his back tire. I knew now what that meant. I believe it was his way of subtly but firmly saying, “I see you’re pushing yourself. You’re reaching that point where you’re getting close to exhausting your energy. I want to see you succeed. Draft off my wheel and keep going because you’re capable. NOW GO.” I nod and stare intently at his back wheel, no longer worried of hitting his back tire like I used to fear in the beginning. I trust my instincts and that he was paying attention to the road and traffic around us. It feels so good to have allies, now, I think to myself, and we attack the remainder of our sprint. It’s Wednesday night and I’m riding on my local bike shop’s weekly ride. I’m one of three females out here—something I’m making my mission to change— but at least it no longer feels intimidating. I can’t speak for all of the men out here, but the ones I’m getting to know so far are allies, open to hearing new ways to support women in cycling.

It hasn’t always been that way. Like many women, I’ve battled feelings of inadequacy, intimidation, and fear in bike shops and on the road, despite having grown up biking with my dad in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, and being a triathlete since 2005. In fact, it wasn’t until 2012, when I signed up to ride in a 365 mile women’s bike ride across Maryland with World Relief, that I even learned basic bike mechanics. The great folks at Race Pace gave our team a general bike maintenance overview, including instructions on how to change a flat tire. But being a tactile learner, I went home that night and quickly forgot everything I was taught. It wasn’t until I started consistently bike commuting in spring 2013 that I realized there’s no way to fully avoid a flat tire and knew it was time tackle this skill. I confess, I went to a bike shop and paid to have it done the first time. The mechanic let me intently peer over her shoulder to learn—and my, was it awesome to learn from another woman. “Just practice in front the TV and you’ll get the hang of it,” she encouraged me. Satisfied with simply being able to successfully get home, I called it a night.

When I had a little more time, I went to another bike shop to buy tubes. “What size do you need?” the gentleman asked. What size do I need? Why don’t I know this stuff!? I thought. “I don’t know; what kind do you need for a road bike?” I asked, sheepishly. I learned that I needed 700×23-25c and scribbled this in my notebook as newfound vocabulary as soon as I got home. It wasn’t until my second and third flat that I used the tubes and gave myself a pep talk: “You’re gonna fix this damn thing if it takes you all night!” I then You-Tubed, grumbled expletives, levered, and pumped my way through fixing a flat 38 minutes later- a long time, I know, but at least it was a starting point.

As I began training for my first half Ironman, I began having gearing issues. “What kind of gearing do you have?” the gentleman at the bike shop asked.  Here we go again… why do I STILL not know this stuff? “Um…” He came from behind the checkout counter and started counting: “3×9,” he shared, which I scribbled in my notebook later on that night.

After addressing the gearing issues, it wasn’t long before I experienced shifting issues on a training ride. So I went back to the bike shop and spent five minutes trying to describe what was happening when I shifted. “I’ll take it outside, shift through all the gears, and I’m sure I’ll figure out what you mean,” the gentleman reassured me. A couple minutes later, he came back in the shop. “I see what you mean. It’s skipping gears.” Yeah. Skipping gears. That’s what I was trying to say. The staff pointed out all sorts of parts I needed and $238.35 later, I made a commitment to learn how to do some of my own repairs and to actually understand the parts I even ordered. I spent months bingeing on Youtube bike anatomy videos, scribbling in my bike notebook, and vowed to lift my head a little higher each time I entered the bike shop.

Fast forward to now, and I love everything about going to the bike shop. The new tire smell. The myriad of shiny bikes that inspire me to dream of new races to register for. A place to test out the vocabulary I’ve accumulated and to laugh at myself when I invent names for parts that don’t exist— like I did last night. Ask me to tell you my story about “lib nuts.” But I think the thing I love most, though, is that my eyes now meet the eyes of each employee and my voice is louder than when I first walked in. I stand a little taller and don’t beat myself up when I mis-name a part.
Bike shops can be an intimidating place for some women initially, but it doesn’t have to remain that way. I believe that women can make a conscientious effort to familiarize ourselves with bike terminology and to practice effective communication skills. To go into the places that make us feel uncomfortable, even if we’re nervous. To ignore any internal dialogue of inadequacy and to remember that most people in the shop just want to see you experience the joy of cycling. To do it scared. To say yes. To surprise ourselves. Because I’d rather lack knowledge (and learn) than lack courage to embark on something new.

There are some things bike stores can do, however, to become a little more “female-friendly.” Take a look and share your comments & experiences below:

-Hire more female staff. An estimated 89% of bike shop owners are men, while 33% are owned by a husband-wife team, and 45% of paid bike advocacy staff are female. If more women are hired as bike mechanics and employees, perhaps more women will feel a sense of belonging.

-Conduct free or low cost bike mechanic workshops at the store. This is a sign that the store is safe to newbies and less experienced riders, thus making it more inviting to ask questions without fear of how it will be perceived. Furthermore, 26% of women say that learning more about bicycling skills would encourage them to ride more. Similarly, 20% of respondents in a 2010 Women Cycling survey said that a bike repair class would cause them to start or increase their riding.

-Host women’s rides from the store. While I realize a male-only ride can be off-putting, given that men outnumber women in riding 3:1, a ride designated for women can tilt the pendulum back to center and provide an unintimidating space to ask questions. And hey, since you’re at the bike shop anyway, it’s easy to go into the store afterwards for parts or tools. If you live in the Baltimore area, check out Twenty20’s women’s rides- 9:30 AM the second Sunday of every month.

-Examine the interior for subtle gender messages. Are all of the shop’s wall posters pictures of men biking? Is the TV in the store only showing men’s cycling events? Take a mental note the next time you’re in a bike shop as to what images you see. I did this recently and every piece of wall art featured a white male cyclist. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong about this, there also isn’t anything inspiring or inclusive of the rest of the world that’s not a white male. A few small changes in ambiance can help convey the message that women belong in the biking world.

-Stock child carriers and trailers. One factor that some women cite as a barrier to cycling is the inability to carry children and other passengers (19% of women reported this, compared to 7% of men). To increase ridership among different demographics, such as mothers and fathers, bike stores can have on display children’s bike seat attachments. If you’re going to promote the product with a poster advertisement, earn a brownie point for featuring a man toting his child via bike instead of a woman.

While we’re on the topic of reaching different types of cyclists, let’s place panniers and fenders on visible display to inspire men and women to commute and run errands via bicycle. Women comprise 24% of trips taken by bike, but on average, take an additional 110 trips per year than men, so same as above: if you’re going to have a poster promoting these products in the store, show a picture of a woman riding a bike with panniers and fenders to challenge gender norms.

It’s not just women who benefit from inclusive settings. As Chicks on Bike radio points out, not every man cycles competitively, so making bike shops more friendly in general can go a long way to make both genders of every ability level feel welcomed.

Moreover, we also know that both men and women cite traffic safety (both perceived and actual), lack of infrastructure, and the inability to bring bikes on other forms of public transit (such as trains) as a few of the many reasons for not biking, so in the mean time, let’s keep riding, keep advocating, and keep educating our friends and family on the realities of cycling.

See you on the roads—


For more info, check out the following resources:

Local Baltimore Bike Collectives:
Bearings Bike Project and Velocipide Bike Project: Open environments designed to be safe spaces for learning about all things bikes, including how to do your own bike maintenance.

Local Baltimore Bike Advocacy groups:
BikeMore– advocating for biker rights, bike friendly infrastructure, and increasing ridership.
Baltimore Bicycling Club– Partners with area organizations to promote advocacy and ridership

Local Baltimore Groups to Ride With:
Biking in Bmore– weekend, evening, and morning rides of many distances and paces
Baltimore Area Triathlon Club– weekend, evening, and morning rides of many distances and paces- newbies to experienced riders. Road bike with clips recommended.
Crank Mavens-women only rides Monday nights, ~10 miles
Twenty20– Wednesday evening rides for experienced riders- road bikes and clips; women’s ride 2nd Sunday of every month, all paces welcomed
Race Pace– Beginner rides Sunday mornings out of Columbia; advanced rides Tuesday evenings at CCBC
Baltimore Bicycling Club– several rides per week of varying distances and speeds
Baltimore Bike Party– last Friday night of every month in costume!

Photo credit: Women on Bikes

Photo credit: Women on Bikes

Reports:
Women on a Roll, The League of American Bicyclists, August 6, 2013

Podcasts:
The Uphill Climb of Women’s Pro Cycling, Stuff Mom Never Told You, August 28, 2013
How to Get More Women Riding Bikes, The Bike Show Podcast from Resonance FM, March 12, 2012
Women: Expanding our Presence in the Bike World, Chicks on Bikes Radio, December 20, 2012.
How did Women Pedal Their Way to Emancipation? Stuff Mom Never Told You, May 11, 2011.

Infographics:
10 Myths About Women & Cycling, The League of American Bicyclists
 Women Mean Business: Will the Bike Industry Benefit? Women Bike
Overcoming Bike Concerns, Women Bike
10 Myths About Women & Cycling, The League of American Bicyclists
 Women Mean Business: Will the Bike Industry Benefit? Women Bike

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