Women and children first?

by on Dec.12, 2009, under Cycling, Rant

I seemed to upset a few people recently by getting worked up about the Beauty and the Bike campaign after it did the rounds on twitter.

Beauty and the Bike, for those of you who either don’t follow cycle campaigning or have an understandable mental blind spot when it comes to anything that’s all mouth and no trousers (pun entirely intended) is a cycle advocacy project that sent a bunch of teenage girls from Darlington across to Europe in an effort to see why girls over there cycle while British ones don’t.

While I have no problem at all with the basic premise — let’s find out why girls and young women don’t cycle and try to do something about it — I have a few issues with the apparent focus of the resulting campaign. Like the Sustrans BikeBelles project, there is an immediate presumption that a major reason why girls don’t cycle is cosmetic:

I cannot be fashionable on a bike.
Answer: On a Dutch bike with a low entrance and a skirtguard, you can even cycle with a long skirt.

As irritating and sexist as I find that (I hope the ladies of SweetPea Bicycles never read it), the bit that annoyed me the most is seen in this quote here:

“Why do British girls stop cycling? By simply asking this basic question, the film reveals the damage that has been done by 50 years of car-centric transport policies. Whilst we fill our lives with debates about risk assessment, cycle helmets, cycle training and marketing strategies to try to persuade people to cycle more, the basic barriers to cycling remain untouched – generous urban planning towards the car, and the resultant poor motorist behaviour towards cyclists. Is it any wonder that most people find cycling unattractive in the UK, but attractive in cycling-friendly towns and cities? It’s the infrastructure, stupid!

That’s their emphasis. It’s the infrastructure, stupid! So there you are. If you, like me, have been merrily cycling on the road, where you have every right to cycle, and explaining to moronic drivers that they need to learn how to share, that they shouldn’t be passing you so closely your elbow leaves a clean streak on their paint, or yelling at you for being on the road, or any one of the hundred other ways drivers treat cyclists like shit: you were wrong. It’s the infrastructure, stupid!

I’m not particularly keen on re-hashing the various arguments about driver culture and conflict points and engineering: they’ve been done to death elsewhere. I’m not going to detail the studies that show a strip of red paint down the side of the road is counter-productive, leading drivers to give cyclists even less room; nor Ian Walker’s report that women cyclists tend to be given more room anyway. Take a look through a few back issues of CityCycling. In fact, here’s your starter for ten — an article I wrote in response to the Sustrans Bike Belles launch.

It’s all very well having a bunch of teenage girls say “We want more cycle lanes!” Unfortunately I want doesn’t get. More to the point, paths are not necessary. They’re a placebo, a palliative aimed at making us shut up and giving the impression that the powers that be are doing something to follow through on their promises. It doesn’t address the underlying issue. In fact putting more cycle paths in place is just going to make things worse.

Here’s an example of the typical attitude of someone who is angry about cyclists who don’t use paths, as seen in the comments section of an article about the effect of the new Princes Street tram lines on cyclists:

Between Gilmerton and Dalkeith, Edinburgh and Midlothian council have spent millions of pounds on an off road cycle track, which runs next to the road. Guess what, these cyclists ignore it, and prefer to hold up the traffic by cycling on the main carriageway. Simple solution, get the police to stop every cyclist on this stretch of the road and obtain their details, then get the councils to bill each and every cyclist for the cost of the cycle track. That way, folk like me, are not paying for a cycle track that doesn’t get used, and cyclists are punished for failing to use facilities specifically built for them.

Error compounded by misconception, but clearly showing that providing a cycle path will cause at least a portion of drivers to behave even more negatively to cyclists who continue to exercise their right to use the road.

The cycle path gameIn contrast, here’s a good pictorial summary of the problems encountered on cycle paths and the reason folks might not want to use them (hope you don’t mind, Anth).

My point is that the current method of asking people who don’t cycle what’s best for cyclists is about as useful as asking a vegan how he would prefer his steak in the belief that will make him start eating meat. Rather than asking girls who don’t cycle why they don’t, how about asking girls who do cycle why they do? The main barrier to cycling isn’t external. The roads do not make it impossible to ride. What to do with your hair is not an insurmountable problem. If this were the case there wouldn’t be anyone out there on the roads at all. The very fact that we already have female cyclists riding on the roads means that the major problem is cultural rather than practical. It’s a mental, not a physical one.

It’s not the infrastructure. It’s the culture. It’s the fuckwit drivers who believe the myth of road tax and treat non-motorised road users as moving obstacles.

And don’t call me stupid.

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Oh, the irony

by on Aug.19, 2009, under Cycling, Rant

Having said all that, I followed a link from the Buff twitter feed to the Big Bike Bash home page. It’s on this weekend, and it looks like it could be a fun event for all you mountain bike types.

I don’t ride off-road personally. Not that I don’t want to, but I’m limited to firetrails and easy stuff by lack of depth perception. I’ve tried the more technical trails and I fell off. A lot. And hurt myself. A lot.

So, it’s true, I wouldn’t be interested in taking part in the races, but that doesn’t justify the following section, found under the link for “Women’s Events”.

Ever been to an event or race to support your partner, an ended up stood around bored? Well this event is not just for the guys! There are loads of things for the girls to get involved with too! Whether you want to relax in the massage tent or get involved in the action, there’s plenty to keep you busy all weekend!

Say WHAT? I don’t know about you, but when I see “women’s events” I think of “events for women”. You know, maybe a girls-only multilap XC race, or an event put on specifically for those who might find racing against the boys too intimidating but would really love to give it a go. Those women who have probably been convinced by the patronising attitudes of others that cycling is a roughty-toughty sort of affair and isn’t for the likes of them. WOMEN KNOW YOUR PLACE.

What makes this even more bizarre is that there is a decent listing of competitive female categories in the races. Click on the event listing and there are female categories in the two main events. Yet “women’s events” gets a separate listing and would suggest to the unsuspecting reader that what girls do is stand on the sidelines in breathless appreciation of their men before getting bored and wanting to go shopping for cosmetics.

What is with that? Could they not just have had “supporter’s events”? That would have been fairer. Maybe there are non-competing men going who wouldn’t mind winning some organic cosmetics, after all.

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But you’re a girl!

by on Aug.19, 2009, under Cycling, Rant

You might have noticed by now that I have a bit of a thing for bicycles.

Oh. Hey. Guess what. I’m a girl.

This isn’t news, right? Well, apparently it still is to the bicycle industry. Sustrans sent out mystery shoppers, all women, ranging in age and cycling experience.

While the majority of the 633 women who took part in the survey reported a positive experience in the shops they visited, the range of products on offer, and the way they are presented is sending women straight out of the door, and for some, straight online.

Sustrans’ mystery shoppers ranged from eight to 88 with all levels of experience from complete beginners to women who cycle every day. The new cyclists are generally happy with the service they are getting, it’s the experienced cyclists that are feeling short-changed…

Melissa Henry, Sustrans’ Communications Director explains more: “We found that experienced cyclists, those women who know what they do and don’t want, are left feeling patronised – the assumption appearing to be that women know nothing about bikes. Experienced cyclists of all ages were left feeling that a bike shop was akin to an alien landscape, with them as the alien.”

My feelings regarding Sustrans aside, this particular finding surprises me about as much as the sun coming up in the morning, water being wet, grass being green and drivers running red lights. Bike manufacturers are getting better and better at providing for the female rider, with compact frames, shorter top tubes and anatomy-specific contact points and clothing. They still seem to be stuck on the idea that girl = pink or powder blue, but it’s a start.

The problem is not so much the availability of kit any more, but the attitude of bike shop staff towards the women buying it. Down in Exeter I was spoiled for choice, with both The Bike Shed and Richard’s Bikes treating me exactly as I wanted to be treated: as a cyclist who happened to be a girl. This contrasted greatly with Mud Dock (closed down several years ago and good riddance), where the staff seemed to think that, as a girl, I should be worrying more about chipping my nail polish than I was about halide lighting systems for winter commuting; and that it was okay to insist that their idea of what would work for me was better than mine. If I go into a shop and tell them exactly what I want I expect to be treated like I know what I’m doing because, hey guys? I do.

Fairly recently I was in a shop in Edinburgh that shall remain nameless and having what started as a friendly chat with the guy on the till. It stopped being friendly round about the time he said: “Well I’m sure there are girls who are strong enough to ride fixed.” I suppose he must have realised that he’d just lit the blue touch paper because he tried damping the flames with some statements that were meant to be conciliatory but were in reality just as patronising; only to be rescued by Munky dragging me away before I grabbed a powder pink Giro helmet from the shelf and beat him to death with it.

He wasn’t trying to be patronising. He didn’t mean it. He opened his mouth and put his foot in it. But this wasn’t the standard, overplayed trope of a male giving a straightforward answer that isn’t what the woman wants to hear (“What do you mean my bum looks big in this?”): it was halfway through a conversation about how we were riding coast to coast on fixed gear bikes overnight, and we’d already done it twice. Even faced with incontrovertible evidence of girls riding fixed (mine was locked up outside the shop), there was this ingrained attitude that it was a freak occurrence.

Because we all know girls should ride Pashley Princesses or, if they’re particularly sporty, maybe a Specialized Dolce.

Even when I was buying spokes to rebuild a front wheel, walking into a (different) shop and giving the spoke length and number I wanted, the look on the guy’s face was just that bit incredulous. He didn’t pass comment until I was walking out: “Good luck with that.” Would he have said that if I were male?

Now it’s very easy to misinterpret what might be honestly-meant comments, but, as an experienced and technically competent female cyclist, what I notice isn’t so much the occasional blatant comment (the title of this piece being my favourite to date) as the cumulative effect of little things. The continual questioning of decisions I have already made and the faintly blank stares, as if they can’t quite believe that those words have come out of my mouth: a mouth that resides, it has to be said, above a fairly obvious pair of breasts.

Yes, thank you, I do want that particular chain. No, I don’t want one of those ones because they are made of mushrooms and cheese. Why yes, I do have experience of that particular brand. Hence the mushrooms and cheese. No, I don’t want a steel cog. I have been getting on just fine with the alloy one, which is, you have to agree, more attractive. Please don’t try to sell me that headset. I know it’s cheaper. My bike deserves better and so do I. If I say I want double-butted I bloody well want double-butted, and I do understand that it’s not a reference to arse-cheeks on the Chippendales.


It’s time for the retail industry to start catching up with the growing number of girls who are into it as much as the guys are. But, ladies, that’s not going to happen if we flounce out of the shop in a huff the first time we have to deal with this sort of prejudice. It’s no good retreating to the internet. Attitudes are only going to change if there is a drive for them to do so. Your local bike shop is an incredibly valuable resource, even if it does seem to think that competent females are on a par with talking donkeys. So give them a chance to improve before reverting to the relative safety of Wiggle.

Bike shops employing female staff are not as safe as you might think, unless those staff are mechanics. However, for the record, I’ve found that shops catering to triathletes don’t suffer from this bias nearly so much. So if you’re really struggling with a male-dominated bike shop whose staff thinks girls belong on three-speed shoppers with flowers in their hair (or, at least, on their suitably pink helmets), try finding your local triathlon shop.

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