Tag: Rant

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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