Moved after reading the 26 essays by fellow ‘destroyers’ in Destroying the Joint:Why Women Have to Change the World (University of Queensland Press, 2013), I want to address another area very much in need of destruction: bike riding.
For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, on Friday 13 August 2012 Sydney radio announcer Alan Jones, while referring to Julia Gillard, Christine Nixon and Clover Moore, stated that women were ‘destroying the joint’. Unsurprisingly, mass outrage ensued. One of the enraged was Jane Caro, who tweeted: ‘Got some time on my hands tonight so I thought I’d come up with new ways to destroy the joint, being a woman and all. Ideas welcome.’ And Aussie women had plenty of ideas. #DestroyTheJoint began trending on Twitter, a Facebook page was formed (with 35,000 likes and counting), the above-mentioned book was written and Alan Jones found himself with a lot of empty advertising spots on his show.
According to the Women and Cycling Survey 2013 conducted by the Heart Foundation, 60% of women would like to cycle more than they do, but only 30.2% had ridden a bike in the six months prior to the survey and only 14.2% consider themselves regular riders. Who cares if women aren’t riding? You should. Sitting is the new smoking and inactivity is putting a huge strain on the healthcare system, not to mention making life uncomfortable for those affected. By not getting enough exercise you drastically increase your risk of getting a whole lot of chronic illnesses, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
I can’t remember the exact statistic, but well over half of all trips we make are less than 5km. That’s an easy cycling distance. Even just making some of these smaller trips by bike can make a huge difference to your health and fitness. However, there’s a whole lot of reasons keeping women from their bikes: safety, lack of infrastructure, lack of knowledge about bikes and lack of confidence. That fact that the bike world is still largely a cock forest doesn’t help either. In fact, bike lanes and bike shops are the two places where I’m regularly made to feel that being in possession of lady bits is a bad thing.
Let’s start with bike shops. They’re your first port of call when you decide it’s time to get back in the saddle, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been either a) ignored or b) humiliated by sales staff. If I go into a bike shop with my partner, eight times out of ten, they will only speak with him, even after he explains that I’m the one in need of new gear. Often they will tell him that they don’t really stock products for women, but maybe some of the smaller unisex gear will be close enough, before wandering off with an air of utter disinterest. Meanwhile, I stand there wondering if I have actually managed to turn invisible and, if so, what I might do with this new-found super power.
Worse than being made to feel like you’re not a person is being made to feel like a complete numpty. About a year ago I arranged to interview a bike shop manager for an article I was writing for the bike magazine I work for. When I arrived at the shop, I was treated like a film star by all the staff and generally given the impression that I had stumbled on the most awesome bike shop of all time ever. However, a week later and still dazzled, I went back to the same shop for a part I needed for a bike I was building. The frame I was using was from the mid 70s and so the parts I needed were a bit obscure. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing, and my boyfriend (who is possibly the biggest bike nut on the planet) had written down the exact specifications of what I needed. After waiting nearly fifteen minutes to get the attention of one of the staff, I explained my situation and told him what I was after. He took my piece of paper out the back, where he thought I couldn’t hear and started laughing about me and my bike building dream with one of the other staff. Rather than talking with me about my bike and helping me learn how everything fit together, he sold me the wrong part, because he didn’t have what I actually needed in stock and had figured out I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference until I got home. I’m ashamed to say that at the time I was too humiliated to go back and get a refund. Instead I found the right part online and have boycotted that shop since.
What irks me even more, is that these shops are also the ones complaining that an increasing number of customers are shopping online instead of supporting local stores. Well, here’s the thing: I’m not particularly comfortable about buying lycra to begin with, and I’m certainly not going to pay twice as much to be laughed at while I do it. If Australian bike shops want to maintain and grow their businesses, they need to give customers something that the online mega stores can’t. They need to offer a high level of service and advice and not make women feel like morons for not knowing the difference between a fixie and a single speed, or between 105 and Ultegra group sets. I know for people who know a lot about bikes this seems incredibly basic, but you know what? I think dangling modifiers and conjunctive adverbs are also fairly basic concepts that the general population should be aware of. However, I’ve come to the sad realisation that these, like technical bike stuff, count as specialist knowledge that you need to patiently explain to those who don’t subscribe to your particular church of geekdom.
If you do manage to survive the ordeal of buying a bike, there’s also the barrier of being made to feel you’re not good enough to ride one. Often on my commute to and from work, I encounter guys who can’t resist the opportunity to prove their alpha-awesomeness by overtaking me at the traffic lights. Whether intentional or not, it seems like they see me in my sun dress on my single speed and they think: ‘There’s no way she could keep up with me (despite the fact that, until now, I have been ahead of them), I’ll just park in front of her at the lights so she doesn’t slow me down.’ The assumption itself pisses me off enough, but too often when this happens, the guy (and 99.99% of the time it is a guy) couldn’t outpace a wounded snail and I have to merge into traffic to get around him, and again when he does the same thing at the next intersection.
This and being made to feel like an incompetent amoeba by bike shop staff is hard enough to deal with, but the thing I find most challenging as a female bike rider, is the ‘help’ many men so willing to offer us poor damsels struggling to get about on our steeds. Very occasionally, I don my oh-so-flattering lycra and head out for a road ride. Admittedly, because I do very little of this sort of athletic riding, I’m not very good at it. In case the pelotons swooshing past wasn’t evidence of this, there are plenty of guys willing to point it out with helpful yelps of: ‘You’re in the wrong gear!’ and ‘Not liking that hill much, are you?’ I’ve also had male friends remark how impressed they were when one of my female friends fixed a puncture all by herself. I get that most of these guys believe they are being helpful or ‘funny’ or supportive when they say these things, but in truth they are incredibly patronising. I very much doubt they would remark how impressed they were if one of their male friends patched a flat, or that they’d have the audacity to yell at a stranger that their chain line was crossed. It’s the same when a girl is learning to fix her bike and a guy takes the tool out of her hand to ‘help her out’. Guys, I know you mean well, but there’s no way you would do that to a male friend and it makes us feel incapable when you do it to us. If we would like help, we’ll ask for it.
All of that said, there are some incredible people and orgnisations that are doing their bit to make women feel confident about riding. There is the occasional gem of a bike shop that specifically caters to women or goes out of their way to help all riders. My favourite example is Treadly in Adelaide. I went there to buy my first lot of bar tape and one of the staff (a guy) took me out to the workshop and taught me how to wrap my bars without making me feel the least bit silly for not intuitively knowing how. They also opened their workshop up to the all-girls riding group I was part for a maintenance training night we wanted to run. There are great companies, such as Cycle Style, catering for those of us who want to cycle chic and an increasingly large range of women’s technical gear and bikes available that break away from the pastel colours and floral decals that have previously been the industry’s way of marking something as ‘for girls’. There are also powerful female ambassadors, including Lisa Dempster, Catherine Deveny and Anna Meares, encouraging women to get rolling, as well as some really wonderful women-only riding groups dedicated to teaching women how to fix their bikes and ride in traffic and, most importantly, giving them the confidence they need to get out on their own. I wrote about some of them here. There are also some very inclusive mixed rides, such as the Tenax Ride.
But we’ve still got a really long way to go. A recent bike count conducted by Bicycle Network on Swanston Street—one of Melbourne’s busiest bike routes—showed that women now make up 38% of riders, up 5% from 2012. This figure is considered a victory, and in a way it is because it indicates that there is a greater diversity of people riding—at least on that particular street. But 38% is, in my opinion, still a long way from a win, and that figure is significantly higher than in many other places. Many women still feel excluded from many kinds of riding because they feel unwelcome, or they’ve been made to feel they don’t know enough about bike maintenance, or they aren’t comfortable in lycra or with riding so close to traffic.
I’m worried about my generation, so many of us sit through breakfast, sit on the drive to work, sit at our desks for eight hours, sit again for the drive home and then collapse onto the couch to sit some more until bed time. If our health isn’t suffering yet, it will, so we need to start developing healthier lifestyles now. To do that we need to help each other break down the barriers that are keeping us from getting enough physical activity. I believe bike riding, whether it’s quick trips to the shops, commuting to work, or more athletic recreational rides, is an easy way to get active, but it’s something that’s going to continue to be unappealing to many women until we make some big changes regarding how women are treated in the bike world.