Wind blowing through your hair is unisex. Bicycles. Women.
The bicycle is celebrating its birthday. 200 years as a vehicle of emancipation! And women’s responses to the question “What does the bicycle mean for you?” are still “freedom” and “independence”! (1) What is going on?
The bicycle was a vehicle to independence for me too: starting with my first trips 20 years ago, I gradually incorporated the bicycle into all aspects of my life. A decisive moment four years ago guided me to the bicycle industry at long last. I have been interested in the topic of women & bicycles for quite a while. The kind of response mentioned above, led me to write this essay.
Passion over product
As a just-for-fun cyclist I didn’t take myself seriously – as a woman – when it came to cycling for a long time. I was content with the slight deviations from men’s standard bicycles – they got me from A to B. At first, on a sluggish bike with an overload of accessories, I conquered mountain bike trails, sat in the slipstream of hobby road cyclists and commuted 10 km (one-way) to school. A bicycle accident turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise: I came away both with bruises and a new bike. The driver of the car was a keen cyclist himself and part financed my first, half-decent mountain bike. Bye bye coaster brakes! Hello freedom! Even back then I noticed there were very few products geared towards women and that not many bits on my bike fitted me well. But I didn’t mind, nor did I mind that I was unable to inspire other women with my passion for bikes. I relished my daily dose of independence. Having the wind blow through your hair is unisex.
It does matter: the self-exclusion of women
For many years, except in a few cases, I rode alone. While studying for my degree I managed to muster up the courage to get in contact with the university cycling club. And when the group pedalled away – I was the only woman in the team – it startled me. Although I was decent on the rollers during training in the winter semester, the rides in the summer semester were sobering affairs. I realised that a well-fitted bike, well-fitting clothing and high-quality equipment make a considerable difference. However, due to the men being unwilling to wait around, my lack of budget for better equipment and my own lack of motivation to depend on the goodwill of the other team members to tow a woman along, the typical phenomenon occurred where the woman excludes herself. I was happier to rack up the kilometres on my bike solo. Just-for-fun, freedom and independence.
The pink it and shrink it phenomenon
In the mid 90s pink it and shrink it arrived on the scene: bike products for women – that was the idea. In fact, it was much more a reorientation in marketing strategy, since the products for women were simply a smaller version of the men’s version, but in dainty colours. Pink and spotted accessories were presented to me in the smallest shops with shining eyes, expectantly: “Here, for you!” My level of identification with these products tended towards zero. In my hometown of Graz a shop opened whose owners claimed to know what women want. Mostly it was colourful. Or it had polka dots on it. It was a bit of head-scratcher: should I be glad that there is something specifically for women? Or should I be annoyed that these for-women products are simply the material manifestations of gender stereotypes?
The conflict arises from the fact that pink it and shrink it generalises women into a single femininity using gender-stereotypical products. It misinterprets diversity. That happens when men think about what a woman might like.
The good part about pink in and shrink it is that it acknowledges that women ride bikes too. A tiny hint that something is happening.
The women-only ethos
Perhaps it was the positive effect of the pink it and shrink it phenomenon or the fact that the bicycle became socially acceptable; in any case, women with a passion for cycling were no longer on the fringes at the end of the noughties. They were growing in numbers! We were growing in numbers.
This female presence shook the “man” ISO standard – the predominant and established masculinity standard – in the bicycle world, ruffling some men’s feathers, although the process didn’t occur without conflict. “Reverse sexism!” or “exclusion of men!” they said, when women were clocking up kilometres at the global women-only brand event #RaphaWomens100 (worldwide since 2013), regardless of the fact that women are not allowed to take part in many established bike races.
It’s also worth mentioning that besides @Rapha, @Specialized is also an innovator when it comes to sending female bike or road bike ambassadors out to make it easier for women to take cycling up as a hobby. On offer: guided women-only rides, bike rental services, a suitable and attractive product portfolio and a free sample of courage in addition. Why all that?
Well, in my experience women ride differently when men are present. Men too. For this reason there is a benefit to having single-gender bike groups – at least when you first get the cycling fever. A magic switch happens in this exclusive zone: “women-only” has a positive effect on a woman’s confidence as a female cyclist. Suddenly women are repairing punctures themselves; gleefully chatting with other like-minded fanatics about equipment, technology and accessories; signing up for races; and building up the courage to try out clipless pedals. Women change from being the female tag-along and exception (in groups of men) to a self-confident, self-sufficient rider without non-standard status. Team spirit, banana bread and beer afterwards! PS: of course this isn’t the case for all women #Diversity!
Networking and “nice sexism”
I have been following both the real-world community of women cyclists as well as the tight-knit, online network for quite some time. Together they manage to expose “nice sexism”, which unfortunately is still the status quo in the industry. In contrast to the blatant misogyny of the grab ’em by the pussy sexism (see the 2016 US election campaign), the sexism which corrupts the bicycle industry, for instance using #bikeporn, “nice sexism” has supposedly good intentions towards women. This becomes clear through comments such as “The women in the editorial department were amazed!”(2), when talking about the new baby stroller bike(3) (Note: And the men?). Or when there’s a 90-km women’s ride at a 300-km individual race. (Note: consider the words individual ride compared to women’s ride and what they both evoke.) “Nice sexism” makes it hard for women. It serves to reproduce gender roles and stereotypes from the 1950s in the West in a subtle, nice way and contributes to the preservation of masculinity as a norm.
The bicycle is part of the future. And women are too!
A: More women who are passionate about riding their bike – no matter what kind of bike it is – and who celebrate freedom and independence, thus rocking the concept of masculinity as the norm.
B: A proper women’s bike store in one of the German-speaking countries: a kind of club or bike cafe with an online shop and blog, repair courses, rides, events and academy, run by passionate cyclists for each and every woman who is still in the early stage of their love for bikes. A casual centre for the diverse female ensemble, where you don’t hear comments like “Women are just getting crazier and ride all kinds of bikes!”(4). We remain hopeful that the social and cultural devaluation – which often goes hand in hand with women establishing themselves in an area – doesn’t occur.
Because the bicycle is the future! Wind blowing through your hair is unisex. And as our American counterparts would put it: future is female!
Quotes and sources:
- From a qualitative survey with exhibition by the Berlin FXD group @She36 – March 2017.
- Velototal magazine: Facebook post about folding baby stroller bike – March 2017.
- baby stroller bike: http://www.tagabikes.com
- VELOBerlin: Interview statement on Radio1 – April 2017.