cycling · fashion

Do Cupcake Rides and Heels on Wheels help or hurt the cause of women’s cycling?

Let me begin by saying that I like riding with other women. Though most of the time I ride with men or in mixed groups, some of my best riding experiences ever have been women only. I rode with the Valkyrie Vikings in Canberra, Australia and with the Women on Wheels in Dunedin, New Zealand and I’ve taken part in lots of women only cycling events such the Tour de Femme, women’s crit racing with the Vikings, and women’s track riding and racing in New Zealand. I wish we had enough women riding and racing to do that here!

Here’s the Valkyrie Vikings + a couple of coaches and spouses:


And here’s the Women on Wheels:


But these days I find myself feeling a little bit queasy about the flavour of some of the women only social rides that are making the cycling press: Heels on Wheels? Cupcake Rides? Really?

You can read here about Toronto’s Cupcake Rides. Also Momentum Mag just did a piece on Women Only Rides including the Heels on Wheels rides.

Obviously there’s a huge difference between women only racing groups and women only rides designed to get women out who’ve never ridden a bike in traffic before. And people start in different places and I’m okay with that. Like Tracy’s ambivalent feelings about pink though, I’m uneasy associating women only with gooey sweet cupcakes on the one hand and high heels, on the other. Seems we’re either  sweet and adorable or adult and sexy. How about just out for a ride? Couldn’t we have women’s coffee rides?

Partly, I worry about the women left behind who aren’t about cupcakes and heels. But also I worry about associating women on bikes with femininity. Some of the time, can’t femininity be optional? (I know I worry about this a lot. See past posts Play hard, look cute!, Running skirts and sexism, and Padded sports bras and nipple phobia.)

I like the idea of getting people to ride in their regular clothes. Though I don’t own a suitable bike or wardrobe, I love the idea of Tweed Rides. “Tweed Ride Toronto is a group bicycle ride through downtown Toronto, in which the cyclists are encouraged to dress in classic tweed or any smart looking outfit. Any effort made to recreate the spirit of a bygone era is also appreciated. Any and all bicycles are acceptable.” Read more about Toronto Tweed rides here.

So it’s not the style of bikes and clothing that gets me, nor is it the women only aspect. (I like the women only bike mechanics classes such as that offered by the Toronto co-op Wenches with Wrenches.) I see value in both these things. But what bugs me is the association of women with a particular feminine aesthetic.

I am passionate about getting more women on bikes.  It matters because it’s good for women and because it’s good for urban cycling generally. In 2009 Linda Baker wrote a great piece for Scientific American called “How to Get More Bicyclists on the Road: To boost urban bicycling, figure out what women want.

“If you want to know if an urban environment supports cycling, you can forget about all the detailed ‘bikeability indexes’—just measure the proportion of cyclists who are female,” says Jan Garrard, a senior lecturer at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, and author of several studies on biking and gender differences.

In the U.S., men’s cycling trips surpass women’s by at least 2:1. This ratio stands in marked contrast to cycling in European countries, where urban biking is a way of life and draws about as many women as men—sometimes more. In the Netherlands, where 27 percent of all trips are made by bike, 55 percent of all riders are women. In Germany 12 percent of all trips are on bikes, 49 percent of which are made by women.

More recently the book City Cycling  (MIT Press 2012) edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler  talks about the role women play in urban cycling and commuting.

One chapter, “Women and Cycling” is co-authored by three women professors of urban planning, health and environmental science who find the percentage of women cyclists in a locale to be a bellwether of biking safety and convenience. Women, the co-authors say, are an “indicator species” for bike-friendly cities. In cities and countries where a high percentage of bike trips are by women, rates of cycling are high, and cycling conditions are safe, convenient and comfortable. Where relatively few women cycle, rates of cycling are low and cycling conditions are unsafe, inconvenient, uncomfortable and sometimes impossible.

It’s clear we need to do something to close the gender gap in cycling.

From The U.S. Gender Gap in Bicycle Traffic: “Most estimates suggest that men are about three times as likely as women to be biking in the U.S. ….This is significant, because men don’t bike more than women everywhere in the world.  But they do in the United States.  In some European countries (like Germany, the Netherlands, and Demark), biking is undertaken much more evenly between men and women.  The U.S. Department of Transportation found that only about 24% of biking trips were made by women in 2009.  So, not only are more men biking, but they biking—on average—more often than the women who bike too. ”

I don’t have Canadian statistics at hand but it seems to me this is another area where we are closer to our American cousins than were are to Germany and Denmark.

So if Cupcake Rides and Heels on Wheels rides work, more power to them, I guess. I’ll swallow my queasiness and rejoice at the sight of more women on bikes. I’ll be the woman not in heels, not eating cupcakes, heading out on my bike for coffee…I’d love for you to join me.

*The featured image at the top of the post is from the New York Times and accompanies their review of “Heels on Wheels: A Lady’s Guide to Owning and Riding a Bike.” By Katie Dailey. 96 pp. Hardie Grant. $14.95. The review is well worth reading. Here’s an excerpt: “Ms. Dailey identifies four chief types of “ladies burning rubber out there”: the Fashion Victim, whose outfits harmonize with her trendy neo-vintage wheels (like Agyness Deyn, Ellen Page and their emulators); the Speed Demon with extraterrestrial helmet and sleek, Matrixy gear (like Gwyneth Paltrow); the Earth Mother, who careers toward farmers’ markets with her baby bobbing precariously in the front basket; and the Retro Rider in Steampunk get-up, whose vehicle “weighs more than a cement-mixer.””

I’m a speed demon, I gather.


27 thoughts on “Do Cupcake Rides and Heels on Wheels help or hurt the cause of women’s cycling?

  1. I’d rather not eat a cupcake before and after I ride my bike AND I’ll change my shoes when I get there (if necessary), thank you very much. But I would LOVE to ride with other women.

  2. It’s funny what grates and what doesn’t. Chicago calls their women only rides “Critical Lass” (after the Critical Mass rides). I like that!

    1. Interesting. Yeah, I’m no fan of ‘ladies’ for some of the reasons you say. Too many connotations about the way women ought to behave, I think. Thanks, Sam

  3. Are cupcakes feminine? I noticed that the cupcake rides folk actually do a co-ed sweet ride that is well-attended, have to remind men that the cupcake rides are women only, and participate in Cycle Toronto (which is a great cycling advocacy organization). Sounds like a good time to me.

    (much of my critique of this post is covered by the Loop-Frame Love post above. i’m a cranky genderqueer post-third-wave feminist who bikes for transportation and has no problem with femininity provided that I am not required to participate in it. femininity should be optional, but those who opt in shouldn’t be judged negatively or seen as less serious about their sport for that choice)

    1. I’m excited to get more women out on bikes so if the cupcake rides do it, that’s great. This is an area in which I’m happy to have my anxiety to be proven pointless!

  4. I’m glad Sam B that you can swallow your queasiness about marketing cycling to some (not all) women in high heels. Us long time cyclists need to embrace the diversity of cycling and its expression by a broad range of people.

  5. I wear cycling clothing or walking shorts when biking simply because I’m petite and it’s expensive for me to wear street/business clothing and wear them out faster/wreck them faster when biking. I have a challenge finding non-cycling clothing that fits me and for a 54 yrs. young at heart. But wearing a skort helps when travelling in europe where spandex ladies are less.

    1. Sometimes I wear bike shorts under dresses, when commuting in the summer, and then change at work. Helps with comfort and with modesty. Also I find I’m fussy about seat height and since I usually wear bike shorts, best to wear them all the time rather than fiddle…

  6. I’ve kept this tab open in my browser for several days while I thought about a response. I understand but don’t fully share the concern expressed.

    I’ve blogged a lot–possibly obsessively–about riding in regular clothes: ,, and for starters. (And if you don’t want the bulk of bike shorts underneath work clothes because it feels as if you’re wearing a diaper all day, look for Pedal Panties–more than underwear, less than bike shorts, and I’ve worn them on a 50-mile round trip:

    I don’t fit into any of those four categories in Heels on Wheels–any of those attempts to categorize seem to be catchy but incomplete and just contribute to stereotyping instead of seeing people as individuals with likes and dislikes.

    For me the point is less about the height of the heels (I wear everything from low boots to stilettos–I like shoes, I’m a feminist, and those two statements do not create cognitive dissonance for me) and more about riding in whatever kind of clothing you happen to wear, just as people drive or get on a bus or subway in whatever kind of clothing they happen to wear.

    That’s a radical action in the U.S. when it comes to biking for transportation because the stereotype for so long has been that it requires great athletic ability, which I’d argue is one of the things that has contributed to the skewed gender ratio in using something that Susan B. Anthony once described as the greatest contributor to the emancipation of women.

    For women, given society’s expectations about professional wear, the message that you can ride in a bike in the kinds of clothing and shoes you would wear to the office can help de-athleticize riding in a way that can make it more accessible than when you’re fretting about sweating and think you have to be able to sprint like Lance to get on a bike. So yes, I’m going along with these expectations. I’m no less a bicyclist or feminist for wearing skirts, and being comfortable with who I am is one of the advantages of being a bit older and knocking the chip off my own shoulder.

    Maybe we need the slogan “Wear what you like–just get on a bike.”

    The larger question of whether particular labels or marketing approaches talk down to women is a serious one the bike industry hasn’t figured out. Marketing writer Andrea Learned and a co-author look at some of the issues for marketing in general in “Don’t Think Pink”: I would see Heels on Wheels as patronizing if it were organized by men to get “the little ladies” riding, but when organized by women I see it more as a claiming of a formerly male space.

    There are plenty of accessible themes for rides that don’t revolve around pastries, such as the “coffeeneuring” and “errandonneuring” challenges set up by Washington DC blogger Chasing Mailboxes and the upcoming Cyclofemme (May 12–Mother’s Day). (You’ll especially like coffeeneuring 😀 If we had an article of clothing or bike part that rhymed with coffee that would help–in all seriousness, this stuff takes off because it’s catchy and easy to remember.

    Having some kind of social reason to ride, calorie-laden or not, is a fun way to engage people. I moved to Seattle last fall and the “Menstrual Monday” ride that takes places the first Monday of each month is women getting together to ride–period (ahahahaha! I just slay me). There may be treats involved, which personally I see as a good thing, not a bad thing. (At least a cupcake ride gets away from an unhealthy body image obsession.)

    If women on bikes are represented solely by the girly images it’s skewed–but leaving them out is also skewed. For too long biking has been represented solely by high-testerone sweaty male images–equally skewed. All social movements go through the pendulum swinging wildly back and forth before settling on something more accessible to the majority. We’ll get there.

    1. Thanks for the long thoughtful reply. Quick response for now, love the slogan! Yes. ‘Wear what you like-just get in your bike!’

  7. Interesting, I would have guessed that Canada’s more European in biking than American. But it certainly partly depends on where you are; I can well believe Toronto has far fewer women, because Toronto is not a very bike-able city. I wouldn’t really want to bike in Toronto.

    But I’m in Ottawa, and I can’t see things being too far off from 50-50 since we are quite a bike-able city and there’s a pretty big cycling culture.

    I do think that “serious” cyclists are predominantly men no matter where you are in Canada, for a few problematic reasons.

    (Is it obvious I’ve been wading through the blog all morning? 🙂 )

  8. I’ve been out for one or two of the Toronto cupcake rides. It’s not about the “look”, or the girly-sweetness that cupcakes are supposed to stand for. It’s not a gothic-lolita ride. 😉 If you want to use a food to stand for the attitude and appearance of the riders, it could be the crunchy-granola ride or the fair-trade-coffee ride. We were all a bit grungy-hippie that day, most of us buff and trim but a couple of us chubby, all wearing practical rough-and-tumble clothes. But I shouldn’t have to defend the way we look or what the ride was named after. 😛 We cupcake-ride so that we can go on a bike ride and then have a cupcake. (Or a coconut custard tart, that is my weakness and there it was waiting for me in the shop that was chosen as the endpoint.)

  9. I think that if we women only allowed ourselves to ride bikes wearing Hillary Clinton-style pantsuits, then our long-standing dream of equality would finally be realized.

  10. A lot of the Cycle Chic and Copenhagenize stuff sits really badly with me – it borders on voyeuristic at times, and don’t we have enough pressure already about how we should look, dress and behave while doing every-damn-thing else? I took particular offense when one of the bloggers (may have been Colville-Andersen himself) commented that he wanted to encourage women to cycle more because they “contribute to a visually pleasing environment.” My response to that was unprintable but had to do with the fact I am not a bloody flower basket or bit of municipal art, damn it, I am a human being who’d like to get to work unharassed, thank you very much – I am NOT here to decorate the place!

    (Also, I may have challenged the blogger to a bike race, heh. Possibly by inviting him to kiss my sweaty, lycra-clad, farthest-thing-from-chic ass – if he could catch it first).

Comments are closed.