I’m an experienced cyclist and there is almost no part of my life that doesn’t involve bicycles. I love cycling holidays (see Cycling holidays, Part 1: Rail trails and Cycling holdays, Part 2: Organized tours in which other people carry the stuff). I like to commute by bike. And I’m also a big fan of group riding and racing. I’m comfortable on my bike almost anywhere. (Okay, not on mountains or on trails with trees and rocks and water in the way. I’ve got work to do there.)
But I know that lots of women aren’t so happy on bicycles. Numbers tell part of the story.
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.
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.
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 we are to Germany and Denmark.
There are lots and lots of reasons to ride bikes. Some are health related. It’s also a terrific stress relief, and it’s good for the environment. It’s an easy way to incorporate exercise into your day. It’s good to spend more time outside. As well, it’s a sensible financial move. Driving, once you add up the costs of car payments, parking, insurance, and gas is an expensive way to get around. And I agree with all of these reasons but on their own they might not be enough to get me out the door and on my bike. What does it then? The sheer joy of cycling. On my bike I feel like I’m 12 again. Whee, zoom!
Suppose that you’re interested in riding and want to get more comfortable. What then? Here are five pieces of advice I give my friends who want to get started:
- Get a bike rack for your car: If you’re unsure about riding through town but love the idea of riding along country roads there’s no shame, when you first start out, in putting the bike on the back of your car and driving to the countryside. Park, get your bike off the rack, and set off. No one needs to know how you got there. There’s also a fitness issue in adding the ride out of town and back to your mileage. For beginners, there’s a big difference in adding the extra 10 miles on to your distance. Now, I think I’m practically home when I reach landmarks that I used to be proud to reach by bike but that’s after a considerable number of years. The bike rack also comes in handy later if you’re out on a ride and encounter problems and need to call home for a rescue ride. We’ve all been there and again, no shame.
- Buy or borrow a nice bike if you can afford it: Don’t say, I’ll ride my old bike and give a try and if a like it, then I’ll buy a new bike. You probably won’t like your old bike. They’ve come a long way since you were in college. Really. The new bikes are faster and safer. They shift more easily, zoom up hills, and brake easily and quickly. Obviously this piece of advice is money dependent and an old bike is better than no bike. Still, I’d take that old bike into my local bike shop and have a spring tune up to make sure it’s safe and ready for the road.
- If commuting is your goal, make it easy: Yes, you can outfit your bike with panniers and carry everything with you each day. Eventually maybe you’ll want to do that. But there’s no need to be a purist. When I’m regularly commuting, I get in the habit of going into my office once over the weekend by car and dropping off a week’s worth of food and clothes. I keep make up and bathroom stuff there and that makes getting ready at work easy. When the kids were younger there was also the added bonus of arriving home in clothes that could touch with paint and dirt smattered fingers. I was ready for instant hugs, no need to say “Wait til I change out of this suit.”
- Learn some bike maintenance, but not everything, unless you love it: People disagree about how much you need to know about fixing your own bike and how many tools you have to carry. I can fix a flat (on a road bike with skinny tires, that’s a necessity) and get my chain back on if it slips but that’s about it. And I’m okay with that. I carry a cell phone, always, and mostly I’m riding with people who know lots more about doing quick repairs on the fly than me. But you do need to know how to check your tire pressure, adjust your seat height, and fix flats. Otherwise, you’ll be spending a lot more time and money than you need to at the bike shop. Larger cities have women-only bike repair workshops (like Toronto’s Wenches with Wrenches), lots of local bike shops teach the basics, and lots of universities have bike co-ops where you pay a membership fee and share their tools.
- Don’t ride alone all the time: I’m a big fan of riding with other people, combining my fitness and social life. Why? You meet people who share your interests and support your lifestyle choices. There’s also a time issue. You won’t feel like you are always juggling friends and riding if you make friends with the people with whom you ride. On a related note, I encourage my friends to start riding. There’s also some good fitness reasons to ride with other people. You learn some important lessons, http://fitisafeministissue.com/2013/01/21/lessons-you-learn-from-working-out-with-other-people/. If a faster friend asks you to go for a ride, say yes. Don’t worry that you’ll slow the other person down. If you’re a beginner and they’re not, they are prepared for that. I ride with people a lot faster than me (sometimes I chase, sometimes I slow them down), I ride with people about my speed and I also ride with friends who are a lot slower. Cycling is fun whatever the speed.
Get out there and ride your bike!
Here’s some other things I’ve written about women and cycling. It’s a bit of a passion of mine:
And this post originally appeared at Spry Living.