Girls and bikes together again?

Last week I was a speaker at an event all about celebrating women cyclists. We were talking about how to get more women on the road on two wheels. Better cycling infrastructure obviously. Safer roads for everyday cyclists.

One of the questions I asked was where in the pipeline do we lose women as cyclists. While there are twice as many men as women riding bikes in Canada, the gap between men and women starts when we’re young.

Outside magazine asks Why Aren’t More Girls Riding Bikes?

Partly it’s that children in general are riding less.

“According to the federal program Safe Routes to School, the number of kids commuting on bike or foot to school has plummeted from 48 percent in 1969 to 13 percent in 2009. In the CDC-funded survey, parents cited distance to school, traffic-related risks, and weather as the biggest barriers to biking and walking. Factor in distracted drivers and kids’ increasingly busy after-school schedules, and it’s no wonder that biking is such a tough sell.”

But as we know around here it’s also gendered. Girls’ participation drops off more than boys’. There’s such a thing as the play gap.

One explanation for kids moving less is the ‘protection paradox.” Parents and teachers worry about kids getting hurt and so encourage less risky play. Activities like biking and walking to school are seen as dangerous. It’s a paradox because the kids are less well off overall as a result of moving less. But the “protection paradox” is also gendered. Parents and teachers worry more about girls than boys. And that maps the result.

More from Outside: “New research presented last year shows that girls’ participation in riding drops off noticeably in adolescence. The study’s author, Jennifer Dill, an urban studies and planning professor at Portland State University, surveyed 300 families in Portland to find out how their attitudes and behavior toward bicycling changed over the course of two years. Dill found that the girls between 11 and 16 who lost interest in biking shared common concerns: They felt less safe riding in traffic (even in areas with designated bike lanes), they were uncomfortable riding alone and reported having trouble finding friends to join them, they believed cars were safer than bikes, and they thought biking took too much time.”

At the panel, my daughter talked about learning to ride as a child. She talked about riding with a bike club in Australia that taught kids to ride and race on a track. Her favourite drill was learning to ride side by side with another cyclist holding on the other rider’s shoulder. She also liked learning look back and shoulder check while continuing ahead in a straight line. These are skills that help with cycling safety and give beginning riders confidence. It’s great to teach them to kids at an age when they aren’t so afraid of falling and they’re not so self-conscious about getting things wrong.

I think this kind of skill development is especially important for girls.

I love girls on bikes. Like Ruby Isaac.


Helmets, yes, usually. Helmet laws, no.

Here’s me on the left, no helmet! I’m riding a coaster bike. I think it’s likely my top speed was 15 km/hr. it’s a beachside rental on a small island in French Polynesia. It was the kind of cycling environment where a helmet would have seemed out of place. There were parents and kids sharing a single bike. Not a helmet in sight. It was also very hot. Susan and I biked to the beach and I loved it.

I’ve also ridden bikes without helmets in Amersterdam, Bremen, and Montreal. What these cities have in common is well developed cycling infrastructure and lots of everyday people on bikes. Love riding in their protected bike lanes.

In the other photo, there’s helmeted me on bike commute to work through traffic in my usual hometown. Definitely wearing a helmet. I also wear helmets on longer, faster rides through the countryside.

My preference is for no laws requiting helmet use for adults. Why not? Well, helmets make cycling seem special and scary and put people off riding. I am concerned about cycling safety. When it comes to bike safety, numbers matter more than helmets. If fewer people ride if they’re required to ride a helmet, that’s less safe overall.

It’s one of those situations where your goal, increased safety for cyclists, is undermined by the means you choose to achieve it. You aim for all cyclists to wear helmets, increased safety, but the effect is fewer people riding. Numbers of people riding matters more to cycling safety than helmets.

For prudential reasons, I usually wear one. But there’s no need to force me.

Here’s my thoughts:

Here’s the Guardian on why helmet laws don’t save lives.

cycling · fitness

Do beach bikes have a gender? No.

This week I’m in South Carolina, enjoying some family time with my sister, her kids and a couple of her kids’ friends. We’re spending a few days at the beach enjoying sun, surf, and pool, complete with lazy river.

A water park with pool, hot tub, water features for kids, and a lazy river.
A water park with pool, hot tub, water features for kids, and a lazy river.


And of course people are riding beach cruiser bikes all over the place.

Trip advisor photo of woman riding bike happily on the beach and waving at us.
Trip advisor photo of woman riding bike happily on the beach and waving at us.

There are plenty of family friendly bike paths, a nice route for me to get a little workout, and then there’s my favorite thing: riding on hard packed sand on the beach at low tide. Bestest is doing this in early morning or at dusk.

I’ve done this a lot— renting beach bikes— and it’s a great way to enjoy fun on two wheels with people who don’t normally ride. So, I called the local bike rental place, which will deliver and pick up bikes. Oh joy!

I called and was doing the transaction when the man on the phone asked, “what are the genders of the people in your party?”

Huh? This is not information that’s needed. Which I told him. He said he wanted to determine which bikes to deliver.

I pointed out that beach bikes don’t have a gender— boys and girls can ride the same bikes. He explained that some bikes were step through.

Right. I had already told him I was a cyclist, and reminded him of this. I said that girls don’t necessarily need step through bikes, and sometimes boys do. I continued to refuse to reveal genders but would tell him their heights. When I said one person was 6’1”, he replied that he’d do a step over for “him”, and step through for the rest. I said I wanted a step over bike too.

Yes, I know I was being grumpy, and it’s not cool to argue with people trying to do their jobs.

And yet— the gender stereotyping of bikes irritates me. It happens all the time, with princess bikes, “shrink and pink” sports gear for women, etc.  By the way, my 15 year old niece agrees with me- she just wants a bike. Period.

Yes, there are reasons to pick step through bikes and reasons to pick step over bikes. Gender just isn’t one of those reasons.

Now back to my family fun time!

cycling · Guest Post

It’s been awhile, but whoooeeeee I’m back (Guest post)

by Eleanor Brown

I don’t know why I stopped bicycling, but it’s been two years. I just did.

Perhaps it was the run of extremely bad luck in my personal life (some of it of my own making) that led to the sort of self-absorbed sadness that made it impossible to allow myself to have fun. Or the studied grouchiness I then adopted, designed to make me unapproachable, leaving me totally too growly to ride, thank you very much. Outta my way, jerkface pedestrian, or I’ll run you over. Asshole. My riding would have made life for others far too unpleasant.

Nah. It was more likely to be sheer laziness. That one sounds right.

Moving to a new home surrounded by huge intimidating hills? The replacement of a beloved old clunker that never really worked properly with some new-fangled two-wheeler that just never had the same personality…?

I dunno. I just didn’t feel like it.

Two years is a long time, and I was not doing any other exercise, either. Recently I started huffing and puffing when walking up flights of stairs. I was getting out of shape in very unpleasant ways. And so slowly, slowly, I started thinking about bicycles. Thinking some more, then a smidgeon extra. Remembering how much fun it is to zoom about on two wheels.

Suddenly, spring has arrived again. The green grass pushing up and the leaves unfurling and the flowers peeking out and the spring in my step.

Bit by bit over the last month I have gotten reacquainted with my bicycle. I’ve pulled it out of storage and found the perfect spot for it to rest, close enough to the door to easily scoot it out, but far enough that it’s not underfoot. Bought a brand spanking new bike lock. Put air in the tires and oiled up the chain. Shook the bicycle a few times to make sure everything was still screwed together — nope, nothing fell off (hey, I’m not a mechanic!). Started plotting possible routes, along bike lanes, through parks, calculating the path of least hilliness. And then the final step: I avoided buying a new monthly bus pass.

Now here I am. Awake at 5 a.m. the first Monday of the month, planning to get. My. Butt. In. The. Saddle.

Yeah, baby. Wind in my hair, legs pumping, lovely scenery, fresh air!!!

Wait. It’s freezing. And raining. Crap. No way.

Tuesday. Let’s try for Tuesday.

About Eleanor Brown: I’m a writer, Jim, not a mechanic.

cycling · feminism · Guest Post · traveling

Guest Post: Feminist Biking in Italy (or, Feminism 101 in Lecce)

When I found myself on a bicycle trip through Italy with my mom (about which I wrote last week, the last thing I thought I’d be doing was discussing the basics of feminism over dinner with an eclectic bunch of strangers. But there I was, at a little pizzeria just off the main square of the fascinating Baroque town of Lecce, debating, discussing, and explaining the social construction of gender norms, structural injustice, affirmative action, #MeToo, and consent, with a rather unlikely audience.

As I wrote last week, I’m new to biking and to biking culture. I’ve never been on an organized trip of this sort, I’ve never biked long distances (alone or with others), so I’m not sure what it does to people and how (and whether) it can transform them. When a bunch of random people who haven’t chosen to be together are thrown together, does this make them more open to ideas that they’ve never encountered? Are people less closed and closed minded when they’re biking with strangers of different stripes?

Probably not, but the following events have at least compelled me to ask such questions.


(Image description: Baroque cathedral in Lecce)

On every night of the trip but one, there was an organized dinner where all fourteen participants ate together. On the one night where we were on our own, I found myself at dinner with my mother, a 71-year-old spitfire feminist lawyer, a retired successful businessman, his son (who’s my age), and our southern Italian bike guide.

Typically, I don’t socialize with businessmen (or women, for that matter). We just don’t run in the same circles. But during this trip, on several short rides, I found myself biking alongside the businessman. Attempting to make conversation, I asked him why very wealthy, successful business people keep doing business and making more money, even when they probably already have more money than they could ever spend.

He tried to explain it to me. I didn’t really get it. He joked with me about being a philosophy professor who teaches ethics. We implicitly agreed that we just aren’t interested in the same things.


(Image description: ancient ruins found underneath main square in Lecce)

But at dinner that night, he asked me what I do. And he was interested in hearing more than the 30-second stock answer. So I told him. I talked a bit about a book I’m writing (on microaggressions and medicine) and about some of the classes I teach (feminist philosophy, medical ethics).

Surprisingly, the feminism part piqued his interest.

His questions kept coming; they were genuine. “Why focus on women?” “Can’t we just have ‘humanism’”? “Why affirmative action? “Is it wrong to just hire the ‘best candidate’?” And many other standard objections that arise when people are first exposed to such ideas.

I’ve been having conversations of this sort long enough to be able to distinguish between two different types of interlocutors: those who’ve made up their minds about what they think before the conversation begins, who push on only to have more ways to disagree with you, and who who just get a kick out of getting you riled up; and those who ask questions because they really want to learn about ideas that are different from their own. Though up until that point I would have pegged him for the former, during our conversation, it became very clear to me that he was the latter.

Had he been the former, I would have quickly and politely ended the conversation. It’s too easy to make yourself vulnerable and to get too invested in an argument, only to continually run up against a cement wall. But as the conversation drew on, it became clear that he really wanted to understand how gender is socially constructed, what the implications of that are, and why the claim “but I just worry that my 6 year-old-grandson, because he’s male, will have it so much more difficult than his twin sister” is problematic and misguided.

Everyone at the table was chiming in. The scope of our discussion expended. We talked about cultural differences regarding conversational norms and touching (in Italy, in Germany, in the United States), and why it’s dangerous to just assume that everyone wants to be hugged and that hugging is always a benign gesture.

After several hours, the pizza got cold, the wine (for those of us drinking it) had dried up, our muscles were tired from the day’s biking, and we realized that we needed to get up early to peddle away for another day. The dinner was lovely; the conversation was heated, but not aggressive. We all agreed that we’d enjoyed the evening and we walked back to the hotel together.

Over the next two days I thought a bit about how unexpected it was to have such an animated, extensive, genuine, and lovely conversation with such an unlikely interlocutor. He’s a thoughtful guy and we sure had plenty of hours left on our trip to do some good thinking on our bikes. I assumed he was thinking about some of what we’d said, I hoped so, but I didn’t really know.

During some of the subsequent social interactions with those who were out for dinner that night, we joked around about touching, hugging, and consent, but not in a way that ridiculed these issues. On the contrary, the jokes were sincere and well-intended attempts to go over some of the conceptual terrain that we covered that night. It felt to me that I’d gotten some ideas across and people were working them out for themselves.

Then we biked some more.


(Image description: author and her mother in the close by town of Alberobello)

But it wasn’t until our dinner on the last night that I realized what a difference our conversation had had. The entire group plus our two guides were seated at two long tables. I was sitting next to the businessman, now friend, who was positioned at the head of the table. We were chatting and he mentioned that we should thank our guides for a wonderful week. I agreed. I assumed he would take the lead on this. He’s a good public speaker and would have done a great job.

But he pulled me aside and said, “But you know, I’m a man, and most of the people on this trip are women. And you know, I wouldn’t want to just speak for them. I don’t really feel right speaking on behalf of everyone. You should do it.”

I looked at him, astonished. Proud.

I thought to myself, “Wow, I came here to bike. Not really to make friends. Not to convert wealthy businessmen to feminists.” What he said was on the one hand, a tiny gesture; but on the other hand, indicative of careful self-reflection and mindfulness of the impact of our small actions, like speaking for others.

Do I think people really change their minds and beliefs on the basis of one conversation in a small Italian town over delicious pizza? Definitely not. Will I ever see this person again, let alone become friends them? Probably not.

But this experience made ponder how intense biking, when are aren’t immersed in the habits of our daily routines, might make us reconsider our long-held beliefs, and maybe even change our minds.

Not only can a biking trip change one’s attitude or expose one to foreign ideas, but I’m coming to see that it can also reestablish faith in the openness and receptivity of other.


Happy World Bicycle Day!

Hope you had a great day and a great bicycle ride!

cycling · fitness

Happy #BikeToWorkDay from the bloggers at Fit is a Feminist Issue!

June is Bike to Work Month and we kick it off with Bike to Work Day. That’s Monday, May 28th. See here.

Tracy kicked if off early and blogged about it last week. She’s back in the saddle again!

I’ve signed up for the Guelph Bike to Work Monday and hope to win some prizes and meet some fellow cyclists.

Some of us at Fit is a Feminist Issue are celebrating Bike to Work Day on the blog by sharing photos of ourselves and our commuter bikes on the blog on Monday. (And we’re also biking to work of course!)

Want in? Send me a photo of you and your commuter bike. Include your name, kind of bike, where you live, how far you ride and one other fun fact about you and biking to work.

Email Sam at

Looking forward to seeing your bikes.

And you too, of course!


Type of bike: Specialized Globe San Francisco
Lives and works in London, Ontario
Bike to work is about 9K round trip
Fun fact: Door to door it is faster for me to bike to work than drive, park, and walk to my office. And I love the bike path that I get to take beside the river almost all the way.


My commuter bike is a Giant AnyRoad. It’s not a cyclocross bike and it’s not a road bike. It’s a style called Adventure Road bike. See here for a description of why you might want to commute on this style of bike. It’s good on pavement, grass, and gravel. I’ve got it loaded down with German panniers. Usually they contain a change of clothes, a bike lock, lunch, my laptop, books…




I’m traveling in Bhutan right now and have been riding a huge mountain bike in the actual mountains. But normally in Toronto I ride a sleek hybrid Opus to all of my work gigs. The distance varies from about 5 km to many of my client site to about 9 uphill if I go to Sunnybrook hospital. I have to psych myself up for that one. I also have to be thoughtful about what I’m wearing, since I don’t have an office and can’t usually change. There are a lot of shorts under dresses. It’s the best way to navigate Toronto traffic and actually know what time I’ll arrive — ttc is way less reliable. I do have a doubleb lock since my 7 year old mec bike was stolen while I was at a meeting a couple of years ago.


Jennifer Burns is a reader of the blog and the Executive Director of the Canadian Philosophical Association. I’m the President and we were meeting Friday to chat about our annual congress. She showed up at the coffee shop we like to work in on this gorgeous bike. It’s an Achielle, a classic Belgian bike that cost her a medium sized fortune but since she doesn’t have a car she decided it was okay to spend a lot of money on a bike.


I have discovered that the ride to my Mom’s house is far easier than the path to return to my own place. But, the path to Mom’s is downhill so, maybe that’s a whole different metaphor?
I work from home so when I ‘bike to work’, it’s actually me leaving my house, going for a ride and then returning to my house. But that’s good for creating a separation between home time and work time.

I didn’t have any specific criteria for choosing a helmet, so I picked one with similar swirls as the ones on my bike. I thought the connection between the helmet and the bike would help me move smoothly – like a kind of magic, you know?


Bettina’s bike is an 8-gear Diamant 247. Diamant is a traditional German bike manufacturer from the East of the country and one of the few success stories of companies that thrived after the demise of communism, although it is now a subsidiary of Trek. Bettina bought her bike six years ago for bike commuting purposes in Hamburg, Germany, which is a very flat city. She now lives in hilly Heidelberg, where she works at the top of a particularly steep hill and no longer bike commutes to work (8 gears just won’t cut it), but she cycles pretty much everywhere else in the city.