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.