Aviva Stephens | Bikes are for boys: Cycling while woman

EDITOR’S NOTE: Aviva Stephens is a Seattle native and financial professional who discovered the benefits and joys of cycling on her challenging work commute between Ballard and the Eastside. She just launched a new blog called Biking In the Rain, which is also on Instagram at @bikingintherain. Find more of her writing on Medium and follow her on Instagram at @avivarachelle.

As a young girl I rode my bike everywhere around town, to the corner store for my daily candy stash, through the lovely wooded areas around Seattle, and the beaches along Lake Washington. But once I hit my tweens I became consumed with the tidiness of my apparel, containing my offensive odor, and maintaining a cool facade that included no outwardly appearance of effort or trying. While the boys remained boys, I was being groomed by society to be a young lady for the remainder of my school days and into my professional career as a tax accountant. As I proceeded to pursue my life ambitions the bike of my childhood gathered dust in the garage, and those moments of joy slowly faded from memory.

In finding my way to bike commuting, I was faced with the unexpected challenge of having to hunt down where I fit in the bike community as a woman. In every facet of my experience — from shopping for bikes to finding folks to ride with to procuring bike apparel — there are countless implications that bikes are for boys. The majority of bike shops are full of boy employees, group rides are led by the boys from the bike shop, and the readily available apparel seems to only fit athletic boy like bodies.

I use the word boy rather than man because there is a certain child playfulness with cycling so boy seems more fitting. While navigating my way to bike commuting is much more challenging than purchasing a car at my local dealership, the benefits are enormous, including health, sanity, and most importantly finding my childlike spirit at least once during my work day.

It’s the little things

As a marginalized minority, I’ve grown accustomed to confused glances and microaggressive questions when I repeatedly defy stereotypes in my day-to-day life, but I was shocked to find this same friction present on my journey to bike commuting. While there’s no sign over the bike shop that says “boys only,” it’s the little things that send the “boys only” message loud and clear.  Just the other day my coworker took a glance at my sick-ass All-City road bike and asked “is that is girls bike,” then shoots me a confused glance that implied “because bikes for boys.”

Everywhere along my journey there are these little “boys only” signs that create a boys’ club mentality in the bike community.  Here’s a few that I’ve observed:

  • Bike shops are full of boys because bikes are for boys.
  • Online bike shops have three bike categories — Bikes, Women, and Kids — because bikes are for boys. While I can understand having a separate Kids category since Kids are usually smaller than adults, I’m still perplexed as to the difference between a Bike’s bike and a Woman’s bike. From the few Women’s bikes that I’ve seen the geometry tends to be a less aggressive riding position with a wide cushier saddle. Am I supposed to wear a corset and ride side saddle?
  • Levi’s line of bike commute apparel is only available for men because bikes are for boys.  This one is especially grading to me because I wear Levi’s religiously for bike riding. I give Levi’s my hard earned cash, sing their praises as great jeans for riding and yet they deliberately choose to not serve my demographic when developing their commute specific apparel line.
  • Bike helmets and hats, also available in the familiar “Bike, Women, and Kids” categories, but more ironic because even the Women’s helmets have no room for hair that is longer than two straight inches because bikes helmets are for boys with short straight hair. The Women’s helmets also tend to be smaller, do boys have big heads?
  • Even my beloved All-City bikes have masculine names like Macho Man, Nature Boy, and Cosmetic Stallion because bikes are for boys. My bike is a Mr. Pink and I’m pretty sure it’s named after Steve Buscemi’s character from Reservoir Dogs.

In navigating my way through the bike misogyny, I was lucky enough to encounter some badass cycling divas that gave me some great advice that enabled me to overcome these hurdles. Just being the presence of women in the bike community was super encouraging because it allowed me to envision myself on a bike.  It may sound simple, but we all need role models to inspire us.

Second, when I set out to purchase a bike, my friend Martina from Swift Industries (Editor’s Note: Swift is a longtime Seattle Bike Blog sponsor) told me, “Forget about bike reviews, websites, or what anyone else thinks, just go to all of the bike shops and ride as many bikes as you can until you find the bike that fits.” And that’s what I did. Bike shopping can be overwhelming, but just being in the bike shops, talking about what I want and learning everything I could is what catapulted me into the bike community.

Ultimately I purchased my All-City from Counterbalance, but it was only after a conversation I had with the folks at Free Range Cycles that led me there. I also learned my way around a bike from a reasonably-priced bike class offered at the Montlake Bicycle Shop.

Finally, there are great bike groups such as Black Girls Do Bike, Cascade Bicycle Club, and Friends on Bikes that have helped me along the way.

While there is an emerging support system for newbies to cycling coming from the margins, the social stigma of cycling while woman is still pervasive and continues to be a challenge every day I ride.

Is that a woman?…on a bike!

A few years ago I took an Eat, Pray, Love type excursion to France, my version was more like Drink, Eat, Shop. For the Drink portion of my journey, I rented a mountain bike in the Burgundy Valley and pedaled through the vineyards along a country road, popping into wineries along the way. The illustration below is from my trip, does it look like rolling hills of grapevines?

Côte de Beaune, France

I feel this image completely sums up the experience of cycling while woman because of a comment that a cheery English woman said to me during dinner after my ride. As I was taking my first sip of silky white burgundy, this woman walked up to me and curiously stated that had she had spotted me on my bike earlier that day and gleefully inquired to her husband “Is that a woman?…On a bike!” The combination of her shock, confusion, envy, joy, and proper English accent seemed to encompass the collective reaction to women in cycling.

  • Shocked at the sight because it’s uncommon,
  • Confused because bikes are for boys,
  • Envious of the smile on my face,
  • Joyous because of the realization that she could do it as well, and
  • Her seemingly sophisticated accent implied that woman are proper and bikes are not.

While planning this trip I had often fantasized about how romantic it would be to glide effortlessly through the grapevines while encountering handsome French wine makers. However, I was surprised at how much Burgundy, France, resembled Yakima, Washington, and my butt was killing after riding a cheap road bike over questionable country roads under the hot sun. At the end of the day I was covered in dirt and sweat, but fortunately I was able to take a hot shower and get gussied up before my eloquently French dining experience.

Women don’t sweat

This juxtaposition of my picturesque ride through wine country and the reality of my sore buns and sweaty dirty skin as a result is the same conundrum that I face with bike commuting everyday. While there are several aspects of bike commuting that are unwelcoming to women, I think the largest hurdle to get over is sweat. First, women don’t sweat…but we do, so confusing. I’m not saying that women don’t sweat ever, but it is not socially acceptable for woman to sweat in open spaces (unless you’re jogging) which is evidenced by the hordes of women squirreling away in yoga studios, Orange Fitness, Barre classes, SoulCycle, and the corners of the women’s only section of the gym.

While I have yet to change the minds and hearts of American society that will allow women to sweat out loud, I have discovered a few tricks that have helped me overcome this unrealistic sweat-less standard for my daily commute.

The biggest hurdle in the sweat battle is the implication that one must get dressed at work if they want to pedal to the office. Implied because traditional office apparel is neither bike nor sweat friendly, so if you want to bike commute you must get dressed at work.

Get dressed at work? No thanks! This is a nightmare for woman because of the plethora of toiletries that are required to for a woman to face day. Should a woman decide to go the get-dressed-at-work rout for her daily commute she must choose to either set up a second dressing room at the office or tote it back and forth on the bike. Again, no thanks! Despite the mental weight of having to maintain a mobile dressing room, my apparel and tidiness are my amore to face the long days of unwanted advances, constant critique, and doubtful glances of my skills and abilities.

Since I don’t subscribe to the get-dressed-at-work program, I search high and low for apparel that can withstand ten or so miles on the daily ride. While I am a tax professional, I am fortunate to work at a technology company where I can wear jeans and tee shirts in the office. However, I still don’t want to arrive to my morning meetings in a sweaty tee, so let’s address this sweat issue head on.

Office friendly bike apparel

No matter what your style there are a few things you can look for at your favorite shops that will get you from bike to conference room.

  • Natural and breathable properties — Cotton and wool are my dependable go to fabrics. Cotton is light and breathable, it’s not so quick drying but is durable to washing and easy to clean. Wool is the magical fabric that is breathable, durable and quick drying. Breathability is key because is moderates your body temperature that fluctuates while riding.
  • Flexible pants and tops — look for a little elastic in the your garments, this allows for greater range of motion for your ride.
  • No polyester — this a tough one because polyester is a cornerstone of the American apparel industry, it’s cheap, durable and long lasting so it’s hard to find garments without it. But it’s horrible for bike riding (or life in general) because it’s not breathable and holds odor. So if you are really concerned about sweat then polyester is your enemy.
  • Tapered pants and knee length skirts  —  bicycles have chains and gears, so if there’s flowing fabric from the calf down it can get caught in the gears and you could lose your bottoms before your first meeting.
  • Shoes with grip — thankfully we live in a time where functional shoes can also be fashionable. The things to look for in a casual bike shoe is a good grip for engagement with the pedal, comfort for comfort, and a good snug fit. If the shoe is not firmly affixed to your foot then you risk losing the shoe and falling off the bike. I could go on forever on this topic, but I will stop here and dedicate an entire post to office friendly bike apparel.

Let’s ride

I wrote this post because anytime I’m on my bike or talk about riding, I get questions from women on how I accomplished the task. I’ve heard several stories about how people used to ride bikes as girls, or in college, or before they got married, pregnant, or moved cities. So ladies, let’s ride! If you used to ride and miss the joys or if you’ve thought of riding but don’t know how, feel free to ask me questions and share your stories in the comments🚴🏾‍♀️

About Aviva Stephens

Aviva Stephens is a Seattle native and financial professional who discovered the benefits and joys of cycling on her challenging work commute between Ballard and the Eastside. She is the author of the blog Biking In the Rain, which is also on Instagram at @bikingintherain. Find more of her writing on Medium and follow her on Instagram at @avivarachelle.
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35 Responses to Aviva Stephens | Bikes are for boys: Cycling while woman

  1. Tom Fucoloro says:

    Thanks, Aviva! Everyone should also go check out her new blog: https://bikingintherain.com

  2. Jess says:

    Thanks for the great article Aviva! As a female who cycles (and tries to bike commute whenever possible), I’ve encountered many of the subtle sources of friction you mention. Always great to hear my struggles well-articulated!

  3. I agree that the primary demographic for road cyclists is pretty much cranky old men (the term of art is “MAMIL” = middle aged men in lycra.)

    However, in the Seattle area we have quite an avid group of women cyclists. Here are a few suggestions to help you connect:

    –check out the Cascade Bicycle Club’s “She Bikes” program; the Cascade Bicycle Club has a group of women ride leaders who provide awesome support and can connect you with like-minded women. Although I haven’t heard of anyone doing the splits on a bike??

    –The Rapha store on Pine is hosting a “Women Gone Riding” series through the end of the summer

    –There are a couple of Ws only cycling clubs. Check out the Spokeswomen and Team Thrive. They are obstensibly “teams” but welcome riders of any skill and interest.

    –Mountain biking and cyclocross are more diverse than road cycling. Give those subdisiciplines a look and you might find some kindred spirits.

    Best of luck!

  4. Lauren says:

    Thanks for the post. I just moved out of the city a few months ago, but I mused on this last year. I worked for a tech company downtown and of my 150 office mates there was only one other women who would ride in occasionally.

    “Sometimes the number of womxn I share the road with is three or four bicycles deep, and I feel lucky enough to have stumbled upon this convention of sorts. Often, though, I am the lone goddess, being passed by folx in spandex or “work” clothes, not carrying much more than a small knapsack or just a bike lock in their back pocket, if anything. I am often envious and maybe annoyed that their bag isn’t full of toiletries and a hair dryer or several layers of clothing and shoes and accessories. I have found that I have kept up my pedicures and shaved my legs more often because I have convinced myself it balances out my slightly disheveled, make-up free mornings after a seven-mile ride up and down the Seattle landscape.”
    http://fitnesspromiscuous.com/2017/09/19/femme-road-ramblings-you-go-grrrl/

  5. Leelee says:

    Preach girl!!!

  6. bryan willman says:

    Pointless nonsense – and surely it wears on one. (Also, bikes are not just “for boys”, bikes are for thin middle height athletic boys!)

    One of the worst bits to me is “because of the plethora of toiletries that are required … for a woman to face [the] day.”

    *I* was always allowed to show up and work in peace having merely taken a shower and put on clothes. Would seem that Aviva ought to be allowed the same…

    Is this a thing that some part of woman “culture” forces on woman, or a broader thing? It’s a deep part of the nonsense.

    Persist!

    • The male privilege in this statement is galling. Check yourself dude.

      • Brock Howell says:

        I too struggled with Bryan’s comment. After re-reading it (focusing on the middle paragraphs, not the beginning), I think his beginning paragraphs/sentences were meant to say that the “boy” culture of bicycling and, more specifically in the last sentence, the pressure for women to not sweat in public, was disheartening. I think Bryan meant to express agreement/allyship with Aviva.

      • JAT says:

        I agree with Brock Howell’s interpretation, but love the knee-jerk response, Marley.

        But hopefully we’ve gotten to the point where it’s okay to just do what you want to do bike-wise and wear what you want to wear, but easy for me to say – I’ve got short straight helment-friendly hair…

  7. Robert says:

    Counterbalance is a fantastic bike shop…I didn’t buy my bike there, but they’ve performed numerous repairs on both my bikes (often fixing the mistakes of other bike shops), and I go there first for any bike-related issues. It’s so awesome that a great bike shop like that is right on the Burke.

    And to my great shame…Counterbalance is the ONLY bike shop I’ve been to that actually had a woman mechanic! (If that weren’t enough, I’ve only been on one airline with a woman pilot…and that was Vietnam Airlines!). So yeah, we need more women working on bikes, to be sure.

    Thanks for the eye-opening article.

    • Brock Howell says:

      Free Range Cycles in Fremont is/was woman-owned. However, Kathleen is retiring and selling the shop.

      Recycled Cycles, Bike Works, G&O Family Cycles, Velo Bike Shop have / have had woman and trans mechanics.

      • Lisa says:

        Oh no! I love Kathleen and Free Range cycles! Very sad to see her go, but also glad she can retire.

  8. Nick says:

    “I use the word boy rather than man because there is a certain child playfulness with cycling so boy seems more fitting.”

    Why is this necessary? Men also ride bikes, not just women, girls, and boys.

    • Brock Howell says:

      I don’t mind it too much. As adults, there’s little space for us to play like kids. The freedom and joy of a bicycle definitely makes me feel like a kid, and so in that context I don’t mind the the use of “boy” to connote that feeling on a bike.

      To the extent that the use of the word “boy” was meant to underscore how childish men can be in treating women within the bike community, well, I’m just ashamed at our collective conduct.

  9. Kelsey says:

    Yes!! When I was a teen I asked my older brother (who was big into bikes and a major inspiration of mine) if I would enjoy biking. He told me, no, I don’t think so, you need too much gear and it’s a whole process to get suited up and go for a ride. I did not take up biking until 10 years after that.

    Turns out none of that is true. You can just hop on a bike, skirt be damned, and pedal wherever the eff you want to go for however long or short the ride is. I also ride in heels (with grip).

    The expectations culture has for women and for biking need to change, and giving voice to experience is part of that push, so THANKS Aviva!!

    (Still love my brother, but point stands.)

    • Brock Howell says:

      Your brother’s message was a total bummer! Glad you finally jumped on a bike and rode away from his forewarning!

    • Ragged Robin says:

      To be fair there seems to be a confusion about differentiating “cycling” and “roadie” culture–the latter being what your brother seemed to be referring to, which encompasses fandom of the professional sport with it’s own traditions and culture involving $5000 bikes and holding threshold power for twenty minutes every six weeks. “Roadies” are a very small demographic of “cyclists” in the bigger picture.

  10. Thanks for writing this Aviva! I’ve encountered many of the same things that you write about- especially casual biking clothes, misogyny in bike shops, and the assumption that womxn don’t bike.

    I’ve helped run Moxie Monday for the past few years, and it’s so damn empowering to ride with a bunch of other women/trans/femme identifying people and not get questioned for being a lady on a bike.

    Thanks for putting yourself out there and let’s go for a ride sometime!

  11. Brock Howell says:

    This is a fantastic article and I love Aviva’s blog.

    One of the key philosophies I hope the city’s bike culture & organizations and the industry as a whole will recognize soon is that we shouldn’t treat all women as the same.

    As Aviva highlights, men/boys get plenty of options of bike subcultures, activities, and equipment to choose from. As she states, there are four boy-themed All-City bikes, all quite similar, the main differences being in quality of components. Men get boy-dominated racing, randonneur, and social clubs, plus a plethora of boy-dominated bike shops.

    While we have to start somewhere in creating inviting spaces for women within the bike community, we must also recognize that the end-solution isn’t one club, activity, and bike that caters to all women. There must be dozens, if not hundreds, of options. An ecosystem of choices. So many options that women biking is the social norm; so many options because women biking is the social norm.

    So my request is: when designing new women-only programs, product lines, and groups, be willing to cater to specific subsets, and encourage other programs, product lines and groups to cater to other specific subsets. The more programs, products, and groups we create, the better odds a woman new to bicycling can find what works for herself.

    • Lisa says:

      Also the pink. All I want is a bright green shirt. Or gray pants (that come in sizes larger than 12, thank you very much). Maybe black? WITHOUT pink flowers?

  12. Chad Miller says:

    Jamis is a women owned bike company – their bikes rock! (and they’re sold at Counterbalance – where I bought mine)

  13. TrustyBiker says:

    Thank you for the great article!

    I need some advice. I love biking. I have a commuter, which I trash daily, and a fast bike for longer rides that require more speed and precision.

    However, the fast bikes offer up a unique situation with their wire rimmed tires. Here is an example of how this causes problems for me: I was out with a group of my cycling lady friends this weekend on our fast bikes and one of my friends got a flat. We had all the appropriate equipment to change the flat, but not the necessary hand strength. I ended up breaking one of my lever tools, and puncturing two of the tubes in my struggle to get the tire back on the wheel. We ended up (to my humiliation) taking the bike to a local bike shop where the male bike mechanic whipped the tire off and on using hand strength alone. He recommended we don’t use the lever tools and use hand strength.

    What is the solution for women who don’t have a similar hand strength? Advice from the biking community is needed!

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      I’ve had that problem, too.

      • Aviva says:

        Same. Changing a bike tire tube is brutal no what the gender. It’s more about practice and finger strangth and calisis as a result. There’s no shame in going to a bike shop for help😎

      • TrustyBiker says:

        Good to know it is not a gender issue! Thanks for the feedback.

    • (Another) Tom says:

      Go tubeless. You’ll dramatically reduce your odds of getting a flat.

      Also having a pair of rubberized gloves like Ninja Ices or gardening gloves in your flat kit really help with gripping and not tearing your palm skin when mounting a tire.

      Finally, some tire/rim combinations are just tougher than others so consider a different tire when time for replacement.

    • Luea says:

      I had a similar problem getting a tire off once and Back Alley bike repair taught me a trick. Take the wheel off the bike and the tube is mostly deflated. Sit on the wheel with your full weight. With one lever insert it at about 2 o’clock or so. With the opposite hand from the side the lever is on grab the lever and push down all while seated on the wheel. I did not believe that mechanic that this method would work for me. He made it looks so easy but it turns out it worked just as well when I tried it.

      In my situation, I was changing to new tires so I had to deflate the tire but it worked best with a little are in it. You had a flat but maybe add a bit of air even if leaking out.

    • Al Dimond says:

      I used to have lots of trouble with tires and rims — I’ve never won any awards for arm/grip strength or motor skills (I have a couple weird joint issues that hinder my grip strength a little and cause wrist problems), but my struggles seemed to go beyond what I would expect.

      The thing I found was that the tire bead wanted to “seat” on the edge of the rim as I was trying to pull other parts of the tire over the rim. What you want is for the other parts of the tire bead to be all the way down inside the rim, especially directly opposite from where you’re trying to pull it over. Sometimes the tire bead keeps seating itself, and I have to continually push it back inside the rim. Doing that makes it a lot easier to pull over. Since figuring this out removing and installing tires has become massively easier. I’m sure some people think this is obvious advice that everyone knows, but… I’ve been biking my whole life and I didn’t have the ability to consistently get tires over rims until I was over 30, and the change was all technique.

      So when I see people change tires with their bare hands in no-time flat I have the same reaction as when I see guitarists play barre chords cleanly on acoustic for 10 minutes straight: they’re probably stronger than I am, but they definitely have better technique than I do, and it’s probably the technique that makes most of the difference. They may have that technique so ingrained they forget it’s a technique thing and focus on strength, but it really shouldn’t take superhuman strength.

      With narrow rims, with stiff/flat-proof tires, or with certain combinations of tires and rims that disagree a little on the measurements, it still can take a bit of force and some lever work. Fortunately, last I read, super-narrow rims and tires are out of fashion on road bikes. Apparently it’s better to save weight elsewhere and use wider tires/rims at lower pressure to decrease rolling resistance on rough surfaces… something like that.

    • Alan says:

      A Kool Stop tire bead jack will do the trick.

  14. Matt says:

    Tough tire and rim combinations can happen to any person on a bike. I have used two solutions. This seems to be less of a problem with wider tires. I also like the Kool Stop Tire Bead Jack. (light enough to carry with you/does take some practice) on Amazon for $12.

  15. Conrad says:

    The whole tire thing is an industry wide issue. I think the problem is that with the advent of tubeless compatible rims a lot of tires dont fit well. Personally, I seek out traditional rims that wont make changing tubes a pain in the ass. If you do have tubeless compatible rims, get yourself some Park TL-1 tire levers. Otherwise you will break your tire levers. Male or female.
    There are a lot of elitists out there but thanks for the reminder that bikes are for everybody. Nobody owns “bike culture”. Just ride and dont worry what others think. Whoever has the most fun wins.

  16. Tom P. says:

    Fantastic! More like this please!!!

  17. PSJ says:

    Thanks Aviva.

    I feel like your positive spirit and strength really shine through in your writing. I’m of the mature skinny white male biking subspecies; and feel bad for the exclusionary experiences you’ve had. I would like to imagine that “I’m not one of them” (the exclusionary types); but I’m taking this as a wake-up/reminder to carefully monitor my interactions, and to support women in the biking community.

    Thanks for being “out there” – being a strong advocate and role model.

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