Women Bike Chicago/Lura Meisch

Bike-share programs haven’t closed up the gender gap. All-female riding groups are stepping in.

We know from a 2009 survey from the Federal Highway Administration that women took only 24 percent of bicycle trips in the U.S. that year. Even bike-share programs, which are meant to draw people who wouldn’t normally ride, have failed to close the gender gap. Three-fourths of people using the three largest bike-share programs in the country are men, according to data analyzed by Buzzfeed in 2014.

Bike advocates cite lots of reasons for why women don’t bike: We have to deal with bikes that are designed for men and saddles that aren’t very comfortable. And then there’s practical stuff: figuring out how to haul groceries and children on bikes, and how show up to our jobs without looking sweaty and unprofessional. Another major issue: male-dominated bike groups and shops might not be welcoming spaces for women.

“There’s a sense that women want to participate in less-threatening, more inviting groups for women,” says Elizabeth Adamczyk, chair of Women Bike Chicago. Though cycling and bike commuting are largely male-dominated, communities of women bike riders have been popping up quietly all over the country, meeting the need for more inclusive spaces.

I started cycling in my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, in 2011. After I got the hang of basic riding skills, I joined my city’s Critical Mass ride, and then a co-ed pub ride. Even in places with improving bike infrastructure and a lively cycling community, like my Texas city, it’s hard not to see that men work in the shops and lead co-ed group rides. That lack of female representation in the bike community is what drew me to be more active in my town’s all-female cycling group, Bicycle Betties. Since consistently riding with Betties, I’ve seen women develop friendships, change flat tires, fundraise for Planned Parenthood, and become a community.

Finding the right fit

“Women interact differently with each other,” says Amy Leslie, a friend and fellow Bicycle Betty. “When you’re with a group of women, you talk about your life, your job, men, your kids.”  

And how your bike feels.

Melissa Balmer, who works for the California Bicycle Coalition, remembers stopping by a bike shop and overhearing a male employee telling a woman that she had to get used to uncomfortable saddles. “I had to jump in,” Balmer says. She chimed in to say that the woman might not get used to it—she might just stop riding. “When you have that mentality, a lot of people just decide, no thank you, I don’t want to participate,” Balmer says. “Women feel more comfortable asking other women, ‘how do you deal with this or that?’”

The saddle library at Gladys Bikes. (Courtesy Gladys Bikes)

Leah Benson has heard this issue come up again and again. She owns Gladys Bikes, a women-focused bike shop in Portland, Oregon. Benson opened her shop after too many conversations with women and trans folks who couldn’t find a comfortable fit. A number of customers told her that limited saddles had turned them away.

She’s set out to make riding more comfortable for women. Gladys Bikes is outfitted with smaller bike frames, often better suited for women, and a wider range of bikes and saddles. To address seat-related issues, her shop offers a saddle library that customers to “check out” saddles to test for the best fit. Some saddles, for example, are designed for the female anatomy, where the nose and mid-sections are shorter and more flexible, and wider in the rear to support women’s sit bones. Other things, like wheel size and bike geometry, can affect riders depending on height and comfort level.

Shifting the language

Balmer is now the director and founder of PedalLove.org, a project working to normalize biking for women through storytelling. She advocates for using the phrases “people who ride bikes” or “women who ride bikes.” That’s partly because “cyclist” can be exclusionary, Balmer says. “In the past 25 or 30 years, the focus on bicycling in the United States has been on growing the sport of cycling,” she adds. “A lot of women don’t identify with lycra and helmets.” She’s found that rides involving an activity with food and drinks, like riding to a café or restaurant to socialize, attract women who don’t see themselves as cyclists.

Robin Bylenga has also found this to be true. The majority of the rides hosted at her Greenville, South Carolina, bike shop, Pedal Chic, are casual rides meant to attract new women riders. “Not everyone wants to get on a bike to ride 60 miles,” Bylenga says. “We meet at the shop, go on the trail, come back and socialize. It brings people in and creates an environment that’s unintimidating and fun.” She hopes to start a “mother's’ morning out” ride soon.

Recruiting women riders

Adamczyk of Women Bike Chicago has found that you have to reach out to women riders specifically.

“If you advertise there’s going to be a bike maintenance seminar, you’ll get primarily men,” she says. “If you advertise that there’s going to be a women’s bike maintenance seminar, you’ll get women.“ She says that, since a lot of women know bike communities are male-dominated, they respond to the invitation to show up and ride in a female space.

Pedal Chic hosts rides for female cyclists. (Courtesy Pedal Chic)

Monica Garrison has connected with a more hidden community of riders: women of color. “There weren’t too many women that looked like me on bikes,” says Garrison, who started riding regularly in 2013. Her cycling group Black Girls Do Bike grew out of a Facebook page. It now has more than 65 chapters. “I was surprised by how many women of color came out of the woodwork,” she says.

Bicycle Betties helped Leslie, who joined after her divorce in 2010, to learn the rules of the road. “Before that, cars were a little more scary,” she says. “I would avoid busy intersections. Riding with the Betties, I learned that it’s OK to mix with cars. I gained riding confidence.” She found the Betties to be a less intimidating, comforting space. “I was not really interested in meeting a bunch of dudes,” she adds. “I thought it’d be a really fun thing to ride bikes with a bunch of women.”

“There are some people that would prefer to learn with their own gender,” says Bylenga, who oversees six female employees and one male. “That’s how I felt when I was doing a swimming class. It was less intimidating to learn with other women.”

Like many women who ride in women-only groups, Leslie and I both also ride in co-ed groups, where we’ve made friends and socialized with people of all levels coming together to celebrate the bike community as a whole. But if women are more inclined to ask questions, feel more confident, and ultimately ride more often when they’re with other women, there’s hope that women-specific groups can help minimize the gender disparity down the road.

Leslie says the Betties rides have felt like small acts of activism. “It’s pretty cool to see pedestrians [or] people having dinner at a restaurant cheer you on as you ride with a bunch of women,” she says.

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