Genevieve Walker is a freelance writer based in New York City. She's contributed to Salon, Newsweek International, The New York Times Local, and Velojoy.com, among others.
A new crop of women-specific bike shops aim to fix the gender imbalance.
Early on a recent Friday morning, a group of 20 women gathered in a windowless conference room in a convention center in Las Vegas. If anyone was hungover, the evidence had been wiped clean; there was nary a genitalia-shaped accessory in sight.
Not bachelorettes but bikes were the topic of the hour. This group was just a small portion of the 20,000 attendees of Interbike, the largest bicycle trade show in North America and a necessary pilgrimage for industry types. They come to peruse the latest innovations and newest products.
But a quick look around the convention floor and one fact becomes glaringly obvious –– men vastly outnumber women here.
Which is exactly what the SpokesWomen were discussing that morning. Representing a broad spectrum of the cycling industry (shop owners, gear producers, event planners, and bloggers), SpokesWomen was founded last year by April Lemly of Chicks on Bikes Radio and Robin Bylenga of Pedal Chic, an early pioneer in woman-specific bike shops. SpokesWomen aims to create a national web of knowledge and resources for women in the bike industry.
According to a 2009 study, just 24 percent of bicycle trips in America are made by women. Because the gap shrinks each year, these kinds of stats are often debated. But as it stands, cycling is overwhelmingly male-dominated. A Scientific American article explains why:
Women are considered an “indicator species” for bike-friendly cities for several reasons. First, studies across disciplines as disparate as criminology and childrearing have shown that women are more averse to risk than men. In the cycling arena, that risk aversion translates into increased demand for safe bike infrastructure as a prerequisite for riding.
The SpokesWomen ladies don’t want to alienate men. But they think that female-specific stores and gear can also help women bikers feel more safe and comfortable when they start riding.
"Men and women are both halves of the pie. I like the man’s perspective on cycling, but I gravitate towards helping women," says Tammy Thompson-Oreskovic, owner of Zuzu Pedals bike shop in Port Washington, near Lake Michigan. It was her first year at Interbike, and she found the SpokesWomen group via a roundabout search for bike jewelry to carry in her new store.
Thompson-Oreskovic says that appealing to women on a retail level means giving them choices.
"I’ve noticed that when men come into the store they’re perfectly fine with a palette of white, black, and red. Women want the whole rainbow. They want all the colors and the fabrics; they want choices. I think that women are more discerning by nature. We’re shoppers, we want options."
Zuzu, which opened in 2011, is the only bike store in town. It started as a bike rental shop, then expanded to include bike sales and a full-service repair shop. From the beginning, Thompson-Oreskovic wanted it be a warm, inviting place –– she’s acutely aware that bike stores can leave some women feeling intimidated.
"In a bike store, what often happens is, women walk in and they love biking, or they want to fall in love with it. If a guy walks up to them...and starts talking to them about gear ratios, it’s going to be intimidating. He isn’t trying to do that, it’s just what he knows and how he speaks the language of biking. I’ll walk up to someone and talk about the feeling that you get from cycling, first, and why cycling is good for you," she said. "That first impression is really important."
Though it’s not as simple as give-them-the-gear-and-they-will-ride, a market flush with cycling gear designed with women in mind is certainly a step in the right direction. Retailers like Thompson-Oreskovic help create a bridge for women and the cycling industry.
"If you’re trying to get women in your store there’s two ways: give them really good information and good clothing options. But if there’s a hot guy standing behind the counter, you think that wouldn’t help? Of course it would. It’s human nature," says Thompson-Oreskovic. "I think we’d have him dressed a little more classy, but looks are always important."