Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Men who ride bicycles share their stories.
Last month, I wrote a piece about the ever-contentious and ever-fascinating subject of femininity and bicycling, which was sparked by a number of debates that had popped up in social media on the topic.
But enough about that. It’s time to talk about guys on bikes for a change.
In the spirit of gender equality, I solicited comments from men, including several friends, about the way they think that masculinity and bicycling intersect. The responses were complicated and illuminating. Also jokey: one guy said he was thinking of attaching "truck nuts" to his bike.
Several who responded said that they didn’t really think about biking and gender (at least not their own). Others, however, said they were very aware of the way that men on bikes are perceived in terms of the mainstream American culture.
In the United States, where cars have long been markers for male success — both financial and sexual — bicycles are sometimes seen as an indication of failure, incompetence, or childishness (think Pee-wee Herman or Steve Carell’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin). Men riding in road kits, or street clothes for that matter, report being taunted with homophobic slurs by other guys motoring past.
Like any gender conversation, this one is subjective, nuanced, messy, and sometimes perplexing. Below are some of the best responses I received, edited for space and clarity:
‘I enjoyed the article on femininity and cycling, as I have some feelings about riding my very old-fashioned upright Dutch bikes to work. I have very stereotypical male coworkers who ask why I do not retrofit a motor onto my bikes. Why do I not trade in my bikes for a motorized scooter? Why do I not go in for a more racing-oriented design, rather than my European-made bike built for form and function, for getting around at slow speeds in population centers?
Then there is the hillbilly trucker whom I encounter on the road, the guy who steps on the gas as his pickup passes me by. Which is a not-so-subtle signal to say to me, ‘Hey, Mary Poppins, you are holding up traffic, get out of my way.’ And if I dare to hold an umbrella in the rain, I might as well hold a sign that says, ‘Please stare at me and call me names.”
These encounters remind me that my version of cycling, one of commuting and not of racing, one of exercise and not of motorization, one of engineering beauty and not of speed and performance, with a wicker basket on my front end to hold my things rather than a uniform of Lycra to whisk away my testosterone and sweat -- this Dutch or Danish way of cycling where I am cycling purely as a means of moving from point A to B and enjoying the ride at the same time -- is somehow offensive to every other man I know. It somehow signals that I do not have an AM radio to listen to, that I am not plugged into their frequency, that I threaten their politics and their way of life, that I am probably too progressive and certainly not adequately reverent of the muscle car and its attendant lore in popular culture. My Dutch biking raises eyebrows. It judges and is judged, it somehow communicates a provocative message of anti conformity.
And just when I was thinking all male drivers must hate me, and most females I encounter smile or approve of my earth-loving lifestyle, there was the time I got the middle finger from a young mother in a hurry because I was in her way and she was held up trying to get around me. You can’t win them all! But I keep biking, knowing that when enlightenment finally comes to all, it will be on a bicycle.’
— Steve Bell, Grand Rapids, Michigan
‘For me, cycling=self-sufficiency, which is about as traditionally “masculine" a concept as there is in this country.’
— Sam Berkowitz, @SKBerko, on Twitter
‘When I first became a car-free bike commuter 16 years ago, I firmly believed that I was invincible. I took the lane on major arterials and had the confidence to keep my line even as passing cars identified me as a "fag" at high decibel levels or threw their fast food pops at me. In hindsight, they were challenging my masculinity and my choices, but at the time it was so consistent with most of what growing up entailed that I didn't think much of it at all.
I moved to Portland, Oregon, shortly thereafter and, year by year, my commuting speed began to slow. By the time I was 30 and should have been at my prime riding speeds, I was instead fighting chronic health problems that kept me in bed more than on my bike. Aside from much unpleasantness, that experience changed me in many positive ways. I had to accept my new commuting speed of 8 mph and to be passed by literally every other bike on the road, even by mothers towing three small children. My younger self might have been threatened by this, but now it gives me further time and space to reflect upon the gender roles around me.
For all the people on bikes who seemed to be competing in time trials against themselves, I find more and more upright bikes that are quite content to travel at the speed I am moving at and even strike up some chatter with me, harking back to when the cycling population was much smaller in Portland.
‘When I try to invite these sort of conversations, I find that men are often immediately defensive or wary of implicating themselves in inconsiderate behavior. Fair enough. But all too often the attitude is that it's better not to talk about it, lest we injure a poor man's ego by making him feel implicated as inconsiderate.’
— Joe Biel, Portland, Oregon
‘Not sure men in general consider "masculinity" at all let alone masculinity in the context of cycling…. It's a little like expecting a fish to think about water.’
— Richard Lyle, @RichHL, on Twitter
‘I'm not a biker, so I hear a lot of what people say about bikers -- particularly from other men who feel like it's safe to share their criticisms with me (as though I'm now a member of their alpha-wagon by default). The most common criticism suggests that if a person bikes to and from most destinations, it means that he’s poor, and alerts women that he is "less of a man" for that reason. This perplexes me, not only because of how big a leap it is to come to that conclusion, but also because if these critics are equating masculinity to how well a person provides for themselves and others, shouldn't they see someone cutting down on their transportation expenses as being money-smart, better savers, and thus better financial providers?
While on that same train of thought though, comes the second most common critique I hear about bikers: that it's less masculine to be riding around on a bicycle than it is in a car. These same men believe that is because, they argue, an automobile can provide for more passengers than a bike can. When you put these two criticisms together, we see that in the eyes of some men, a large, four-door automobile is probably the most masculine vehicle they could imagine.’
— Christian Amez, Queens, New York, member of the street safety group Make Queens Safer
A commuter cycles through central London. (REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth)
‘If I remember correctly, it was my wife who first said, “Fuck it, let's just do it” -- talking about riding over the fearsome Williamsburg Bridge for the first time, in 2004, after we'd moved to New York from Indonesia. I'd been terrified of that span, it seeming to have too much loft, too many fancy pedalers. But we did, slowly at first, then like gangsters.
It didn't take long for the two of us became total road warriors, commuting every day, rain or shine, from South Fifth Street and Rodney in Brooklyn to Midtown, then from our little place on the Lower East Side. Kelly was no less aggressive than I was -- weaving through dense UN traffic on First Avenue, blasting down Fifth Avenue in the evenings, dodging pedestrians, deliverymen, commuter buses. In fact, she was a lot louder than I was, bellowing, "I have no insurance," and pedaling even faster through yellow lights. She and I wore helmets to art openings, bars, restaurants.
Then I quit my job and started walking from New York to New Orleans. I knew I'd betrayed something that day, and one of the worst days of the walk was when Kelly called me to say she'd been doored.
‘Soon thereafter, we moved to the Middle East. You wouldn't want to ride a bike in Riyadh, but we figured out a place to do it, and it was on a wobbly Chinese cruiser that Kelly rode across town to the Yemen embassy to get our visas. We never found wheels in Iraq or Istanbul or in Beirut, with all its traffic and tanks, where it was clear our helmets would stay in storage. Now we ride every day in Venice, with our four-year-old daughter lashed inside a trailer.
It's true that I, the man, carry the extra weight, but all I do to stay fit is ride -- Kelly surfs and swims in the ocean. Once in a while, when my gal's a few minutes late from work, I wonder if she's OK, but she always shows up eventually, huffing and puffing from the effort of a nearly 10-mile grind, grinning through the sweat. "Wait till you have your first accident," someone said to us when we first moved to L.A., thinking we'd quit and buy two cars. That's the thing about biking: The fact that it hurts is part of the fun -- for all of us.
— Nathan Deuel, Venice, California
‘Are you aware that it's common to try to insult men cycling in spandex by calling them gay?’ –
— DaveS, @darsal, on Twitter
‘Why did "girl bikes", at least in the ’70s, not have that connecting bar from the seat to the handle, but "boys’ bikes" did? Was it a legacy of women riding while wearing skirts? That's all I could think of... As a boy I remember thinking that that bar seemed a greater hazard to boy parts than girl parts, at least given my limited understanding as a 9-year-old.
Regarding bike shorts, no one much thinks twice nowadays about women in bike shorts or yoga pants going to and fro, but for men those same clothing choices are probably considered (much) less acceptable. There is a comfort level we as a society have with the female form, at least from the knees to the waist, that we don't have with the male form. There is an inherent -- I don't know, shame perhaps, in the male form. This is important to biking inasmuch as biking led to some of the form-fitting clothes we're used to seeing a lot today. This is also important as for a man the practicality of riding shorts perhaps is counterbalanced by the fact that those clothes are less permissible pre- and post-ride.
And to take the point further still, is form-fitting clothing like spandex inherently "not masculine"? I don't know…’
— Rob Underwood, Brooklyn, New York
‘I'm living it [masculinity on a bike]: freedom, health, power, virility, and feeling like you're a tough and happy dad.’
— Flying Pigeon LA, @flyingpigeonla, on Twitter
‘I see class distinctions more easily than a testosterone gradient. I trust a guy on a well-tended beater bike most. Dutch bikes seem a bit foppish, while fixies might as well carry GPS transponders revealing their routes to Williamsburg. Racing bikes and other feather-lights on the street grid seem to be obnoxious consumerism.
‘I admire people who can really actively maintain bikes and fix them solidly, but view those skills as technical finesse more than macho grease-monkey creds.’
— Erik Baard, Queens, New York
‘One thing: When I ride a bike, I feel like I need to catch the person in front of me. Competition is in the background. Always. Not crazy competitive. But a sort of .... goal!’
— Clarence Eckerson, Streetfilms
‘My personal style is about having a proper city bike with full fenders, chain guard, rack for my bag, lights and a bell, and no helmet as I just want have cycling be invisible to my lifestyle. I don't want to be a "cyclist," I'm a New Yorker. Having a proper city bike means I can wear any clothes I want, no street spray or chain grease on clothes (mine or others) and gear focused on accident prevention, not crash mitigation that I have to carry around. I'm a member of the slow bicycle movement and prefer social or chill rolling urban observation to seeing my commute as break neck exercise or part of some extreme fixie montage.
About gender: I think more about the condition of infrastructure on streets and how minimal they are. Narrow bike lanes, on street, often not physically separated. I think more of who is designing the streets and how male-dominated the urban transportation profession is, from a Joe Six-Pack engineering mentality to all the trappings of Robert Moses master planner mansplaining male-control fantasies.
In the United States, the bike lanes tend to assume single-file riding. But in Colombia and in Europe I've seen the design assumption be more about supporting social riding by having space to ride side by side. Maybe having a more diverse transpo planning work force will lead to a more diverse spatial accommodation.
To be honest, I have to admit I don't often think of gender on a bike much, because as a male, my experience of the bike and infrastructure here is, sadly, largely designed by and for able-bodied men.’
— Daniel Latorre, Brooklyn, New York
‘I ride a big Dutch bike with a huge basket, a cup holder, and sometimes I strap on a jambox to belt out tunes as I pedal. Here's my take on this subject... I think there is a masculinity issue. My bike isn't a minimalist bike. I like comfort and sit upright. At night, I turn on my German-made B&M lights to illuminate the road and be seen by cars. I like to ride at a slower pace. To boot, I have a belly and have no problems loading my bike to carry things. That's what a bike was designed to do, carry things. Carry my fat ass and all of my tools for my trade.
When you walk into a normal bike shop, these things are not what we "sold." So much of American bike culture is around speed, minimalism, and some abstract masculinity. Hell, even NYC's racks are designed for minimalist bikes. This is bullshit.
Like a shoe, bikes are for specific purposes. Some are for running. Others, fashion. Yet 95 percent of an urban cyclist's needs are around transport of self and equipment. I for one would love to see more shops like Bicycle Habitat, Adeline Adeline, and Rolling Orange Bikes. These shops understand the need for bikes that are not masculine speed machines.
As for Lycra... no comment.’
— Noel Hidalgo, Brooklyn, New York