Doing my (tiny) part to bridge the cycling gender gap

There’s been a lot written about the cycling gender gap in the U.S. so I won’t rehash it except to point you here and here and here and – oh hell, just look at this Google search.  Basically, recent surveys have found that women make up anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of cyclists, despite, you know, being half of the nation.

Even though I have been spending a lot more time on my bike in recent months, to the point that I now sport the telltale bike-shorts tan line that exposes a rather Victorian strip of pale flesh to the world whenever I wear a pair of normal shorts, I still don’t feel comfortable identifying myself as one of those one-quarter to one-third of cyclists who are female, primarily because I do not use my bike to commute.  My reasons for this are two-fold:

  1. It’s not very safe. I live in a part of the country that is not particularly safe for cyclists or pedestrians. My metro area was ranked the second deadliest in the U.S. for pedestrians and cyclists by Transportation for America’s Dangerous by Design report.  In fact, most of Florida’s metro areas suck for anyone who is not firmly ensconced within a motor vehicle.  Frankly, it’s terrifying to ride with traffic down here, and I’m pretty sure I’d say that even if I hadn’t already had the terrifying experience of being knocked off my bike by a stoned man in a pick-up truck.  (I was unharmed except for the fact that I still have a dent in the side of my left calf, where the bumper made contact with my leg.)
  2. I work in a professional office job. This means that when I arrive at work, my hair cannot be matted down to my face, nor can I be drenched in sweat. This is considered “unprofessional,” and is especially verboten for womenfolk.  In addition, there are no showers here so I cannot go and clean myself up and then change into my work-lady clothes and look presentable for work. The situation is particularly untenable when you factor in the heat, the humidity and the torrential rainstorms that pop up overhead every day at about 4 p.m.  

These are commonly cited issues faced by women when it comes to cycling, so I’m not alone in this regard.  (Sorry, SkirtBike, but it will take more than a group ride with a bunch of other skirt-clad women to overcome these issues.)  And it’s not that women don’t want to ride bikes. This article cites research that says more women hit the road on bike when their cities make an effort to improve bike-friendly infrastructure.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in recent months, as I find myself spending hours at a stretch riding on my county’s various trails and roadways.  A large part of why I do ride as much as I do is because I have access to the Pinellas Trail, which is a paved recreational trail about 40 miles long that starts in the northern part of the county and ends in downtown St. Petersburg.  For the most part, the trail is safe, with overpasses that take riders and pedestrians over busy intersections and intersections with dedicated traffic lights and everything.  As it’s located about a half-mile from my house, I do the vast majority of my riding there, with the occasional side jaunt over to the beach communities where I can ride over huge bridges and alongside water.

But access to safe places to ride is really only part of what scared me at first about cycling.  The fact is, I’d like to be able to ride my bike fast because I want to race, and doing so requires that one be a bit of a daredevil.  This is a problem because I am the antithesis of “daredevil.”  Brian once described me as the “definition of cautious,” which is a really generous way of saying that I am a big old ‘fraidy cat.  Risk-taking is not in my nature.  I mean, I used to cry before going on roller coasters when I was twelve years old, for heaven’s sake.

However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more comfortable taking calculated risks, particularly when something I really, really want lies on the other side of the risk-gulf.  Take, for instance, my open-water swimming experiences.  I wanted to do a triathlon so badly that I basically forced myself to overcome my fear of being in water past my waist. I kept working at it, and now I love to spend time swimming in the water and have actually become….well, not exactly good at it, but I don’t suck either.

My process has been a sort of ham-handed style of what Brian calls exposure therapy, where you expose yourself to something that scares you in a controlled and safe way, and you keep doing it, going a little further each time, and hopefully in the process learning that whatever terrified you is not nearly as bad as you thought it would be. It has been working splendidly with regard to swimming, so I have decided to implement the same process with cycling.

When I first started cycling, I felt so awkward on my road bike, which has skinny tires and cages for my feet.  I wobbled, I couldn’t get my feet in the clips, I had to stop every time I wanted to take a sip from my water bottle.  I couldn’t even figure out how to manage my gears and so I just rode around all the time in my two big chainrings.  (Pro tip: don’t do that.)  Whenever I had to go down overpasses or bridges, I kept my fingers clenched tightly around the brakes, hitting them every time my Garmin speed reading crept north of 18 mph as my mind’s eye flashed with visions of my front wheel flying off and my face being ground into hamburger on the road beneath me.

I found the whole thing so intimidating, especially when the flocks of brightly colored cyclebros would blow past me like they were on their own personal Tour de Florida, that I was reluctant to ride my bike for more than 10 miles at a stretch.  For someone who aspires to be good at triathlon, this is simply unacceptable.  And so, because my desire to be good at triathlon was more powerful than my desire to not see visions of my face being ground into hamburger on the road beneath me, so I decided that, once again, I was going to force myself to prevail over my fears.

  1. I had to get comfortable with my bike.  First I learned how to use the gears.  My gear shifters are located on the down tube, and it took – and I shit you not – watching a video of a teenage Lance Armstrong competing in triathlon to figure out an efficient way to use them.  I practiced how to shift through the gears on the big chainring, then I started incorporating the small chainring into my hill and bridge climbs.  I also had to figure out how I could get to my water bottles and actually drink from them without crashing my bike.  I still slow down a bit – more than I’d like – but at least I don’t have to stop completely.  Both of these skills are still being practiced, by the way.  But sure enough, after months of riding, my bike stopped feeling like a death trap and started feeling like an extension of my body.  BIONIC WOMAN FTW.
  2. I needed to learn how to ride with traffic.  I used to stop at every intersection and sometimes I’d even get off my bike and run it across, feeling like a big doofus the whole time.  Now I have a better idea of how quickly I can cross roads on my bike, so I rarely feel the need to do that anymore.  I also started venturing onto roads with bike lanes and riding a bit there, even though I was basically peeing myself with fear the entire time.  I still get scared whenever a car brushes too closely to me but I’ve found that, on the whole, the vast majority of people will go out of their way to avoid even coming close to hitting cyclists (even if they might fantasize about it). I still don’t trust drivers and ride defensively and cautiously, but I at least can ride with them now.
  3. I’m working on conquering downhills.  Going uphills, while not exactly pleasant, isn’t really that scary.  It’s going downhill that freaks me out.  But the problem with riding my brakes while going downhill is that doing so in a race is basically handicapping myself.  That’s free speed, and I was just giving it back!  So I gradually started easing my way into it.  First I tried hitting my brakes twice on the downhill slope of an overpass, then just once.  Then I coasted all the way from the top to the bottom.  And then I took a big jump and started pedaling down them.  Once that became doable, I started practicing on the nearby bridges to the beach (which you can see here and here).  I’m still working on going down these bridges, because they are steep and scary, but I’ve gotten a lot better.
  4. I’m trying to be okay with going fast.  Sometimes it will occur to me that I am speeding around like a missile of flesh-and-bone with little more than a piece of plastic protecting my head from splattering open like a raw egg, which is not a particularly helpful thought to have while riding a bike.  Instead, I try to be vigilant and focused while riding, so I can be aware of any potential threats or dangers (skittish squirrels, errant tree branches, unpredictable small children) and slow down in time to avoid them.  I get a lot of practice with this when I do speed intervals on the bike, because I’m basically pedaling all-out for four minutes at a stretch and trying to do it while not killing myself or anyone else.  (Here are more tips from Sam at Fit, Feminist and (Almost) Fifty about getting faster on the bike. In fact, I eat up pretty much everything she writes about cycling, because she’s fast and experienced and she knows what’s up.)
  5. I’m trying to accept that there is in fact a certain amount of risk involved in cycling. I can do what I can to minimize those risks, but the fact is that people do get hurt, sometimes very badly.  It happens a lot, actually.  But I also keep in mind that there is something else I do all the time in which people get hurt and sometimes even die and that’s driving.  And yet despite the fact that driving can be a risky thing, I take precautions, I drive defensively and I try to be patient and safe.  The best thing I can do as a cyclist is take the attitude I’ve cultivated in the car and transfer it to the bike.

Just as with swimming, I’ve found that the more I ride my bike, the more comfortable I become on it, and the more I’ve come to enjoy it.  It’s a really cool feeling to know that, with the help of a lightweight piece of equipment, I can cover distances of fifty miles or more in the space of a few hours.  And the training seems to be working well, too, as I not only managed to come in right in the middle of the pack in last weekend’s triathlon (which was a first for me), but my legs felt so fresh and strong getting off the bike that I was able to easily run a 24-minute 5K.  In fact, I am pretty sure that cycling is making me a stronger runner, period.

I’m getting fitted for my second bike – a used 2010 Felt S32, which is a tri bike with clipless pedals – tomorrow, and so I know I’m going to have to relearn all of these skills again, and that it could very well be messy and awkward, but thanks to the confidence I’ve built up on my road bike, I’m excited at the prospect of rising to a new challenge with a new bike, and in the process, becoming a stronger, more fearless cyclist.

37 responses to “Doing my (tiny) part to bridge the cycling gender gap

  1. Nice article! I’ve been in Florida a few times recently and could not dream of commuting by bike. For exactly the reasons you cited. too dangerous and just too hot to arrive without being all sweaty. No way! So I totally hear you.

    Hope the fit goes well!

    • I see some people who do it and I am like, more power to you! But really, I think the key to breaking car dependence in Florida is not going to be the bike but rather multimodal public transportation, such as what they have in Massachusetts. (Love the T 4-eva!)

      • Agreed, and I think that is true everywhere. No matter what infrastructure you have, sometimes people won’t want to ride. There must alway be alternatives and options!

  2. You think it’s bad in the US, you should try cycling in Switzerland. I think I was one of the two women in the entire country out on a roadbike. Mostly it seems to be middle aged men with pot bellies.

  3. Well, I haven’t been to Florida but have heard problems with cycling infrastructure. I’m sure there are some safer corners in that state.

    There’s no reason for you to feel compelled to go fast. Unless you are racing or trying to catch up with cycling friends on a trip.

    Just relax and cycle.

    I really mean this and choose times of the day if possible to avoid peak car traffic. I’ve been cycling for last 22 yrs. (I’m car-free last 30 yrs.) and in last 15 yrs. I’ve always started work no later than 7:30 am which means leaving the home a lot earlier and giving myself time to change and dress up properly….for professional job roles/meetings.

    Yes, I am in Canada but when I lived and cycled 30 km. round trip daily, in Toronto it is 25-30 degree F summers with 90-100% humid summers.

    One day you should visit Copenhagen in Denmark: it really is interesting to cycle with a lot of women in street clothing around you. It’s part of life there.

    Tailwinds and stay safe but healthy.

    • Thanks, Jean! I only ride fast once a week, just for a speed workout as training for races. (I have an Olympic distance triathlon next month that I have been targeting for a while now.) The rest of the time I either try to sustain a brisk pace, or when I’m out on my long rides on the weekend, I’m definitely more leisurely about it.

      Once I’m no longer training for a specific race and I’m just using cycling for cross-training, I plan on riding just for the sake of riding, and maybe even getting some panniers for my road bike so I can use it for transportation and not just recreation.

  4. Oh, you should see Madison. This place? Almost every major road has a bike lane, and any time I’m commuting down to the Capitol or to campus, I contemplate buying a bike to avoid parking fees. There are soooooo many cyclists, nearly half of them women- you’d be in heaven. They even shut down the main drag through downtown once a year and let people bike it.

    • I should also add that people here even cycle *in the snow*. Like. In three feet of poorly plowed snow, there will be people on their bikes.

      • They must have some fat tires on their bikes. That’s one benefit of living in Florida – no snow, ever.

        That said, it sounds like I would love Madison, if it weren’t so damn cold and snowy.

  5. I’m trying really hard to feel more confident on my mountain bike. I love how bad ass it makes me feel but it is scary at times. I don’t see a lot of women on the trails but I’ll do my part to close the gap.

  6. Thanks for this. I’m in Singapore, where roads are narrow, drivers are insane and there are zero bike lanes. (Why? The authorities’ rationale is that there is no demand. Bit circular, that.) I fully agree with having to force myself to learn to go fast – I am as scaredycat as one can possibly be. There’s one hilly road a lot of cyclists use. Unfortunately it also has a lot of blind curves…and big trucks. So, what to do? Bike with someone. Preferably someone who is trained in first aid…

  7. What you posted really resonated with me, I would really like to be a commuter cyclist (why am I paying to go to a gym to pedal on a machine or to a spin class when I need to take myself to work anyway?), and have the kind of set-up where I feel like I should be able to: I live about 2.5 miles from my job, I have inside-parking-garage bike rakes and showers and lockers at my work, this should be great! Except I work graveyard shift, so cycling at 10pm has its own concerns, and live surburb-y such that my work commute involves major intersection roadways that are horrendously unfriendly to biking – plus long-term construction making those roadways even narrow-er and drivers even more aggressive/risk-taking. The alternative is doubling my commute time to avoid all that, but that combined with needing to leave early due to the showering and all at work… blegghh. I may take this as a sign I should just borrow my sister’s bike and try the commute a few times just to see, and if it is as dreadful as I’m concerned it will be then just forget about it until I move.

    • The idea of being a cycling commuter sounds really nice in theory but the reality for a lot of us is that our cities and our lives are just not constructed in a way that makes it safe and realistic. We have to take care of ourselves first and foremost, and part of that means not putting too much emphasis on us as individuals to resolve what are basically systemic problems.

      Your point about having a graveyard shift job brought up something I thought about mentioning in this post but didn’t. I work in local news so I know a lot of the details behind the fatal crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians in the area, and one of the factors that often comes up is that the cyclist/pedestrian was hit while riding/walking in a dark area at night while wearing dark clothing. So yeah, please keep yourself safe, especially with that shift you work.

  8. What a great attitude–love how you described overcoming your fears w/swimming and now this…. You are right when you talk about risk. I have been trying to get a handle around cycling too, since I lost my dad this way a few years ago. He loved it of course and wouldn’t go a week w/out a long ride and if I could ask him today, he probably would still argue it’s as safe as anything else….. It’s interesting. Some people close to me still hop on those bikes and go, go, go,…I’d like to be like this. Where I live it’s all curvy-country roads and really scary drivers so when I finally get out there again I’m sure it’ll be on some dirt trail, nobody in sight, and with huge wheels :). Your post makes me want to quit whining and worrying and get out there someday though :)

  9. When I first got my bike, everyone commented that I was crazy to ride in London. Nightmare traffic and pyscho drivers. I thought I would be fine, until of course I got hit! Like you, I was always hesitant to not ride the brakes going downhill, so thank god I was when I was hit! It could have been a lot worse if I’d had been flying along like a bat out of hell. I swear that there are more female cyclists than male cyclists in London. Maybe I’m imagining things. I’m too much of a chicken to get back on my bike now! I live closer to work anyway, but my commute would now be entirely made up of highways, so I’m much happier to just walk or catch the bus.

    • Girl, I cannot blame you for not wanting to get back on your bike. I suspect that I too would have a hard time if I had been hit and had to undergo all of the treatments and reconstruction you underwent after your crash.

  10. I need to breathe deeply because sometimes, as a runner (I also walk to work and live car free) I have very mixed feelings about the people who go fast on trails. I’ve seen pedestrians get hit by bicyclists, and I’ve been hit by a guy on a bicycle who just wasn’t paying attention-came right up behind me and rammed me with his bike. This is why I never run with headphones. People don’t follow trail etiquette–if you’re going 20 mph and coming up behind me, I can’t see you and it’d be good to know that you’re there and planning on passing me. It’s a vehicle, just like a car, and you can do serious damage to the other people around you, not to mention the many people I’ve seen come around a corner too fast and just wipe out.

    • I totally understand, as someone who ran on this trail for years before taking up cycling, which is why I am so, so careful when I am out riding, especially when I am trying to go fast. I slow down around runners and I always let everyone – on foot, on wheels, whatever – know I am coming up behind them. As far as I am concerned, it’s basic human decency.

      That said, I know a lot of other cyclists are not nearly as careful, and that’s alarming to me. I’m not one of those people who is like “the cyclist is right always!” because I’ve seen a lot of times when the cyclist is a total asshole who is in the wrong.

      • Oh god, that story is terrible. I’m glad the guy is okay (physically, at least).

        The “fine line between fear keeping me from doing stupid things and fear keeping me from doing anything” is something I am trying to constantly navigate as well. I respect fear and understand that it serves a purpose in my life, but I am also trying to become better about understanding when fear is warranted and when obeying it is is maladaptive. I’ve found a lot of personal growth in facing up to some of my fears, but I don’t want to become so reckless about it that I do something stupid and put myself or others in real harm’s way.

  11. I can’t wait to read this properly later – in overcoming similar issues on my road bike (which I’ve just put clipless pedals on) well jealous of your tri-bike – you’ll be awesome on that beast!

    Also, I’m sure you’ve heard about the women’s Tour de France campaign and I just thought I’d throw in here that I met CHRISSIE WELLINGTON last week – she lives in my city and is so down to earth it was unreal!!
    Take care out there but enjoy! X

    • YOU MET CHRISSIE WELLINGTON!? *dying of jealousy* Did you just randomly run into her on the street or something? That is so fantastically awesome.

      How are you finding the clipless pedals? I have to admit, I’m a bit nervous about them even though I’m sure I’ll eventually love them.

      • I know right! She’s a new local! My friend ended up riding with her in a sportive – until she dropped him on a hill!! She’s so normal I thought it couldn’t be her!

  12. Great post! You hit on a ton of the concerns I have about biking. Like you, commuting to work via bike wouldn’t be an option, though I did just hint to the landlord’s son last week that what the building REALLY needed was showers and a changing area. Let’s hope that idea takes root!

    The areas directly around my house are pretty bike friendly, and getting better all the time. However, I still have a lot of fears about traffic. My thought right now is to do a lot more trail riding, we have a lot of nice paved ones not too terribly far from here. But there are a lot of things about getting a bike – like really learning how to use it and changing gears – that, honestly, intimidate me. Your post made me feel like I wasn’t alone – and that it can be overcome. Thanks!

    • No problem! I was hoping that someone might read my follies and feel a bit of kinship with regards to bikes. It’s really just been a matter of gradual baby steps that push my limits ever so slightly.

      Also paved trails are the best. I love the one near my house so much, you’d think it was a human being and not a really long strip of asphalt. It makes such a huge difference when it comes to feeling secure when riding.

  13. Awesome post! Good luck with the fit and learning to ride clipped-in (my advice – practice clipping in and out on the grass if you can)

    I am fortunate to live in Christchurch, New Zealand (well, apart from the pesky earthquakes destroying the city!). It really is a cyclist’s haven. Most main streets have a cycle lane. The Port Hills are close by for mountain biking or doing hill reps on your roadie. And loads and loads of workplaces have cycle storage facilities, showers and lockers.
    Sure we still have confrontations between motorists and cyclists and between trail walker/runners and cyclists but over all, this is a rocking (no pun intended!) place to ride your bike. Come visit!

    • New Zealand is at the very top of the places I want to visit very, very soon, and you’ve done an excellent job of making it sound even more appealing to me than it already is.

  14. Lots of truth – and frankly, plenty that’s applicable to both genders, really. For awhile, I lived in a city where I’d commute by bike in the good weather, and found an additional barrier: STUFF. By the time I packed my work stuff (papers & laptop, since I often worked from home in the evenings), my change of clothes/shoes, my lunch, my snacks, my running clothes for an evening workout…I needed four bags to bring everything in. I’m all about looking for “possibility”, but sometimes, I’d opt for the car, just because it required less stuff, and made carrying the necessary stuff easier.

    Don’t be afraid of the clipless pedals! I went that way over a year ago, and haven’t regretted it. Three pieces of advice:

    1. Put your bike on your trainer (or your friend’s trainer, or your bike shop’s trainer), and practice clipping in/out. I did this for an hour, and although the staff laughed at me a bit – I never regretted it!

    2. Ride in a cycle-friendly area at first, and clip in/out a LOT. Like, pretend you still have to clip out to drink. Practice linking your clip out and lean, so you don’t mistakenly lean in the wrong direction.

    3. Accept that you’ll fall a few times in the beginning. The good news is that it’s usually at VERY low speed, so the only real damage is to the ego. :)

    GOOD LUCK!

    • I have a trainer at home! I am going to do this! In fact, I will probably do as you suggest and spend an hour just clipping in and out of my trainer. I love that idea. Thank you so much for your very practical and useful tips. I didn’t get my bike last Wednesday but I’m supposed to get it this Wednesday, and my goal is to feel comfortable enough on it that I can race with it in three weeks. I’m confident that your tips will help with that.

  15. Thank you SO MUCH for this post!!!! It makes me feel so much better when a bada$$ chick like you admits that biking (ad swimming) scares the hell out of you! I was feeling like such a wimp and chicken…. which is at least in part because I ride with my husband who does steep descents on winding roads- in the dark- at 40 mph and thinks it’s cool… ;)

    • Oh my god, your husband is crazy. I was feeling proud of myself yesterday because I finally got the courage to light up the speed limit sign while going down a bridge, but it was also perfectly straight and daylight and limited traffic around me. No way would I do that in the dark and on winding roads!

      Also, thank you, from one badass chick to another. :)

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