Unsolicited advice. Random male cyclists shouting, “You go girl!” — to middle-aged women. Accusations that they’re showing off from male cyclists they pass on the road who don’t respond well to “getting chicked.” Equipment that isn’t designed with their bodies in mind.
These are just a few of the frustrations facing women and nonbinary cyclists in Seattle. It’s a local reflection of a sportwide problem that impacts both recreational riders seeking community and racers fighting for equal opportunities to compete.
From the doomed Tour de France Féminin to minimum base salaries for elite male riders but not women — a practice that only changed in 2020 — sexist gatekeeping in cycling is so longstanding and well documented that in 2014 cyclist Kathryn Bertine made an entire documentary about it, “Half the Road.”
The dynamic is out of step with women’s obvious interest and sustained participation, said Sara Kiesler, communications and marketing director at Cascade Bicycle Club. Kiesler said that in the organization’s paid rides, at least one-third of participants are women.
It’s likely that number will only grow as new cyclists hit the road, which they are doing.
Using data from the activity tracker Strava, Outside Magazine reported in January that the pandemic resulted in a spike in both casual and more specialized cycling (road biking, gravel cycling, mountain bikes) that is expected to continue. That bears out what anyone who’s tried to buy a bike in the past year already knows: Cycling is more popular than ever.
And in the wake of this bike boom, said Kiesler, “there should be space for everyone to be on the road.”
With a program called We Bikes — formerly called She Bikes, it was renamed to be more inclusive — Cascade is working to make that space, counterbalancing sexism by fostering community for women and nonbinary riders.
“It’s just very clear that if we really want biking to be accessible for all, we have to focus on groups that don’t currently feel included, that we currently don’t really hold as much space for,” said Cascade’s education coordinator Amy Korver. “Because if we’re not particular about that, and we’re not specifically holding space for those folks, then we’re going to get the same folks who will fill that space.”
“It’s kind of self-perpetuating,” said Mary Hoshizaki, a Cascade volunteer who leads the organization’s free group rides and sits on its rides committee. She currently leads the “steady” pace group for a weekly ride out of 60 Acres Park in Redmond.
Hoshizaki sees We Bike as a way to address “the need for a special type of ride” with ride leaders who “understand the intimidation factor that can happen” and can help cyclists gain the knowledge base to ride confidently in a group, then go out and take part in other rides — or lead their own.
For Korver, that confidence base includes deprogramming some of the ways women are socialized.
“When we’re talking about road rules, and talking about taking the lane specifically, I find that female-identified riders have a harder time taking up their space, because women in general are not told to take up much space,” said Korver. “So even physically taking up space on the road, which is safer for everyone, I’ve found is harder for female riders.”
In her own experience, Hoshizaki said she’d learned a lot from riding with LUNA CHIX, the racing and cycling education program sponsored by Luna Bar. “They had classes on just basically how to ride a bike,” said Hoshizaki. “You know, how do you climb a hill? How do you go down a hill? How do you clip in and out of those scary pedals?”
Hoshizaki said that while she’s seen some developments toward greater equity in the cycling world, she still has a difficult time finding specialized cycling gear in smaller women’s sizes. “All this stuff is geared toward guys … if you can’t get those folks on bikes, you know, and they don’t have the proper equipment and clothing, then it’s sort of a vicious circle,” she said.
“I see this all the time with brakes, that brakes are designed for really large hands, and so what do you do if you have smaller hands?” said Korver. “You know, these questions that seem so small, but make such a huge impact on how comfortable you feel riding.”
Ultimately, said Korver, she hopes there will someday be no need for the programs she works on. “We want to work ourselves out of a job in a way,” she said. “We want to imagine a future where we don’t need this, when everybody feels automatically comfortable just arriving … but until that becomes a thing, we have to make particular arrangements for different groups, and that’s what equity is.”
Existing inequities don’t just impact recreational or beginning cyclists.
Lisa Coyne, a Seattle cyclist who took up racing at age 50, said that she often receives strange feedback from male cyclists when she passes them on the road, particularly on hills, particularly if she’s riding with other women, a microcosm of racing’s larger inequities, like pay equity; prize money is often greater for male cyclists than women.
When she passes a man on the road, said Coyne, “It’s like you almost expect them to say something because it happens so frequently.”
She hears all kinds of things: excuses. “Well, if I had a bike as nice as yours, I’d be that fast!” Accusations that she’s showing off. Statements that could be seen as lighthearted if they were jokes. But they aren’t jokes.
Coyne said she usually tries to brush it off, but it “always makes me a little uncomfortable,” she said. “So, I’m supposed to follow you up the hill? I don’t get it.”
In the bike racing community, said Coyne, “the men I know are pretty accepting of strong women cyclists,” and she said she’d seen some positive changes before the COVID-19 pandemic, including races offering equal prize money for men and women.
The prize money divide is infamous in cycling, and not even professional cyclists are spared. Until recently, only male professional cyclists received a base salary; their women counterparts typically worked other jobs, racing at great personal expense and sacrifice.
In 2019, Tour of Flanders winner Alberto Bettiol condemned the disparity between his race winnings and those won by women’s champion Marta Bastianelli, Cycling News reported.
Though Bettiol described his 20,000 euro prize as “very low,” he said, “It’s even worse for the women. Marta Bastianelli won only 1,265 euro. That’s a disgrace and unfair because she suffered just like I did or perhaps even more, and women’s cycling is now an established reality.”
While Coyne said that races offering equal winnings were becoming more common, she was less sure of how to handle the odd remarks.
Hoshizaki said they had no place in recreational riding. “When we have group rides, there’s always somebody that’s going to pass you on the hill … and usually I shout out a little bit of encouragement when somebody passes me. … They’re doing that,” she said. “They’re getting up that hill, they’re training and getting better and better.”
Kiesler agreed. “No one deserves to deal with sexism when they’re on the road,” she said.
For women and nonbinary cyclists in larger bodies, sexism can be compounded by other forms of gatekeeping, said Marley Blonsky, an adventure cyclist who advocates for and provides trainings on inclusive cycling.
“If you’re already feeling othered” approaching cycling as a woman or nonbinary rider, doing so in a larger body “just adds to the feeling of ‘I don’t belong,’” Blonsky said.
Similar to Hoshizaki’s difficulty with finding cycling gear in her size, Blonsky said it could be especially difficult to find cycling clothing outside of a narrow size range.
Korver agreed. “There’s not a lot of jersey and bib manufacturers that do XXLs,” she said, and it’s difficult to break into biking if “you can’t even find clothes that fit your body.”
Still, Blonsky said she’d seen progress elsewhere.
As a co-organizer with local cycling group Moxie Monday, Blonsky has helped lead monthly social rides for women, nonbinary, trans and femme riders, creating a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere.
She said a more inclusive cycling community can be fostered by helping folks get onto bikes, whether that means redefining socially mediated norms of what a cyclist “should” look like, or just helping new cyclists with fundamentals like how to get on and off a bus or light rail with a bike. “There’s this idea that it’s so daunting to ride in Seattle,” she said, but “doing it together has really made the difference.”
Over 10 years of cycling, Blonsky said she’d seen norms shift, from Seattle’s spandex stereotype to a more equitable vision, one that factors in families, e-bikes and cyclists at all experience and commitment levels. “I think we’re getting there,” she said.
Seasoned cyclists can help, she said, by fostering a kind and welcoming community on the road, which means no unsolicited advice or commentary on new cyclists, unless it involves an urgent safety concern.
When Blonsky began cycling, she said she encountered unsolicited feedback from other riders all the time, a corollary to the commentary Coyne described experiencing.
It’s more constructive, she said, to just say “hi.” “If you wanted advice from someone, you would’ve asked for it,” she said.
When it comes to navigating the world of cycling as a woman or nonbinary rider, or from any marginalized identity, said Blonsky, “We want to put people in boxes, but why do we even need to have these categories?”
She found one sentence helpful to remember. Whatever anyone else may think of you, “The bike doesn’t care.”