Why a feminist needs a bicycle like a fish needs water

This week, British Cycling launched its Get Women Cycling campaign , aiming to get 1 million more women cycling by 2020. The campaign brochure, mercifully, starts with pictures of women racing on track bikes. I say ‘mercifully’ in the light of the European Commission’s dire campaign to get more women into science, of which more below. British Cycling wants bike riding to become a normal activity for women and the organisation is aware that concern about safety is the biggest barrier.

There is however something that saddens me about all this. I don’t need to be encouraged to cycle because it’s never occurred to me not to. Historically the bicycle is linked to the suffrage movement. Bikes and women go together. The bicycle gave women the freedom to move independently. It saw the rise of sensible clothing for women. Sheila Hanlon at the Women’s Library is investigating the links between suffrage campaigners and cycling. The suffragists were sportswomen – the Pankhursts were avid cyclists and supporters of the Clarion Cycling Club. One can be both feminine, whatever that means, and sporty. Being female is not, or need not be, about looking pretty. You can be a woman and celebrate your physicality. You do not have to dislike your body and fret about your weight. You can love your body and celebrate its speed and grace as you pedal. There is nothing quite like the surge of power that comes along with the hum of a bike’s wheels and the knowledge that it’s powered by you. Bikes and women should be natural partners so why is that in the twenty-first century, after several waves of feminism, only 1 in 4 once-a-week cyclists are women?

It’s not just cycling that lacks female participation. Faced with the problem of a lack of women in science, the European Commission came up with this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g032MPrSjFA a video mind numbing in its sexism, reinforcement of gender stereotypes and seemingly genuine belief that women aren’t interested in anything unless you can put lipstick on it. Science, according to them, is a ‘girl thing’ because it features heels, good looking men, make up and pretty colours. There’s only one thing to say that: bollocks. Fortunately, to save me from deconstructing this pile of steaming piffle we have this : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtZCq83v92s Don’t watch that at work. It’s safe enough but your colleagues might wonder why you’re weeping with laughter.

All of this reminds me of a key problem within western society, in fact perhaps in all societies. We laud things associated with masculinity and mock things associated with femininity. We use ‘throwing like a girl’ as an insult. We forget that overarm bowling was invented by a woman because she couldn’t bowl underarm whilst wearing a skirt. Yes, that’s right. Every fast bowler, spin bowler, the best bowlers the world has ever seen, all of them, to a man, have thrown like a girl. We should celebrate being female and celebrate women’s physicality without reducing them to physical objects or reinforcing stereotypes that women like anything pink, sparkly, shiny and cute. We need to change our attitude so that throwing like a girl becomes a compliment. We need to re-unite women with the bicycle and all it stands for.

It is to the credit of British Cycling that they have asked women why women don’t cycle. They cite:

Lack of time
Lack of confidence on a bike and cycling on the highway
Lack of female role models, eg ride leaders
Lack of knowledge of bike maintenance and associated vulnerabilities
Negative body image associated with kit, equipment and resultant ‘muscular’ physique
Costs associated with purchase of bike
Impracticalities of bike transportation.

Note,  the objections to cycling have absolutely bugger all, naff all, nothing, to do with helmet hair, lipstick, pink lego, heels, or any of the other insulting claptrap that gets thrown at women. British Cycling have listened and their plans do not include insulting videos or promises of makeup. They know they need more female leaders if they are to get more women cycling.

Primarily I think British Cycling should focus on making roads safer and on encouraging better cycling infrastructure. Women wouldn’t need to find time to cycle if they were routinely using their bikes for transport. You don’t need more confidence if you can cycle safely away from motorised traffic. Costs are kept down if cycling becomes a form of transport, which it would be if we had the infrastructure. There’s no need to worry about bike transportation if it’s safe to go anywhere by bike without first driving to somewhere safe. But there is something else that I think British Cycling could do and another idea that I’m forming. It’s in its early stages but I’m thinking about Eva, feminism, bikes, and women specific geometry. Allow me to explain.

Eva is the name of my new bike. She (she really is a she) is a Specialized Vita, hence her full name Eva Evita. Look, it’s normal to name bikes, or at least normal for me. Eva has women’s specific geometry. That is, her frame is designed for a woman. Of course, there is a whole thesis in the fact that other bikes are seen as neutral or unisex whereas Eva and her kin are seen as women-specific when the reality is that a unisex bike has men-specific geometry. In too many spheres men are seen as the template and women as the deviation from the norm. Eva, unfortunately, does not dispel this. But that’s for another time. Unisex bikes, truth to tell, are designed for men. This means that in 35 years of cycling, as a woman, I have always been riding bikes that did not quite fit. Much as loved them, there was always the slight sense that something was off. In order to get the length I needed between seat and handlebars, the seat was too high. If I got the seat low enough, the handlebars were in my lap. I learned to ride so that I could just get a toe on the floor if I tipped the bike sideways.

Eva was, therefore, an utter revelation. She fits. And because she fits she makes the absolute most of my strength. I’m not struggling or reaching but using every fraction of my muscular power to push Eva forward because she is designed for my proportions. She is designed to make the most of a woman’s physicality. And this is important. As a woman I am always aware that I am less strong than the average man and I have always made up for this by maximising the strength that I have. Eva is engineered for me. Eva goes like shit off a shovel. She scared the bejeesus out of me until I got used to her speed. My speed.

On Eva, I’m not hauling around a too-big bike. I see a gap in the traffic and I’m confident I can go for it. Eva and I move as one. Vitally, Eva’s design acknowledges anatomical differences between men and women without castigating women for it or using them to deny women something. Eva’s design does not imply that my mental characteristics are different. She’s not designed specifically for high heels, although since she has flat pedals I could wear them if I wanted to. She gives me choice.

As I wrote elsewhere, when I rode my old Dawes, people often mistook me for a man. No-one has done this yet when I’m on Eva. They might in the future but I think it is unlikely. On Eva I still move confidently and assertively in a way more usually associated with men. However, there is something decidedly female about Eva. She’s white, so it’s a gender-neutral colour. The frame is diamond shaped, not step through. The trim is dark blue and green, stylish but not overtly feminine. And yet Eva is female. She suits me. I’m not sure what it is about the appearance of the Specialized Vita but it says Female without saying ‘stereotypically feminine’. Eva enables me to celebrate being a woman in my own right whilst acknowledging my physical differences. I can cycle as a woman, not as a feminine object. Eva is empowering for she says I can be female and with this I can be anything I want to be. I can make the most of my strength.

For me, as a feminist, this is key. I don’t have to be some sort of ersatz man to gain status. Neither do I have to tick all the boxes for ‘looks stereotypically feminine’ to be acknowledged as a woman. And there is a new feminism about the place. I rejoice in this. No longer do women feel they have to apologise for being feminist. The Everyday Sexism project reminds us that we still need feminism. There are still battles to be fought for equality.

If British Cycling wishes to succeed it would do well to engage with the modern feminist movement. Cycling can bring women health, freedom, fitness, confidence in their bodies, and camaraderie with each other, all things that feminism seeks. More than this,  if British Cycling can make the roads safer for women they can make them safer for everyone. It is a fundamental truth of feminism that if society becomes better for women, it becomes better for men too. For a society to be better for women, it first has to acknowledge that might is not right. It must become fairer, giving opportunities based on ability, equality and merit, not on strength or influence.

This then is the Eva theory of feminism, cycling and equality, in its early stages. Eva acknowledges physical differences but still enables strength. She’s female without conforming to stereotype. She gives me power, independence and joy in my own physicality. If British Cycling wants more women on bikes, it could do worse than to look to Eva. As for me, well I need my bike in the same way that a fish needs water.


2 thoughts on “Why a feminist needs a bicycle like a fish needs water

  1. Most important is to be have a properly fitted bike. It doesn’t have to be women’s “fit” /bike geometry. We discuss this enough in TeamEstrogen an international Internet forum for cycling by women …a lot of them don’t race but are dedicated cyclists.

    Do you know many other women in your personal life who bike as often as you? I know only one quarter…but that’s ok. As long as they choose other forms of exercise to stay healthy.

    Yes, absolutely, good cycling infrastructure encourages more and everyone.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Jean. Actually I don’t many *people* in my personal life who cycle quite as much as I do. It’s my main form of transport. When I lived in Cambridge it was different – both men and women there cycle a lot. There’s a critical mass of cyclists, cycling is seen as normal and it seems safer.
    Devon is of course hillier so you do have to be fairly fit to cycle here. Well, you have to be fairly keen, if you keep cycling up the hills you get insanely fit. I am also trying to fit in more weight-bearing exercise as cycling is not good for that.
    Of course it’s up to people what exercise, if any, they do. But good cycling infrastructure would make it easier to choose cycling.

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