• Like A Woman Needs A Bicycle

    by  • January 6, 2014 • Guest, Rebel Portland • 10 Comments

    Guest postMeg Brennan is the most kindred of souls. She lives with a cat named Scout and a rabbit named Walter. If you grow close to her, expect to be showered in whiskey and cupcakes.

    ••I didn’t know I was going to name the bike Barbara Gordon, or if I was really going to like riding it. It was a used Nishiki with a teal and white frame with accents that screamed 1987 sitting outside of Sellwood Cycle Repair on a rainy and strangely warm January morning in 2011. The seat cushion was deteriorating, the drop bars were wrapped in what seemed like Plaster of Paris. It was not a beautiful bike. Then again, it was not yet mine.

    Meet Barbara Gordon

    A few years after moving from Vancouver, BC, to Portland, one of my coworkers introduced me to biking in the city. With a 60cm white single-speed frame of some forgotten Japanese make, I made my first leg-tearing ride up the Alameda Ridge. It’s a sharp, stupid sort of hill, the kind that has no mercy for anyone who prefers basic luxuries like taking full breaths and being able to feel their body from the waist down. But at the top of the ridge was the Bye & Bye, and whiskey, and my blossoming affair with this city.

    The white bike became an indefinite loan to me, which I rode to work and elsewhere for that summer. It was the shittiest first bike anyone could imagine: eight centimeters too tall, a back axle always toying with the idea of dropping out, a chain so long that it frequently slipped gears while I was zipping through traffic. It was like a bad girlfriend: in the way that it would irritate me, friends would tell me it was a bad idea, yet I would always get back on; because it was there, and it hadn’t killed me yet.

    A few months later, fed up and armed with $300, I sat in the fraying seat of the teal & white Nishiki while one of the mechanics held the handlebars. I pedaled backwards.

    It actually looks like we don’t have to adjust the seat!” He said. “Does that feel comfortable to you?

    I thought of the white bike, towering over the rest of my apartment. “You have no idea.” Ten minutes later, I walked the bike out into the rain, holding it with the care and fascination that a child puts into the first time they hold a new kitten.

    The next months with the Nishiki were the housebreaking ones: I learned to ride with drop bars. I changed the pedals and the seat. One night I had one too many beers and took a hacksaw to the bars, turning them into bullhorns, which I liked infinitely more than drops. After wrapping them in red tape, I realized that my bike had a name. One of my first female heroes: Barbara Gordon, alias of Batgirl. Barbara was resourceful, clever, sharp: I knew her from Batman: The Animated Series, where Bruce Timm’s “Dark Deco” gave Babs a striking frame: lithe yet curvy, strong. Barbara Gordon was essential, she was driven, she was, despite her first superhero identity, far from being defined by the man whose name she took. If there was ever a partner in crime(fighting) for me, it was surely her.

    Falling In Love

    When I started riding regularly, I was terrified. I rode nervously, shakily, my shoulders clenched forward, both hands gripping my brakes. Cars, in case you have never tried to commute past them, are formidable machines: revving, spitting, steaming beasts of metal that always drive too close, driven by someone enclosed in a glass cockpit, obscuring their faces. Then there was the warnings told to me by my parents and other non-cycling commuters: riding your bike, for all its benefits, is still a deadly and dangerous activity.

    I saw it in the cyclists that I shared the road with–helmets with rearview mirrors, a set of lights every few inches, reflective gear from head to toe. I never saw a collision, but the message was clear that an accident was inevitable for every bicyclist. The message, always, was “ride safe,” not “have fun.”

    This was how I rode, tender and afraid. I would ride my bike to work, and then home. On rainy days, I would take public transit. Then, early that summer, a boy roommate who loved riding his bike  introduced me to the fun parts: MMRs, themed rides, biking out to St Johns or anywhere else that was a good workout with a beautiful destination. The bike wasn’t a means to an end or an alternative to cars, but a friend, stress relief, a new part of my body that pulled me into freedom. As a poet, I began to feel the poetry of movement that a bicycle provides: the flow of air, the rush of sound, the bright colors that the world transforms into, the gentle roll of the wheels under me, the kissing relief in my thighs and calves at the top of the ridge. After a tentative flirtation with Barbara, I was in love.

    The Boy’s Club

    Of course, it wasn’t perfect. The cold rain of winter banished Barbara Gordon to the garage, while I opted to pay for the bus. I signed up for Car2Go, which was too convenient not to abuse, even for short trips where a bike would have been easier and smarter. In many ways, I was still a “fair-weather cyclist.” Even group activities meant to stimulate interest in bicycling, like the Pedalpalooza rides, never attracted me. My belief in Individualism superseded it: that the autonomy of the individual is more important than any group, and that groups only lessen the importance of the individual. For months, Barbara leaned against the wall, her tires growing soft.

    Even when I was first learning the joy in bicycling, the people I was meeting were mostly men; the people I saw on the road, that passed me on the road, were men: men on $4000 road bikes wearing another $4000 in lycra, their muscles popping like angry Hellenic statues, their faces obscured by aerodynamic sunglasses. Surely I was not amongst that crowd, which by simple virtue of their fitness and wealth demanded some unspoken respect and authority. Then there were men in jean vests and cutoff shorts and cycling caps on fixies, darting gracefully through traffic, all tattoos and ear plugs, some new version of the punk/metal boys that I remembered from school, too cool to be cool, living free and dying hard and looking identical to each other. Then there were the men who looked how my cautionary father would on a bike: dressed like a traffic cone, standing out like New Year’s Eve in the middle of the afternoon.

    Of all of these man-groups, I was none: not an athlete, not a punk, not a yuppie. There is no reason that bikes ought to belong to any class or gender of people, and yet the images I see invariably do: I see white, middle-class men, and the children of white, middle-class men. I  wanted to ride my bike more often, though I did not see myself in any of the other cyclists on the street.

    Screen shot 2014-01-06 at 12.29.42 AM

    There is a part of being a woman that is difficult to explain to a man: that everywhere women go, every group that they join, is a boy’s club. To be the woman is to always be the anomaly, the outlier, the one who must always be addressed as different. You can see it in any bike shop. Women’s apparel takes up much less space on the floor, inevitably colored purple and pink, covered in gaudy floral designs. The message is clear: so long as you are a female, you get recognition, but not respect. Nowhere close to equality, not even 49%. There is nothing about the bicycle that suggests that it prefers a specific gender or body type. It is neutral by nature. Why, then, is it still used to marginalize people? The answer, of course, is this: bikes don’t marginalize people, people marginalize people.

    By refusing to allow cycling to marginalize me based on my gender, I’ve found further frustrations with bicycling. I love it, but I hate boy’s clubs. I hate calling myself a “female bicyclist,” as though I deserve a different term than “bicyclist.” The word ought to be gender-neutral, yet has been effectively masculinized.

    I don’t need to go into why women deserve as much respect as men, or why a women can hold their own on bikes. There’s really no damn reason to. The first person to get my ass on a bike in Portland was a woman. Nearly every romantic relationship I’ve had involved our bikes to a great extent (my romantic partners are all women). I’m deeply attracted to the brash, wise attitude of every woman that I’ve met on a bicycle. I’m excited about new opportunities, like women-only repair nights, or the opening of Gladys Bikes on North Williams. The bicycle was the vehicle of choice for the Suffrage movement: there is nothing more liberating than a vehicle powered by your own skill, ability and desire to move forward. I’d go so far as to say that bikes should mean more to women, that bike culture should be defined more by women, than it is for men. But, hell, boys will be boys.

    A Wheel Within A Wheel

    I finally concluded that all failure was from a wobbling will rather than a wobbling wheel.
    ~ Frances E. Willard

    The decision to use my bike as my primary transit–a decision fully committed to less than a year ago–is one of the best that I’ve made as an adult. Still, I am learning about it, what it means, what it implies. Most surprising is how non-cylcists are surprised and interested when I tell them that I use it to get around. Their response mirrors what mine would have been two years ago: “I really should get on my bike more often, but it’s just so dangerous.

    So I urge them to try it, to try all of it, like I had. To be afraid and timid, to fall and get up, to eventually become unafraid, to fall in love. And when they do, they will become interested in making the city a better place for their beloved and for themselves. When they do, they will see that cars drive too fast, that bike lanes are too few, that to place the responsibility of safety upon the vulnerable cyclist will never fully solve any safety issue. The only way to lift up the bicycle as a mode of love is to eliminate cars from the city; just as the only way to lift women up to a place of respect is to remove men from their place of power.

    Almost a hundred and twenty years ago Frances E. Willard wrote in A Wheel Within A Wheel that the use of a bike is almost essential to the propulsion of feminism. As an individualist I’d add one more benefit: bicycles are the ultimate vehicle of choice; whether riding with thousands in the World Naked Bike Ride, or whether riding solo over a few bridges, drinking in all the summer beauty a city offers. With Barbara Gordon I can be free, and I can be alone, and I can be a woman. But, most importantly, I can be in love, and I can be happy. All I can hope for is that such happiness is available to everyone, regardless of gender, race, identity, or class: we all have a right to the street. We all have a right to fall in love on it. Or, as an earlier pioneering Feminist would say;

    “…[Within] practically two days of actual practice amid the delightful surroundings of the great outdoors, and inspired by the bird-songs, the color and fragrance of an English posy-garden, in the company of devoted and pleasant comrades, I had made myself master of the most remarkable, ingenious, and inspiring motor ever yet devised upon this planet. 

    Moral : Go thou and do likewise!



    10 comments on “Like A Woman Needs A Bicycle

    1. I confess that at first I thought you were referring to Barbara Jordan…that is what drew me in to your story. How rad is that…a bike named Barbara Jordan. After realizing my mistake, I had already been sucked in to your writing, I kept on reading your inspiring words. Thanks for the essay. I think I will finally name my bike…Barbara Jordan, and ride her more and more.

    2. And many of the “intimidating” people wearing lycra or ink-n-cycling_caps started out as people in “normal” clothing who were tentatively giving cycling a try.

      • That’s a good point. One person’s esoteric wall of unfamiliarity is another’s comfortable group of like-clothed comrades. It’s important, I think, to not blame established riding groups too much. It’s important to be inclusive to new riders, especially women. Though we don’t want to water down the various eccentricities of bike culture either. There’s plenty of room for all the different bands we wanna jam to, especially if they’re smashing the patriarchy with their sexy bike tunes.

      • Oh, definitely. When I started biking, I was wearing whatever clothes I had, and since then I’ve been slowly collecting my cycling gear. Today, I wore arm warmers for the first time! A lot of getting into bicycling is finding a comfort zone in the gear that makes it a more comfortable activity.

        My point was not that the clothing that someone wears when they are biking indicates some sort of hierarchy, but that I have noticed that men on bikes (which, again, is based on my own personal observation) acclimatize more easily into specific groups of cyclists–be they the lycra set or the fixed gear set. My views on presentation and gender are best reflected in the Feminist Frequency video about Legos: http://www.feministfrequency.com/2012/01/lego-gender-part-1-lego-friends/

      • And, many of us who dress like traffic cones are in sadder but wiser mode–we have ridden long enough in enough different environments to have realized that there’s a big damn difference between a human being and a motor vehicle operator. Any cyclist who views drivers as their fellow human equals is posessed of a dangerous naivete!

    3. Great to read a story about your discovery of the bike as a fun, convenient and liberating device. Sorry that you feel its a gender issue. According to City of Portland, 35% of people riding bikes are women. And most of the people cycling that I see are NOT wearing lycra or riding $4,000 bikes–they are riding to work in their work clothes on all kinds of bikes.

      Having ridden in Portland for over 30 years, life on the road is much more welcoming, thanks to the work of hundreds of advocates and organizations like the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (read <a href= " http://gettingto2100.org/portlands-bicycle-revolution-started-with-a-lawsuit/&quot; here for a little bit of history).

      I also have stopped thinking of myself as a cyclist–a very limiting definition of who I am. Rather, i think of myself as a <a href= "http://gettingto2100.org/i-am-not-a-cyclist/&quot; citizen that wants what most other citizens want–to be able to move around my city and feel safe no matter how I travel, even if 99% of my trips are by bike.

    4. Population does not equal representation: simply because 35% of cyclists in Portland are women does not mean that the culture and marketing for cycling will reflect those numbers. To compare: more than half of American moviegoers are women, yet a tiny percentage of films feature prominent female roles, let alone being directed or produced by women. If you think that this has nothing to do with bikes, sure, but it has to do with culture. The thing about Patriarchy (which is the root and cause of all engendered issues) is that, once you notice it somewhere, you see it everywhere. There’s more research/studies that I could go into, though I won’t for the sake of space (I’d suggest starting here, though: http://dc.streetsblog.org/2013/08/19/the-national-push-to-close-the-cycling-gender-gap/).

      Also, I am not trying to make a generalization, i.e. “all cyclists are men who wear lycra and ride $4,000 Motobecanes.” I, too, and on the road every day, and I notice the great diversity in how cyclists present themselves. What I was noticing was a trend (just this morning, I saw at least four cyclists matching that description). To compare it to another Portland image: I notice that a lot of motorists here drive Subarus. Does that mean that I think Subarus are the only car Portlanders drive?

      And, just as a quick note: I am not saying that men should not ride bikes. Men should totally ride bikes! It’s awesome that they do! I’m saying that men should not control the future of urban cycling, they should not control the marketing and sales of bicycles and gear, they should not be the only ones working in repair shops or building frames. To paraphrase Caitlin Moran: there’s nothing wrong with men. But you fellas have been in charge for a long, long time. Maybe you can, you know, sit down, take a vacation, whatever, and just let women decide what everyone has to do for once?

      I’m sorry that you don’t see bicycling as an engendered issue. Everything in our culture is an engendered issue (Patriarchy!), even if it’s something as positive and helpful as bikes. What we need to do is admit that there is a problem and find a way to mend it. Bicycling, great as it is, should strive to be better, more welcoming, and more accessible.

    5. I used to think it was “cute” that there was a women’s centre that men weren’t allowed into and that the bike co-op had a women’s night but then as I learned more about some women’s experiences I see how they came to be and the need for them.
      The first time I ever went to a gym I was very intimidated. All these guys grunting and making bad faces. It just seemed so hostile. This is the effect women find in many places.

      I wish men could have groups where jerks weren’t allowed.

    6. Thanks for sharing – after moving to PDX last year, I’ve been making a 6 mile commute from Sellwood to the Pearl. I am fortunate to see quite a few regular woman on the Springwater Corridor trail each morning, but I share your frustration with the bike culture, and bike stores, catering mainly towards men.

      While I started biking mainly for convenience and exercise, I do find I love the freedom and autonomy of being able to get anywhere anytime without waiting for a bus or trying to find parking. Love my bike!

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>