Guest post: Meg 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.
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!”