Part 4: Five Things I Knew About Women & Bikes*

20 Aug

*But was afraid to write about without data to back me up. This is part four of the series.

Two weeks ago the League of American Bicyclists released their Women on a Roll research report on women and bicycling. The report breaks down results into five key areas: comfort, convenience, consumer products, confidence and community. Here’s my take on confidence based on my personal experience.

What I knew about CONFIDENCE: Women LOVE taking skills classes, both on and off the bike.

Dirt Series Liebrecht San Jose 2009

Some Statistics from the Women on a Roll report:

  • 58% of women vs 81% of men said they are “very confident” riding a bicycle.
  • 26% of American women say learning more about bicycling skills would encourage them to ride more.
  • In a survey of six cities, 29% of women vs 83% of men said they could fix a flat tire and only 3% of women (vs. 34% of men) said they could fix any problem.

My Personal Experience: Before I got into bicycling, I was a ballroom and salsa dancer with a four-night-a-week dance habit. I think I was making up for lost time for the ballet, tap and jazz dance lessons I didn’t have as a little girl. When your parents have five daughters, dance lessons don’t easily fit into the budget. What I learned from ballroom dance is that to do it well you need to start with good instruction, you need to practice regularly, you need to push beyond yourself beyond your comfort zone occasionally, and you’re never to skilled for classes. Oh, and if it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong.

All that applies to the bicycling as well. When I got my first adult bike at 30 years old, my friends taught me the basics: downshift before you need to, keep a high cadence and spin up the climbs, look through the corners on twisty descents and get your butt out of the saddle on loose dirt downhills. That got me through a lot.

As I got more into the sport I turned to clinics in cyclocross, road racing, and mountain bike skills. The first time I did a cyclocross remount I was so excited snuck out of class to call Dick, and I burst into happy tears after successfully riding over my first log at the Dirt Series. I took their mountain bike clinics three years in a row, and mastered the teeter-totter my friend Yvonne is tackling in the photo above. There’s always more to learn and having pros assist can have your confidence growing by leaps and bounds.

Beginner Girl Riders Crop

But the thing about learning skills, especially for women and girls, is that people have to do it when they’re ready for it. A few years ago I had the pleasure of assisting the NorCal High School Cycling League at their winter mountain bike training camp. I was assigned a group of girls with the least experience. By the end of the skills session Coach Julie had inspired them to trust their bikes and their balance to ride over a 6″ high rock.

But on the trail ride they struggled on the gnarly wet singletrack and we could tell we were losing them. So we rerouted them on an adventure exploring Tamarancho’s “forbidden” fire roads and the smiles returned, thank goodness. No matter what potential and enthusiasm these girls might have had when they signed up, they were unlikely to keep mountain biking (much less race) if they didn’t have fun on their first trail rides.

Bike skills don’t stop with bike handling. Learning to change a tire is a rite of passage to earn your cyclist badge. The unwritten rule among road racers is that you should be able to fix your own flat in less than 10 minutes. Take longer and you’ll have some ‘splaining to do. Then there’s fixing a dropped chain, adjusting a derailleur, repairing a broken chain and more. So many things a cyclist is expected to know.

Changing Road Tire 2

The Impact: Not everyone who loves riding bikes loves working on them. In particular, I’ve found that most women learn the minimum to get by and let the pro mechanics handle the rest. Why shouldn’t they? Most drivers don’t change flat tires, they call for roadside assistance. But bicycling isn’t mainstream like driving, and people who aren’t interested in working on bikes often don’t feel like real cyclists. And that’s a lot of women.

The silliest part of that is that flats (the most common mechanical problem) aren’t even that common with wider city and mountain bike tires. I’ve only had one flat in three years of daily commuting and I was able to get home easily on light rail. Replacing a flat on a rear wheel with a Nexus hub isn’t so easy.

In contrast, my road bike tires are delicate flowers that go flat as soon as the pavement gets wet. Shards of glass or wires from steel-belted car tires stick to the them and work their way through the tread. Lightweight tires may be faster, but they’re not so durable. At least they’re relatively easy to change.

The lesson with regard to women’s preference for formal instruction is simple: offer skills classes and women will come, even experienced riders. Especially if the class is targeted for women and led by female instructors. Why are women only classes particularly enticing? The answer will come in the next post in this series.

How did you learn skills on the bike? Formal instruction or from friends only? What about repairing your bike? Is it something you enjoy or would you rather have someone else take care of it?

Cyclocross Skills

Top photo courtesy of Dirt Series mountain bike camps. San Jose 2009, Liebrecht.


Posted by on August 20, 2013 in Issues & Infrastructure, Women & Bikes


6 responses to “Part 4: Five Things I Knew About Women & Bikes*

  1. Psy

    August 20, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    Truth be told, I learned most of what I know about repairing by tinkering with my bike and volunteering at the SVBC’s bike work days. Being a student too broke to take my bike in for a tune up but still having access to Youtube also helped a lot! I’m usually the one that ends up changing the flats on a ride since I’m the fastest :]

    Aside from that…the only class I’ve ever taken was a framebuilding class, which I loved and would take again in a heartbeat!

    • ladyfleur

      August 20, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      How’s the frame you built working for you? I know I read your post, but I don’t remember if you were done with it. Have you seen “build in a weekend” bamboo frames? Not elegant like steel but amazing.

      • Psy

        August 20, 2013 at 9:45 pm

        I want to take that bamboo class so badly! I’ve seen a few on the train and rode one at the Bike Expo a while back – comfy ride, and I love the look. Someone mentioned the class is no longered offered in San Francisco, but you can still buy a kit to do it at home. I’m tempted, honestly.

        My steel frame is *almost* built up, and when it is I’ll take it out on some hills and see how it goes!

  2. Winona Hubbard (@bicichica)

    August 21, 2013 at 9:00 am

    Great write up Janet. Everything you say is TRUE. You’ve reminded me I gotta read that LAB report. Does it really say “3% of women (vs. 34% of men) said they could fix any problem.” ANY problem? Such a low number for the men! ;-o

  3. Julie Bates

    August 21, 2013 at 9:04 am

    Janet I’ve been enjoying your series so much. Thank you for your insight. I’d also like to thank you for making my day today by including me. Wow! That was a very cool surprise.

    Your series has been spot on. Thank you for sharing with us.


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