For the Love of Bikes: Women & biking

Jackie Mantey, Columbus Alive

There's a long legacy of women's relationships to bikes being a source of independence; Susan B. Anthony once called a female on a bike "the picture of untrammelled womanhood." Suffragists in the early 19th century called bikes "freedom machines."

But in 2009, only 24 percent of bike rides taken in the U.S. per year were taken by women, according to the League of American Bikers. That number is going to rise soon - at least in Columbus - if advocates for women biking have anything to do with it.

Take, for example, the first annual Ohio Women's Bicycling Summit held at the Goodale Park Shelter House in early May. Nearly 70 women, two of who were from out of state, attended the day-long gathering to listen to and take part in discussions about roadblocks facing women who ride bikes.

Topics included overcoming intimidation of bicycle mechanics and jargon when purchasing a bike or cultivating a bike-riding hobby; learning to love your body through biking; and encouraging women and children cyclers in order to raise consciousness about the safety of all urban bikers.

"It was a fantastic first summit," said Jess Mathews, Safe Routes to School manager for Consider Biking, founder of Girls in Gears, and co-organizer of the Summit, which aims to eventually become a Midwest, multi-state event. "The diversity there was incredible."

From state government officials (Ohio's first lady Karen Waldbillig Kasich and Ohio Rep. Teresa Fedor spoke) to businesswomen from New Albany to bike designers and sales reps, the Summit's attendance proved that the urban biking renaissance will remember all kinds of ladies.

The market has noticed; consider Trek Bicycles women's collection of gear and clothing and website links to national women cycling clubs. Paradise Garage has seen an increase in recent years of female customers as well. In fact, Emily Monnig, co-owner of Paradise Garage, said about half of all bikes sold at her store are now sold to women.

Bike advocacy group Yay Bikes! executive director Catherine Girves attributes some of this steady rise to the Columbus women in leadership positions who have already committed to a bicycling lifestyle, such as Police Chief Kim Jacobs and Franklin County Clerk of Courts Maryellen O'Shaughnessy.

"It's great to see somebody with that kind of visibility biking. It's great that the mayor bikes. That makes a difference," Girves said. "I travel quite a bit, and I always try to pay attention to how many people are riding bikes. Columbus has more women riding than any city I've been to."

Education is another essential element to overcoming the intimidation many women feel about buying a bike. Girves said that in the biking education courses Yay Bikes! gives, women have different questions than men, on topics such as chaffing and safety. Giving female riders an intimidation-free atmosphere to ask them in is important.

Mathews' answer to this was starting 2 Wheels & Heels, a free monthly ride where women bikers take a trek together wearing everyday clothes (heels aren't necessary, but the idea is that biking can happen anytime, anywhere). Mathews and fellow experienced riders teach newbies urban riding safety tips like avoiding the "door zone."

But even though "women are more sensitive to the safety issue," Girves said, men and women bikers' "experiences are really pretty similar. We just have to find a way to talk about this." Increasing the awareness of bikers on the road only goes so far if the infrastructure is still not conducive to bikers and motorists sharing the road.

"But I do feel perceived differences [from non-riders] about how safe we are on the road," Girves said. "There's this perception that women are more vulnerable while riding a bike, which absolutely isn't true. I've learned to be really deliberate in intercepting that idea."

Freedom Machines might be an accurate name for bicycles even today. Providing a sense of independence is what keeps Mathews excited about the work she does.

"I want women to rule the streets," she said. "The face of biking is going to be women and families in the future. That's what's going to normalize bike riding."

Alive Editor Justin McIntosh contributed to this report.