There’s been a lot written about the cycling gender gap in the U.S. so I won’t rehash it except to point you here and here and here and – oh hell, just look at this Google search. Basically, recent surveys have found that women make up anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of cyclists, despite, you know, being half of the nation.
Even though I have been spending a lot more time on my bike in recent months, to the point that I now sport the telltale bike-shorts tan line that exposes a rather Victorian strip of pale flesh to the world whenever I wear a pair of normal shorts, I still don’t feel comfortable identifying myself as one of those one-quarter to one-third of cyclists who are female, primarily because I do not use my bike to commute. My reasons for this are two-fold:
- It’s not very safe. I live in a part of the country that is not particularly safe for cyclists or pedestrians. My metro area was ranked the second deadliest in the U.S. for pedestrians and cyclists by Transportation for America’s Dangerous by Design report. In fact, most of Florida’s metro areas suck for anyone who is not firmly ensconced within a motor vehicle. Frankly, it’s terrifying to ride with traffic down here, and I’m pretty sure I’d say that even if I hadn’t already had the terrifying experience of being knocked off my bike by a stoned man in a pick-up truck. (I was unharmed except for the fact that I still have a dent in the side of my left calf, where the bumper made contact with my leg.)
- I work in a professional office job. This means that when I arrive at work, my hair cannot be matted down to my face, nor can I be drenched in sweat. This is considered “unprofessional,” and is especially verboten for womenfolk. In addition, there are no showers here so I cannot go and clean myself up and then change into my work-lady clothes and look presentable for work. The situation is particularly untenable when you factor in the heat, the humidity and the torrential rainstorms that pop up overhead every day at about 4 p.m.
These are commonly cited issues faced by women when it comes to cycling, so I’m not alone in this regard. (Sorry, SkirtBike, but it will take more than a group ride with a bunch of other skirt-clad women to overcome these issues.) And it’s not that women don’t want to ride bikes. This article cites research that says more women hit the road on bike when their cities make an effort to improve bike-friendly infrastructure.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this in recent months, as I find myself spending hours at a stretch riding on my county’s various trails and roadways. A large part of why I do ride as much as I do is because I have access to the Pinellas Trail, which is a paved recreational trail about 40 miles long that starts in the northern part of the county and ends in downtown St. Petersburg. For the most part, the trail is safe, with overpasses that take riders and pedestrians over busy intersections and intersections with dedicated traffic lights and everything. As it’s located about a half-mile from my house, I do the vast majority of my riding there, with the occasional side jaunt over to the beach communities where I can ride over huge bridges and alongside water.
But access to safe places to ride is really only part of what scared me at first about cycling. The fact is, I’d like to be able to ride my bike fast because I want to race, and doing so requires that one be a bit of a daredevil. This is a problem because I am the antithesis of “daredevil.” Brian once described me as the “definition of cautious,” which is a really generous way of saying that I am a big old ‘fraidy cat. Risk-taking is not in my nature. I mean, I used to cry before going on roller coasters when I was twelve years old, for heaven’s sake.
However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more comfortable taking calculated risks, particularly when something I really, really want lies on the other side of the risk-gulf. Take, for instance, my open-water swimming experiences. I wanted to do a triathlon so badly that I basically forced myself to overcome my fear of being in water past my waist. I kept working at it, and now I love to spend time swimming in the water and have actually become….well, not exactly good at it, but I don’t suck either.
My process has been a sort of ham-handed style of what Brian calls exposure therapy, where you expose yourself to something that scares you in a controlled and safe way, and you keep doing it, going a little further each time, and hopefully in the process learning that whatever terrified you is not nearly as bad as you thought it would be. It has been working splendidly with regard to swimming, so I have decided to implement the same process with cycling.
When I first started cycling, I felt so awkward on my road bike, which has skinny tires and cages for my feet. I wobbled, I couldn’t get my feet in the clips, I had to stop every time I wanted to take a sip from my water bottle. I couldn’t even figure out how to manage my gears and so I just rode around all the time in my two big chainrings. (Pro tip: don’t do that.) Whenever I had to go down overpasses or bridges, I kept my fingers clenched tightly around the brakes, hitting them every time my Garmin speed reading crept north of 18 mph as my mind’s eye flashed with visions of my front wheel flying off and my face being ground into hamburger on the road beneath me.
I found the whole thing so intimidating, especially when the flocks of brightly colored cyclebros would blow past me like they were on their own personal Tour de Florida, that I was reluctant to ride my bike for more than 10 miles at a stretch. For someone who aspires to be good at triathlon, this is simply unacceptable. And so, because my desire to be good at triathlon was more powerful than my desire to not see visions of my face being ground into hamburger on the road beneath me, so I decided that, once again, I was going to force myself to prevail over my fears.
- I had to get comfortable with my bike. First I learned how to use the gears. My gear shifters are located on the down tube, and it took – and I shit you not – watching a video of a teenage Lance Armstrong competing in triathlon to figure out an efficient way to use them. I practiced how to shift through the gears on the big chainring, then I started incorporating the small chainring into my hill and bridge climbs. I also had to figure out how I could get to my water bottles and actually drink from them without crashing my bike. I still slow down a bit – more than I’d like – but at least I don’t have to stop completely. Both of these skills are still being practiced, by the way. But sure enough, after months of riding, my bike stopped feeling like a death trap and started feeling like an extension of my body. BIONIC WOMAN FTW.
- I needed to learn how to ride with traffic. I used to stop at every intersection and sometimes I’d even get off my bike and run it across, feeling like a big doofus the whole time. Now I have a better idea of how quickly I can cross roads on my bike, so I rarely feel the need to do that anymore. I also started venturing onto roads with bike lanes and riding a bit there, even though I was basically peeing myself with fear the entire time. I still get scared whenever a car brushes too closely to me but I’ve found that, on the whole, the vast majority of people will go out of their way to avoid even coming close to hitting cyclists (even if they might fantasize about it). I still don’t trust drivers and ride defensively and cautiously, but I at least can ride with them now.
- I’m working on conquering downhills. Going uphills, while not exactly pleasant, isn’t really that scary. It’s going downhill that freaks me out. But the problem with riding my brakes while going downhill is that doing so in a race is basically handicapping myself. That’s free speed, and I was just giving it back! So I gradually started easing my way into it. First I tried hitting my brakes twice on the downhill slope of an overpass, then just once. Then I coasted all the way from the top to the bottom. And then I took a big jump and started pedaling down them. Once that became doable, I started practicing on the nearby bridges to the beach (which you can see here and here). I’m still working on going down these bridges, because they are steep and scary, but I’ve gotten a lot better.
- I’m trying to be okay with going fast. Sometimes it will occur to me that I am speeding around like a missile of flesh-and-bone with little more than a piece of plastic protecting my head from splattering open like a raw egg, which is not a particularly helpful thought to have while riding a bike. Instead, I try to be vigilant and focused while riding, so I can be aware of any potential threats or dangers (skittish squirrels, errant tree branches, unpredictable small children) and slow down in time to avoid them. I get a lot of practice with this when I do speed intervals on the bike, because I’m basically pedaling all-out for four minutes at a stretch and trying to do it while not killing myself or anyone else. (Here are more tips from Sam at Fit, Feminist and (Almost) Fifty about getting faster on the bike. In fact, I eat up pretty much everything she writes about cycling, because she’s fast and experienced and she knows what’s up.)
- I’m trying to accept that there is in fact a certain amount of risk involved in cycling. I can do what I can to minimize those risks, but the fact is that people do get hurt, sometimes very badly. It happens a lot, actually. But I also keep in mind that there is something else I do all the time in which people get hurt and sometimes even die and that’s driving. And yet despite the fact that driving can be a risky thing, I take precautions, I drive defensively and I try to be patient and safe. The best thing I can do as a cyclist is take the attitude I’ve cultivated in the car and transfer it to the bike.
Just as with swimming, I’ve found that the more I ride my bike, the more comfortable I become on it, and the more I’ve come to enjoy it. It’s a really cool feeling to know that, with the help of a lightweight piece of equipment, I can cover distances of fifty miles or more in the space of a few hours. And the training seems to be working well, too, as I not only managed to come in right in the middle of the pack in last weekend’s triathlon (which was a first for me), but my legs felt so fresh and strong getting off the bike that I was able to easily run a 24-minute 5K. In fact, I am pretty sure that cycling is making me a stronger runner, period.
I’m getting fitted for my second bike – a used 2010 Felt S32, which is a tri bike with clipless pedals – tomorrow, and so I know I’m going to have to relearn all of these skills again, and that it could very well be messy and awkward, but thanks to the confidence I’ve built up on my road bike, I’m excited at the prospect of rising to a new challenge with a new bike, and in the process, becoming a stronger, more fearless cyclist.