Friday, 3 May 2013

The darker side of feminine cycling

I started commuting by bike at the same time as a friend. We came in from different parts of London but to listen to her accounts of life on the road you'd think we'd come in from different planets.

Every single day she had a new tale of being bullied, shouted at, abused or harassed by drivers or fellow cyclists. She was catcalled at lights, she was constantly on the receiving end of comments from opinionated motorists, male cyclists tried to race her at lights and junctions and jeered if she couldn't or chose not to keep up, if she stopped to fix a puncture the accompanying cacophony of horns was worthy of a Jay-Z track.

It sounded awful. And completely alien. I could count on the fingers of one hand the amount of grief, in fact attention, I got from motorists or fellow cyclists.

The crucial difference between us was her pneumatic hourglass figure, very ample chest and blonde hair. She embraced Lycra and looked fabulously curvy and feminine in it. I am not curvy, wore fairly scruffy shorts, t-shirts, a backpack and my brown hair was usually in a plait.

I felt horrendously sorry for her. To her credit she didn't let any of it put her off. But I just couldn't really identify. When she wanted to talk about the discrimination female cyclists faced I didn't see it.

Until I decided to buy a very girly bike - a pink Pashley Poppy. It was completely unlike anything I'd ever owned before and I adored its luscious curves and gleaming blonde wheels. It made me feel glamorous, feminine and elegant.

Overnight my experience of London commuting changed. On my blue men's mountain bike in my sporty get-up I was invisible. On my pink lady-bike I was suddenly fair game for every motorist and cyclist on the road. I was bombarded with comments. About the bike, about my cycling, about my choices, about me personally (quite how anybody could deduce that I was 'a thick bint' purely from my choice of bike was beyond me).

All of a sudden I went from tomboyish commuter to object of ridicule.

The pink bike was a heavy beast with only three gears so yes, I was probably slower on it. But not so much slower that I deserved a barrage of abuse at traffic lights, with calls of 'get off the fucking road, Barbie!' and other pleasantries. My cycling style didn't change, so why did motorists suddenly feel the need to roll down their windows and shout 'advice' at me as opposed to just going about their business and letting me go about mine?

The pink bike was my equivalent of my friend's hourglass figure. It screamed femininity. My experiences of 'feminine' cycling were radically different to my experiences of just cycling.

I no longer own the pink bike - I didn't get rid of it because of the attention it attracted, but I can't say I enjoyed it either. I have a pretty thick skin and my usual response to the odd rude motorist or fellow cyclist is a big smile and a happy wave. I have no interest in slanging matches or arguments. But I did not enjoy how much attention the pink bike received. It made me look at commuting by bike in a completely different way.

It would never put me off, but even now I notice the difference in attitudes when I am on my bike in sportswear, and when I'm in a pretty dress. The more feminine I appear the more it seems people feel the need to comment, usually negatively.

Have you found this? I would love to hear your experiences - and would urge you to register any sexist harassment or abuse with the Everyday Sexism project.

21 comments:

  1. Interesting post. Like you (in the pre-pink bike days), I attract almost no attention when I'm on my bike. I tend to dress very casually, in leggings or jeans and a t-shirt and jacket, and I ride a man's bike. I can also keep up with other cyclists on the roads. I'm very thankful I can ride undisturbed - I would hate to receive the kind of attention your friend gets. Good on her to keep cycling! This kind of sexism is just not acceptable, and it has to be challenged.

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  2. It certainly does! Glad to hear you escape unscathed. I do when I'm sportily-dressed. Isn't it awful that we have to dress/act a certain way to avoid unwanted attention? Gets my goat

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  3. Cathy, once again you've hit the nail on the head!

    If I pootle to the supermarket on my plain jane sit up and beg bike, no one notices me. If I dare to don lycra, and cycle round Richmond Park, overtaking a couple of guys, it's like I've got a pack of dogs on my tail. Even after I've watched countless men overtake other men, the minute I dare to pass them, they go crazy!

    The latest comments to be screamed at me 'I wish I was your saddle,'! If you retaliate, they just shout more abuse. Not quite sure what gives them the right to do this, or why they find it necessary.

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    1. Kirsty, you win a special prize for the phrase 'a pack of dogs on my tail'! xx

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  4. Wow, this is truly awful. As a bloke I'd never comment on anyone, their bike or kit. This story probably goes some way to explaining why most women riders don't give the usual wave or nod you get from weekday riders.

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  5. Maybe people here in the midwest are more respectful ... but I don't generally have those issues, nor am I aware that other female bikers - the spandex clad or the sportswear clad - have those problems. A catcall or a "look" here or there, but nothing that can't be easily blown off.

    Sorry for you ladies having to put up with that!

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  6. I just want to say how disheartening this is to me as a male bicycle commuter of long experience. Granted I ride in the US in a fairly progressive area. I'm sorry you've experienced this and I hope that they people who've bothered you get their heads out of their collective (you know whats). I have experienced harassment, in one case by an off-duty police officer. I now ride with a camera perched on my helmet. It is a nice deterrent. -J.r. Bomber (USA)

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  7. My daughter and I have noticed it, in the city from none riders... we ride in a group of 5, 3 males, 2 females. The guys get... hey... way to go.... doing good
    My daughter and I get... whistles... hey baby...from random guys walking or in cars sometimes males riders will be mad because we are over taking them but they are fine when the guys do.
    We used to wear girly helmets and pink (god forbid) and biking skorts. We now wear our spandex shorts with street shorts over them, no pink and nothing really girly in the city. We ride male mountain bikes, so the bike was never an issue.
    We don't have any problems mountain biking, if we are stopped or walking our bikes every man will ask if everything is okay or if we need help and we could be dressed in pink sequence disco wear, it doesn't matter... my daughter wears very girly clothes mountain biking and the guys are most likely think what the hell is she wearing, but never put forth a stray comment.

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    1. I'd like to think it's because mtn bikers are more laid back and want our sport to grow. Keep riding those trails!

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  8. It's sad that this happens. My wife and I have seen this when we’ve gone on rides and she passes a guy. We’ve noticed it enough that we like to have fun with it. She will pass a guy, then I wait and the guy she just passed will speed up and pass her. We laugh it off as it’s pretty funny to watch some of the guys bust a gut doing so. I’ve even let her pass, will see the guy start to speed up to pass her then I’ll come up beside him and fall in behind her and they’ll back off. It’s like bicycling psychology 101 class, it’s extra bonus fun.

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  9. As a bloke and a cyclist I find this depressing reading. At 55 I no longer offer apologies on behalf of my sex because I now firmly believe that these morons are a completely different species. I have witnessed such behaviour and feel nothing but contempt for such low intelligence and/or such appalling bad manners.

    If it's any consolation - probably not - such idiots don't appreciate being passed by an old man with grey hair either. On a ride recently I was maintaining an average speed about 15 mph, (only just started serious cycling), when my speed took me past a chap in his twenties who was just pootering along. Half a mile down the road he passes me at speed with a cocky grin. I simply increased my speed to match his and sat right on his back wheel for a couple of miles forcing him to maintain his speed or 'wimp' out. Half a mile from my destination I accelerated past him for a few hundred yards and then sat up and backed off the pace completely giving him a friendly wave and a grin as he sped past.

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  10. I'm also a veteran male rider in his fifties in London (Lycra clad and pretty assertive with errant motorists, I must add!) and I am angry and depressed also at your story. Motorists, well we know the male 'Mr Toad' instincts, but cyclists, hey guys we should know better!

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  11. I ride my pale green, dutch style bike, with a wicker basket around London everyday while wearing my casual flowery dresses and with my long hair floating in the wind - no helmet, no lycra! And I've never had any of the experiences you report. At the most I've been given the thumbs up by white vans or had people hit on me, but never to the level of ridicule you describe. Normally comments are positive, and I would for no reason ever put myself on a roadbike and wear lycra to just fit in. I quite like being the odd one out on the road, showing Londoners that one can look just the same cycling in London as in Copenhagen or Amsterdam.

    Lately I feel that I'm not necessarily the odd one out at the morning traffic lights - the army of people dressed in everyday clothing (suits, dresses, you name it), using their bike as a mode of transportation, seems to have got a few more members recently. It makes me smile every morning.

    Although I don't have a problem on the road, your story makes me worried for the (hopefully) growing generation of London cyclists - how do we get a city were cycling is for anyone, no matter how they are dressed, where one can afford to be slow on a bike without feeling they have to keep up with the motor traffic? To me this diversity is one of the things that's needed if we want to get more people on bikes in our city.

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  12. This is a sad state of affairs.

    Motorists often jeer at cyclists for wearing Lycra in London but I wear it because (a) it is comfortable and (b) black lycra pants and yellow hi-viz jacket spell CYCLIST to the average dozy driver. I value that instant recognition as it could well be a life saver.

    I never for one moment thought deviating from that recognised 'look' would attract derision from other cyclists. It's a sad world if that's all they have to worry about.

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    1. This is an interesting piece on Rapha gear which apparently does attract quite a bit of scorn - who knew, eh? http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/bike-blog/2013/mar/27/city-cycling-fashion-rapha-bike-blog

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  13. Badly Wiggins should know better "cycling like a girl" he said

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  14. Never had any problems either - at least not since I was a teenager when everyone hits on you! I do recognise the 'men hating being overtaken' thing - lots of times a man I've overtaken busts a gut to get past me again, only for me to catch him a street or two on.
    I've had a couple of men recently help themselves to cheeky tows off my back wheel - which I don't think is exactly honourable (both were younger than me) or safe to do without knowing someone's there and their cycling style. Any ideas how to get someone unwelcome off your back wheel, without completely slowing down?

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    1. I wish I could help Ellie but I'm so slow at the moment I'm probably one of the people hanging onto your back wheel!

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  16. I have a Brompton and use it in Madrid, wearing regular girlish clothes, no helmet. I feel the opposite you tell here. I feel I'm more respected by motorists (except for taxi drivers, of course). They don´t tend to pass me close or fast, maybe because I look more fragile, being a girl or riding a small folding bike

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