May 20, 2012

Cycling the Landscape of Home: Women Riding, or not.

White trillium blooming
See a distant country, see the the groceries, commute to work, ride to school ... discover a national, state or historic park ... burn off pounds, build up fitness ... explore canyons, mountains, deserts, radically different cultures ... race on tracks, roads, dirt, paths, flat, hilly, mountainous ..ride a cyclosportif or randonnée ... play unicycle hockey .... take a spin around town, ride with family, visit with friends ...

Travel? Transportation? Adventure? Sport? Exercise? Way of life?

Bicycles can be so many things, so diverse and so inclusive. Yet whether I am riding solo, with a friend or two, or in any of the recent larger rides I've participated in, one thing is consistently true. Women constitute a small percentage of riders. Is my experience local ... perhaps more women ride in less rural areas, maybe we ride more in urban areas with more cycling infrastructure, with stores and work closer to home. Or perhaps it is age related, in younger communities, maybe more women are on bikes. But still, why do more men than women ride bikes? 

Lilac in short supply this year, but blooming

Having wondered about this on and off, at the Berkshire Cyclosportif that I rode a few Sundays ago, there were 325 participants. 288 men, 37 women. Ages 60-64: 24 men, 1 woman; Over 65: 16 men, no women. This is very far outside the general age demographic. Why? So I posted the question on Team Estrogen's bulletin board. I was wowed with the numerous thoughtful, varied answers.

Today's post offers you photos from my local landscape, once again verdant and green, and thoughts on women cycling ... not just my thoughts. By the way, on my 23 hilly miles today, I saw 6 men and one other woman. As an aside, one of the men approaching me turned around and told me he had just seen a big black bear cross the road, that was great! I guess I really appreciate interactions with other riders. I pulled out my camera, but it was probably long gone.  

Typical view on today's ride
I don't really even know why I asked the question, perhaps it's simply selfish. I'm not saying that it matters, actually. I'm not even urging more women to get on bikes. It's just that it is hard not to notice the phenomena, and so to wonder about it.

In the end, I think, there is one word, well two, for the discrepancy in gender: it's cultural. Note: I didn't say specific to the US, just cultural. Results to my question looked like this:

The 18th century is old here
At least 18 answers mentioned child care, child care, child care responsibilities and lack of time.It's still generally true that women are more responsible for raising children. And frequently, they don't often choose to take time away from family. The suggestion was made that when they do, cycling, and most outdoor athletic pursuits are a low priority.

20 plus answers mentioned fear: safety concerns and traffic. Several respondents said they see more women on designated bikeways, and that has been my experience. Sadly, several responses to those comments said that there had been attacks by men on women cycling on bike routes, which can be more isolated and less trafficked than roads and that as riders they feel safer on roads. Some respondents mentioned studies that show women to be more risk averse: the risk of being hurt in an accident makes cycling just not worth it. That might tie very closely to having major responsibility for children. Other women say they have no one to ride with and won't ride alone.

Lakes and children's camps abound

12 responses sited perhaps subtle but to me clearly cultural things that would make cycling not so inclusive: while the bike itself might be gender neutral, bike shops, clothing, bike design is not. Respondents mentioned it's too technical, too hard, bikes and saddles don't fit women well, not being able to cope with flat tires, or clips, it's too competitive.   This might be an understanding of cycling related to club rides and racing. It's not been my experience.

And horses aren't infrequent

Many respondents alluded to various phenomena I'd link together as a result of the first three groups, and pull it together as a cultural phenomena. These might best be described in an imaginary profile: Sandy Cyclist rides when she's young, then has a family, and leaves cycling (and most organized exercise) behind while the kids are growing up, preferring to spend what little free time she has with friends, and anyway ... women aren't so into sports, or athletics. Besides which, bikes and gear are expensive, and spending that kind of money on herself, when she might not stick with it for long, is just too self-indulgent.  Getting a bit older, and seeing images of women who are always young, fit and beautiful in the press, Sandy starts to feel self-conscious and stupid in athletic clothes, especially lycra or spandex on a bike outside. Besides, the odds of being hit by a car, or being in an accident make it too risky to be on the road or on a mountain bike in the woods. If there is time for exercise, it is much more feasible and fun to be in a club with other women ... fitness workouts, or tennis, swimming, martial arts. And then there is age.

A kingbird in kingfisher's territory

Six respondents said that the gender ratio seems pretty even and some mentioned that the percentage of women riding is growing. They seem to be in urban areas with good cycling infrastructure and outdoor, and exercise-based values. More than one person mentioned that they had ridden as children. So did I, but that made me realize how rarely I see children on bicycles these days.

Those are gross summaries, but much of it rings true to me. I enjoy riding with anyone I can ride with, but usually I can't keep up with men ... and I rarely see women on bikes. Not a whine or a rant, just an observation. There are books to be written here, studies to be made.If anyone is interested in the answers themselves, take a look at Team Estrogen's discussion board. I'll probably keep referring to responses in future posts.

A shadow on the road

As an aside, paying attention to these answers may possibly have been one tiny small little factor in a recent big decision, a change in my cycling here at home. Certainly this change was the very most fun thing about my ride today. There's a big hint in one of this post's photos. But more on that in another post.


  1. Good post. Important questions. In our rides, we get about 10% women who attend. A woman pointed this out to me once and it seems that she is correct. I wonder if the apparent new expansion of focus from racing oriented riding to more practical riding will help to increase the number of women who ride regularly.

    1. Hi Iron Rider,

      Thanks! I think you may be right that with a changing, more inclusive ... and expanded focus, as you put it, more women might pedal. Certainly in France I saw many women in towns and cities riding. But many fewer touring or in club rides there, also.

      Also, 10% was probably about it, maybe a bit more, on the only RUSA ride I've been on ... and it was short, 100K.

  2. I can only imagine one thing concerning your 'hint', and that's the last photo showing what could be the wheel of a new road bike...? It's a wild stab, I admit!

    As for the lack of numbers in the women's peloton, it's really, really bad in France. If I see one woman a month on the road that's a lot, and at races there are just a handful. No idea of reason, but I can imagine that if you are a woman and wanted to ride with a group then it'd be pretty disheartening to try and keep up with a bunch of guys (unless you are and extremely strong woman...don't get me wrong!). I will say this, the women I see in races here are, in general, quite strong, and I have been beaten badly by more than a few in my day ;-)

    1. Hey Gerry,

      That's about how many women "roadies" I saw in France, too. I saw a few women on Voie Vertes and once a few in club rides. But I do think it's great how many more people do errands, take kids to school, commute to work, etc. there by bike. In the 1970s I commuted to work in Manhattan, it was less than 3 miles and I'm sure it was the most dangerous riding I've ever done! We are almost totally car-bound here.

      Glad you've got a guess! It's a guess ... More later....

  3. It's not your imagination and I don't think it's exclusive to cycling. In last Sunday's Marine Corps Half Marathon, only 25% of the entrants were female. There has been much written about why women don't cycle in cities and theories range from perceived danger to being unkept and/or not in the style of dress they would prefer to be in once they arrive. Cycling also labors under the stereotype that it is a rich white man's activity, meaning there are better things to spend city money on than bike infrasture or bikeshare programs. Folks like me only reinforce the stereotype (I am, of course, a fabulously rich white male), so it is critical that folks like your self keep setting the example for others.

    1. Hi Steve,

      Glad for your input. I've been wondering about how other endurance, outdoor, activities compare particularly running. I think the 25% figure is more than riding, but also think it is because running is far better embedded in our culture ... witness your recent post. You mention cycling as a rich white man's activity. Hmmmm...I suppose that would make me a rich white woman, that would be fun to live up to! But I suppose the idea is right there with your being, of course, a fabulously rich white male. As for my setting an example, there's another scary thought!


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