I approach the sexist aspects of bike culture the same way I address the presence of black bears while backpacking: I deliberately avoid contact. My friends are a pretty progressive bunch, and I only patronize bike shops with a reputation of being welcoming to ALL their customers. So while I heard horror stories from other women, I spent an entire year biking the Twin Cities, learning how to repair my own bike, and exploring cycling culture without any real incident.
The following exchange, while certainly not the worst example of machismo in the bike lanes, has made me think a bit harder about all of this.
A few weeks ago, I was running late to work, riding a bike-only path in high gear. A male cyclist caught up, but instead of passing me decided to engage in conversation. In my mind, this was weird in itself. My commute is not a group ride, and I’m not personally in the practice of inviting myself to ride with someone I’ve never met.
He started off with, “You’re going fast.”
What the F was that supposed to mean?! I think that the obvious implication, considering that this statement was uttered by a cyclist exactly matching my speed, was “you’re going fast, for a girl.” Was this his idea of a pick-up line? Did he realize that it was offensive? Perhaps this dude was not sexist, just arrogant and self-congratulatory about his own pace?
That’s what went through my mind in about 1.2 seconds as I plumbed my resources for a socially appropriate response to socially inappropriate behavior. What I said was, “I appear to be going the same speed you are.”
To which he responded, “I’m running late to work.” To which I responded, “So am I.”
I sped up and he sped up. This was creepy. Obviously I couldn’t get away from this guy by simply changing my speed.
“How long is your commute?” he asked. I answered truthfully, “about 5 miles.” In a boastful and obnoxious voice more appropriate for an 8th grade lunchroom, he said, “Mine is 10 miles.” I don’t remember all the details of how strenuous his ride apparently was, but he proceeded to talk about himself and his own commute for a while as I contemplated whether to inform my new acquaintance that he came off as sexist and arrogant.
I ultimately chose to say as little as possible, thinking my stony, disengaged silence might send the message. I have never been so happy to exit a bike-only path in favor of the city streets.
I replayed the scenario in my mind for the rest of my ride, imagining a different response on my part. Maybe a pissed-off feminist lecture on offensive comments or a non-confrontational discussion of why I was offended. This did as much good as it did when I was in middle school, thinking up witty comebacks hours after a confrontation.
I can’t change that encounter, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how to respond the next time. I think about stories other female cyclists have told me, and it seems there’s a general ignorance about the fact that many statements and actions are actually offensive and intimidating.
Perhaps, dear reader, you think I am making too big of a deal about this. Perhaps you are wondering how you can avoid being sexist when you’re not even sure what constitutes sexism. We can all recognize the times we stereotype other cyclists based on gender, clothing, or bike.
I’m sexist, too. I often assume that men wearing spandex riding expensive bikes are jerks. That’s not fair. Men seem to see me and my steel frame and think I am slow. That’s not fair, either.
The Twin Cities have one of the highest percentages of women cyclists in the country. We have great resources for female, trans*, and queer cyclists, but we haven’t eradicated macho attitudes. Research clearly shows that the more people who ride, the safer it is for all cyclists. Part of making it even better is encouraging more people to ride and making sure that bike shops, advocacy events, and rides are welcoming and non-intimidating to all cyclists, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or income.