ANN ARBOR, Mich. (WOMENSENEWS)–Sophia Simon, a high school sophomore and avid biker here, is glad to be part of a co-ed adventure cycling group.
“Before it was made, the other groups around were made for men and boys, and women didn’t sign up,” she said in an interview at her high school. “It was introduced to Ann Arbor a couple of times, but whenever the idea was introduced, the response was, ‘Oh, you don’t honestly think a girl could do that.'”
“I love mountain biking. It’s not like the interest is more among boys,” added Simon. “The interest is evenly dispersed but the communities are male-dominated.”
She said it’s important to have a female presence in biking when you’re a girl and trying to pursue the sport and push yourself to your own limits. “There needs to be a more equalized turf.”
Women Bike, the female faction of the League of American Bicyclists, is trying to update the outmoded image of a typical cyclist.
“It’s not just older men who wear technical clothes and have all sorts of fancy gear,” said Carolyn Szczepanski, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based group. “It’s also women who ride in their business attire and high heels. It’s teen girls who want a fun way to hang out with friends or want to get their hands dirty fixing up or building their own bike.”
Szczepanski takes an optimistic view of the growth that cycling still holds. “I think we’re seeing a resurgence in bicycling overall in response to a heightened interest in physical and mental health and a desire to inject more fun and inspiration in our daily lives.”
From 2012 to 2013, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, women’s biking grew by 4 percent. However, it also found that in 2013 there were over a million more male bikers than female nationwide.
Harder to Find a Riding Group
A male-oriented biking culture can make it more difficult for women to find a riding group that meets their needs.
“It’s hard to find a group ride big enough to learn the skills they need but with speed that is appropriate for them,” said Janet La Fleur, a 50-year-old participant of Women Bike and a bicycle blogger in the San Francisco Bay Area. “A peer male and a female are going to be different speeds, so getting women to practice with can be difficult.”
She added that women are often slower. “We have a different style, we’re not as competitive sometimes, we do things differently,” said La Fleur in an email interview. “And it’s important to nurture that.”
For such reasons La Fleur said that female-only bike clubs can be necessary in addition to co-ed groups.
“Basically, the deal is, in the United States, the way that bicycling is portrayed in the culture is as a sport activity, so it’s about going longer, harder, faster,” she said. “And there are women who enjoy that, too. But that style of doing things is generally more popular with men. So women in bicycling are often pushed into this culture that they may or may not want to be a part of.”
Women are also lagging among those riding their bikes to work. While finding a strong increase in the numbers of people using bikes to commute, twice as many men bike to work than women, finds the 2012 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Melinda Musser is communications and marketing manager for the Community Cycling Center, an organization in Portland, Ore., that strives to get everyone on wheels. “We learned about the culturally specific barriers to bicycling and that simply giving people bikes is not enough,” she said in an email interview. “There are multiple barriers.”
Not knowing safe routes or feeling safe riding in their own neighborhoods is a big obstacle. Some girls and women have never learned to ride and need lessons. Others have language obstacles. Money concerns can make it hard to acquire or fix a bike.
Both Musser and Szczepanski also noted that funding is a continual challenge for their respective nonprofits.
Yet, efforts to boost female cycling are growing.
CycloFemme, a group formed in 2012 by Girl Bike Love, an online women’s biking publication, has been expanding its list of worldwide cycling events for women and girls. In 2013 it claimed 229 rides in 31 countries and its group in Africa is aiming to get a girl cyclist to the 2016 Olympics.
“We have had rides all over the world; India, Turkey, Japan, France, Australia, the U.K., Africa,” said Sarai Snyder, Cyclofemme’s “Chief Passion Peddler,” in an email interview. “And now we are working with some specific groups in Africa, Aruba and all over the U.S.”
The international expansion of advocacies such as Cyclofemme challenges the cultural bias of many places in the world where women on bicycles are currently condemned.
Shannon Galpin, a Cyclofemme participant, was profiled by National Geographic and the New York Times in 2009 for becoming the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan, where it’s considered unacceptable for women to ride.
“The bike represented a way for me to challenge gender stereotypes in a country repeatedly ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman, and known for its continued oppression.” Galpin writes on Cyclofemme’s website.
That echoes the famous sentiment of Susan B. Anthony, the 19th century American suffragist who famously credited cycling with doing more “to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”