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Where do women fit into the bicycle industry?

Last weekend, the cycling community descended on Leeds Town Hall to attend the inaugural Yorkshire Bicycle Show. There was something for everyone; with organisers taking the opportunity to celebrate the rich tapestry of cycling the region has to offer.

There were film screenings, frame building demonstrations, talks and displays, not to mention a good line in local beers, ales and food. Not only did Total Women’s Cycling have a stand, but we also supported the women’s talks hosted on Sunday.

Juliet Elliott

We asked Juliet Elliott – founder and Editor of women’s action, art and adventure magazine, Coven Magazine – one of four panelists at the ‘Women in Cycling’ talk, to give us an insight into the panels thoughts on how to get more women on bikes.

En route to the Yorkshire Bicycle Show with my iPod exhausted, a sore bum and rising irritation at the endless road works, my mind turned to a topic very close to my heart and the reason I’d made the long journey from Devon to Leeds – just where do women fit into the bicycle industry? It’s a question I often ponder, and one sure to incite fierce debate – is the industry doing enough for women or is it women themselves who need to just step up and get on their bikes?

Challenged with creating a well balanced, thought provoking and inspiring series of talks over the two days of the show, Founder of Bikes V Design Alice Marsh had summoned myself and two other spirited, opinionated female cyclists to discuss the issue of gender in cycling. I rolled around some ideas as I cruised down the M1 and wondered whether the four of us would be singing from the same hymn sheet or butting heads.

Alice Marsh marketing manager at Bike Works, who also runs Bike V Design, makes it her mission to ensure cycling is accessible to all. Image by Stuart Kay.

At Leeds Town Hall, the show was in full swing – a cornucopia of two wheeled delights that I steered myself past, wallet safely squirrelled away to prevent impulse buys. Alice gathered her co-conspirators for a brief chat before we mounted the stage to begin changing the world. Well, to talk about it at least!

Alice and I were joined by Emily Chappell, who’s currently cycling around the world in what she herself calls – ‘a leisurely fashion.’ Prior to setting off, like myself, Emily worked as a bike messenger, and while she gathers her thoughts and a little money, she’s back on the roads delivering packages as well as putting pen to paper for numerous bike related publications.

Jenni Gwiazdowski, founder of not-for-profit organisation London Bike Kitchen, who with her female friendly WAG nights has shown her commitment to encouraging women to pick up tools and fix their own bikes completed our four woman strong panel.

Jenni Gwiazdowski believes in the power of the bicycle, how they are capable of transforming their riders physically, socially and emotionally, as well as help the environment around them.

After introducing ourselves, we began by discussing the assumptions made about female cyclists and the role of stereotypes in pedaling false ideas about bikes and women. We all agree that alongside issues of safety, perception of cycling and people who ride bikes is one of the biggest reasons women are not taking to two wheels in the numbers we’d all like to see. Though we’re a feisty bunch sat on stage spouting our views, you certainly don’t need to be tough, strong or opinionated to ride a bike and if you think you do need to be, it’s just because women such as us are making all the noise!

As one of very few women cycling around the world, Emily knows firsthand that people consider her ‘superhuman,’ but she’s quick to point out that she’s not anything special. “If a loser like me can do it, a loser like you can do it,” she laughs. Cycling is not for the superhuman, it’s for everyone, from delicate girls, to women with swagger, fashionable teens to super fit grandmas, we conclude.

Moving on from the image of female cyclists, we discuss women’s entry into the Tour De France and the lack of opportunities for female cyclists, which never fails to get me worked up! I’m frustrated that women contribute their time and experience to many big cycling events, yet if they want their own contests they have to organize them entirely on their own.

I even go so far as to say it should be mandatory to consider the needs of female cyclists when putting on events. How long will it be until we laugh and say ‘can you believe that they didn’t use to have a women’s race, how archaic!’

Though all of the panel feel strongly about encouraging women to cycle, we didn’t agree on everything, and Emily feels that women need to take matters into their own hands. Sadly, this does seem to be true, but it’s not something I’m happy about.

Lack of opportunities is just one strand of an industry that seems not quite ready to commit to proving for women, we decide. It seems mad really; it’s an exciting time for female cyclists, our numbers are swelling and the bike and clothing manufacturers seems to be missing a trick, and a potentially profitable one at that. One thing we’re all agreed upon; women need to be involved in all levels of the industry to make our voices heard – we need female mechanics, female frame builders as well as female CEOS.

Wrapping things up, we pause to consider the most important points we’ve covered in our discussion and it seems to be clear – just as there’s every kind of women in the world, there’s every kind of cyclist and providing a one-size-fits-all solution just doesn’t cut it.

We can worry when we don’t know how to fix a flat or we can drop our bike into the shop like heaps of other people do. Ultimately, female cyclists can choose to be defined by their gender, their clothing, by what they can and can’t do. Or they can just pick up a bike and ride it.

So if you want to race DH mountain bikes, go for it! Fancy a pootle in the sun with a chihuahua in your basket? Do it! As long as you’re cycling, you’re a winner! Or you’re a loser, but you’re a loser on a bike!

You can read more from Juliet Elliott on her blog dedicated to cycling Bikes n’ stuff, or follow her on Twitter.

Headline image by Gary Knight via Flickr.

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