As an organizer of social bike rides for women, I have mixed feelings about the way they are perceived by nonparticipants. I’ve commented on the unhelpfulness of some critiques of cycle chic before, pointing out that the cycle chic movement itself isn’t sexist, so much as that it’s vulnerable to being co-opted by the sexism and commercialism of our society. The latest post from bike blog land that has me thinking about this, is instead critiquing the emphasis on a particular version of femininity in social rides for women. I think this is more about perception than the way the rides are actually organized, but let’s explore the ideas behind social rides a bit, and talk about our goals for Critical Lass.
The perception that you can’t wear street clothes (whether they’re business-casual or date-night-pretty) on a bike is part of the reason there aren’t more women on bikes in North America, according to surveys, and that’s part of what motivates the creators of rides and bike blogs like ours. (The other part of the equation is safe infrastructure, and most bike bloggers of both genders are also involved with bicycle infrastructure advocacy.)
Our intent was always that the Critical Lass Edmonton rides were the equivalent of going for brunch with your friends, and our food stops were meant to provide participants with an opportunity to chat and build community. We chose routes that would let us explore more of the city, and destinations that would make it feel like a special occasion. We wanted the fun of a Tweed Ride without the anachronism or cos-play. We wanted to make new friends and support local businesses (some of whom are bakeries). We wanted to make it approachable to novices, and we didn’t want bike-snob guys patronizing us or hitting on us. (Not that we’ve ever had that problem on rides in Edmonton. The cycling community here is awesome like that. But these are the preconceptions that keep newbies away from big rides like Critical Mass.)
Some of our participants ride in their skirts and dressy shoes, with their children or on their own, on every type of bike, to work or grad school or the grocery store, every single day, because that’s how they would dress whether they were on a bike or not. They should be able to get on their bikes and do their thing without being sneered at as tools of the patriarchy, the same way that women who race or mountain bike wearing appropriate attire for those types of cycling should be able to do their thing without being ridiculed, and the same way any of us should be able to walk into a bike shop without being talked down to by a sales dude who knows less about what we need than we do.
But. I think we do need to take care in the way we describe and promote social rides for women. All women should feel welcome to participate, not just girly girls. We also need to take care that, if our goal is to create equality for cyclists, that we aren’t accidentally playing into stereotypes that are being used to marginalize us.
To some feminists, cupcakes and high heels aren’t just dessert and clothing, they’re symbolic of the infantalization and objectification of women by society. As I’ve pointed out before, friction between second- and third-generation feminists is playing a role in these conversations; third-gen feminists also see high heels as a symbol of power. However, if names like “Cupcake Ride” or an emphasis on fashion in our photos are attracting criticism, we need to listen with an open mind, and perhaps adjust our plans.
We also need to think about what our goals and our target demographic actually are, design our events accordingly, and find ways to measure our progress toward those goals. If our goal is to attract novice riders and build the community, then our events will look different from ones that are designed as socials for an existing cycling community of experienced riders.
In the case of Critical Lass Edmonton, we think that explicitly restating our goals will help us with our planning. So, let’s reiterate:
- Critical Lass is an inclusive ride for female cyclists of all levels of experience. We often have moms with young kids join us. (We will be planning our first family ride / Kidical Mass this summer too.)
- We ride in street clothes, and sometimes we dress up. Our focus is on fun, not fashion.
- Vintage bike? Mixte? Mountain bike? Hybrid? Racer? Dutch city bike? Folder? Longtail? Bakfiets? We think they’re all fabulous. We might ask to give it a test ride or take loving closeup photos of parts.
- Our route is suitable for novice cyclists. Mostly residential streets and bike paths, no tricky high-traffic areas, usually pretty flat.
- Our destination is a place where we can rehydrate, grab coffee and a snack, and socialize. We prioritize locally-owned businesses that are vegan- and allergy-friendly.
We haven’t actually been keeping track previously, but we will poll our participants this year and see what proportion of them are experienced riders and what proportion are novices. Maybe then, for fun, we can do an actual cupcake ride (in, say, October?) with super-girliness and a fashion emphasis, and see how those proportions change. It won’t be terribly scientific, but maybe it will give an idea whether these things actually do bring more newbies out. I have a feeling that if we compare those proportions for Critical Lass, a special cupcake ride, and Kidical Mass, we might be surprised by the results.