Jun 16, 2012

Heroes For My Daughter: Bicycling

I've written before about how it changed my outlook and my feminism when my daughter was born.   All of a sudden (we didn't find out the baby's sex until she was born) I was very personally invested in the success of a female of the species.  This had happened to a lesser degree as I was raised by a single mother, and then stepped up again when I'd gotten married, but this was a whole new level of personal experience.
Whew.  That's a lot of theory and explanation.  The rest of this entry will be much more fun.  I just want you to understand why my radar is so tuned, and thus inspired, by the people I'm about to talk about.  Well, okay, maybe one more paragraph of theory:

Bicycling for sport or recreation (the world that I inhabit in my dreams and daydreams, and that I escape to when life feels too overwhelming) has not always been welcoming to women.  It should have been and once was.  If you've read this far, you probably already know about Susan B. Anthony's famous quote about the bicycle and the emancipation of women.  But read a little of Jacquie Phelan's writing if you think cycling was still as welcoming by the time the mountain bike rolled around.  Or simply check out for yourself the coverage of the men's vs. women's cycling.  Too much attention tends to be paid to the testosterone flood of jumping off cliffs or riding through painful bloody crashes in races (though there are certainly women that fit both of these categories, too) and too little to the more subtle beauties and pursuits which can encompass bikes.

I'm already wading into water too deep for me, with mud at the bottom that could drag me down.  Let me get to my point:  the times, they are a' changin' and for my daughter's sake, the timing couldn't be better (she's six).  I'd like to talk about some of these women as a way of highlighting some female heroes for her (and myself, frankly) and just to bring them- and the industry shift they represent- some deserved attention.


We have to begin with the Women's Mountain Biking and Tea Society, the WOMBATS.  Again, you'll do better to read Jacquie's history of the organization than for me to try to summarize, but in my then-mtb-centric mind, this was the first real shot-across-the-bow (she'll love that violent imagery) about women in cycling.  Of course they (you) had been there all along, but this group really made a great point of it.

But I'm not here to provide an exhaustive history of women in cycling.  Still, any hero list must include Ms. Phelan.

I first read of JP when I'd just moved to Massachusetts, so it's here I'll begin my list.  Two of our local women have begun to rise to some prominence (three if you include Saila Cycles, and then there's  Krisztina Holly formerly of NEMBA...):  Velouria of the blog Lovely Bicycle, and Bekka Wright of the art/cycling website Bikeyface.

One can imagine why a person would want to protect their identity while writing for the biking community.  Some do this with pen names, some don't do it at all, and some artfully avoid mentioning personal details.  Velouria (who also went by Filigree at one point, I think) has been building her following with something resembling the intensity of an avalanche in the last year or so.  I became aware of her blog through a mention in Bicycling Magazine last year.

The great thing that Lovely Bicycle represents is a departure from racing and competition and intense riding in spandex costumes, to a calmer integration of the bicycle into a better life.  The blog is not about V's competitive exploits as she travels all over the world (though she does do some travelling) but about the joys of simply living with a bicycle.

Coming from a slightly different place with an ultimately similar bent, Bekka and Bikeyface are first and foremost about her wonderful line drawings.  Yes, she commutes by bike and tells the reader about it, but it is her artistic alter-ego (and yes, she closely resembles the character) that drives Bikeyface.  The posts aren't long, but they somehow convey quite a bit with one or two drawings and a few words.  For those who don't know (as if I do), this is accomplished through thoughtful planning and efficient use of space.  Or perhaps just superior intelligence?  Once you look at the latest, I can almost guarantee you'll find yourself going back and looking at all of the Bikeyface posts you can find. It's one of those.

It is not on purpose, but perhaps on a subliminal level, there's a reason that the next person I would hold up to my daughter as a female hero of the bicycle currently resides in the city I was born in:  Pittsburgh, PA.  Karen Brooks, who was the Editor of Dirt Rag magazine for a long while until they launched their new and increasingly successful magazine Bicycle Times. Then she became editor there.  I will always maintain that having a woman in that role helped set Dirt Rag apart (Elaine Tierney, the founding Editor, was there for many years).  On a personal note, I can also say that she is a pleasure to work with.  But the magazine is only the icing on the cake that is Karen Brooks.  Dig just a little deeper, and you'll learn that she was/is (?) the drummer for the band Aydin, an experimental "shoegazer" band a la Sonic Youth (listen for yourself).

Moving west to Portland, OR, I find inspiration in their writers and bike makers.

Writers Heidi Swift and Elly Blue come from the same city and the same love of bicycles, but the way they take on the two are quite divergent.

You may know that Portland is leading the nation in the idea of cycling as an actual, practical form of transportation.  This is the part of cycling that Elly comes from.  She's written a blog/zine for years called Taking The Lane.  She's the author of Bikenomics:  How Bicycling Will Save The Economy (If We Let It) and co-founded PDX By Bike.

Swift, however, is the lifelong competitor, the author who glorifies the suffering of competition.  Her favorite is Cyclocross Competition,and as such, she made these videos a few years ago.  Watch them, and you'll want to follow her blog forever.  Visit that blog, and you'll quickly learn about the crazy thing she's doing in the coming month.  She and a team of women will ride one day ahead of the Tour De France, and will cover the entire route for the tour company Reve, documenting the project as they go along.  Feminism, indeed! Whether they make it or not, this will make for some great reading, but I wouldn't bet against them.  But there's more to Swift than bike racing- as you can learn here.

And then we get to Natalie Ramsland.  As you may have noticed, the custom-made, high-end bicycle is gaining some ground in the last couple of years.  A framebuilder with a torch, making art out in the shed.  It's a very romanticized idea, for many of us- even those who aren't necessarily cyclists.  But there are precious few women in that role.  One of the best is Ms. Ramsland, and her company Sweetpea Bicycles.  Along with husband Austin and recent "hire" Inga Ramsland (her daughter), Natalie addresses the unique fit needs that many women present.  Running absolutely contrary to the long-time industry "wisdom" that to make a bike fit a woman you simply "shrink it and pink it", Ramsland covers everything from measuring and fitting the person to the bike, to the welding that joins the tubes together (quite nicely, I might add).  As if that wasn't enough, Sweetpea is also the only bike co. I know of who is a member of 1% For The Planet, something she discusses in this video.

And if a woman who builds frames surprises you (she shouldn't), Jude Kirstein of Sugar Wheelworks might be completely incomprehensible.  Perhaps you understand that wheels are woven together of spokes- sort of like a basket is.  But that's where the obvious falls away.  From there, wheels enter a mysterious world where the tension of each spoke is measured, where spoke are tuned like guitar strings, and where a good wheelbuilder can make the difference between a wheel you won't have to think about for a decade, and one that sends you home with a broken spoke every ride  (a process that could potentially get quite expensive if you took the bike in to a bike shop each time- not to mention how seldom you'd get to ride).  Needless to say, Kirstein is the former type of wheelbuilder.  And that's only the beginning of her story.  In a way much like Swift, Jude has her mind on bigger things, too.


I wanted to wrap this up with something powerful.  But instead, let me just say a humble "thank you".  To each of these women for doing something (not for profit, in many cases- not that there's anything wrong with profit) inspiring, something with soul, and something I am proud to show to my daughter and say, "see, girls don't have to do just 'girl things', they can do whatever they want."  You would be surprised, shocked even, to know how much, in this supposedly enlightened day and age, little girls hear that counteracts that idea.  Even from their kindergarten-aged friends.  Or their grandmas.

I doubt that any of you do what you do simply to prove that a woman can do what you do- you simply follow your heart and here you are.  And, oh yeah, you're female.  I hope I understand that much.  But this father's day, this father will take it as a gift that each of you is around.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely, thank you. You unearthed a few new role models for me, as well--your daughter sounds like a lucky girl. :)