I carried my bicycle down the 30 concrete stairs that led to Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, where around 40 women, trans, and femme-identified (WTF) people socialized while holding their bikes. “Way to be hardcore! I see you!” said one bicyclist, as I attempted to look smooth while already sweating. As the evening’s ride got started, I learned that this group consisted of folks of varying experience levels, most of whom were planning on going to the following day’s “alley cat” bike ride: Babes in Bikeland. We rode as a group, with our lights and helmets on, on bike paths ending at Minnehaha Falls. The waterfall was lit up, shining white in the night. I got a chance to chat with some of the awesome WTF folks who have been organizing in the Twin Cities for years, and some who have only been there for a few weeks. I was embraced in this group ride; embraced into its culture of celebrating each other while bicycling.
This is not always my experience in the bicycling world.
When I first walk into a bike shop, I am usually looked up and down by the mechanic, who is generally a white man with a beard. (He often has many tattoos.) He takes stock of my bike, does not make eye contact or look at me as I speak, and instead evaluates my bike without listening. He then explains to me something that I already know because he assumes I am clueless. While on this bike trip, I have learned to take control of the interaction a little more: I start by saying, “I am on a cross-country tour and I need: XYZ.” I do not hand my bicycle over until he has made eye contact and asked sincere questions that reflect he has listened to me. If he does demonstrate his capacity as a respectful mechanic, I will generally bring up other, less-immediate issues my bike is having, and might end up buying more things (ie, spending more money, giving the shop more business). If he seems to be trying to get rid of me or treats me disrespectfully, I will get what I absolutely need and go elsewhere.
I wish I could use pronouns other than “he”, but the fact is that I have not met any WTF mechanics in a store.
The other day, our hosts were Barb and Mike. Barb had been a mechanic for 16 years, and in the words of her friend Gerald, she is “the best mechanic in the area.” We talked about bike culture. She talked about how, when most women came into the shop looking to buy a bike, they’d bring a boyfriend or husband and often let him make all the bike related decisions for her. I recounted how, when I went to buy my touring bike, I literally had to convince the salesman that I knew what a bike tour was.
In my experience, bike culture is not friendly to WTF-identified people. We are constantly judged. Our bikes, and our selves, are categorized as, “not good enough” and we are consistently told that we are incompetent at caring for and riding our bikes. When the culture is this unfriendly, it’s no wonder that there are so many studies showing cyclists are predominantly men.
But. Babes in Bikeland.
The afternoon of Babes in Bikeland, we each found our teams, some of which had been formed the night before. We received a “manifest,” which is a list of locations throughout the city. At each of these stops, we were required to do something (climb a flight of stairs, play bike polo, put costumes on and take a photo) in order to receive a stamp that proved we went there. Most of the riders casually participated in this scavenger hunt, but some considered it a real race in order to win some of the real prizes at the end.
Once we set off, we pushed ourselves to get to all of the stops in the allotted time. I was in a team of five. The women on my team were fierce and inspiring. They consistently impressed me with their speed and fortitude, as they powered up steep hills and flew past cars. They rode back with Laura and I when we couldn’t keep up and made sure we got to the finish. They didn’t leave us in the dust or let us get lost. As we got to each stop, most of the volunteers running the stations were men. This dynamic was pretty awesome, and unusual for me: women, trans, and femme bikers competing as the center of attention, and men on the sidelines as cheerleaders and support-crew. The men cheered in a particularly encouraging way, as well, by focusing less on competition and more on positive reinforcement. “You’re doing great!” versus, “Go get her!” or “Get to the next stop!”
I have literally never been in such an positive, celebratory environment in the context of WTF folks and bikes. I am incredibly skeptical of spaces that make room for women and feminists, but don’t acknowledge or celebrate trans, femme, or gender nonconforming folks. I am also skeptical of women-centric spaces that do not make room for complexity when it comes to race.
In talking with the organizers about bike culture, gender, and race, I was not disappointed. There were numerous opportunities throughout the event to bring up issues, when and if there were hostile interactions. The organizers made every effort to keep homophobic and transphobic language and people out, and conscientiously worked towards a “safer space.” In some places, the language of “safer spaces” eliminates room for “accountable spaces.” At Babes in Bikeland, the organizers consistently asked for feedback and held themselves accountable to their WTF biking community.
It’s silly, it’s just a bike ride, right? No. It’s a window into what the world can be if we let ourselves celebrate each other, if we encourage WTF folks to be at the forefront, if competition and aggression are not held to the highest standard. It’s a world where we can be a little more vulnerable and create connections that are a little more genuine. It’s a world where we interrupt less, and care more. It’s a world I’ve never seen before, but one that I want to be real.