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Green Living

Simon Usborne: Is conjuring hackneyed visions of female solidarity really the best way to get girls on bikes today?


You're reading this, so chances are you're a man. Because girls aren't big on bikes. I'm told the combined threats of sweat, Lycra, "helmet hair" and death (perhaps not in that order) are putting the brakes on their cycling ambitions. As one female colleague wrote in a recent e-mail, tongue only partially in cheek, "I HATE my helmet. Literally, it's a toss-up between wearing it or dying on the road."

There are loads of girls on my commute, but surveys have found 79 per cent of women think bikes "aren't for them", that chaps are three times as likely to cycle, and that 27 per cent of women would rather protect their barnets. But is this changing? A press release I received last week heralds "the new cycling sisterhood". It touts sessions and events at this October's Cycle Show in London catering to "a new wave of female cyclists". Riding is the "yoga of the Noughties", apparently.

It all sounds great, but aren't attempts to woo would-be female cyclists often patronising? Why must they join a "sisterhood"? The word evokes the early days of cycling ladies. "The first of the fair sex to espouse [cycling] were regarded as bold beyond the bounds of propriety," reads an 1896 'New York Times' article. Only later, it explains, did "the more timorous and punctilious sisters venture into the exercise which has done so much toward building up the self-reliance of the sex."

Is conjuring hackneyed visions of female solidarity the best way to get girls on bikes today? It's anathema to Juliet Elliot and Posy Dixon, two fixed-gear fanatics from east London. They are part of a burgeoning crew of London cyclists who wouldn't be seen dead on the kind of "Barbie bikes" often marketed to female cyclists. "I used to snowboard a lot and hated it when manufacturers slapped a butterfly on a board for girls," says Posy.

Some manufacturers resist the urge to "pinkify" the sport – expect understated chic from Rapha, which is planning an introductory women's range – but perhaps most girls do want floral patterns, bright colours (see the Cyclodelic range for Topshop) and self-consciously retro, sit-up-and-beg rides (Pashley, Bobbin Bicycles). "Ultimately," offers Juliet, "if it gets more girls riding it's a good thing." Let me know what you think, sisters.