Robert Hanks: The Cycling Column

At last someone admits women's bikes are awful...
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Susan Brownell Anthony, a leader of the women's suffrage movement in 19th-century America, had this to say about cycling: "I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by... the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood."

Handsomely put. But back here in 21st-century Britain, women don't seem as impressed by the idea of cycling. I can't give you chapter and verse for the country, but Transport for London has the figures for bike riding in the capital, and they show that roughly twice as many men as women ride regularly: 5 per cent of men cycle five or more days a week, against 2 per cent of women; 9 per cent of men cycle one to four days a week, as opposed to 5 per cent of women; and another 10 per cent of men get on their bikes less than once a week, while women score 6 per cent.

There's more research showing that of those women who do ride, an appreciable percentage were drawn into it by a husband or boyfriend: predictably this doesn't work the other way around.

Why don't women cycle more? Anecdotal evidence and some hideous generalisations suggest a couple of reasons. As my friend Anna, who rides all round north London with and without her two sons, put it: "You can't write this, but we're just not as tough as you guys." She's not thinking of physical toughness, so much as the thick skin you need for urban cycling.

Anna goes on to say that women are more bothered about their appearance and personal hygiene - helmet hair being a particularly unkind prank of fate. Also, women are less prone than men to obsessive relationships with multi-tools and WD40 and may face ruthless patronising from bike-shop assistants.

But if women aren't keen on bikes, it may also be because their bikes are a bit rubbish. Most bikes marketed for women are scaled-down versions of men's models: but men and women aren't shaped the same - proportionately, women have longer legs, shorter torsos, narrower shoulders. So if, as usually happens, the bike shop recommends a bike to fit her inside leg, the lady cyclist will find herself teetering forward to reach handlebars that are too far away and too far apart.

She'll be putting strain on her hands, her shoulders and her lower back; and since she can't pedal efficiently at this angle, her legs will get tired. That's assuming she can get her hands round brakes and handlebar grips designed for men.

More bike companies are catching on to the idea that women are potentially a big market: you'd have no trouble finding a women-specific saddle, for instance, with a shorter nose and wider pads to fit women's wider, shallower pelvises. Women's frames are getting commoner, too: Trek, for example, prides itself on its WSD (Women Specific-Designed) range. Meanwhile, on the 3 and 4 June, the Cyclists' Touring Club is doing its bit to erase the gender imbalance by running its second women's cycling weekend, with rides, workshops and consultations all over the country (for details, see www.ctc.org.uk).

The other good news is that, as research all over the world has shown, when cycling increases, so does the proportion of cyclists who are women.

More anecdotal evidence: Lara Alden, who feeds me propaganda on behalf of TfL, and is one of the few women I know who really gets off on having a speedometer on her bike, says that a couple of years ago she was often the only woman cyclist on the road; now, she says, there are hordes of them.

Free, untrammelled womanhood.

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