Gender Inequalities in Bicycle Procurement and Accessorisation – A Rant

Anything wrong with this (dubiously procured from Google Images) picture - apart from the knotted tartan scalf that is?

It’s a sad fact that notions of gender appropriateness manifest themselves in the bikes we ride and the accessories we add or shun. I’ve been using a front mounted basket on my bike for a few weeks now and I’m astounded at how useful it is and pleased with myself for having the necessary thickness of skin to disregard the jibes and odd looks that I get from ‘serious cyclists’, significant others and chavs in the street. In our (UK) cycling psyche, there is a powerful, sport-focussed machismo that abounds, based on the premise that lean, stripped down bikes are essentially ‘male’ and bikes rigged for practicality and everyday use, with baskets, bells, bags, mudguards and suchlike truck are in some way ‘feminine’.

Double Standards

As a man, it’s hard to swim against that tide. As in fashion, there’s a cruel double standard in operation here, which allows women to ride men’s or women’s bicycles without fear of public humiliation at the hands of small children. But if a man rides a basket-adorned bike, or step-through frame, alarm bells sound deep within the phallus-shaped bastion of male-cycling aesthetics. This is a real shame, because various supposedly feminine cycle accoutrements (and indeed bike styles) are usually insanely practical – catalysts for changing public perceptions of the bicycle from toy/exercise machine into useful vehicle.

Too Butch for Baskets?

A slight on your manhood or just a really good idea?

Let’s take baskets for example. Peruse the aisles of most bike shops I guarantee that no ‘gents’ bikes (even supposed ‘commuter’ models) will ever have a basket installed, and will be in the most part stripped-down ‘stealth commuters’ –  usually in dark, matte colours – the entire aesthetic inspired by some sad, ironic, post-Cold-War militaristic mode. Some will have rear racks and pannier bags, which are, of course acceptable to the male psyche, with their connotations of world travel, adventure, expedition and knife-wielding, whiskery-chinned ruggedness. But no self-respecting macho cyclist would countenance a basket attached to the ‘bars. However, fitting a basket to your ‘gents’ bike will make it hugely practical – you can just throw in your rucksack and go – you can pop to the shops for manly goods like beer and cigarettes and watch them safely home in your front mounted basket. Go to a place where everyday cycling is pervasive, such as Copenhagen, Cambridge or Amsterdam and you’ll see blokes trundling around the streets on basket-equipped bikes, carrying home their work gear, gym gear, shopping – whatever, without their masculinity being compromised in the slightest.

Ring my bell?

Friendly warning device or machismo crusher?

The humble bell is another accessory which has become laden with gender associations. The ting-ting of a bell to warn fellow path users is surely one of humankind’s most civilised warning sounds. However, one could argue that the gentle ‘ahem’ of the bicycle bell is as effete as shouting ‘Cooey, coming through!’ in one’s best John Inman falsetto.  I’d advise a guttural, phlegm-heavy clearing of the throat if you wish to keep your square-jawed masculinity intact; much more acceptable to the self respecting cycling man than the light, airy and inoffensive signature of the cycle bell.

Gender Lockout?

Male Nurse?

Even locks aren’t safe from gender prescription. There’s a type of lock freely available on the market, which attaches to the frame and allows the rider to quickly immobilise the bike by locking the rear wheel. It’s permanently attached to the bike – you never forget it and it takes literally a second to deploy and unlock. Surely a device invaluable to both male and female cyclists the world-over? But what’s the common name for this miracle of convenience? The Nurse’s Lock – I mean, I ask you – The Nurse’s Lock. And yes, I know, as any self respecting institutional sexist will tell you, “There are plenty of male nurses” but let’s face it – the term ‘male nurse’ has enough psycho-sexual baggage for an essay of its own.

Getting Dirty Maketh the Man

Riding around with your jeans tucked into your socks will defend your butch status far more than this elegant device.

No self respecting macho-bike would be complete (?) without the firm absence of a chainguard. I mean, how could a device that keeps one’s trews safe from the slings and arrows of outrageous chain oil be of any use to a man? Far better, surely to keep your man-bike lean, mean, stripped-down and utterly useless for daily travel in normal clothes? Perhaps I’m being too simplistic here. The chainguard equipped bike isn’t just the preserve of women’s utility bikes. They feature on plenty of ‘grandad bikes too’ but we’re entering into a whole new sphere of prejudice here, and I don’t want to dilute my argument.

Getting the leg over

Can a bike with no top tube seriously damage your manhood? - the unisex Kona Africa Bike - simultaneously eroding velo-gender stereotypes and purging first world guilt.

How about step-thru frames? Ride a bike without a ‘cross bar’ in the UK and you’re heading for a whole raft of gender jibes. Ironically, it would appear that a bike without that potentially manhood-wrecking top tube is a potent advertisement for latent homosexuality. However, mixte frames (mixte being a French term defining bikes for both men and women…) are insanely practical. You can get on and off without swinging your leg high over the seat – a real boon when you’ve got a childseat on the back or when you’re stabilising a heavily loaded bike. Also, as you get older, you’ll find that one day, you just can’t get your leg over that saddle anymore. So, whaddayado? Give up riding or ride a mixte? Think about it, would you buy a car that you had to climb into, rather than step into gracefully, just because you were told that it was a ‘gents’ version.

In the interests of balance (a nod to the Sheilas)

And it’s not just guys who find themselves stymied by the cycling gender divide. Women suffer too at the hands of the marketeers. Over the last decade, the spectre of ‘women’s specific’ bicycles and accessories has reared its ugly pastel coloured head. Whilst a greater choice of mass market bikes with shorter cranks, narrower bars, shorter top tubes and stems is a gold-plated GOOD THING, charging a premium for them and rendering them in hideous kindergarten colours is a cruel twist of the bike designer’s knife.

An end to the Gender Divide?

There are some bikes which have managed to straddle the gender divide – the recent rise of folding bikes, with their low stepover height and ‘unisex’ marketing has gone a long way to erode gender-based top-tube preferences. Similarly, one hopes that the new fleet of 6000 London Hire bikes, with their step-thru frames and baskets, will also help to break down some barriers. Perhaps broader seismic changes in society will come to the rescue of the practical gents bike? Ironically it may be that broader locker-room acceptance of man-bags, male grooming, hair ‘product’ and (ach) metrosexuality will bathe the utility bike in a more acceptable light? Until that halcyon day, I’ll ride my mudguard, bag and basket-equipped bike with pride – revelling in its everyday practicality, ting-tinging my bell like a country-doctor from the inter war years, caring not a jot for the maelstrom of gender-warping undercurrents eddying in my wake.

Footnote and shameless plug

Mixte emotions - Rivendell's Yves Gomez - a mixte bike for men, if that's not a contradiction in terms.

As ever, it would seem, Rivendell Cycles’ founder Grant Petersen has some words of wisdom on this very topic (which convinced me to ignore the gender divide and get with the basket programme). Not altogether coincidentally, Rivendell also produce a ‘mens Mixte’ the Yves Gomez –a beautifully made, lugged steel, step-thru all-rounder bike, which is brother to their Betty Foy ‘women’s Mixte’. You can read more about such things, and whole lot more good sense here: http://www.rivbike.com

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22 thoughts on “Gender Inequalities in Bicycle Procurement and Accessorisation – A Rant

  1. Pingback: More Mixte Emotions « The Everyday Cyclist

  2. Personally I think that some baskets are distinctly “masculine” looking, while others are “feminine”. So even if one wants to maintain his machismo, I believe it could be done. Just imagine a tough, utilitarian, rusty basket filled with firewood and tools and things..

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      A very good point – just as many words in the Romance languages have masculine and feminine derivates, so the wicker basket is perhaps the feminine (basketta, perhaps?) while the rusty, big, sqaure shouldered Wald basket is the masculine (basketto!). And as you rightly point out, what you carry in your basket surely wins or loses ‘man cards’. Six packs of beer and oily engine parts would only add to one’s perceived machismo!

      Thanks for your input! Being a keen follower of your blog, I felt sure you’d have a new angle on this important debate!

  3. David Bleicher

    Can anyone tell me where to buy a nifty chrome chainguard like the one in the picture? My wife would like one on her bike. I, of course, am far too much of a bloke to bother with such things (just kidding).

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      Hi David – not too sure I’m afraid – just an image I found scrabbling around on the net. It’s a beauty isn’t it?!

  4. Stephen

    Chainguards are a bit of a non deraillier thing though aren’t they, at least they seem to be incompatible with front changers. The front changer is a bit of a put-off and closed book for many potential cyclists who just want to change up/change down sequentially. Close ratios are probably unnecessary for much short range practical cycling, low enough gears to get up a hill at a plod would probably suffice plus something for the flat — many cyclists don’t pedal down hill anyway.
    Anyway, do you know of any chainguards that are tandem/triplet compatible (left hand chains too) to keep children’s legs clean?
    I have fitted a skirt guard to the back of my childback triplet to keep small fingers clear of the rear wheel (since it is so close and the rearmost seat is about 2/3rds of the way down the wheel) – so not just for skirts.

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      The chainguards I’m talking about are chaindiscs rather than full guards, which work with all manner of gearing setups. I’ve also seen, plastic covers that fit over the straight runs of a chain, though I can’t recall how they are secured, so as not to collide with the chainrings or the sprockets.

  5. Sissy! no seriously, good for you. I think that these perceived issues are locked into our British psyche. I am sure that in other more liberal European countries, many men wouldn’t think twice about utilising such accessories. A nice thought provoking article.

  6. Ken

    I think the times are a changing in the good old Usa. I remember back when I was 5 years old and received my first bike for Christmas it had a good ole bell with an American Flag on it. I lived in Bangor Maine and the bike had training wheels for about 2 weeks and than I had my dad take them off. I plan on buying a Mixte soon and will will have a bell on it and a basket. I need a good beer getter bicycle. I am now 56 and I understand your blog about the male psyche in the United States fueled by dreams of the Tour de France and to some extent the success of the Triathalon Movement so more people male and females were buying bicycles. I feel there is a resurgance in Randoneurring in the United States and so an awakening of the Dutch bicycles and of course the French Mixte bicycle standard.Soma Fabrications also markets a mixte that is not lugged however the frame and fork is under $500.00. The Yves Gomez is lugged and has beautiful paint work on the frame in the classic Rivendell fashion. Don’t forget to ring your bell when passing!

  7. FlipFlopHub

    I did the C2C in 2009 on a B’Twin Elops, which manages to be a girl’s bike, cheap and from Decathlon all at the same time (the looks I got!). I’d swapped out the saddle for a B17 and the chainring for better climbing, but kept the front basket, as I wanted my camera available at all times. It was handy for spreading a map out across the top too. It wasn’t my first choice, but my tourer snapped a chainstay three days before the ride and the Elops was the only other bike with mudguards. It got up every hill bar one long drag out of Stanhope (which I don’t think was on the C2C route anyway). It was too low geared to pedal the descents, but so was every other bike anyway. I also used a cheap post-mounted rack from Tesco, which worked out fine too. As a machine, it was probably a little better suited to the riding than a lot of the MTBs, if a little uncomfortable by the evening.

    It was a great trip and somewhat jolted me out of my GPS-head-down-grimace riding habit. It had a little bell on it as well.

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      Great story George. Shows us that sometimes we need external circumstances to intervene to forcibly alter our preconceptions.

  8. FlipFlopHub

    Oh, and another benefit of the step-through frames is that they fit far more sizes too. Our Elops fits both myself (6’5″) and my girlfriend (5’9″) very well.

  9. “a car that you had to climb into, rather than step into gracefully, just because you were told that it was a ‘gents’ version”

    Ah, the monster truck. It had not occurred to me that monster trucks and skinny racer bikes had a shared gendering that way. (Or conversely: low to the ground sports cars that also require a certain agility to get in/out of.)

    Also, goddamn pink flowered crap. I just want a bike that fits, not one that comes out of the Disney princess aisle at Toys R Us.

  10. FWIW, I don’t see this gendering of bike accessories in San Francisco. Mind you, it’s San Francisco, where “gender” and “sex” mean different things, so probably that’s not an indicator for anywhere else.

  11. Mattie Wilson

    Guys: There is nothing sexier than a man on a vintage bicycle with a basket. In Europe, all genders and all ages ride bikes with baskets.

    1. Mattie Wilson

      I guess I should have written my comment to American guys. For some reason, most men I know here would not be caught dead on a bike with a basket — or without an upper bar.

  12. n

    I so wanted to hate this essay, then read it. I am sold. Your arguments are strong and made me think. This is a well written piece about an issue that is actually worth bitching about. Well done.

  13. Nick

    Couldn’t agree more… I see guys with sweaty backs because of their back-pack, pants tucked into their jeans, mud on their legs, struggling uphill on a fixed gear and I shake my head in pity. I lived in China for a while and where people know these accessories are practical and make cycling more comfortable and easier.

  14. Hello There. I discovered your blog the usage of msn.
    That is a really well written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and come back to learn more of your useful information. Thank you for the post. I will definitely comeback.

  15. Sam Gerberding

    I would love to get that front basket shown in your article. Do you know where you can purchase one? It’ll go great with my pink bow ties and my Red Wing boots.

    Sam

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