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’.
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?
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?
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.
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
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
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
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