The Bicycle: A Woman’s Ride to Fear or Freedom

A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. – Irina Dunn

In 2015, eight cyclists were killed in London. Of these eight, six were female. That’s 75%. In London, like other parts of the world, cycling is seen as a “man’s game”. And there are a whole host of reasons for this.

In 1895, an article in The Literary Digest called for an end to women on bikes because cycling put women at risk of a “serious” health issue. At the time, women had taken to cycling in an emancipatory move to give them more freedom. But, the male experts posited all this cycling made women exhausted, which led to wrinkles, under eye circles, and other conditions including: “Bicycle Face”. A couple of years later, this time in The National Review in London, another article warned women of the dangers of cycling, namely wildly inaccurate health problems: heart palpitations, appendicitis, goitre, depression and headaches, to name but a few. Fortunately, the “bike face” phenomenon was dismissed by cycling enthusiasts and largely forgotten by the turn of the century. Yet, to this day cycling is still considered a “man’s sport”.

 

womanonbike

Despite making up only a quarter of the cycling population in London, women experience the most bike fatalities. It’s nearly always the result of being hit by a HGV (lorry/truck), often at junctions, as the large vehicles turns left. And why? It seems that women, to their detriment, are more careful. Meaning they feel too intimidated to overtake on the right or pull ahead and often end up towards the back of the cycle box (the advanced stop line). This cautious behavior makes them the last to push off when the lights change, harder to see, and more susceptible to being hit as they get caught up among the traffic. That is if there are any men in the box at all, as men are much more likely to disobey red lights and cycle a head of traffic and out of harm’s way. It seems you need to be aggressive and forceful to survive as a cyclist in London, a quality that women are not taught to have.

Every time I take my bike to the streets a man, either on a bike or in a vehicle, unnecessarily overtakes me, pulls out in front of me or dangerously cuts me off. It appears that the long hair they see coming out from underneath my helmet automatically means I am unable to cycle properly or quickly enough. Men are taught that they are stronger and faster and bigger than women, so “of course” that makes them more apt for riding a bike. It appears that this is a case of “masculinity so fragile”, as many men would rather put themselves or others in danger just so as not to end up cycling behind a woman (or like women). It appears that this toxic masculinity is literally killing women.

But we shouldn’t let this stop us. Bike riding is just as empowering for women today as it was back in the 19th century. World Bicycle Relief sees mobility as opportunity, “a bike is an engine for cultural and economic empowerment.” After the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, World Bicycle Relief began distributing bikes to the victims of the disaster to help them start rebuilding their lives and similar work has carried on in countries all across the globe.

A bicycle is an essential tool for freedom. It provides fast and reliable transportation, it has incredible health benefits, it is wonderful for the environment and it is a cheap alternative when cars and public transport are not an option.

In 1896, American social reformer and feminist Susan B. Anthony said: “I think [cycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.” So let’s continue to do so. Let us not be intimated or pushed off the road by the unnecessary aggressions of other. And follow these wonderful tips to stay safe on the roads:

  • Learn where drivers’ blind spots are and keep out of them.
  • Try to make sure you can see the driver, as that means they are more likely to see you.
  • Use hand signals and indicate with gusto–give cars plenty of warning if you’re turning.
  • Don’t get too close to the back of other bikes.
  • Look around you. A bit of eye contract will make people much less likely to cut you off.
  • Remember that you are a vehicle. You can take up as much room as a car if you want; don’t let people bully you off the road, into the gutter or out of the way.
  • Use bike lanes and the rectangles at junctions.
  • Wear a helmet.
  • Get your bike serviced regularly, and always make sure that your brakes are up to scratch.
  • Last but not least, have fun!