Cycle Chic: Biking while female

My lady chromosomes are the furthest things from my mind when I bike, which I do more days than not. So when a friend asked me recently what biking was like “as a woman,” I drew a blank. I told her how I love feeling the wind around me and beating the traffic while working off the sleeve of Oreos I just inhaled, which I assume are also Lance Armstrong’s top motivators.

Then I remembered that biking was the suffragettes’ favorite symbol of liberation. The symbol seems just as relevant today, and not just because biking helps me soak in unseasonably warm afternoons on the lakefront. The freedom it gives me is addictive, even if I occasionally show up for dates/weddings/funerals with a faint helmet strap mark across my sweaty forehead. Never underestimate the power of a reliable way home. I’m rarely stuck wandering around parking garages or El platforms.

Let’s just say, if I’m meeting a guy from Bumble who may or may not be an axe murderer, I feel confident knowing I have a quick and easy exit.

Granted, there are things Lance Armstrong might not be so familiar with. Like the disconcerting realization at a stoplight that a scraggly old drunk dude has just wandered over and is trying to straddle the rack on the back of your bike, which I experienced the other night. This being Chicago, it barely fazed me.

For the most part, I feel free from the madness of driving, CTA creepers (you don’t wanna know) and that strain of “entitled macho nonsense” that apparently plagues some cycling communities. Aside from the occasional bike path racer guy who yells, “On your left!” while passing within an inch of baby strollers, it’s harder to pull off in a dense, flat city.

Like men, women bike to commute, work out, get groceries or pick up that stupid plastic pool they promised their kid, sometimes all at once. Some of us may sweat—nay, perspire—a little less than our male counterparts or experience a few more wardrobe malfunctions involving strappy, wedge-heeled sandals (speaking from experience here). It is worth the price, provided we make it back home.

Speaking of fashion, my philosophy is staunchly anything-goes, as evidenced by the black, Liberty-Bell-shaped skirt I biked around in last holiday season. Don’t ask how. Let’s just say it involved a furtive transfer of leggings when no one was looking.

There can also be an activist component to cycling—a way of claiming the streets for ourselves, so to speak. The group Women Bike Chicago was formed in reaction to a public discussion about cycling “by men and for men” that excluded the voices of female cyclists. Loads of websites and organizations encourage more women to bike and offer tips on everything from bike activism to traffic safety to apparel.

Yet our numbers are persistently low. According to a study published on FiveThirtyEight, about 75 percent of cyclists in the U.S. are men. Compare that with Germany and the Netherlands, where half of cyclists are women. For the record, I hate being behind Europeans.

So why aren’t more of us out there? In studies and in conversations, women tend to name safety as their top concern, and I would never argue with someone worried about the very real physical risks cyclists face every day. It’s probably no coincidence that the places where more women choose to brave the elements are in more bike-friendly societies. There might even be a tiny, albeit unfair, silver lining. One study suggests that drivers are more likely to give us a slightly wider berth when passing.

Gotta be honest. I haven’t noticed. What I did notice one balmy evening was how I felt like a damn superhero as I sailed past all the sad sacks stuck in their cars. Then a tiny pigeon feather floated gently over and landed on my freshly glossed upper lip.   

Chicago is full of surprises. One came in 2016 when Bicycling Magazine named us the best bike city in the U.S. One surefire way to get more of us out there would be to make the city’s expanding bike network safer and more attractive for everyone.  

Then fewer women would ask me what it’s like. They’d already know.

(Photo of mother loading up her bike while running errands on Clybourn Avenue by Clare Curley)

Clare Curley writes about biking, business, being a broad and other stuff that piques her curiosity.