I took a little survey of my own last week counting male and female cyclists that I
encounter on my route. I was surprised to find that the women outnumbered the men by three
to one. It was a bright sunny day, the first after a long spell of rain. During the rain I
might see one or two cyclists on my route, but that week there were dozens.
So where did I get the idea that cycling was
predominantly male? Well, several noted research papers on cyclists, while setting out to
gather other facts, had incidentally reported gender statistics. A few of these are listed
below and I am sure a quick review of other research will yield similar numbers.
Practices: Cyclists and Educators, a study by George Mason University
Two of these sources might be dismissed because they had self-selected
participants, and were conducted in whole or in part over the Internet. Males, at the time
of these surveys constituted about 60 to 75 percent of Internet users. This would seem to
imply that an Internet conducted survey would tend to be overwhelmingly male. However, the
two suspect surveys (the first and last listed above) tend to be in agreement with the
other two, so perhaps the Internet can't be blamed for this phenomena, as it garners blame
for every other malady of modern society.
(While on the subject of the Internet, at any given point in time, you can count posts
in any of the bicycle oriented newsgroups, such as any of those in the rec.bicycles
hierarchy, and you can expect to see in excess of 95% of the postings that are gender
specific to be from males. While some women post under male names to avoid harassment, not
The other two studies (Adult Bicyclists, and Bicycle Safety Practices) had random
selection of participants, or were observation based, where all cyclists at a given time
span and place were observed.
So, there does seem to be fairly substantial evidence that cycling is predominantly a
male activity, especially cycling as a principal means of transportation. This may well be
changing, based on my observations in the summer of '99, (and a casual perusal of the
amount of space dedicated to women's clothing articles in popular bicycle catalogs.
Catalogs allocate space based on sales.)
Why is this so?
Let's examine some of the supposed reasons that women might not be interested in
bicycles to the degree men are. Some of these are clearly patronizing male views, others
are actually expressed by many women.
One would think initially that a bicycle would be viewed by women as a basically
"friendly" technology, especially by those growing up in an era when girls were
just beginning to be encouraged to take up the mechanical sciences, (or at least not
actively discouraged). The generation that included Sally Ride can not have been as
prone to gender-based career decisions as their parents.
Alas, it seems that as long as the machinery is covered with sheet-metal even the most
mechanically inept, whether male or female, consider themselves fully qualified to operate
it. But the mere suggestion that you have to get your hands dirty and actually touch that
oily chain is enough to turn off a lot of folks, more women than men it would seem.
Bicycles tend to be a high maintenance device. Few people would put up with an
automobile that required as much maintenance per hour of use as does your typical bicycle.
Fortunately this maintenance is trivial, and easily mastered. Most of the
women riders I know who ride more than just around the park on sunny weekends do most of
the maintenance themselves. Quite a few more have their "significant
other" perform the complex tasks, but handle the oiling, and cleaning, and tire
inflation. Unfortunately, that still leaves the vast majority of women, who will
have nothing to do with bicycle maintenance, or maintenance of any other mechanical
Fear of Attack
Another occasionally expressed reason for bicycling attracting such a small percentage
of females is fear of attack in remote places. Driving through a dark neighborhood
in a car with locked doors gives a sense of security hard to match on a bicycle.
This is not entirely an unfounded fear. Women do report a certain amount of
harassment while riding, usually in the form of remarks shouted from passing cars.
Occasionally some redneck will attempt to reach out the window and slap the fanny of a
cyclist as he passes. One women posted on a bicycling news group that she saw an
attempt materializing in her cycling mirror and hit the brakes at the critical instant
causing the would-be slapper to break his arm on the window frame of the car. Even
if apocryphal, the story is somewhat satisfying. Even if improbable, it points out
the cyclists are not entirely defenseless against such attacks. Most cyclists are
far more fit than would-be attackers.
Not every commute is through unsafe areas, and not all areas that appear unsafe really
are. Poor neighborhoods are not necessarily, in fact, not often, violence-prone
areas. Nevertheless, this fear does register on many women, and can't be easily
dismissed. If you doubt this, simply visit some female bicycling forums such as the
"Bluedirt" Forum on Bicycleforum.com,
or Biker Girls Forum at Library.Advanced.Org.
I know well-educated women in medical careers who will not ride a bicycle because they
have been taught that riding without a helmet is dangerous, but riding with one causes
"helmet hair". To me, it is inconceivable that a hair style should dictate
a life style. I think life is a lot more fun when you don't live for your hair.
A simpler hair style saves a lot of time, not to mention money.
Wrinkled clothes are another often used excuse. Commuting by bike means that the
$180 pant suit might have to travel in the panniers to work, and the amount of time needed
to apply makeup and salvage the windblown hair is more than some women want to
The desire to where stylish cloths and present a professional image while on the job is
not unreasonable. Letting that desire rule the rest of your life is. Soon you
are convinced you need a two car garage just to park your $30,000 single passenger Sport
Utility Vehicle so that you can arrive at work without a wrinkle. What price vanity?
I've often heard the excuse "I have to deal with the public, so I can't ride a
bike". This is often followed by a discussion about arriving "all
sweaty". Many men and women voice this concern, perhaps because, for someone
who does not ride regularly, even five miles is enough to work up a sweat, especially if
you're late for work.
Ill Fitting Equipment
The bicycle industry only recently has discovered the difference in relative
proportions of body length above and below the belt in men and women. Women
tend to have longer legs and shorter torsos than men. This means the bike has to be
shorter from seat to handle bars, which leads to design problems such as the front tire
overlapping the pedals. This can be dangerous, so bikes are generally not designed
with the required short top tube. As a result many standard bike frames are a poor
fit for many women.
No company has done more to publicize (and capitalize on) this fact than Terry Bicycles. The company was
founded by a women and specializes in women's bikes, many models with a smaller front
wheel (24 inch) to accommodate the short top-tube. Other companies have tried other
means, to make their designs a better fit for women, with varying success.
It used to be "un-lady like" to exercise in any way. Those days are
gone. Women are out running, walking, playing tennis, baseball and soccer in numbers
greater than ever before.
The fears of developing muscle, (not so long ago a common excuse expressed by women)
has disappeared, and muscle is in fashion. That most men like the looks of
women who are physically fit is probably not as important as the fact the women like the
looks (not to mention the functionality) of their won body with a little muscular
Walk by the spinning room in any health club and you will see more women than men
working up a sweat on stationary bikes, with a "leader" calling the jumps.
Surely, I thought, this would bring more women out on the road on bikes.
too soon to tell, but I suspect that for many of these women, spinning "classes"
on fixed bikes may have simply confirmed their suspicion that bicycles are a good way to
get nowhere and arrive sweaty.
Too, the realization that a little head wind makes a dramatic difference suddenly dawns
on the spinner the first time out on the road. Cyclists who were cyclists first and
spinners second realize this and generally work much harder in class than those just there
to burn a few calories. The rude awakening probably discourages a certain number of
people, men and women from any real consideration of bicycling as a form of
Women Don't "Do Surveys"
Or course there is another possibility. Perhaps women just don't appear in many of the
published surveys because they don't want to, or the surveys are conducted by men, or, as
alluded earlier, women are under-represented in the media upon which some of these surveys
are conducted. One women, in a response to a question on the Icebike Mailing list
about why there were so few women on the Icebike Survey stated her opinion that women just
don't do surveys. (The editors of several women's magazines would be surprised to
hear this.) Indeed women do show up more on the observation-based surveys than
any of the questionnaire format surveys, but women amount to only 25% of participants in
even the most balanced of surveys.
No Reliable Figures
Bike stores report that they see at least 50% of bike purchases by women.
Bicycle magazines focus the vast majority of their advertising at men.
Somewhere there is a major disconnect.
The roads in some areas are full of commuters, club riders and casual cyclists.
In most published counts, these cyclists are mostly male. But no survey based on
observation has enough depth to cover any significant amount of the available routes and
Perhaps the unscientific head counts that I do on my daily commute ARE indicative of
the true numbers, and the published material is all out of date. Perhaps more head
counts are in order. Do this on your next ride: Count the number of males and
females you encounter on bikes. Count in good weather. Count in bad. How do the
ratios hold up?
I see more women on bikes in my area than ever before. Five years ago there was
exactly one. She's still out there. She's brought her friends. Times are
P.Scott Martin said "Bicycles are the indicator species of healthy
communities, like shellfish in a bay". The arrival of women in
increasing numbers says something good. About bicycling, and about women.