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Monday, April 19, 2010

Fish+Bicycle: This One's For The Ladies

" under capitalism, patriarchy is structured so that sexism restricts women's behavior in some realms even as freedom from limitations is allowed in other spheres. The absence of extreme restrictions leads many women to ignore the areas in which they are exploited or discriminated against; it may even lead them to imagine that no women are oppressed"-- bell hooks

The above quote was accidentally left on my Facebook page when I posted on my last ride. My old friend Rene apologized and put the quote where she had intended to put it originally. Still, I found it as an inspiration for writing a little something about gendering the bicycle.

As a man I write from a male point of view, but I guess one of the most valuable contributions provided by contemporary feminist theory is to acknowledge the subject's experience as a factor in perceiving and writing about the object. What that means is that it is necessary to examine and locate our own subjectivities rooted in our own experience to better understand how that influences the way we experience others. This is an extremely valuable tool to learn if "one" is going to write about the "other".

In Taiwan it is often the case were a foreigner shows up and starts making grand proclamations about society and culture and sounds like an ass. That is not to say "foreigners" are not allowed to develop opinions on Taiwan. I can't tell you how often I have been told that I could not have an opinion on Taiwanese matters because I am not from Taiwan. That is silly. Some of the best books on Taiwan were written by non-Taiwanese... because they do not hold a paradigm altering political stake in Taiwan. What it means is than our perceptions are shaped by who we are and who we have become, and therefore it influences our points of view and the frames through which we view ourselves and others. Furthermore, by acknowledging and making oneself aware of these frames we are then free to engage the object with our own subjectivities on display.

Where am I going with all this?

Despite the fact that many riders are teased about their tight pants, the bicycle industry, like many other sporting industries, is a "phallocentric" industry with the bulk of development, equipment and advertising dollars focused on promoting cycling from a male point of view. In my own writing I have commented on the Paris-Roubaix and being "macho" and "masculine", and I am not afraid of those terms. Men are men and should not be afraid of being masculine. There is also a Paris-Roubaix women's race as is there a Tour de France women's race and many many more. These competitions are just as difficult as the men's races, but are often quietly held once the fanfare has subsided from the men's competition-- a mere footnote. Still, they are very true to being feminine.

With the lack of available financing and sponsorship, it is no wonder the women's market is only a niche market. Women are more likely to be discouraged from putting a leg over a bicycle, let alone become good at it. There is far less reinforcement at every level to encourage women to ride. I have even seen male behavior discourage women from riding. On some of the forums I visit there are very few women who participate because so much of the conversation is phrased by men for men. I don't think men quite understand how pushy and intimidating we can appear to women as we clash over egos or are simply used to getting by with only the male perspective.

In cycling there are fewer women on bikes for young girls to identify with and the only cycling niche that seems to have female stars who can compete for a little attention from the men's race is in cyclocross, where Amy Dombrosky, Moureen Bruno Roy and Meredith Miller can win sizable endorsements and headlines. The opportunities do not come knocking.

With such a heavy emphasis on men's cycling, there is also much less support for women specific bicycles.

Folks, I hate to break the news to you all, but men and women are different. Seriously. The female physique is simply structured different than a man's. Women typically have smaller hands and shorter arms than a man. A woman may have longer legs, wider sit-bones and wider hip-sockets. Women also have boobs and that can lead to more weight up top that may pull the rider into the handlebars raising the potential for arm or wrist pain. All these considerations change how a bike should be properly set up for a comfortable fit. A men's bike may not account for these differences.

I tried to get my sister-in-law on a road bike, but she was too short for any of the available models or if the bike could be fit with 650c wheels the top tube would be too long. She gave up looking.

While many companies sell women specific designs, the options are limited to only a few models. Most shops try to fit women on hybrids and mountain bikes. There are a few companies out there that primarily focus on making a great road bike specifically for women. Luna cycles is one of the leaders in making custom WSDs.

In Taiwan, Fuji bikes has a range of good road bikes for women, while Giant and Merida do, but most of their line-up is for men. The best components will usually be found on a men's model.

Another company in Taiwan that offers some WSD is Primavera Cycles in Taichung. Primavera is owned by Sabinna Den, who also writes the fantastic Satin Cesena Cycling blog. Sabinna's company has designed and produced a set of WSD named after the owner.

My builder at T-Mosaic is will start producing his own brand of steel road bikes for women at in a month or two. Stay tuned!

Here is a link to a great article on bikes for women.

Terry Cycles has a great podcast on cycling and Georgina Terry happens to be a woman and offers her perspectives and the perspectives of guest speakers.

As a man I like to see women out being athletic and participating in sports. I would also like to see more women get into cycling to help the sport grow. I think a greater female perspective or interpretation on the sport is necessary to keep cycling a fun and dynamic activity without having to emulate the men. I do not think the full potential of women's cycling has even scratched the surface of possibility and I hope the industry is paying attention.

"The bicycle will accomplish more for women's sensible dress than all the reform movements that have ever been waged." ~Author Unknown, from Demerarest's Family Magazine, 1895


  1. Thanks Andrew. I saw some figures last year that 1 in 5 cyclists in Taiwan are women. But it seems less out there actually on the road. Maybe only half of the 20% are really active. That would go with what I see whenever I get out there on the weekends.

  2. Sabinna,

    My pleasure.

    I think the women's perspective is lacking from the sport and it would be exciting to balance out the gender ratio. What you are doing in blogging and business is very important. There are already so many things that can turn people away from cycling (fit, price, confusion, environment... etc...) gender should not be one of them.

    I think there are a lot of very casual female cyclists. People who cycle once in a while, but not enough to build a solid skill set or community around. At my builder's shop there were quite a few women who would join the weekly rides, but not as regular as the men.

    I did go cycling with a group of triathletes a while back and one was on Taiwan's female triathlon team. She was great.

    Thank you!

  3. Giant has a women's store called Liv on Dunhua North Road in Taipei City. I have also seen a Merida women's store in Tainan. I think this is at least an acknowledgement by these companies of some of the issues your raise here. However, there hasn't yet been a complete overhaul of the range of bikes sold or retail networks to fully accommodate women's needs and interests.

    This problem in the bike industry and bike design actually goes even deeper. The entire industry is largely built around sports/recreation oriented cycling. So as you write it mainly accommodates men and even then only a certain segment of males who are into sports.

    As a result the range of bikes available on the market lacks bikes designed for urban transport. Europe is not so bad in this respect, but North America and Australia lag well behind. Even in Asia we can see it in things like the tricycle rickshaw which is a century old design that has changed little to reflect improvements in technology.

    As you have previously written about your quest to find the perfect Taiwan bike, what is offered on the market is often about perceived needs or marketing rather than being truly innovative or properly understanding cyclists' needs. The problems for women are even further exacerbated as you have so wonderfully articulated.

  4. Thanks David!

    I agree. Athletics in general favors men and the big corporations continue to encourage this. In societies that are greatly influenced by the gender inequality of Confucian culturalism, athletics is definitely not encouraged.

    It is interesting how the Chinese nationalists originally viewed athletics as a means to create "a strong people for a strong nation", but this was practiced under a pseudoscientific program of social darwinism. In early Sunist teachings, Women were considered to be a form of "underdeveloped" human and often compared to being more similar to children than to adults. They were thought to be a weak link and a liability to national strength and unity.

    Later, Chinese nationalism embraced a pseudo-traditionalist stance that eschewed athletics in general in favor of what the state defined as "traditional Chinese" skills.

    Ben has a few of my books I would like to use here... argh! He needs them more than I do at this point. :D