The show-and-tell session in Rock Creek Park started out pretty tame. Erin Casgren-Tindall, 31, hoisted up a yellow bag and announced, “Here are things to take with us on a bike ride.” Her audience of a half-dozen women watched as she pulled out her locks — both a cable to loop around her wheels and a U-lock for her frame. Then she grabbed her patch kit and explained how to use the supplies to fix a flat. She talked about bells, lights, shoes, water.
And, eventually, underwear.
“Cotton chafes,” explained Casgren-Tindall, who advised not putting on anything beneath padded bike shorts, which led to an in-depth discussion of different styles of unmentionables.
That’s a topic that almost certainly wouldn’t have come up if there’d been any guys nearby. And that was precisely the point of this recent gabfest, tacked onto the end of a ride as part of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association’s new initiative, Women & Bicycles.
Although it officially launched in March, the program has been in the works over the past few years, as WABA and other bike advocates across the country have taken notice of the fact that women represent just 24 percent of cyclists.
No one had ever tried to do much about the disparity, says Carolyn Szczepanski, spokeswoman for the League of American Bicyclists, which is helping fund the effort. But no one knew what to do. “We’re not a homogenous group, and there’s no silver-bullet solution. It’s not like none of us gets helmet hair, and everything’s solved,” she says.
After a whole lot of forums, surveys and fundraising, WABA has come up with a plan based on the Mary Kay model. Ten women have been selected as “Roll Models.” Their job is to coax friends and acquaintances who haven’t been biking to attend a themed dinner party. Over beer and burritos, they’ll dive into a women’s bicycling workbook.
That’ll hopefully get the attendees geared up for Bike to Work Day on May 17, as well as a series of group rides and workshops planned throughout this spring, summer and fall, says WABA Outreach Coordinator Nelle Pierson, who jokingly calls this social networking strategy a “bike ponzi scheme.” Really, it’s a way to create a supportive environment and make getting on that saddle a smidge less scary.
The approach already appears to be working on 30-year-old Katie McHugh, who tagged along for Casgren-Tindall’s Rock Creek outing despite not having been on a bike for years. “This was a nice, friendly ride. No pressure,” said the Old Town resident, noting that she’d never have shown up if the event were co-ed.
On that Sunday, the route was a low-key eight-mile loop on a section of Beach Drive that’s closed to car traffic on weekends. Pierson plans to schedule all sorts of trips to get novice female cyclists out on Washington’s streets, and to pass along the info necessary to keep them going on their own.
“Getting on a bike requires all of these tidbits. You amass this knowledge of how to make it a part of your life,” Pierson says.
So during the Cherry Blossom Festival, as the group tooled around Hains Point, the focus was on how to position oneself on the road. For an upcoming multimodal ride, everyone will start off by taking their bikes on the Metro, and then they’ll practice how to put their bikes on the front of a bus.
With the workshops, Pierson’s goal is to tackle all of those pesky obstacles that prevent women from biking. Topics will include self-defense, women’s health issues and basic bike maintenance. Also on the schedule: a session on family cycling with Megan Odett, the founder of Kidical Mass D.C., which organizes outings for riders of all ages.
“You can’t talk about women on bikes without talking about transporting kids,” says Odett, who wants the bicycling community to acknowledge that moms are usually in charge of ferrying children, picking up groceries and running other errands. That can be daunting on a bike, but it can also be rewarding — a lesson Odett has learned by riding around town with her 3-year-old son.
On April 28, Odett partnered with WABA and the D.C. Department of Transportation to host the second annual ABC’s of Family Biking, a festival on Capitol Hill featuring an assortment of gear designed for hauling kids, cycling safety lessons and a bike-themed puppet show. There were plenty of dads around, but it was mostly moms who were inspecting kids’ no-pedal balance bikes and asking about forming biketrains to and from school.
Even in this crowd, there were hints of why Washington’s female cycling community remains small despite the rise of bike lanes, protected facilities and Capital Bikeshare.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, riding in D.C. is a 3,” said 45-year-old Ulrike Reichert, who grew up cycling in Germany. Although she bicycles with her 7-year-old daughter around the Hill, every outing requires careful planning about where and when to go. Her concern? Clueless drivers.
Other moms felt confident toting one toddler around by bike but weren’t sure how they’d manage with a second child. And then there were women who hadn’t been on a bike in 20 years, such as 32-year-old Katrina Skinner.
“I’ve never seen many black women biking, so there’s been a little bit of hesitation,” said Skinner, who’s been inspired by watching her 4-year-old daughter’s friends start to ride — as well as the potential benefits for her health and her wallet. “I’ve decided not to care any more. I don’t mind sweating to conquer a city hill.”
Skinner sounds like the perfect candidate for a meetup with Roll Model Elizabeth Lyttleton, who was at the ABC’s of Family Biking with her ride — a bike outfitted to accommodate her and her three kids.
The 36-year-old Eckington resident doesn’t remember her pre-biking days all that fondly. “I never got any exercise, or got out as much as I wanted,” Lyttleton says. Now she gets both on her way to her kids’ school, a trip that only takes her five minutes longer by bike than by car. “It seems absurd, but that’s D.C. traffic. And now I don’t need to spend time looking for a place to park. I can ride up to the front door,” she adds.
Lyttleton’s not shy about sharing her love of biking with other moms, who almost always respond with: “That’s kind of cool, but I could never do that.” That’s when Lyttleton explains that she felt the same way until one of her friends convinced her to buy a better bike rather than getting a second car. Without that helpful nudge, she wouldn’t be biking today.
Several of the other Roll Models have similar stories of how mentors in their lives got them on the bike path.
For 50-year-old Elizabeth Willis, it was so daunting to show up for her first group ride a few years ago that she pulled her car up, saw the assembled cyclists with all of their fancy gear and promptly turned around and went home. “It’s hard when you don’t match the picture,” she says. But after a friend from work took her on tours of the area’s trails, she built up confidence. Now, she rides nearly two hours each way between her home in Fort Washington and work at Fort Belvoir.
Several friends persuaded Casgren-Tindall to give biking a shot. Her former roommate in Shaw left behind a bike for her to use, some other cyclist friends took her out on weekends to show off their favorite routes and another pal was her buddy for group rides. “Having someone else in the adventure with me was a big motivator,” she says.
And that’s why the League of American Bicyclists has faith in Women and Bicycles. Szczepanski says the pioneering program, which nabbed the league’s first-ever Women Bike grant, is setting the stage for similar initiatives in other places.
Maybe 26-year-old Carolyn Wright, who went on the Rock Creek ride, can help. In college, she’d inherited a bike she used to get to classes. For four years after graduation, the “rust beast” sat untouched on her porch, but as soon as she took it out again, Wright remembered how much she enjoyed pedal power.
“I have this fantasy of riding across the country,” she says. “But I’ll start with biking across the city.”
Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.
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