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November 17, 2010

Becoming a Bike Commuter IV: Women Riders

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If you ever considered biking to work but were kept away by worries about logistics, rain, or what your co-workers might think, you'll find a series of tips here on the Compass blog to get you to work on your bike at least once a week. We've already discussed picking out a bike, your first day, and weather. Today's post is about biking for women.

If you look around at the cyclists in your city or town, most likely most of them will be men. In fact, male cyclists outnumber females by two to one in the U.S. But that's not the case in European countries like The Netherlands, where female cyclists outnumber their male counterparts. The U.S. can increase the number of female cyclists by building more bike-only commuter routes and paths that provide a greater sense of safety for cyclists. But while we work on that, there are some easy ways for female riders to start biking to work now. Here's how.

Get comfortable. Picking out and then adjusting a bike can be a little more complicated for women. For years I refused to get a road bike because I thought they were uncomfortable (especially the seat and the huge grip required to use the brakes on drop handlebars). It turns out most equipment on the market is badly suited for me because I'm a short woman; I need a women's specific bike and female biking gear in order to enjoy my ride.

When picking out a bike, keep in mind some of the most common fitting problems for women, and speak up if something doesn't feel right. Make sure you learn to tinker with components, because that is how you’ll fine-tune your fit. It is amazing how much you can improve your bike fit with little adjustments like the placement of your brake levers or the tilt of your seat.

Get confident. I pedaled many miles of recreational paths before I decided to hit the crowded downtown streets. As a new rider, I was nervous and prone to making mistakes. I had to think about every little thing I was doing. I had ridden three-speed hybrid bikes without a problem, but my road bike was less intuitive.

Once I'd spent more time on my bike, though, I didn't have to focus on the mechanics of shifting, breaking, or balancing on uneven pavement. Instead, I could turn my attention to busses merging into my lane and cabs pulling to the curb without looking for cyclists.

I spent two years completely avoiding traffic, and I don't regret it. What did I have to prove? Why did I need to get on the road before I was ready? Women cyclists are far more likely to choose routes based on their enjoyment and safety, rather than because the route is faster, flatter, or otherwise efficient. And that's okay. It may even be why the fatality rate for male cyclists in 2007 was eight times higher than for females, and the injury rate more than five times higher. It is your ride, so don't feel pressured to cycle in conditions you aren't comfortable with.

Sisterhood. Being comfortable on the road is key to bike commuting, so consider joining a recreational cycling club first. Once you feel confident in that setting, biking to work will be much easier.  Many communities now have women's cycling clubs or women-specific offerings within mixed cycling clubs. You can find anything from women-focused workshops to cycling vacations. Make sure you pick the right activities for your abilities and interests. Contact the host or ride leader in advance so they know your experience level and equipment, and can confirm whether it is the right event for you.

If you're shy, busy, or don't have a cycling community in your area, check out online tips and discussions. Velo Girls is a club website that has a lot of useful content, for example.

Safety. I've read a few internet posts from women who are afraid to cycle in bad neighborhoods or remote areas, and I'm not happy with the advice they've been given. If you suspect an area is dangerous, don't take chances. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't ride -- just be aware of risks in your area.

One of the best ways to be safe is to get to know your route. Use maps to plan the safest route, take a test ride with a friend when you aren't feeling pressure to be on time, and talk to a reliable source (like the police or a cycling club) about safety incidents and trends. If there have been problems, find out what motivates attacks on cyclists, where and when the attacks happen, and whether the community has taken any steps to keep cyclists safe. There is a big difference between how you'll cope with an opportunistic group of pre-teens harassing cyclists and a violent criminal. Being comfortable with your bike handing skills to get out of a bad situation and varying your route are things to keep in mind, but you need a much more comprehensive strategy for getting safely to and from work, customized for your route.

But don't get too paranoid about whether you are vulnerable on your bike. Finding statistics about attacks on female cyclists has not been easy, and I hope the reason is because attacks are rare. It appears to me that women are at far greater risk from accidents than attacks. And remember, driving a car is one of the most dangerous activities you can undertake. A little perspective is a good thing.

If accidents are our biggest risk, then helmets, front and rear lights, reflectors, and attention-getting clothing are easy ways to mitigate this risk. If you think you can't afford good safety gear, tell the people who love you to save your life with a well-chosen gift or gift certificate.

Have questions or suggestions about cycling for women? Leave them in the comments below.

-- Jennifer Waggoner

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