Register Thursday | March 23 | 2017
Chain Reaction Illustration by Jeannie Phan.

Chain Reaction

What does it take to puncture cycling’s insular bro culture? Andrea Bennett speaks with the women mechanics inciting change in her community.

ONE DAY, ERIKA LAYTON* ARRIVED at her job at a small bike shop on Vancouver Island to find that her coworker, a mechanic, had called in sick. While Layton had been promised a job fixing bikes—she’d spent her teens and twenties teaching basic mechanic skills to high schoolers and earned her certification at United Bicycle Institute (UBI) in Oregon—she’d been asked to start out on the sales floor, just for a little while, to get her bearings. That day, her coworker’s repair bench stood vacant while the rest of the staff was backed up with orders. When Layton asked the owner if she could help out, he told her that it wouldn’t be possible: the assistant manager needed to use the empty bench to spread out his paperwork. “Fuckers,” Layton says now, reflecting on the situation.

Layton’s time with the shop had seemed promising at first. “There was discussion of me teaching courses and leading women’s rides,” she says, “but it didn’t work out like that.” Instead, she was given assistant-like duties: sweeping the floor and even “retrieving sandwiches for the boys.” Layton had left a lucrative job as a restaurant manager to pursue work as a mechanic. While in the restaurant industry, Layton says she “lived and felt and performed feminine gender norms all the time”; becoming a bike mechanic had been appealing both for its potential to be linked with mobility-related social justice work as well as for the social capital that comes along with bucking gender norms and being a woman in a male-dominated trade. But there she was—the only woman on staff, with several years of experience fixing bikes— being relegated to customer service.

Almost six months after she was hired, the shop had an opening for a full-time mechanic. Layton wasn’t moved into the position, as she’d been promised. Instead, the store hired a young man who hadn’t gone to bike school, and whose experience came from volunteering at the same bike shop where Layton had previously worked. “On his first day,” she says, “he overtightened a seatcollar on a carbon seatpost and cracked it, smashed it. I fucking would have known not to do that.”

Layton was never explicitly told that she wasn’t going to be moved into the full-time mechanic position. Instead, her bosses “hired around” her, evading her questions when she pressed them about when she’d get to start working on bikes. While she doesn’t hold a grudge against the mechanic who broke the seatpost, she’s irked that the shop manager and owner weren’t upfront with her about what they thought her capabilities were. “I took a huge pay cut, making a quarter of what I was making to work there, because I was promised that I would be hired as a mechanic,” she says. “And I never once had a bench of my own to work on.”

BIKE SHOPS ARE KNOWN for being snobby, patronizing bastions of bro culture. Customers often complain that mechanics and sales staff talk down to them, assuming that women in particular have no mechanical knowledge about their bicycles.

Casual sexism is a serious problem in the bike scene as a whole. In 2015, Interbike International Bicycle Exposition—the largest cycling trade show in North America—stuffed its swag bags with socks featuring the pixelated, thong-clad asses of two women. While Interbike claimed the socks were an oversight, its trade show dailies weren’t any better. Of the few women featured in its advertising, one was yet another ass in a thong—this time hovering over a saddle. (At the same time, the conference was promoting a session aimed at teaching shop owners how to increase profits by “catering to female cyclists.”) The world of professional cycling is even worse. Women’s races remain pitifully underfunded, while men’s races exploit women’s bodies to sell advertising and decorate their award ceremonies.

Slowly, though, industry stakeholders are starting to realize that their male-centric attitude needs to change—not necessarily in the interests of equality, but for the sake of their bottom line. As big businesses like Mountain Equipment Co-op and REI move into the cycling market, acknowledging and properly serving women cyclists is becoming essential to economic survival for smaller shops. A May 2015 report from the League of American Bicyclists recommended some basic steps to attract this underserved demographic: stocking apparel and equipment for women of different cycling levels, investing in women-specific race and mechanics programs, and, maybe most importantly, hiring more women as staff members.

There’s just one problem with that last recommendation: barriers to entry—like the kind Layton faced—have long pushed women out of the industry. Even if shops wanted to, decades spent marginalizing women cyclists have made it difficult to find any trained women mechanics at all.

WHEN I FIRST ARRIVED at the Bike Kitchen in 2009, I knew how to fix flat tires but not much else. In fact, a flat was what brought me down a flight of narrow stairs into the basement of the Student Union Building at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

The Bike Kitchen is a non-profit shop that has been around for eighteen years; while it offers full-service repairs, like many other bike co-ops and non-profits, it prioritizes teaching customers how to fix their own bikes. Rates on labour, parts and shop time are also reduced in attempt to make the repairs financially accessible. I’d never entered a shop quite like it. After Emiliano Sepulveda, one of the mechanics, introduced me to the space, he encouraged me to stick around and volunteer.

Learning how to fix bikes is a bit like climbing a multi-peak mountain. For me, the first peak was learning the names of tools and parts, and slowly—with Sepulveda’s help—being able to discern between things like v-brakes and cantilever brakes. I learned how to adjust the shifting on my own bike; I figured out how to replace brake pads and cables, how to maintain and fix my drivetrain, how to overhaul bearing systems, build and true wheels, and chase damaged threads.

When I was hired as a junior mechanic in the spring of 2011, I faced a steeper summit: applying the knowledge I’d learned fixing and building my own bikes to every single cruiser, hybrid, mountain and road bike that appeared on a service ticket. I began to understand when to recommend replacing spokes, and when to recommend replacing a wheel altogether; I learned tricks for removing seized or stripped parts without damaging a frame. I developed opinions about tools, repair choices, makes and models. At the top of one peak, I saw more peaks. No terminal mastery—only new things to learn.

While Sepulveda made me feel at home at the Bike Kitchen, part of the reason I was hired in the first place was due to work begun a decade earlier by Andrea Smith, who now co-owns a woman-focused bike shop in East Vancouver called Sidesaddle. During her nine-year tenure as a mechanic at the Bike Kitchen, Smith led an effort to make the shop a more comfortable space for women, queer people and people of colour; prioritizing hiring women and queer mechanics was a central tenet of this mandate. The idea was to correct the difficulty that underrepresented groups have had when trying to break into male-dominated work environments and subcultures, especially those that rely on informal training and hiring networks.

In practice, this policy often looks like nothing more than running a good business. It means being warm and welcoming to all customers. It means meeting people where they are at, and finding the right balance between making sure a person understands the technical aspects of a fix while acknowledging the skills and knowledge they already have.

And it means understanding that, generally speaking, men and women may inhabit bike shops differently because of how they’ve been socialized to understand their mechanical aptitude. In short, men are more likely to grab a tool off the wall and dive in, even when they don’t quite understand the task at hand, while women are more likely to hesitate, ask more questions and feel less certain of what they’re doing.

These same differences are broadly reflected in how men and women mechanics work, learn and communicate with customers. “You have three women working on three bikes on three stands, they are all working on all three bikes,” says Smith. “They compare notes, they ask each other questions; if they get stuck, their instinct is to ask. If they don’t know, their instinct is not to fake it through. Men will fake it through. As a result, men—if you’re not paying attention—seem more competent.”

Leanne Kavanaugh, assistant manager of the Bike Kitchen, says that when she trains women mechanics, she’s aware that customers scrutinize their work differently than that of men. “We talk a lot about how to project confidence in the work that you’re doing in front of a customer,” she says, “and how to find information quickly if you encounter something you don’t know how to do.”

Women also have to learn how to navigate sexual harassment in the industry, both from co-workers and customers. During her time at UBI, Layton says one of her classmates pressed a spoke nipple driver to her breast, exclaiming, “‘this is how these work, right?’” Kavanaugh deals with customers telling her that she looks sexy with dirt on her hands, or sexy in the leggings she usually wears to work. She’s learned to call out this behaviour directly, telling them, “That’s a really fucked up thing to say. That made me really uncomfortable and you should never talk to women like that.”

The result is that women and gender-non-conforming mechanics—at the same time as they’re learning difficult technical skills—are also, often, mastering the art of overcoming internalized and externalized assumptions about their gender, their sexuality and their competence.

AS A COUNTERBALANCE to barriers in the bike industry, many co-op and non-profit shops run some iteration of a women and queer program, where space is held for customers to learn with one another outside of regular shop hours.

Coreen Shewfelt recalls her first few trips to BikeWorks, a volunteer-staffed shop in Edmonton in the early 2000s. She was, she says, often the only woman there. “What would often happen to women who came into the shop—especially women who were conventionally attractive—is that the male mechanics would just jump in and take over the repairs,” she says. Though the purpose of the shop was to teach people to fix their own bikes, Shewfelt says that women weren’t getting the full benefit. “You would walk in there,” she says, “and never know whether you were going to get hit on. You’d never know if there were ulterior motives for someone trying to help you or act like the hero.”

So, in 2009, BikeWorks began holding a women-only, trans-inclusive program on Sundays. It was an opportunity for women to learn from other women, allowing them to focus on the nuances and complexities of bike mechanics without needing to worry about sexual harassment. They were free to ask a lot of questions and still be taken seriously. “In the beginning, just taking that space was a big thing,” says Shewfelt, who is now the manager of two BikeWorks locations.

Similar programs exist throughout Canada. Our Community Bikes and the Bike Kitchen in Vancouver each has its own designated days; Bike Pirates hosts one in Toronto and Right to Move has one in Montreal. These programs often receive positive media coverage when they first start, followed by criticism and claims of reverse sexism in the comment sections. “Great idea. We just don’t have enough businesses promoting sexism in our society,” wrote one Metro Vancouver commenter in 2015. “Today I learned we need programs in place for little babies who are too scared to work at a bike shop,” said another in the Ubyssey, UBC’s student newspaper.

These programs exist—they’re celebrated, they’re newsworthy—precisely because the bike industry is so male dominated. As the media increases the visibility of women in industries where they’ve struggled to find footholds, men remain the hidden default. For the purposes of these articles, women are the waves cresting the beach, but men are still the ocean.

LAST SUMMER, a family showed up at BikeWorks on their women, trans and non-binary day. Shewfelt says that the volunteers performed their usual spiel: “Welcome to BikeWorks. Are you here to take part in our women, trans and non-binary program?” Shewfelt says the father asked for clarification—“does that mean I can’t come in?”—and, soon after, the family left without much fuss. One week later, BikeWorks received a short complaint email from the customer. A week after that, they learned that he had filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission alleging discrimination.

“I was denied entry based on gender,” the man, who went by “John,” told Metro Edmonton. “I have no problem with a program that is trying to get women, transgendered [sic] and non-binary people in there, but don’t segregate.”

Between coming to the shop and filing the complaint, John had posted about his experience to a men’s rights forum on Reddit. Some users encouraged him to file the complaint and congratulated him on making the paper; others in the thread veered off into a skirmish about the extent to which women being groped on the subway was an issue or just “hysteria.”

John’s Reddit-driven complaint led to an unprecedented level of threat- and insult-laced messages, Yelp reviews and website comments for BikeWorks. A former board member of Edmonton Bicycle Commuters Society (EBC), who happened to be a human rights lawyer, helped the shop file a response to the human rights commission. Christopher Chan, executive director of EBC, began responding to commenters, patiently outlining the necessity of the women, trans and non-binary program.

It wasn’t the first time the shop had received pushback. Men had, in the past, stood out front on program days, hollering violent, gendered abuse; Shewfelt says that one time, a man, targeting two women customers, yelled, “All you lesbians need to be raped.” At BikeWorks’ old location—in an industrial area with an outdoor boneyard of old bikes—Shewfelt was once alone in the shop at the end of a program day when a man showed up wanting to fix his bike. “He came in, he was really upset because we were closing,” Shewfelt says. “But when I told him that it was women’s day, that just really sort of set him off.” The man ended up throwing a bike wheel at Shewfelt and then locking his bike up—against Shewfelt’s wishes and the store’s policies—in the middle of the shop’s yard.

But Shewfelt says that pushback against the women, trans and non-binary program has also generated some positive outcomes. For one, media coverage about the human rights complaint resulted in increased public recognition and attendance for the program. As well, some of BikeWorks’ board members and volunteers who hadn’t fully understood the kind of sexism women face received an object lesson in male entitlement via the flood of hate. Christopher Chan says that his own feelings about the necessity of the program have been “transformed” as a result. He’s become more aware of general social issues and of the “hatred and violence” from people who are angry that a program like this exists. “As a male who is never the target of that,” he says, “it’s sometimes hard to believe how prevalent those attitudes can be. Being forced to face and respond to it gives me a bit of insight I didn’t have before.”

BikeWorks is now rethinking the way its program is advertised and carried out in order to put the focus back on women, trans and non-binary customers. “So much of this program, which has meant to be about empowering women, has been about making sure the men’s feelings aren’t hurt,” Shewfelt says.

Shewfelt also notes that the good moments of the program far outweigh the bad ones. One story in particular stands out: a couple was about to go on a bike tour and they were overhauling their rides at the shop in preparation for the trip. “The guy was taking charge,” she says, “and the woman was sitting back a little, taking his instruction.” When the couple came in one Sunday, not realizing that it was women, trans and non-binary day, Shewfelt says the man turned to his girlfriend and said, “Well, hon, I guess you’re fixing the bikes today!” The woman turned out to be a natural.

ANDREA SMITH LIKENS the hiring practices of bike shops, and the subsequent staff dynamics that follow, to a wolf pack. “It’s a very hierarchical, stratified society,” she says. “Everyone knows their place, and as your power grows, you move up in seniority and competence.” Even mechanics like Layton who attend professional schools need time and guidance in a working shop to translate what they learned from school-ready fleet bikes to the variety of those that roll in off the street.

Because of this, and because the industry has traditionally been male-dominated, it’s been harder for women to break in, to build and communicate their mechanical aptitude and to move up into leadership positions. In shops like the Bike Kitchen and Our Community Bikes, women and queer nights, safer space shop policies and women-focused hiring practices have resulted in much better gender balances for staff. They have also acted as a catalyst for broader—often difficult—conversations about gender, sexism, oppression and privilege. Leanne Kavanaugh sees women and queer nights as, in some ways, symbolic. “If a shop posts something like a women and queer night,” she says, “then that’s a publicized and external signifier that these are conversations that are happening in that space.”

Other organizations have also found success with corrective programs. In 2014, UBI—the bike school that Erika Layton attended—teamed up with Quality Bike Products and SRAM to offer a scholarship to two women mechanics. The next year, they gained more sponsors and offered scholarships to ten women. This year, they were able to offer sixteen, which filled up a full two-week professional mechanics class. UBI co-owner Denise Sutphin says that in 2013, 7 percent of the school’s students were women. By 2015, it had jumped to 13 percent.

Ultimately, these kinds of corrective programs are just beginning to stem the tide. They offer temporary rafts, life jackets and swimming lessons with the eventual goal of making the water a safer place. They’ve also helped change the way people frame gender diversity in the bike industry. Instead of aiming to fix cycling’s “woman problem,” these programs turn the focus back on bike shop environments themselves; instead of seeing corrective attempts at equality as “catering to women”—a frame that implies that women are receiving special dispensation—industry members are beginning to understand that the goal of these programs is to open up space for people who have traditionally been ignored.

WHEN BIKES STARTED BECOMING POPULAR in North America at the end of the nineteenth century, they quickly became a rallying point for first-wave feminism. Cycling offered women a measure of mobility, as well a clear reason to fight for the right to wear pants—they needed alternatives to crinolines and fabric-heavy skirts, which weighed a tonne and had a tendency to get caught in their wheels and cranks, pitching them off their saddles.

More than a hundred years later, women are no longer being ticketed for the crime of wearing trousers in public, but they’re still struggling to be taken seriously as mechanics, customers and commuters. While women have long fought for freedom in and through cycling, cycling is just beginning to catch up.

* Name has been changed to protect privacy.