in a perfect world, there would be no distinction between the various cycling disciplines. we'd all have equal respect for other velocipedinists whether on road bikes, mountain bikes or bmx, rather than dipping our heads roadwards as someone aboard a more contentious type of bicycle passed on the other side. of course, commercial demands tend towards segregation for marketing, technical or demographic reasons, but ultimately, we're all cyclists traversing the type of roads or off-roads that keep us happy, or get us to and from work.
from a competitive point of view this separation of the disciplines makes more logical sense, for even with astonishing bike handlings skills, danny macaskill would struggle on alpe d'huez, while the atherton twins might find themselves at something of a disadvantage riding knobbly tyres on the sir chris hoy velodrome. but many riders participate in more than one version of the sport, and are no less cyclists for that fact.
however, though the general public likely views us all as one homogenous bunch, blissfully unaware of the difference between a track bike and jeremy powers' 'cross bike. we are the cognoscenti; we know the difference, but before we slap ourselves on the back for a job well done, we'd do well to look towards the iniquities within our own little world. for example, only in a few instances do women racers receive the same prize money as their male counterparts. and though roundly applauded at the time, no-one can surely see the equality in a three week stage race round france for the men, while the women are thrown a token criterium round the champs elysees to keep them quiet.
this often extends to the average bicycle shop. i guarantee you that i know pretty much every bit as much about bicycles as those behind the counter, yet even i find myself less than comfortable in more than one or two shops; so imagine the intimidation that a less than knowledgeable female cyclist feels in the presence of a know-it-all saturday assistant. thankfully, the exponential growth of the whole cycling milieu has brought proportionately more women into the fold. it's not so much that women demand to be served as equals, more that they deserve to be, both by the cycle stores and manufacturers.
portland, oregon has a larger cycling community than most, a fact that has made it pragmatic to open a cycle store predominantly biased towards the female of the species. and not before time.
gladys bikes is situated on north east alberta street, more or less midway between the town centre and portland airport. to quote from their website, they are ' a women-focused, full-service bicycle repair and sales shop that specializes in commuting, touring and recreational bicycle sales'. i asked gladys bikes' leah benson if they also have members of the male fraternity through the front door?
"Of course! Generally, bike shops tend to have larger selections of 'men's' equipment and a small section of clothing and gear for women. We attempt to flip that convention on its head and have more products that fit women's bodies. That said, most bike equipment and all service (of course) is gender neutral. We have many male customers that buy bikes here, use the saddle library, get their bikes serviced, etc. We're welcoming of all people of all genders that walk through the door."
as i continued to peruse various parts of the gladys bikes website, it is notable that the range of bicycles stocked seems all but devoid of those that might allow participation in that champs elysees romp. in the process of concentrating on touring, commuting and recreational bicycles, have they previously avoided the more sport oriented end of the market? and is that because they find the average female cyclist is scared off by lightweight carbon, skinny tyres and drop handlebars?
"We started with touring and commuting bikes based on what we heard from people in our initial conversations with a wide swath of women, about what they would want in a shop. We most definitely never heard that female cyclists were 'scared off' by road bikes and I do not believe this to be the case; we simply weren't hearing as much interest in this style of riding-as-sport from the folks we were talking to and from a business perspective it didn't make sense to invest our time, energy and money into products that people weren't interested in purchasing.
"However as we're now open longer, we are seeing a more diversified customer base walk through the door and hearing that they'd like to see some lighter weight road and 'cross bikes that are built for women's bodies. We took this feedback seriously, as one of the guiding principles of this shop is that we listen to our customer base, and promise evolve and grow based on what we're hearing. Enter Liv Bicycles (giant bicycles' women specific race bike range)."
as you're no doubt bored to death of reading, i've visited portland on two separate occasions, both times having borrowed a bicycle in order to do in rome, etc. in the process of geting lost more than once in downtown portland (principally because i neglected to write addresses somewhere safe and memorable), i came across more cyclists than i'd ever seen in one place at one time, covering, as far as i could note, all strains of oregon residency. though i failed to take notes, i can't say there were more or less of the fairer sex aboard all sorts of bicycles. in the light of this, was the female portion of portland's cycling culture already well-defined when gladys bikes first opened its doors?
"Yes, but in a bajillion different ways. There is no one way that women ride or incorporate bikes into their lives, and this is especially true in this city. Portland's cycling culture is broad and diverse, from Rapha-clad roadies, to cargo biking families, everyday utilitarian commuters, freak bike builders/riders, mountain bikers and everything in between and outside of those definitions. We realize that we'll never speak to every single woman who does every single type of riding."
though my distant past incorporated a period of time functioning as a professional drummist, and thus with a concomitant interest in meandering around music shops, i confess to finding myself every bit as ill at ease in such establishments as in bicycle shops. however, the advent of the drum specific store, such as glasgow's rhythmbase has eased the discomfort. i'm more than happy to pay a visit each time i'm in glasgow, more often than not, purchasing percussive items that i neither need nor can afford.
bringing to fruition and therefore hopefully to an eager female public, does leah consider that gladys bikes may have fostered an increase in the number of female portlandians aboard all sorts of bicycles? "In our first year of business we've been able to help many (many) women purchase their first-bike-since-I-was-a-kid bike and have provided a meeting space of sorts for women from various parts of the cycling community. I think that we've helped commuters get into racing, racers get into commuting, and so on by fostering connections and relationships between our customers."
another unique aspect of gladys bikes that i've not come across on such a scale elsewhere, is their saddle library. for the nominal sum of 25 dollars, the customer is provided with a library card, providing unlimited access to a wide range of saddles. this allows one week to find out if your chosen item and your posterior were meant for each other. if you then figure that to be the case, that 25 dollar library fee is discounted from the cost of the saddle. it's an innovative idea, and one that surely ought to be in every bike shop in the world. is it a well-used resource?
It's been successful beyond our wildest dreams! At any given time we typically have 25-35 saddles checked out, and 99% of those folks end up walking away from the process with a saddle that fits their body and their bike beautifully. The biggest win has been that it's become a resource that resonates with a wide variety of different riding styles and budgets. At any giving time we could be helping folks find the perfect less than $40 saddle to pair with their frankenbike masterpiece or a $200+ saddle with ti rails for their carbon road bike. As it turns out, having a comfortable saddle is something that's equally important to all riders."
my visits to the city have both been in the early part of the year, meaning that i've not had the pleasure of experiencing cyclocross portland style. though the sport is predominantly a european one, adored in the netherlands and belgium, the americans have their own particular take on it, having created more of a family occasion than that more readily featuring beer, frites and mayo. to encourage this even further amongst women, gladys bikes advertise their cross curious club, offering an easy and gentle way into the way of gloopy mud.
given the apparent local obsession with cyclocross, have they been overwhelmed with participants in the cross curious club and are they predominantly women? "YES. I had originally said that we would limit the group to 20 participants, but folks just kept on coming at us with the same story of "I've been wanting to try this for years and just didn't know where to start...", and I couldn't possibly turn them away. And so we now have almost 30 folks, enthusiastic to give it a try and committed to participating in at least one race.
"As for the gender divide, it is composed primarily of women with four incredibly awesome men.
does portland at large exhibit any noticeable distinction between male and female cyclists, or was that bridge crossed quite some time ago? "I think that on a day-to-day basis there aren't any obstacles to cycling that are particularly 'male' or 'female' in nature, if that's the question."
i cannot deny that i am largely superficial in nature. though it would be ideal to pretend that this article came about due to industrious research on my part into the iniquities and provision for women in cycling, in truth it was purely due to jude gerace at portland's sugar wheelworks posting a photo on twitter of her gladys bikes t-shirt. the script logo (i'm always a sucker for a nice script typeface) is, to use a well-worn cliche, to die for. who designed it?
"Mauria Betts at Relevant Studios. She's wonderful and incredibly talented. The broad idea was to go for something bold and somewhat feminine without being flowerly or girly. I think she hit the mark quite well."
it's conceivable that the plaudits and kudos aimed in the direction of gladys bikes would be relatively short-lived. though i can think of a few towns and cities that would benefit from a women-specific bicycle shop, the first one is always likely to benefit specifically from that fact. but once integrated into the locale for a year or so, it risks becoming the same old, same old. so where next for gladys?
"I'm looking forward to working with our 'Cross Club and seeing what kind of life that takes on. I could see that being something that continues to grow year after year here. In general, I'm excited about fostering any opportunity that helps new people explore new types of riding and interested in offering more opportunities in the 'Cross Club vein that attempt to actively recruit new riders into the fold.
"I'm also looking forward to forging a deeper connection with Sweetpea Bicycles, a customer framebuilder who specializes in building bikes that fit women's bodies. We already share a workspace with her fit studio in our shop and our two businesses complement each other really well. We've got lots of great ideas for how to collaborate in getting even more women on bikes that they love to ride. Stay tuned!
"Beyond that, I've got a bajillion ideas. I'd love to organize bike tours of the region, offer more in-depthy classes beyond our basic maintenance workshops, develop a lease-to-own program for bikes similar to the saddle library, expand our internet sales, design Gladys-branded saddles, do a photojournalistic project that examines the different ways that female cyclists look and ride, design the perfect chamois...
"But for now, I'll probably just continue to build out our retail space."
gladys bikes is open tuesday to saturday and afternoons only on a sunday. you can follow them on twitter at twitter.com/gladysbikes
saturday 23 august 2014..........................................................................................................................................................................................................