I hardly ever feel more like a minority as a woman than when I'm cycling. It is fantastic that the number of cyclists in London has increased an incredible amount over the last few years, but it is a sad and worrying trend that the vast majority of the cyclists in London are men. I refuse to believe that this is because women are afraid of 'helmet hair' or that they're worried that they won't be able to wear heels on their bike. I think this discrepancy has far more to do with the fact that women are conditioned from infancy to take up as little space as possible and to believe that they have little to no physical potential.
The statistics show that women are more at risk on the road than men. Of the 7 cyclists killed by HGVs in London this year, 6 of them have been women. Most fatalities involving bikes and HGVs happen when a lorry turns left and a cyclist is caught on the inside and gets crushed. It seems that male cyclists are safer because they are more likely to cycle faster and escape from the inside of the lorry, or to go round the outside of the lorry, into the traffic. Because of this, women cyclists have been encouraged to make themselves as visible as possible, ensuring that they are at the front of the traffic at red lights and as far forward as is safe. I believe there is a real feminist issue here about women being less willing to take up space due to a lack of confidence.
We've probably all allowed ourselves to be squashed up against a window on a bus or train because we felt bad for taking up too much room or just couldn't face the confrontation. Women are taught from an early age to be kind and to think of others before ourselves. We're also taught that we're not good at physical activities, that we should leave that to the boys. Studies show that parents vastly underestimate female babies' physical abilities and it's still the case that many schools still don't teach girls more boisterous sports like Rugby. The message from birth is that being strong and fast is not valued in women because it is not 'feminine'. In fact, girls and women that achieve highly in sport are often 'accused' of being gay. Consequently, many women are left doubting their physical abilities. Usually this only results in being a bit squashed on the bus, but now it may have led to the deaths of six women.
This insecurity is visible not only in statistics but also in the bikes that men and women choose to ride. My compulsion to check out other cyclist's bike is now chronic and I have put it to good use. My unofficial, mental survey reveals that despite the current trend/craze for fixed-gear bikes, few women are choosing to ride them. Instead, women seem to be opting for slow, stately 'Amersterdam' bikes. It's understandable in some ways, the fixed-gear scene is notoriously 'macho', but I fear that another reason is that women feel that they just won't be strong enough to ride them or that they are worried about how fast they are.
I'm by no means a Sporty Susan, but since I started to cycle a year ago, my fitness has improved, I've saved money and I'm completely independent. Cheesy though it may be, for me my bike is a type of freedom. I'm still not fully confident though. Despite sometimes cycling twenty miles a day and taking to my fixed-gear like a duck to water, I know that I could so easily become a statistic any and every time I hesitate or doubt myself. It pains me to see men constantly flash by women (including me) on their bikes. I don't know how we can change this though without women's liberation. Until the sexist culture around sports and physical activities is changed, many women will suffer from a potentially dangerous lack of confidence in their physical ability.
P.S. I recommend Iris Young's essay, 'Throwing Like a Girl' if you found this remotely interesting. It's fascinating.
(From my blog, Swimsuit Issue)