For Katherine Pederson, finding a bike this winter was a pain. She wanted a fixed gear that could get dirty and salty and would be easier to control on icy streets. But she’s short — around 5 feet tall. Bikes in her size are hard to come by. And, well, she’s a woman.
“I have this impression that I’m kind of profiled — like ‘oh, you should get this hybrid,’” said Pederson, referring to a style of bike that is stereotyped as more female-friendly than a fixed gear. “I went to like five places in Minneapolis and said I want a winter fixie and they said, ‘Why?’”
Many of the other women and transgender folks that attend the twice-monthly Grease Rag Ride and Wrench held at Sunrise Cyclery have had similar experiences. Grease Rag is an open shop night for WTFs — that’s women, trans and femme cyclists. Show up with a bike in need of repair and a mechanic or fellow WTF biker will help you work on it. Borrow tools, gain some skills and maybe save money. The event is free, although cyclists have to pay for any parts they replace.
Bike in perfect condition? That’s fine, too. According to co-organizer Laura “Low” Kling, the group is as much about building a community of non-dude bikers as it is about mechanics.
“No matter where you go, you’re kind of a minority, so creating an environment where you’re not the minority can take away some of those barriers, some of those anxieties,” said Kling. “The best resource [for a cyclist] is someone that bikes, that you like, that is sort of like you.”
Nationally, more men than women cycle. A 2009 study found that on a given day, men were three times as likely to get on a bike than women. Although safety and fashion concerns are often blamed for the lower rates of women biking, many argue that the difference is about economics — women are often the primary caregivers of children, which means more cargo and less time for a bike commute.
Women bikers have been called an “indicator species” for good bike infrastructure. The theory says that if there are enough trails and bike lanes for women to feel safe, they’ll use them. If that’s the case, Minneapolis is doing alright. One study found that 45 percent of Minneapolis bikers are female, another said 37 percent.
JJ Kahle’s been coming to Grease Rag since September. In February, she finished building her first bike. She said she likes that Grease Rag invites WTFs into the back of the bike shop, which tends to be a boy’s club, even in Minneapolis. “For some reason you’re treated like you don’t exist or like your somebody’s mom or somebody’s sister,” she said. “So I like that it de-centers that whole idea that you have to be kind of an alpha male in order to work on bikes.”
“Z,” a Sunrise salesperson and new frequenter of Grease Rag said in the past, she mostly rode with dudes. “I always, always, always had to prove that I could be one of the guys,” she said. “In this case, it doesn’t matter.”
Grease Rag was started in 2009 by former Sunrise employee Erin Durkee, with the idea of creating a space where she could meet more women who ride and learn to fix things herself. Since then, Durkee moved away, and Kling and her friend Kat McCarthy have taken over the bulk of the organizing.
Kling is quick to say that she does not own Grease Rag. There are five events every month at three locations from 7 to 9 p.m. Sunrise’s group meets every first and third Thursday, the University of Minnesota Bike Center hosts one every second and fourth Thursday, and there’s one at Recovery bike shop in Northeast every second Tuesday.
Each has its own coordinator and distinct style. In Uptown, when the weather is nice, an hour-long group ride precedes the open shop. In Northeast, the event starts with a one-hour clinic and skill-share.
“I really want there to be Grease Rags everywhere, until there’s no need,” said Kling. Anyone can start one, she said, they just have to find a facilitator and an employee willing to hang around if it’s at a bike shop.
Grease Rag is not totally dude-free. In Uptown, Sunrise’s male mechanics are there to help diagnose issues and guide participants through repairs. Kling said women or transgender mechanics would be ideal, but there just aren’t enough of them that are willing to commit the time. And anyway, she said getting to know a shop’s mechanics can take away some of the intimidation next time a rider comes in for a repair.
Of course it’s not just intimidation and lack of representation that WTF bikers experience more than men. Some issues are pure anatomy. “The whole saddle issue — the crotch issue,” said Z. Her advice? “Padded shorts are always the first line of defense.”
Kling’s advice for riders working on their bikes for the first time? “First I tighten things, then I lube things and if that doesn’t fix it, I get some advice,” she said. “The more you touch your bike, the more you clean it or whatever else, the more you know what normal for your bike is.”
Pederson did find the right bike for her height. She bought it from a guy on Craigslist who fixes old bicycles in his garage. “I have a lot of friends who are more experienced,” she said. “I think that if I didn’t have those friends I would’ve been like, ‘Oh they don’t make bikes for me.’”