Bicycle Network: Women's Cycling
Why riding a bike is ace
Astrid Meier considers the many benefits of riding ...
A case study
When Linda arrived in Melbourne from Berlin, Germany, one of the first things she did was buy a bike. In this way, the 23-year-old student saved time and money as well as fitting in some exercise. Linda can’t understand why more Australian women don’t include riding in their everyday life. “A bike is so useful and practical,” she says.
Linda lives in a share accommodation in Moonee Ponds. Her journey to the RMIT campus in Brunswick is 3km and takes her through congested city traffic. Although the Berliner is accustomed to traffic congestion and knows how to handle her bike in tricky situations, riding in Australia is still a challenging experience because cars drive on the “wrong side”. Nevertheless, she is undeterred.
When Linda was asked her opinion on why relatively few Australian women ride for transport, recreation and sport in Australia, she was unsure. “I always arrive with a red face to the university because of my hilly route, but I love to commute by bike.” For many women the reasons are many-layered and may include concern about safety while riding in traffic, health dangers posed by inhaling motor vehicle fumes, and the issue of how to look good during and after a bike ride.
Riding is high gain and low risk
A survey by the School of Health and Social Development at Deakin University found that concerns about city traffic is a leading reason for women's reluctance to ride a bike. Women fear aggressive drivers who shout abuse, make obscene gestures or drive too close.
Many organisations in capital cities offer programs that teach skills to novice riders. Local Bicycle User Groups are a good starting point to find out about casual social rides in a local area.
Like all other modes of transport, cycling is not risk free – but neither is it as dangerous as sometimes supposed. Dr Mayer Hillman of the Policy Studies Institute in the UK has calculated that the number of years of life gained as a result of cycling is 20 times higher than the years lost by riders in traffic accidents. The Danish Cyclists’ Federation carried out similar studies. On the basics of medical research it was found that five million Danes, who on average cycle 3km a day, add a total of 40,000 years to their lives. By contrast, an average of 0.0016% of Danes die in bicycle accidents each year. One third of the Danish population cycles to work and a survey by the British University of Leicester found that Danes are the happiest nationality in the world!
Cycling educator Nicola Dunnicliff-Wells has some simple rules to help you ride in traffic. The fundamental priorities are to obey the road rules and to ride consistently. It's also advised to ride a metre out from the kerb or parked cars to avoid broken glass (that often collects in the gutter) or car doors. Nicola advises cyclists to make their intentions clear when turning or changing lanes. “Use eye contact and body language to negotiate with other road users," she says. "Know what's going on ahead of, beside and behind you.”
Riding saves you time
Linda rides her bike not only for commuting, but also for shopping and recreation. Cycling saves her time. “I don’t have to wait for crowded trains and buses, so I can sleep longer. It’s very convenient.” The idea that many Australian women don’t ride because of lack of time is often a fallacy. Bike-commuters are not dependent on public transport schedules and delays and often arrive at their destination faster than the bus, tram or train. It takes the average person only half an hour to ride three to eight kilometres. The European Cyclists’ Federation and the Australian Cycling Promotion Fund say that a rider covers this range of distances faster than a car driver.
Bike riding offers free exercise in a busy lifestyle and four hours of moderate exercise a week helps to prevents illness. People who ride a bike regularly take less sick leave. An experiment undertaken by an American insurance company showed that the average number of days of sick leave fell by 20% when employees cycled three times a week. These findings are confirmed by a Swedish car company which found that employees who didn't exercise regularly took an average of 30 days sick leave a year, while the physically active took just eight. Using a bike for short everyday trips reduces the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular complaints and some types of cancer, improves the regulation of blood sugar and strengthens the immune system.
Buying a bike
It is true that buying a bike is a little bit more difficult than buying a ticket for public transport. Linda was lucky - she only needed her bicycle for six months so she bought a mountain bike for $20 at a second-hand shop. It was a quick and cheap solution.
It isn’t always so simple to buy a bike. In order to find the right bicycle, you have to make many decisions. Just like when you buy a public transport ticket, you have to make up your mind about whether you need a bike for a short or long distance. Do you want to use it for racing, transport or recreation? What kind of accessories – such as luggage carriers or mudguards – will be useful to you?With a bike that meets your needs, you will enjoy riding.
The survey by Deakin University shows that many women don’t ride bikes because of the simple fact that they are apprehensive about the process of buying a bicycle. Women have expressed dissatisfaction with the the service provided by bike sales assistants and feel overwhelmed by the amount of choice technicalities on the market. Before entering a bike shop, women are advised to do some preliminary research about bikes, using websites like this one and talking with friends who ride. Once you have a sense about the bike that's right for you, you're better prepared to go to a bike shop and take a bike for a trial ride.
An often-cited obstacle for many women is the experience of encountering unhelpful bike shop assistants. Women often feel dismissed or patronised by sales assistants jargonising about front derailleurs, shifters or tyre size. If you are not happy with the service, advice or communication ability of a shop, then choose another – there's plenty around! Not all salespeople are unfriendly and bombard you with ‘special bike language’.
Peter Hacking of the Bicycle User Group of the University of Western Australia says, “Good bikes are not cheap things, although they are a lot cheaper than your average car, up front and in the long run. The fact of the matter is a good quality bike, depending on brand, will cost around $1000. You can probably get good bikes second hand or on sale for around $800, or perhaps cheaper. I don’t want to turn people off cycling, but that is the reality of the situation.”
Riding is stylish
You generally don’t need any specific clothing for bike commuting. For short routes to your work, shops or to visit friends you can wear ordinary clothes. If you’re riding over 5km, or if the weather is hot or rainy, you might want a change of clothes with you. Actually, an experienced rider can cycle in a miniskirt and heels in fine style!
To avoid sweating do not wear cotton, because it absorbs moisture and holds it to the skin. Advanced fabrics such as Coolmax wick moisture away from the skin and evaporate it into the air. Many textiles are available which are softer, more durable, and faster-drying than cotton – breathable socks for instance are a small investment but a big improvement. Never wear more clothes than you need when riding. You can store jackets and extra clothing in panniers or a basket. Toss a blouse or a jumper on over the workout top when you arrive.
Backpacks are notorious for leaving riders with sweaty backs. A better solution for carrying your extra clothing and other stuff is to invest in panniers or handlebar bags. This way the weight is also closer to the ground, which improves handling and safety.
Another thing that keeps you safe is a helmet. Unfortunately, the legal necessity to wear a helmet is one of the consistent reasons why Australian women don’t ride. Most women want to be good-looking. At first glance, bicycle helmets are not consistent with this aim. Hairstyles are often ruined after wearing a helmet, but for those in the know, there are a few tricks to avoid helmet hair. First of all, choose a ventilated helmet to minimise your head getting sweaty.
In general, shorter hair will work best. Women who wear long hair have several options to dress their hair for a good ‘helmet hairdo’. Of course, the easiest way is to wear one long or two side braids. A low ponytail ends up being too hot, as hair spreads across the neck. A high ponytail won’t fit under the helmet. To thread the pony through the back or the sides of the helmet is another possibility, but you run the risk of looking like a Teletubby.
Rubber bands every few centimetres of your braid may prevent knotting and tangling. Multifunctional headwear like a scarf, headband or cap, keeps your hair contained and trouble free. It also keeps your hair off the neck. Skull caps and bandanas fit neatly under helmets to keep your hair from becoming unruly.
Some women mist their hair with a thin film of hairspray before going out to ride and comb it out when they remove their helmets. Dry shampoos can also bring life back to your hair after a ride. You can even make your own dry shampoo by combining half a cup of corn meal with half a cup of almond meal. Some women carry a small container of baby powder for that very purpose.
Hairdressers suggest to thin hair out if you have voluminous hair. Hairdresser Gabi Forster at Melbourne's Chainsaw Massacre salon even states that "Some people think helmet hair is a really good look.”
So you can see that starting bike riding is anything but impossible. When you have bought a bike and helmet that satisfy your needs you have cleared the first and most difficult hurdle. Now you just mount your bicycle, start to pedal, enjoy the landscape and catch a lot of jealous looks when you ride past a crowded tram or bus. The secondary effects of riding are enormous: it saves you money on petrol, parking and public transport fares. It saves you time. It is flexible: you can ride everywhere you want, alone, or with your friends or family. You need no special skills and you can ride at your own pace. It keeps you fit and healthy without having to make an extra effort. Exceptional advantages, don’t you think?