Bicycle Network: Women's Cycling
Whether it’s the skills you gain or the friends you make, Melissa Cranenburgh discovers that bike riding can pump up your self-esteem
"C’mon get on the handlebars! I’ll dink you. We need to get to Naomi Donnelly’s. She’s got Atari. For real.” It was the 80s. I was 10. Kids were always referred to by their full names. And having a bike – preferably with streamers coming off the sparkly rubber handlebars – was a suburban girl’s ticket to independence.
There was just one problem. I had never learnt to ride, which made me a liability (or handlebar luggage) whenever cool adventures were planned. It wasn’t until years later, as an adult, that I finally caught the bike bug and realised what I’d missed out on. Now, as I weave through traffic, I appreciate my newly acquired ‘bike sense’. I can spot a left-turning car from the corner of my eye. I’m not worried about riding through dimly lit, empty streets late at night – in fact it’s a joy. As a grown woman I’ve come to recognise that the confidence I’ve gained as a bike rider is a valuable asset.
Bikes and social change
Historically, bike riding was a potent symbol for women feeling pretty damn good about themselves. In the early part of last century, when women in western democracies were fighting for the vote, the bike was strongly associated with emancipation. Daring suffragettes rode around on the new fandangled ‘safety’ bikes wearing practical clothes that gave them more freedom than heavy skirts and whalebone corsetry.
More recently, bikes have played a major role in changing the fortunes of women in other parts of the world. In the 1990s in the Pudokkottai region of Tamil Nadu, a literacy program introduced bike riding lessons as part of its efforts to offer greater independence to local women. In interviews with the 49 women involved, it became clear that learning to ride had had made a big difference in their lives. They now had cheap, reliable transport from village to village. They could lug water home in a fraction of the time it took before they could ride. With their new skills many had better status at home. Bike riding meant more leisure time and it had left them feeling a lot more confident.
Riding and self esteem
There is some evidence to suggest that physical activity – the act of riding itself –could help raise self-esteem. Research into this area has established that exercise has a positive effect on mood, and can even help in the management of clinical depression. But a number of studies point out that sometimes the motivation for physical activity has more bearing on whether or not exercise will make someone feel better about themselves.
For example, in 2004 a Flinders University study on a group of 104 women and girls between 16 and 25, found that – especially among younger women – when physical activity was primarily motivated by body image, the activity was unlikely to raise self-esteem. Other studies have pointed out that when women exercise for other reasons, like fitness or to catch up with friends, confidence levels go up.
Bike riding is a fairly nuanced activity. Sure, it can be exercise. But it can also be a great way to take in some wineries with your best friend, or environmentally savvy transport to and from work. The things about bike riding that make you feel good about yourself may range from a sense of accomplishment at the skills you gain – like learning to draft on long rides or changing a tyre by yourself. Or it could be about the fact that you have made more friends through joining the local bicycle user group.
So, all that riding around the neighbourhood you did as a kid could really have been an early lesson in trusting your reflexes, honing your sense of direction, picking up social skills and building your self-esteem. Something it’s never too late to pick up.
This article first appeared in Bicycle Network Victoria's Ride On magazine, December-January 2007–08