For the next few weeks, Twin Cities Runoff is gearing up for the summer and won’t be posting any new content. We’ll be back with new work in June, and in the meantime, take a look at some of the work we’ve published over the past year. And stay tuned for our still in-utero event at Walker Open Field on Saturday, July 2.
To all of you who came out to The HearSay on May 21, we thank you! It was really a wonderful time, and we’ll be posting pictures and reflections in the near future.
Our hearts go out to our neighbors in North Minneapolis whose lives were deeply affected by the May 22 tornado. To stay up-to-date on relief efforts, we recommend that you follow @mplstornado on Twitter or Facebook, or check out this continually updated fact sheet on ways that you can help. MPR also offers a fantastic list of ways you can help. There’s still a ton of work to be done.
If you’ve had first-hand experience with the aftermath of the North Minneapolis tornado–if you either experienced it or have volunteered in the clean-up efforts–we’d love talk to you about it. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in sharing your story.
Cheers, and thanks for your support,
This article was originally published on September 10, 2010.
Every Tuesday night, women and trans people fill the shop room of the Sibley Bike Depot, a nonprofit community bicycle shop on University Avenue in St. Paul. Participants teach and assist with basic bike mechanics with the goal of making women and trans more self-sufficient and comfortable with their bikes.
The night I attend, every bike stand is occupied. Young women and trans flow in and out of the room, freely digging through tool boxes and exploring the random assortment of stray bike parts. They adjust frames and brackets, replace wheels and brakes, clean hub bearings, and install new cables. Participants aren’t expected to know anything beforehand, but if they do, they often wander to different bike stands to assist others.
Sarah Dunkley of St. Paul takes her bike from the stand and to the parking lot to test the brakes. This month’s bicycle maintenance class is Dunkley’s first, although she’s been commuting by bike for two years. She chose the women and transgender bike shop night because of the friendliness and patience of the bike mechanics available.
“In the two years I’ve been commuting by bike, I’ve never gotten a flat tire or needed any major maintenance to my bike. I figured it was time to learn the basics so I don’t have to rely on anyone else to fix my bike…The ladies here have been my mechanical mentors, and now I feel I’m prepared,” Dunkley said.
Scenes like the one at the Sibley Bike Deport are becoming more common in the Twin Cities as more women and other disenfranchised groups become involved in the biking community. Still, a significant gender gap persists. The 2009 Pedestrian and Bicycle Count Report conducted by the nonprofit organization Transit for Livable Communities found that 72 percent of Twin Cities cyclists are men. According to the report, this gender gap is consistent with national data that show a three-to-one ratio of male to female bicyclists.
Why aren’t more women biking? Among the reasons are safety concerns, intimidation, lack of skill, events that ignore the needs of people with children, bike shops with subtly sexist environments, and hypermasculine bike parties that discourage the participation of the women/trans/femme (WTF) and queer communities.
Although the inequalities and era of machismo in the local bike scene seem to be fading, getting an equal number of women on bikes is still an uphill ride.
“The cycling culture in Minneapolis definitely started out male-dominated, but in the short time that I’ve been riding I’ve found this city to be very inclusive. But just because there is not a lot of overt sexism doesn’t mean that things are perfect,” said Laura Kling, co-organizer of the bicycle collective Grease Rag Ride and Wrench.
A local bicycle feminism movement has grown in the past few years to understand and eliminate inequalities in biking communities. According to Claire Stoscheck, co-creator of the feminist bike zine Dames on Frames, bicycle feminism works for equity and accessibility in the bicycle world and in the transportation realm at the larger level.
Dames on Frames began as the final group project of a Twin Cities Experimental College class on bike feminism in 2007. Three years and four issues later, Dames on Frames has turned into much more than a zine; it’s a belief system and active organization that tries to understand and impact the experiences of cycling not only for women, but for all people.
“We went through a process of discovery and learning together, and at the end of the class, we didn’t want to just leave it at that, so we decided to form an activist group…to take action on what we had learned about gender and cycling and transportation justice in the class,” Stoscheck said.
“[Dames on Frames] shows up at bike shops, bike conferences…There is definitely an interest in the theme and a great demand for a zine like this. So it is very important to keep publishing it,” Stoscheck said.
Laura Kling echoed the zine’s message: “Bicycle feminism has a historical background. It was a symbol during the suffrage movement, but it’s more than that. It’s not only a symbol. It’s an actual tool for liberation. You can go anywhere you want unescorted. Bikes are creating opportunities for women to find their own liberation.”
A push toward bicycle feminism mirrors an increase in bicycle advocacy, or the belief that everyone should be able to take part in the benefits of the sport. Ensuring inclusiveness is a major component of bicycle advocacy, in terms of access, education, and comfort.
Out of this movement, a handful of women’s biking groups in the Twin Cities have developed. Some of these groups identify as WTF- or LGBTQ-oriented, while others prefer to not classify themselves. All share the objective of creating a safe and inclusive space for like-minded individuals to inspire and learn from each other.
There has been some resistance from both women and men on segregating the WTF bike community. On the WTF forum on MPLSBikeLove.com, a popular Twin Cities bike bulletin board, some women constantly question the need to segregate, claiming they’ve never experienced problems participating in the bike community, and some men don’t understand the need for WTF-only spaces.
As Kling explained, a defined WTF community creates positive spaces and experiences for people who are generally marginalized, intimidated, ignored, or just want a different experience in the world of bikes.
“The women/trans/femme events are not about secluding [the WTF community]; it’s just about creating a safe environment and bringing in new people who may not necessarily be hardcore into biking and showing them that biking is fun. Women are often intimidated by bicycle mechanics and usually end up taking bikes to bike shops just to let men fix them, when we should be learning for ourselves. We’re trying to impart that the more knowledge you have, the easier biking becomes,” Kling said.
As the popularity of biking in the Twin Cities grows, so have the resources for women bikers. Grease Rag Ride and Wrench, a local WTF bike group formed in July 2009, is a forum and open workshop that works to encourage and empower cyclists in a collaborative, fun, and safe learning environment through shop nights, discussions, rides, and educational seminars. The group was founded by Erin Durkey, former bicycle mechanic at Sunrise Cyclery on Lake Street in Minneapolis. Shortly after Grease Rag was formed, Durkey moved to San Francisco, leaving the group in the hands of the remaining members. Laura Kling and Kat McCarthy, both of Minneapolis, are two members who have taken the lead of programming for the group, although they insist it’s a shared effort that no one really owns.
“The Grease Rag is a collaborative learning space where everyone has an equal hand. We bring in textbooks, learn together, and grow as a group. Courses are taught in a nondidactic environment, and the facilitators are always Grease Rag members,” Kling said.
McCarthy became involved in the Twin Cities biking community soon after moving to the cities four years ago—starting with Babes in Bikeland alleycat races, then moving to bike polo two years ago—and is now heavily involved with Grease Rag and WTF biking events in the area.
Kling became involved in the biking community two years ago, shortly after learning how to ride a bike for the first time. After learning about WTF bike events through MPLSBikeLove.com, Kling attended her first shop class at the Sibley Bike Depot and started learning the skills of bike mechanics. She’s been to almost every Grease Rag meeting and event, and successfully completed her first winter of bike commuting last year.
According to Kling, Grease Rag is successful due in part to Sunrise Cyclery. Owner Jamie McDonald and mechanic Shayne Stahlmann have been vital to the success of Grease Rag’s mission and donates everything from time to space, from personnel to copies.
Groups like Grease Rag aim to educate women about bike maintenance; others have created WTF-friendly racing events. Minneapolis is home to the nation’s largest all-woman alleycat race, Babes in Bikeland. Modeled after bike messenger culture, alleycat races do not provide racers with a closed course, only a list of destinations which they must “hit” during the race, forcing participants to chart their own courses. In 2007 cyclists began discussing the obvious gender gap in the area’s numerous alleycat races—racers were mostly men, while the women involved were volunteers who helped run the races.
Out of these discussions, Babes in Bikeland was born. Now in its fourth year, the race aims to flip the gender scenario of most alleycat races—only women are permitted to race, and only men are allowed to be volunteers, with certain exceptions made for women with broken limbs or those who have recently given birth. Organizer Chelsea Strate explained that not having the option of volunteering forces women to get out and race, something that the organizers saw missing from other alleycat races.
Some women believe men shouldn’t be allowed to participate at all, but Strate argued that the goal of the race is not exclusion: “For women to be comfortable, we don’t want to create any more separation than there already is.” Instead, the race is meant to invert the gender equation that organizers saw at other alleycat races, while providing a challenge for those “in it to win it,” and a good time for those wishing to have fun with their friends.
For Strate, biking is about both the challenge and fun. Having grown up in Richfield, she often biked to Minneapolis before she moved into the city. Her interest and involvement in the biking community grew as she met other interested cyclists through the music scene. After she raced the first Babes in Bikeland, Kayla Dotson, one of the original organizers, convinced her to help organize in the following years. Ultimately, Strate hopes that her involvement encourages more women to participate.
Participate they do, and the Babes in Bikeland races expand every year. The race had between 60 and 70 participants in 2007, its first year. The 2008 race grew to approximately 120 women, and 2009’s race included over 160 participants.
Strate said that the Babes in Bikeland race has received a lot of support, from both sponsors and volunteers. The event has gained more recognition and hype over the past four years, with volunteers signing up as early as eight months before the race. Most men don’t take offense to their exclusion from racing. “Guys joke about if they can throw on a skirt and race,” Strate said, “but in general, they are supportive.”
The Queer Bike Gang aims to provide similar rides and activities for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) community. The group serves as a healthy venue for LGBTQ-identified people to learn from each other, network, and socialize in a safe and friendly environment. The group’s founder and lead organizer, E.G. Nelson of Minneapolis, explained that the Queer Bike Gang is “for anyone and everyone committed to social justice and queer politics.”
An avid biker and social activist, Nelson started the Queer Bike Gang as an alternative, both to booze-fueled socializing and the environmental destructiveness of automobiles. She became heavily involved in biking during her college years in Madison, but her idea for the Queer Bike Gang grew out of her experiences with other queer bikers in the Twin Cities. “This group is for your body and soul; building muscles and building relationships. All good stuff, with less of the negative,” she said.
The Queer Bike Gang plans rides and activities, the most notable of which is Cirque du SoGay, their now-annual alleycat race that tours major LGBTQ points of interest in the Twin Cities. The group also organizes community-involvement activities like volunteering, political activism, and sexual health advocacy. Past activities include working with the Minnesota AIDS project and making safe sex health kits and delivering them to area gay bars, and Nelson hopes to someday start a “nonprofit booty-call service” where people call and have condoms delivered by bicycle in 15 minutes or less.
Ultimately, the Queer Bike Gang uses bicycling to achieve greater goals. “The group basically is dedicated to LGBTQ activism and environmental and social justice. We try to encourage volunteerism and other community support to make these kind of things happen,” Nelson said.
A strong solidarity among all WTF biking groups is critical to the emergence of a woman-friendly biking community. Laura Kling asserts that all women’s events in the community are so different that there is no competition. Perhaps more importantly, WTF and queer bike events and groups aren’t just for those who self-identify with those groups – they’re for all “non-dudes.” Allies of the WTF and queer community are strongly encouraged to attend events. According to Claire Stoscheck, allies – including men and others with privilege – are the key to greater equality.
Another solution to enhance WTF and queer ridership is to increase the presence of WTF and queer bikers, experienced and inexperienced. One major deterrent of women riding a bike is the assumption that biking is hard or requires a lot of gear.
“Biking is simple. You don’t need a lot of stuff to bike, just two legs. People often get fixated on gear, but it’s all about finding a bike that feels right to you,” Kling said. Feeling a need to have expensive gear is something that Nelson works with people to overcome, by teaching people how to fix their bikes for cheap, or free. As Nelson said, “Biking is the kind of thing that should be accessible to everybody.”
Chelsea Strate said she doesn’t want her obsession with biking to make other women think that they cannot, or should not, bike. “It isn’t all or nothing,” Strate said. “People tell me all the time that I am so hardcore and crazy. I don’t expect most people to put their dog in a trailer and bike up to Madeline Island.” Strate believes that people can realize that long distances are much more achievable than they may think, “that you could go 20 miles and feel great.”
Fighting all forms of oppression – racism, classism, homophobia, ageism, etc. – is also critical to equality in the biking community. Even with the multiple biking-friendly options in the area and despite many organizations’ best efforts, some do not recognize that inequalities beyond gender and sexual orientation continue to exist in the biking community. E.G. Nelson believes that inclusion of communities of color is a major issue that can be improved upon in the biking community. The original omission of Nice Ride bicycle sharing kiosks in many predominantly non-white areas of Minneapolis reflects the lack of access many bikers may have. “What does that say about who has access to the program?” Nelson said.
There is no doubt the Twin Cities has a vibrant, exciting, and growing bike scene. With accolades such as Bicycling magazine designating Minneapolis the top bike-friendly city in the United States earlier this year, the area’s main challenge now is to fight the oppression that exists within the bike community – the sexism, homophobia, and lack of awareness of the experiences and realities of people of color and other marginalized groups.
The number of events and resources for local members of the WTF and LGBTQ biking community are slowly increasing, and that’s good. As the tenets of bicycle feminism and advocacy propel more people to get involved with the sport, the Twin Cities may grow to be a place in which the title of top biking city applies to everyone.