Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance – for women


Illustration by Diana McNally

Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance – for women

Bike Shops can do more to gain women’s business

By Tammy Thorne with files from Rhiann Moore

A shorter version of this story is appeared in NOW magazine. Read it here

Imagine dropping your bike off at your local bike shop and the mechanic says, “What’s your phone number? We’ll call you when it’s ready in a couple of days.”

You oblige and then, he grunts: “Now, we’re going to call you in the middle of the night.” All of the men in the shop laugh.

When Toronto cyclist Karina* was asked that very question, she says she grabbed her receipt and left the shop as fast as she could. (Where noted, names have been changed to protect women’s privacy.) She was afraid. But thankfully, she recalls, “They never actually called me.”

Karina's experience is not unique. In fact, interviews with several women who have visited downtown Toronto bike shops report similar experiences.

The women interviewed for this story have been riding in the city for many years for utilitarian purposes: to get to work, school, social visits, shopping, and more. They mostly wear regular clothes when doing so. Women represent almost half of Toronto’s biking population (which has been estimated to be close to a million in some studies.) Most women we spoke to like biking in Toronto - and they like the city’s bike shops too.

But when it comes to repairs, women often face obstacles. Women say shop workers lack attentiveness and openness. Many shops still have an exclusive vibe, where patrons feel as though they need to know a secret password or a map simply to find the service area (usually at the very back of the shop past rows of precariously perched bikes and accessories). If there are women working in the shop, that vibe can often dissipate.

Here, we’ve collected the stories of four women who have faced harassment and discomfort while having their bikes serviced. The common thread? Bike culture is still male dominated.

Michelle and the Case of the Flat Tire

First of all, let me say, as women we experience oppression every day and we experience micro aggressions every single day.

So, I think one or two bad experiences in a bike shop can change our experiences in all bike shops.

They're often male dominated spaces – where you're made to  feel like you don't fit in. I mean, I don’t look like I race and I'm not necessarily seen as an athlete -- but also because I’m a woman. I feel uncomfortable.

At the bike shop closest one to my house I have, unfortunately, had some awkward experiences.

There are a couple of reasons.

First you have to carry your bike up the stairs and into the bike shop. Sometimes someone will ask you “Can I help you with your bike” [even though there is a ramp] and my first inclination is to say, "I got this."

I may not be able to fix everything on my bike but I know I can carry it up the steps.

I always wonder if they offer men the same service on the stairs.

Once you get inside and stand at the front no one approaches you. You have to wait for some kind of signal. Finally you realize you need to go to the back. Or you get asked: "Do you have an appointment?"

How am I supposed to know I need to make an appointment [for one thing I didn’t know this was going to happen]?

Then you have to squeeze your way to the back, trying not to knock over the rows and rows of bikes. When you there, it’s all guys and who don’t make eye contact.

Usually I have to wait for a little while … maybe too long, it’s like I am watching them, and maybe I’m making them uncomfortable or something… until finally, someone will say, “What’s up.”

That’s a been my experience in this store. Every time. But let me tell you about the time I got a flat – five times. On the same wheel.

After three flats on the same bike that had been repaired by the same shop, I decided to put my concerns in writing. I mean, I really felt like an idiot for repeatedly going back to this store. But I also felt like I had to tell them that I know how to inflate my tires. I even bought a new rim at their suggestion to help ensure that I would not get another flat. But after four flats, I’d truly had enough.

Email excerpt:

I was chatting with someone yesterday at your shop after getting a flat fixed again …I brought it in for a spring tune up (no flat, new wheel and tire on) and it was there for about a week. When I came to pick it up and it was brought up from the basement it was flat (that was the third flat in two weeks). It was repaired and five days of riding later (and I do inflate my tires) it was flat again.

I was told I'd hear back last night, but I'm following up because I haven't. Life isn't the same without my bike and I'd like to get it fixed. I'm a commuter cyclist.

I'm just not sure if I should come back because I'm afraid it's how the tire is being put on or the tube installed that's causing the flats and that's costing me both a lot of money paying for repairs and time carrying my flat back and forth. I really appreciate your shop, so I mean that in the best way. Just trying to figure out what's best for my bike.

In summary:

  1. A flat happened, I brought it in, it was repaired.
  2. About a day or two later it was flat again. I brought it in and was told I needed a new wheel and tire (and tube of course). Bought all that and it was repaired.
  3. A few days later I brought it in for the spring tune up. I didn't have a flat when I brought it in. About a week later I picked it up after the tune up and it was flat as it was brought up from the basement (this is all the same back wheel). It was repaired. I took it home and stored it inside. I went on a trip without my bike for four weeks.
  4. I came home from my trip. I filled my tires. I rode the bike for a few days. Then it went flat again (always a slow flat). 
  5. Now wondering what to do.

They fixed it again and I was riding around and after a while I could see the tube coming out AGAIN. They fixed it. One. More. Time. It was under warranty. And I haven’t had one since.

It was frustrating. Spending all that money. The road does suck sometimes but… this wasn’t me. This wasn’t my fault.

I still think about that second time I went in with the flat and I asked to see the tube. The tube had been ripped and they said I needed a new wheel because my steel rims caused the flats. I suggested taping the rim, but they insisted buying new rims would solve my issues.

In the end, after five flats being ‘fixed,’ and my buying a new rim, it turned out (so they said) that they had a batch of bad tubes. I told another bike shop about the ‘bad batch’ excuse and they laughed and asked, “Who told you that?”

I think mansplaining is comprised of two things – an assumption that because you are a woman you don’t understand the topic and the second thing is the tone, a very condescending tone.

Unfortunately I don’t feel empowered enough in the bike shop setting to combat this condescension and I believe them when they tell me how to fix the problem.

Karina's bad Chain Reaction

My actual local, that is, geographically closest, bike shop is a shithole.

I’ve been to a bunch of different ones. We are in a good zone for bike shops. My current shop is great. They actually saved my ass big time.

But one time, I had to go in to that closer bike shop, when I had a flat.

I walked in and instantly felt really uncomfortable. There’s a bunch of gross guys standing at the back, they are all drinking and smoking. I actually felt like I should’ve left because I felt so uncomfortable.

It was clear they were all drunk. I knew from walking by it all the time that it wasn’t really a professional place, but it was close by and I needed to get my tire fixed. I just wasn’t expecting a bunch of drunk guys.

I asked if I could get my tire fixed. They agreed and said it would take a couple of days. They told me how much it would cost, said they’d call me when it was ready and asked for my number.

I said sure, and gave him my number. Then he said with a stupid laugh:

“You know we’re probably gonna call you in the middle of the night.” And they all thought that was really funny. And I was like “What?” as I recoiled in horror… grabbed my receipt and got out of there.

I went back in like a week later and it was ready. I got my bike and that was that. Or so I thought...

A week later my chain fell off.

I’ve had that happen before and I just put it back on myself, but this time I couldn’t get it back on and so I popped into this other shop, further south (which is now my preferred shop) and I asked if they could help me with my chain because it kept falling off.

They helped me right away and asked, “Who worked on your bike” so I told them about this sketchy place.

“They didn’t put your wheel back on properly. You are lucky your wheel didn’t fall off. You should report them.”

I was horrified. They were horrified. My life was basically put at risk. It was really scary.

Nobody ‘mansplained’ anything to me – they were just straight up creepy and disgusting and did a shitty job.

They probably would’ve done the same shitty job for a man but I highly doubt they would’ve said “We’re going to call you in the middle of the night.”

At my new, preferred shop where they fixed my chain, I was immediately helped and the first person who talked to me was also a woman. I bought a helmet on my way out, too. They were very professional and pleasant.

Generally, I always feel a little intimidated going into a bike shop because I don’t know anything about bikes. I just like to ride my bike.

But mostly in Toronto I have had pretty good experiences in bike shops.

Emma's DIY WTF

My local bike shop is dirty. It smells like smoke and the guys are always drinking in the back.

I feel out of place when I go in there, and into most bike shops. I’ve been riding forever but I don't know much about bikes. I have really specific needs for my bikes, but I feel like the second I start talking to a bike shop owner or mechanic about it, it will be clear that I don't know anything about mechanics.

Men need to realize that if they don't treat women like idiots from the get-go, they’ll get more positive responses from them.

I used to go to this DIY bike repair place because I thought it would be cool to learn (and very useful), but the guy who worked there was so condescending (and now he works at a big outdoor gear store that also sells bikes, so that sucks). His constant sense of superiority didn't make me want to learn at all. Then I told him I was doing a triathlon and he sold me a bike that could have been an antique. It was barely acceptable for my usual 8 km commute, let alone a competitive event.

Buffy, No pain, No mansplainin'

I go to lots of bike shops downtown and have two favourites. A new one opened in the ‘hood and I wanted to give them some business. I have fancy components on a fairly tight frame. I know it is a pain to install the basket so when I needed a new one I suggested they follow the same set up that was already there which including some zip ties.

The mechanic complained about it on the phone when I called to check that the bike was ready for pick up the next day. He said he had not been able to install the new basket.

I let him vent a bit about why and how it was so hard, near impossible, to have to attach a basket to my super fat bars and funky forks. And, then, when he was finally done I said, “So you are saying you can’t do it? Okay. You’ll just have to leave the old [broken] basket on there.”

And then he made some sputtering noises and I said, “I gotta go, I’m at work, see you later.”

Went in after work and it was done.

Great. Right?

Skip ahead a few days and I notice my tire is rubbing on the brake pads… or at least I think that is what happening and I figured he jammed the basket on in an awkward way and somehow squeezed the brakes… but do I really know what is wrong? No, I do not. So I planned to go back to the shop later.

In the meantime, I simply adjusted the brakes myself, pulled them out manually and turned the little lug on the cable, because I really wanted to go for a nice ride that day – I was headed for the Don Valley trails.

It kept rubbing though. I would never pretend to know what was actually wrong with my brake situation, but I do have the common sense and experience riding (20 years) to know that there is something rubbing and slowing me down and probably doing some damage to the rubber on the tire, or the rim or the brakes. I let some air out of the tire, hoping it wouldn’t rub as hard, and would be easier to pedal back. And headed back to the shop, aborting my mission to ride the trails that day.

I got to the busy shop and made my way up and to the back and got the attention of one of the mechanics. As I began to explain my issue, one of the other customers just budded in front of me and interrupted me. He had an expensive, clean road bike and was wearing a full kit and … I mean, could I not see that he has a penis? Of course he needed to get his problem heard about ASAP because you know, he has a better bike and he speaks the same language as the mechanic.

So I wait, while burning two holes in the back of spandex kit’s head with my eyes, and then when they are done, the mechanic put my bike on the stand. I said, I think you need to ride it to see how it’s rubbing. He didn’t. Instead, he started spinning the tires. Then he said, “Well, before anything else, I’ll tell you what your problem is here: Your air pressure. You need to put more air in your tires.” Barely concealing my rage I explained that, no, I let the air out so I could ride back here from the Don without my tire getting blown out from the rubbing. “Sorry I didn’t pump up my tires before coming to get my bike repaired, but I assure you that is not the problem.” He then just bent my fender and said, “There, all fixed up now.” He might as well have patted me on the head. He suggested removing my fender. I have fenders so I don’t get wet when it rains, and the brakes worked fine before they added the new basket, I explained. But I left feeling dejected and my wheel (or brakes) started rubbing again a few days later.

The whole experience made me sad. Sad, because I really wanted to support the new local bike shop. But then that happened.

You might also want to note, this shop has stairs up to the front door and so there is a ramp to push your bike up on, and although I’ve never been offered help with my bike coming in, I know other women have.


Another awkward anecdote that came up as we talked to women cyclists in Toronto: What if a mechanic refuses payment? Although, well meaning, this can create awkward situations: You’ve got no record of the repair and can’t comfortably bring the bike back with if it breaks down again. Awkward! I mean you want to be able to bring the bike back for a re-repair (not as many as Michelle though) if something goes wrong. If you don’t pay for the repair or have any record of it that creates an unprofessional environment where you’re in a position of sort of asking for a favour. We don’t want that. The point: Treat everyone equally.

Could one solution to this cultural divide be more female mechanics? Although, the idea of women in the bike industry is a welcome one, currently, female bike mechanics are almost as rare as unicorns.

But on the business side of things: Women are not a rarity in cycling. We are not a niche market. We’re fully half of the potential market, and close to half of the current actual market. A recent study by the League of American Cyclists shows women as a fast growing demographic in cycling.

It just makes good business sense to welcome women into your shop and, in general, to try to not be an asshole.

A shorter version of this story is appeared in NOW magazine.

PFB-0344 Women and Bicycling Infographic (1)
Infographic by People for Bikes 

UP NEXT: We talk to bike mechanics in Toronto to find out how they work to make the city a better place, and to make women feel welcome in the shop. And for the final story in this series we’ll look more closely at solutions and statistics.

Related on dandyhorsemagazine.com:

Where are all the Female Cyclists?

Heels on Wheels: Lucy DeCouture

Night Rider

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