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Beyond Chicagoland

At the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, Not All Hands Build Sexism

Emily Kachorek from Squid Bikes talks with attendees at NAHBS. Photo: Coco Johnson

This guest post from Chicago journalist Coco Johnson is a departure from our usual coverage of local transportation issues, but since some 70 percent of Chicago bike commuters are male, I thought Streetsblog Readers would be interested to read about efforts to close the cycling gender gap on a national level, including changes in the bike industry. -JG

The lack of diversity at bike industry shows can be daunting for those who aren't part of the prevailing demographic. I’d estimate that 80 to 90 percent of bike consumers at National American Handmade Bicycle Show, which I went to last month in Salt Lake City, were Caucasian men in their thirties or early forties. Most company reps I spoke with agreed that, for better or for worse, most of their customers fit this mold, because those are the people who are most likely to order high-end, custom-made bikes.

It’s not that the builders aren’t interested in having more female customers, but it seems that they haven’t yet figured out the most appropriate and effective ways to market their services and products to women. “Companies are always looking to grow the pie, and are looking at all these different angles,” says Jacob Stout from Echo Communications, the PR firm representing several companies at NAHBS. “Well, look at the female demographic; it’s called 50 percent of the population.”

Stout added that his firm watched the bike show turn away companies who wanted to exhibit women-specific products based on a somewhat skewed perception of women want, trying to make things look pretty as opposed to functional for a woman’s needs. “We see a lot of companies relying on feedback women leave on blogs, instead of asking them directly, or working with them.”

The good news is that more women are entering the custom bike business, and they’re helping the industry change for the better. Take Portland-based Breadwinner Bikes, the winner of the 2016 NAHBS best city bike award. Their operation is run by two men, but they outsource their frame painting to a female friend, Bethany Rusell. “We couldn’t do it without her,” says co-owner Ira Ryan. “Her detailing and attention to what we want is key. You can have a great bike, but if the paint is bad, no one would buy it.”

Next month Jackie Mautner will join the Breadwinner team as the company’s first female frame builder. “Her welds were just beautiful, and she is so dialed in when it comes to craftsmanship,” Ryan says. “She has a good eye for detail, and her passion is evident.”

Retrotec, a custom cruiser company based in Napa, California, is operated by husband and wife team Curtis and Mitzi Inglis. Curtis founded the company in 1993, and Mitzi told me she doesn’t have a big role in the business, but then she started listing her responsibiliies. “I do our taxes, I come to the shows and speak with customers, and I go to races and act as our sponsor,” she says. “I sometimes give color suggestions, like, Curtis want to do a green bike, and I’ll say, ‘You already have a green bike,’ and we talk about what combos work well. We collaborate on what should be on our shirts, or what would be a fun idea.”

Curtis says Mitzi plays an essential role in the business. “She’ll come over and look at something I’m working on and ask about little spots here and there, and what am I thinking for this or that, and will point out things I miss,” he says. “She really does have the eye for detail and keeps me on my toes.” Mitsy also mentioned that they had spoken in the past about Curtis teaching her to weld. He says she’s very patient and would probably make a great welder.

Low bicycles' Andrew Low and Kelly Koehler Gorman. Photo: Coco Johnson
Low bicycles' Andrew Low and Kelly Koehler Gorman. Photo: Coco Johnson
Low bicycles' Andrew Low and Kelly Koehler Gorman. Photo: Coco Johnson

Another company with a woman in a key role is Low Bicycles, a San Francisco-based producer of fixed-gear, road, and gravel bikes that won the prize for best track bike at the show this year. Business operations manager and customer relations rep Kelly Koehler Gorman came across as confident, well-informed, and honest as she represented the business at NAHBS. “Her responsiveness and industry knowledge make her the perfect person for customers to come to with their needs and concerns,” says owner Andrew Low. “She also does the finishing work such as masking, decaling, and paint prep.”

I asked Kelly if she ever wanted to build bikes. “Maybe,” she responded. “We were recently discussing hiring a woman to get more involved in the process.” They’re also sponsoring an all-women racing team this year.

In addition to the frame and wheel companies, NAHBS also highlighted bike-painting businesses. While many companies were offering custom paint jobs starting around $800, Spray Bikes had the clever, cheaper idea of producing special no-drip acrylic paint that allows you to spray paint your own frame with the low price of $16.99 a can. Emily Kachorek is one of the owners of Sacramento-based Squid Bicycles, which makes bikes specifically made to be spray-painted and now serves as Spray Bike’s U.S. rep. A U.S. National Team racer, she recently returned from Japan where she did live demonstrations of bike painting between criterium races. She raced and crashed her teal popsicle-themed bike several times, and the frame still looks beautiful.

The highlight of NAHBS for me was speaking with Anne Hed, CEO of Minnesota-based wheel builder HED Cycling. She discussed in length how her partnership with her late husband Steve made the company successful enterprise. In 2014 the Canadian bike manufacturer Cervélo was impressed by HED’s aerodynamic wheels and invited them to design a one-piece carbon-fiber frame.

“After much tooling, my husband laid out the mold for it and I told him to call me when it was done to see if it worked,” Anne remembers. “Steve called, and with so much joy and enthusiasm in his voice he said ‘It worked. And they want us to make it!’” Tragically, shortly afterwards employees found him unconscious without a pulse outside the HED factory at age 56. “So that was the last conversation we had,” she says. "If he hadn’t said it was okay [to proceed with the design], I wouldn’t have done it.”

Since his death, Anne has presented an award in his honor at NAHBS each year. She says she sees the same passion that Steve applied to his craft in the new crop of bike builders. “Can you feel that energy?” she asked. I could.

While the community of bike manufacturers at NAHBS is still largely a brotherhood, it’s good to see that dynamic is changing. Women might not always be building the bikes, but they are there making important decisions that can make and break companies as well as barriers. They’re making the small decisions about the details that add up to make bikes appealing, as well as larger decisions about whether a bike gets made at all. Particularly in these smaller bike companies, women are starting to find their place in the cycling industry, and are in turn helping to make cycling appeal to a larger demographic.

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