More Thoughts on Race, Gender, and Bike Shops

Staff from The Recyclery help set up a Rogers Park resident with a refurbished bike. Photo: Facebook
Staff from The Recyclery help set up a Rogers Park resident with a refurbished bike. Photo: Facebook

Check out Streetsblog Chicago’s guide to local woman- and POC-owned bike stores, plus nonprofit bike shops, here.

Streetsblog reporter Lynda Lopez recently told the Chicago Tribune that cycle shops are usually run by white men, which can make them somewhat intimidating for women and people of color. “I rarely feel that I’m not being looked down upon” in bike shops, she said. Here are more of her thoughts on the subject.

I’ve been to a lot of bike shops across the city, partly because I’ve lived across the city. It’s always been hard to find stores where I felt welcome, especially when I first started riding a bike on the streets after high school. I felt that shop attendants, mostly male and mostly white, thought I was silly for asking basic questions. When you’re learning a new skill, you’re going to ask a lot of questions, and I was no different.

I think one of the strangest interactions I had was when I lived in Rogers Park and I went to pick up my bike after a repair. An employee asked me if I knew my bike’s gender (apparently, that’s a thing.) He said that would make it easier to find it in the repair room. I said I didn’t and he chuckled, seemingly because I was naive. I still don’t get that interaction.

Another time I was in a bike shop in Logan Square and I wanted to learn more about lubricant for my bike chain. I had Googled the subject, but wanted some face-to-face interaction for more info.The shop attendant didn’t seem too pleased about answering my questions.

These little moments may seem insignificant, but they inform your perception of the spaces you interact with, and serve to reinforce a sense of exclusion, whether intentional or not. It becomes amplified when you seldom see people like yourself in these spaces.

Young mechanics at the Blackstone Bicycle Works. Photo: BBW

I have had positive experiences, though. When I lived in Hyde Park, I loved going to Blackstone Bikes. It was great to see so many local young people working in the shop. I also think a shop that dedicates itself to teaching young people, particularly from the South Side, is going to be more intentional about creating a welcoming environment for all patrons.

I had a similar experience when I lived in Rogers Park and took some classes at The Recyclery. I was probably one of the most inexperienced attendees, but I felt the instructors were helpful and committed to meeting me at my skill level. (It was a major achievement when I successfully patched a flat!) Again, I think it makes a big difference when a bike shop provides programming for local youth. It challenges the staffers to make the space approachable.

Nowadays, I think I’ve become comfortable enough with cycling that I assert myself more in cycle shops and don’t get intimidated as easily, even when employees are somewhat dismissive. But it’s encouraging when I walk into bike stores and I see diverse faces. It made a difference recently when at the shop near my house, there was a Black woman helping me with my bike questions. That’s not a common experience.

I think to encourage more women and people of color to bike more often, we need to interrogate the spaces that can make them feel unwelcome. Riding on city streets takes some skill and confidence, and if you’re just starting out, it can make you feel vulnerable. Urban cycling requires you to get used to interacting with the streets in a new way. If we’re committed to making Chicago cycling more inclusive, we need to ease people into that experience by welcoming their questions, not dismissing them for not being experts.

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  • Kelly Pierce

    Lynda Lopez does not understand the difference between a
    capitalist and a non-profit social service agency. The two white men she disparages worked at
    for-profit bike shops. One of the shops she likes, The Recyclery, is a 501c3
    non-profit organization. It does great
    work and has an important purpose, but it is a completely different
    organizational model, which is why our society does not impose taxes on it. The
    white capitalists and their employees make money by selling goods and services
    as efficiently as possible. Money is made by selling bike lubricant not
    delivering free seminars about bike lubricant. These shop owners took economic
    risks to borrow money for inventory and sign leases to provide services and
    goods in convenient places like Logan Square. If a socialist lives in Logan, it
    is far easier to buy from the white male capitalist than head over to the Recyclery
    in Roger’s Park or Blackstone Bikes on the south side.

    Further, Lynda Lopez charges a male worker at a bike repair
    shop with sexism, seemingly not knowing that bikes historically were designed
    differently for men and women. The shop could have segregated the two different
    kinds of bikes in different places. The supposedly nasty white male may have been
    asking the question for purposes of service efficiency: women ride bikes of
    both styles while men generally ride bikes designed for men. Why should a
    capitalist waste time for the purpose of political correctness?

  • The Dude

    wow. Tough Christmas huh Kelly?
    Or…customer service is everything. Providing information about products usually helps sell the product or gets the customer the item they’re looking for, which in turn makes a happy customer who will come back.
    No one should feel dumb asking any questions of a salesperson.
    I’m not a minority, but I know I won’t go back to a store if they are snarky or give me rushed or incomplete answers to my questions. If I didn’t want to know the answers to my questions, I’d just buy online.

  • Kelly Pierce

    I am still angry about Chicago’s fall in the Bicycling
    magazine rankings. How can a city and its people be held responsible for the
    lack of interest in cycling by a certain subset of the population? Chicago, through
    both public and private funds, is spending an enormous amount of resources on
    bike infrastructure and the Divvy bike sharing network has been expanded, but
    these efforts seem to count for nothing because not enough women are
    cycling. What made me angrier was the
    specious claim by Lynda Lopez that Chicago’s independent bike shops, who have
    staffs of largely white men, are hostile places for women. While Chicago can be
    more inclusive, no constructive ideas were forwarded in the article. Instead, she compared two commercial bike
    shops to two non-profit community bike stores, which pay no taxes. In return for
    their favorable tax status, non-profit bike shops deliver information about
    cycling, educational programs about bike safety and maintenance, and offer training
    programs on bike repair to inexperienced youth with few job skills. It seemed completely unfair to severely criticize
    commercial shops when the issue was not about women and race but the experiences
    at different organizational types. When
    commercial shops offer little to no customer service, people can shop online.
    The tension for commercial bike shops is to offer an experience that is better
    than an online one but is not a huge time drain where the customer is better
    off at a bike non-profit.

  • Colby Spath

    Kelly doesn’t understand the concept of customer service and politeness, and the impact that those things have on the bottom lines of service businesses.

  • Trace

    Kelly, the idea that the authors experiences varied in those different bike shops has nothing to do with their status as either for-profit or non-profit. You obviously don’t work in the industry if you think spending a small amount of time informing a customer about a product is an inefficient way for shops to generate revenue. Brick and mortar shops are in competition with online suppliers selling at a much lower margin. It’s essential that they engage with customers and have good faith conversations about their questions or concerns, those face to face relationships are the lifeblood of any local bike shop. Non-profit status does not make a bike shop hospitable and welcoming and for-profit status does not justify being cold and unwilling to engage with customers in a capacity that leaves them feeling heard and fulfilled.

    It’s baffling that you can just dismiss the women and people of color who continue to voice that they have had negative experiences at bike shops due to them being perceived as in a demographic that isn’t as serious and wont to spend money as the roadie cyclist dad. These people are literally opening up (for-profit!) bike shops because they’ve had those experiences and you still feel the need to dismiss them. Shops like BFF and Gladys are thriving because they are addressing the needs and wants of a market who has been seriously underserved.

    Also, the industry stopped referencing step through bikes as explicitly gendered long ago. The geometry of those bikes are accommodating for people with mobility restrictions of any gender and have many other perks. There’s a reason Divvy and most other bike share programs use a step-through frame design.

  • LMrides

    Honestly, if you’re trying to dissect her experience, you can’t logically say the defining factor of how she felt and was treated was that two shops were non-profit and two were for profit. If you’re going to go down that road you would also have to allow other possibilities, like geographic location, the typical population they serve, who works there, the bikes they sell and service, how much they sell and receive, etc…. and I don’t see you running any kind of stats to determine which factors provably changed her experience, and which didn’t have any effect.

    Maybe you should just believe her when she describes her first-person lived experience and not try to tell her what she does and doesn’t know. Also, it’s okay she’s pointing out that places are unwelcoming to female riders and POC, and she’s right. She’s not alone – a man in a bike shop once tried to explain to me what handlebars are and why he thought I was using the wrong ones.

    It’s curious that it makes you angry at her, rather than being angry at the possibility that poor service and condescension could turn potential newbie riders off from cycling after walking into these shops, feeling hopeful, and then feeling like cycling isn’t for them after the interaction.