Cycling Should Be For All!
Cycling is a sport that should require a low cost of entry. All you really need is a bike, yourself, a helmet, and a tire kit. You can buy a used bike and get it tuned up (if you don't buy a bike from a shop) for a couple hundred bucks in most places. To get started, you don't really need cycling-specific gear apart from this which I named above. I don't know many other sports that are this affordable apart from running but running is higher-impact and just not as accessible for many.
It is no secret that I am a huge advocate for cycling for all. I think it is a great mode of exercise, transportation, and is great for mental health. However, it's been said to me numerous times by friends and colleagues who would be riders that cycling doesn't feel accessible. Here are some reasons people have told me they don't feel like they can call themselves cyclists:
They feel they don't ride "seriously" and, thus, don't deserve that title. This is so silly and sad. If you ride a bike, you fit in. If you ride, you belong.
They think don't have the fitness level to ride. This is a big one for sure. The reality is with the abundance of types of bikes, almost anyone can ride a bike. There are e-bikes, recumbents, cruisers, comfort bikes, and so many other types! Almost everyone can find a good fit if they work with a reputable, open-minded shop. And you don't have to do 20 miles out of the gate. Fitness comes over time. A properly fitted bike should be a low-impact form of exercise for anyone who is cleared for exercise!
They don't feel like they are accepted by other cyclists. This is the one which troubles me perhaps most. And it's maybe the hardest to change. Many of us have thought about cycling as a sport for white, male, roadies. And there are unfortunately many white, male roadies who have made fun of me or been generally crappy to me. People of color have expressed that they don't want to open themselves up to such commentary and don't even feel safe going into a shop for fear of bad treatment.
The reality is cyclists have not always done a fantastic job communicating these things or even beginning to act them out. I can remember turning up at a group ride only to be scoffed at or treated poorly because I was going to "slow down" the ride. The reality was that I often was able to keep up just fine and, no, I've never been a weight weenie on a $5000+ bike. I love steel frames and my e-bike is heavy and steady but can easily keep up on a 30-mile group ride. And I'm white and wearing road gear. I would anticipate if I turned up for a "slow and easy" ride on my e-bike without these "I belong" cycling signifiers, I might not be treated even this well.
These things have often turned me off to various groups different places I have lived. It has made me completely turn up my nose at clubs and rides that were described as "for all" or "no drop". Even if I was able to keep up, I would often have to assume to be the one sticking with the slowest person because I was the only woman and assumed to be slow. I was not a ride organizer on these roads and it was not my responsibility but I did it out of inclusion reasons. It did not make me want to return, though. You can bet I judged the organizers and didn't feel that I got to get the best ride in because I spent the time trying to be encouraging and making excuses for the people who were being judge-y and not at all inclusive. Many female cyclists I've talked to have echoed these things - doubly for women of color.
I can see why people can't even get started, either. I have talked to many people who have walked into a shop only to leave with either a bike that didn't suit them or a no bike because of their treatment by employees. This could be because of their budget. Perhaps they only had $500.00 to spend and the shop didn't carry or have (in stock) bikes in that price range. Perhaps they are like me (short) and they don't often carry frames under 50 cm's or in a small because their customers are mostly male and don't ride small frames - this is actually incredibly common in my experience. Perhaps they want an e-bike and their shop thinks these are "cheating" and not only doesn't have any but doesn't ever order them (I am looking at you one shop in town). Perhaps they just wanted a comfort bike or hybrid for trails and riding around town but their shop hard sells road bikes and turns up their nose at anything else.
These are real things I have seen or heard others report back. I am selective about which shops I recommend to folks. If you are interested in a comfort bike or a used bike, there are two shops in town that work best. If you are interested in a shop that is friendly to e-bikes, road bikes, and gravel bikes (so many gravel bikes!), I will recommend my go-to shop. If you want serious road bikes and tri bikes that cost a small fortune, I can recommend a shop I refuse to go to but it might suit a male, white rider best. This is a shop I have tried to give a second chance but one where I went before on a budget riding an MTB and shopping with my friends. An employee followed us around this small shop only referencing expensive products. This may have been seen as good customer service but it was not. It was mean-spirited I later discovered based on unpacking why I felt weird there. The employee was insistent in selling me a $100.00 road helmet and a $100.00 lock for my $100 craigslist special. The upsell was SO strong even though they had more affordable products. I left with things that worked but weren't "recommended" by them because they weren't the "best". I still use the D lock I got for $60.00 and it has allowed me to lock up in Toronto, Ottawa and everywhere in between! That includes my amazing e-bike has been locked with this lock I bought many years ago (and another more expensive lock I bought recently). The helmet was great and a $40.00 model. I left, annoyed but feeling like at least I could safely ride my bike. One of my friends, though, left airing concerns more important than my sticker shock and why I didn't want to return there. She said she felt like they thought she was going to steal things. She said this was likely because she was a woman of color and that the dude was just being straight up racist. She noted that while she stayed with me and helped me pick things out - interested in maybe getting on a bike herself and trying to price things - our other friend (a white woman) wasn't followed. I acknowledged she was probably right and I didn't want to go back there if they felt that way. I apologized for putting her in a situation that made her feel weird. In retrospect, she was right and that store is just downright hostile to anyone not on a road bike spending a fortune. I went back there years later and decided the culture had not changed. This was not "one bad apple" this illustrated a widespread problem with making cycling a thing for all people - people with disabilities, people of color, people with limited means, women, LGBTQ people, etc.
I am glad to say that Specialized is attempting to change this with a new initiative which will invest in inclusivity in cycling. This is a great start but it doesn't change the culture on the ground overnight. Brands need to inquire how their representatives on the ground engage with diverse communities of people. Are shops inclusive? Do they live these values? I can say after getting to know the people at my preferred shop, this is the case (they are, in fact, a Specialized dealer). They are open to adaptive cycling and the last time I was there, I observed a family of color coming in and getting great service - the same service we got as a white family. Now, who knows if this is the constant tenor of how they help people but I can say that they have never shown me a reason to worry. There are community cycling programs which provide free and low income bikes to community members - our university even has one! But not every community is so bike-obsessed and so inclusive. When I lived in Northern Indiana, I had to drive into another time zone to find a shop that had bikes for women under 50 cm on the sales floor. We as cyclists also have to collectively decide to change our opinions and behaviors. Cycling is an overwhelmingly white and expensive sport from all the marketing and materials we see. Leading magazines do not feel like they are for all of us. Women are often left out. You almost never see a black or brown person featured in their pages. There are very few features dedicated to non-road and non-MTB riders. E-bikes are relegated to their own publications. Adaptive cycling almost never receives coverage. This is the culture we export. However, we also know that all of these different types of cycling exist - that people can use bikes as primary transportation, that bikes are for people of all colors and stripes, and that adaptive and different modes of cycling can make fitness accessible. Why are we not talking about this? Why are we not including other voices? So, if you see a person cycling on a bike that looks different from yours or you arrive at a group ride to find a new person - especially a woman or a person of color - maybe make an effort to be kind. Include them. If you are creating or helping with a group ride, have these conversations at the start of the ride and think about how you can support cyclists. If your ride is advertised as "no drop" or "slow and easy" make sure it meets the needs of all attendees. If those who want to go faster want to, that's fine but also remind them that there are lots of other rides to accommodate them and maybe that might be a better fit. If you see someone being crappy to someone on a bike that looks "different" or if you suspect someone has launched a microaggression at a rider, speak up. Don't be complicit. Live these values. Preach about how cycling is for all. Don't discount the importance of recumbent bikes or e-bikes in getting older people, people with disabilities, people pulling kids and cargo, and people getting in fitness without risk to their joints. And another thing here, ask your shop how they feel about inclusion. Look at how they treat customers. Look at the products they stock. Do they have women's frames? Do they have a variety of frames? How do they feel about e-bikes? If they are not being inclusive, put your money into a shop where they are more inclusive when possible. Think about how your money supports or does not support inclusive cycling. And for the parents out there, live these values. Don't emphasize that the only "real" cyclists are white dudes on expensive road bikes. Show kids that cyclists come in all shapes, sizes, ages, abilities, and colors. Teach them about different types of cycling. Go on a cultural adventure about how bikes are used as transportation. Talk to them about cycling in the Netherlands and bike infrastructure. Highlight cycling in the developed world - there are fascinating things to be learned about cargo bikes helping get goods to market and transport whole families where means don't allow for cars. The things I saw bikes do in Rwanda were so mindblowing! Discuss how bikes have created independence for women where it wasn't before. The culture of cycling is really broad. You are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of cycling shown in the media.