The Femme Bike Mechanic

29 06 2012

Bike shop culture is changing (though not fast enough if you ask me)! No longer a boys club, women are stepping up and fixing bikes, and doing it our style.

How to spot a femme bike mechanic:

  • Purse is super heavy because it’s full of tools and tubes, you know, just in case.
  • Wardrobe is chosen on the basis of how well the clothes will hide bike grease. Skirts are chosen on the basis of how easy it would be to test ride an oversized diamond frame while wearing it.
  • When teaching people how to mount a tire, uses an analogy about pulling on tights or pantyhose if they get frustrated.

When this happens, it’s not a bother, not even a little.

  • Has a personal nail brush stashed at the shop.
  • When getting ready for a BikeWorks dance party, nail polish is chosen on the basis of how well it will camouflage the dirt under the nails.
  • Speaking of nail polish, possesses colours that were chosen to match bikes to touch up paint first, and go all matchy-matchy second.
  • Despite the above, still knows which hand cleaner’s the best.
  • Can recommend a saddle that’s actually comfortable for a woman.
  • At the salon, requests a haircut that will look good after being windblown on a bike – “My bicycle is my blow-dryer.”
  • Never scoffs at the idea of putting a chain guard, fenders, kickstand, etc. on any bike.
  • Bike shorts under skirt.
  • Gets a little irate every time someone walks into the bike shop and asks for advice from the dude she’s helping and ignores her.
  • Gets slightly more irate when greasy-handed, apron-clad, and the sole person in the shop, someone walks in and asks her where the mechanic is.
  • Knows every trick for increasing leverage but never strips a bolt.
  • Talks about spoke nipples, lube, and male and female parts without blinking.
  • Like gender pioneers in other male dominated fields, has to be twice as competent to get half the respect.

So, to all the dudely dudes out there turning wrenches, get ready, because the ladies are coming to shake up the bike shop backrooms!

A Brief Public Service Announcement on Locking Your Bike

27 05 2011

Sometimes I’ll see a poorly locked bike, and I’ll want to leave a note for its rider about how to properly secure it, but I never do because I worry that said note will attract the attention of opportunistic thieves.

Today was a little different though, because the bike in question was an ECOS bike, one of the fleet of bikes I maintain for the the University’s bike library, and guess who recently organized all the spare keys? The bike was locked over the handlebars, with a brake cable being the only thing actually securing the lock to the bike. (I forgot to take a before picture. Sorry.)

So, thanks to a spare key, let me demonstrate how to properly lock your bike:

The U-lock goes through the frame, wheel and bike rack. If this bike had a quick release back wheel, it would also need to be secured with a cable or additional lock.

Locking your wheels as well as your frame may seem like overkill, but this is campus, next to an LRT station, and the entire area is littered with bike carcasses from riders who didn’t bother to lock the wheels they wanted to keep.

In retrospect, I should've included some introductory niceties.

So I wrote the cheeky note. It turns out it wasn’t necessary because the lady who rented the bike came for it as I was leaving. I introduced myself to her and explained what I had done and why. She seemed quite surprised by the whole encounter, and I’m worried I might have scared her, even though we were both smiling by the end. Hopefully I’ll see her again when she returns the bike and we can have a laugh about the whole episode.

Shop Talk

13 12 2010

Warning: this post contains some ugly language that some folks ought to find more offensive than they do.

When I was a kid, my dad was a mechanic, and I spent many hours underfoot in his small business and workshop. I didn’t pay much attention to things mechanical back then (even though I could fill my tires with a compressor before I left elementary school), and besides the air compressor, the only other things I remember are more ephemeral like the grimy concrete floors and the smell of grease and agent orange. And the blatant misogyny, like the walls covered in Sunshine girls and calenders of scantly clad women with power tools, the ubiquitous badly stashed porn, and the never ending disparaging remarks from the guys who worked there about the women in their lives.

All of this left me with a pretty thick skin for boys’ bad behavior in workshops, even leading me to expect it. When I started frequenting the local bicycle co-op, I was just glad that the men’s club I found there was more progressive than the male dominated spaces I remember from my childhood, and tried to brush off the more subtle ways that I felt unwelcome as a female in the shop. For example, the mechanics (though this also goes for pretty much every bike shop I’ve ever been in) would always assume I didn’t know anything, and I would often just go along, buying into the myth that because they were dudes and I wasn’t that I should trust their knowledge over my own.

Another subtle way macho boys clubs exclude anyone who isn’t a macho boy is with the language they use, and unfortunately, I still hear a lot of this in the cycling community today. Need to try harder? Then “Man up!” Didn’t perform to your expectations? Then you’re a “pussy,” or maybe you “pussed out,” “don’t be such a girl,” or perhaps you’re a “sissy,” or a “fag.” Do something stupid? Then you’re a “retard.” Something’s no fun? Then it’s “lame.” Some of you may be thinking “Oh, that’s not serious, it’s just men razzing each other, they do it all the time, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s ironic, feminists have no sense of humor, etc.” Let me spell it out: when I, as a woman, hear this sort of language, it sends a direct message to me that I am not valued for my knowledge & skill, and that I am not wanted in an environment where being like a woman is seen as a detriment. The same goes for queer folks, people with disabilities, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the masculine “norm.”

Boys, the English language is rich and deep, and I think you’ll find there are many ways to engage your competitive spirits without disparaging whole groups of people. You may even find that when you stop behaving like macho stereotypes, people who aren’t macho dudes may be more interested in spending time with you. For bike culture to progress beyond a subcultural fringe, we need to be far more cognizant of how our behavior and the way we communicate creates barriers to the very folk we are trying to win over.

Two years ago, EBC joined in an experiment that has already been running at many bike co-ops across North America and established days when, twice a month,  men aren’t allowed in the shop.

Women & Transgendered peoples' day at Edmonton Bicycle Commuters.

I have helped run these days since the beginning. I do it because I don’t see bike culture changing fast enough away from being a macho boys club. I spend every second Sunday wrenching because I want to know what its like to work in a shop not dominated by testosterone. I do it because the only female hands that have ever worked on any of my bikes are my own, and I don’t want to see another generation of girls grow up thinking that a penis is required equipment for holding a wrench or becoming competent in anything mechanical.

Please don’t misconstrue this rant as painting all men with the same brush, or equating maleness with something negative. I don’t know what I’d do without all the thoughtful, supportive, feminist men in my life, and I’ve been privileged to witness so much positive change in the bicycle scene in the last decade. I’m writing this because we still have far to go and because there are still a small but vocal minority of men who think it’s OK to say and do misogynist BS, especially within a male dominated space. Mostly, I’m writing this in the hopes that the men who hear it and are uncomfortable with it won’t leave it to the only woman in the room to call out chauvinism when it happens.

There’s Something About Marjory

31 08 2010

Marjory Stewart Baxter is a 1982, Canadian built Raleigh Lenton that was rescued from a dumpster and resuscitated by some old friends, who left her to me when they moved away. She was always a sweet bike, but when I replaced her rusty steel wheels with modern alloy rims something magical happened, and she became as zippy as a roadbike while still comfy as a cruiser. She’s still my favorite bike (even if she’s not the one I ride most), and anyone else who rides her instantly falls in love.

Lately though, she’s been giving me some trouble. It started one night at the local bicycle co-op while I was teaching a bicycle maintenance course. I was getting all the participants to check their chains and drivetrains for wear, and it just so happened that out of 8 bicycles, not a single one had any chain stretch. Being unable to remember how long it had been since I’d changed Marjory’s chain, I wheeled her out, knowing I could probably demonstrate what some chain wear looked like. In front of the class, I embarrassed myself by pulling the chain completely off the teeth of the crank – so according to what I’d just told everyone, that means that I’d likely need a complete drivetrain replacement that could’ve been prevented by changing the chain before it got so stretched. Bad mechanic.

I threw a new chain on that night, but it was several links shorter than the old one, and it quickly became apparent that the freewheel was also worn beyond repair, so I replaced it as well. The ride seemed better, until she started throwing off the chain, which would then get jammed between the chain ring and the chain guard and have to be forcefully pulled out.

Oh Marjory, sweet and difficile, why must I get so dirty to ride you so prettily.

After this happened twice in one ride (number of dudes who asked if I needed help while I was unjamming the chain: two), I decided that I was going to return to EBC and not leave until I remedied whatever was causing Marjory’s distress. As it turned out, my next opportunity was going to be after I taught another bike maintenance class.

That day, I packed up a smorgasbord of tools for the class’s benefit and set off on my daily commute only to be interrupted by a flat tire. What’s most surprising about a flat is how few (like, one) I’ve had this summer. Luckily, I had all the tools I’d ever need (though I had the wrong spare tube with me – oops) in my pink tool bag.

Number of dudes who asked me if I needed help while I was waiting for the vulcanizing solution to dry: three. There were also a couple of other dudes who approached me like they were going to offer assistance and then backed off when they saw me spin off the axle nuts with one continuous motion and remove the tire with a flick of the lever and a single pull, respectively. Is it the skirt? Sure, cyclists are pretty awesome and look out for each other and I’ve certainly helped and offered help to many strangers, myself. But, the same day, when another dude’s wheel spontaneously taco’ed at the finale of Critical Mass, he didn’t get anywhere near this outpouring of help, even in the middle of a large group of cyclists. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from offering help when they see someone who looks like they need it, but would those dudes have perceived another man changing a flat, with a complete set of tools, in as much need of assistance as girly me?

To avoid the common mistake (when fixing a flat) of applying the patch before the vulcanizing solution is dry, I tell people to do something else, like have a snack & a drink or chat with riding companions, rather than watching glue dry. On this day, I took pictures and told well-meaning dudes I didn't need any help.

Honestly, some days I get a kick out of messing with people’s preconceptions and playing up the femme bike mechanic thing, but some days I just get fed up with people assuming I know nothing about something I do quite well, based solely on my sex. Even though this was turning into one of the latter sort of gender-warrior-grind days, I want to make it clear I’m extremely grateful for all the kind people who offered to help a stranger. What’s bothering me is how the perception of gender can be the only difference between “mechanic fixing bike” and “damsel in distress” to a stranger’s eyes.

Marjory, one bell adjustment from being ready to roll.

Patching and reassembling Marjory was no problem at all, and I was back on the road with little lost time (but very dirty hands – though that’s what the small vial of the magical green powder called Worx in the tool bag is for, at least as soon as I could find a bicycle accessible washroom).

Later that night, as the midnight hour approached in a surprisingly bustling bicycle co-op, I realigned her derailleur and lengthened her chain, and she was once again reborn as my best bike ever. Here’s to many more marvelous miles on Marjory.