On Being the “Bike Lady”

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I embraced the title of “Bike Lady” as soon as the words left the 10-year-old’s mouth.  He pedaled to the community shop looking for help with his brakes.  “Hey, Bike Lady!”  Most of the kids never really bothered to learn my name, but that’s cool, ’cause I could never remembered their names, either.

Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth about all those other gendered descriptors forced upon me.  Never quite felt right about “woman,” and “girl” is a bit of a stretch for this 29-year-old.  Titles of Ms. versus Miss, and the dreaded “girlfriend”?  Don’t get me started.  (They all give me the heebie-jeebies.)  But “Bike Lady”?  That’s something I can get behind.

I am currently the only “woman” working as a mechanic in my [rather large] local shop.  And I’m one of … three? … four? professional lady techs that I know of in Madison, versus at least 100 dudes.  We generally hear about each other because of the novelty of such a thing; news spreads through the cycling community almost as fast as wheels can fly.  It was kind of funny when I first met a fellow lady mechanic new to town: “So YOU’RE Sarah Tops!  The only girl mechanic in Madison!”  I soon discovered a third lady tech also associated with my shop.  Suffice it to say: It’s nice to find more ladies wrenching on bikes for a living.

Being a female-bodied bike mechanic can be challenging at times.  Although Madison is a pretty progressive town, I still get the patriarchs who don’t realize that they’re being kind of offensive. In my experience, the icky comments almost always come from customers.  Just two weeks ago, I had an older gentleman come in, innocently aghast to see a woman behind the service counter.  “Wow!  A woman bike mechanic!”  I get this a lot, and some days I love it, some days I hate it, and the difference is all in the unspoken body languages.  The customer offered me his bent wheel.  When I broke the bad news to him that his wheel was “totaled” and that he’d need to replace it, he looked me in the eye and asked me, “How long have you been a mechanic?”  Uhhh… five years professionally, dude, so I friggin’ know when a wheel needs replacing, thankyouverymuch.  My coworker that night, a male sales associate, was watching the exchange and stepped in to agree with me that the wheel indeed needed replacing.

I don’t get too bummed out, because it’s usually older men that say this kind of stupid shit, and I don’t blame them personally for having grown up in a very different era with mentors who reinforced degrading gender stereotypes.  I’m kind of proud that I can amaze them with my greasy, estrogen-fueled presence.  Plus, I get the benefit of adding their behaviors to my growing list of stories.  I get a little more irritated when the comments come from women.  In fact, if my memory serves me right, I think it was a lady who insisted on working with a male mechanic one day at the non-profit shop I managed.  Part of my job duties at that shop was to train our young coworkers in mechanics, so I was constantly helping them do bike repairs and answering their questions.  When the customer went to our newest hire for help “from a man,” the teen kinda shrugged and said, “I don’t know; you’ll have to talk to Sarah — she’s the mechanic.”

There’s also the times I’ve been hit on at the shop, which is generally a nuisance, and even more a nuisance when you see older male customers hitting on the teenaged employees.  That’s just gross.  However, the time I was hit on because a man was admiring my leg hair was an even mixture of gross and HILARIOUS, especially because he offered to drive me around in his expensive vintage Cadillac.

The good news is that I’ve had a blast working with a lot of the dudes at the shops I’ve been involved with.  Most men are actively supportive of women in the bike industry, and I feel as though I’ve been treated fairly as a fellow collective member, employee, coworker, and manager.  The non-profit shop I worked at was MAJORITY female (although the tech department was almost wholly male), and I thrived in that environment. Many men have taken the time to train and mentor me in bike repair, customer service, parts-buying, managing, and community organizing.  I wonder what it would have been like to have learned this stuff from non-dudes, which is why I’m working hard on becoming that role-model for the next crop of lady and trans* bike mechanics and shop owners.

Working in a male-dominated space, the parts that make me wince is the off-handed comments or distasteful jokes that affect me not as a mechanic, but as a female-bodied person.  It’s the kind of crap you hear from dude-bros everywhere: fat-phobia, obsessing over women and sex, the occasional gay joke, and, yes, a fair amount of cock jokes.  (Okay, I will admit that I like a good cock joke … when appropriate.  Which is admittedly tricky.)  These comments are not all that common in the cycling circles I’ve been involved with, but they do persist.  Sometimes they catch me out of nowhere, like last night, which may have spurred me to get off my ass and finally write this blog post.  Two coworkers and I were getting ready to close up shop, casually discussing female mechanics.  “We used to have two full-woman mechanics.”  I asked what he meant by “full-woman,” thinking it had something to do with weight and gesturing to my belly.  He answered by gesturing to his invisible breasts, making a comment that a trans-woman tech was not “full” woman, as if erasing her existence and her struggles!  I exclaimed something along the lines of “Oh!” and stuttered something in defense, but we were all distracted with closing, and I was confused because I really like the guy who just spewed utter SHIT out of his mouth.  Twenty hours later, I am still kicking myself for not making it more a point to call out this trans-phobic, sexist bullcrap.  As I edit this post a week later, I feel like I missed my chance.  But I’m SO prepared for that next comment that comes up, and I’m going to kick some metaphorical ass.

Which brings me to my next point within the scope of “Being a Bike Lady:” Being One of the Guys.  It’s a skill that I’ve grown quite good at, I think.  I spent most of my life hanging out with dudes, except for that awkward-makeup-and-padded-bras stage in junior high.  A tom-boy, you could say.  Perhaps my close relationships with boys and men have allowed me the privileges and abilities to comfortably take up space in male-dominated places, … and have allowed men to occasionally feel comfortable enough to make stupid sexist remarks around me.  I tend to be pretty confident and straightforward, which helps me put up with a lot of shit.

If you look at mass media and dominant culture, there are a million reasons why we don’t see more women in the bike industry.  First off, Park Tools don’t come in pink!  Okay, so that was a joke, but, honestly, toys marketed to girls are never toolsets; they’re play kitchens and baby dolls.  When you google-image-search “woman mechanic,” half the hits you get are soft-core porn.  And do you know how fucking hard it is to find a decent pair of women’s work pants?  Like, actual work pants, not the kind you wear as a waitress at Applebee’s.

I guess what I’m trying to say that bike shops are still full of testosterone and the occasional machismo that shines through, which is why there aren’t many of us Bike Ladies out there.  We’re headed on a good trajectory, though, as more and more women step forward as leaders in the bike world.  And I have crushes on all of them.

To end, let me explain why I like “Bike Lady,” because I know you’re all dying to know.  First off, the term is a collision of macho and femme: the greasy, gritty, uncontrollable bicycle; and the delicate, playful, prim-and-proper female.  If you know me, you know I like collisions.  Secondly, “lady,” to my complex brain, is a word I associate with gender play.  The term “lady” is often thrown around in burlesque and drag scenes and used by feisty feminists, playing up femininity and the power of choosing femininity to express oneself.  Every day, I feel like I’m playing out gender, and so “lady” seems a better fit than “woman” and the myth of some kind of shared “sisterhood.”  Thirdly, “Bike Lady” reminds me of all those sweetly mischievous kids who wanted to learn how to fix their bikes, and they’re a part of strong memories that I carry with me as inspiration and guidance.

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4 thoughts on “On Being the “Bike Lady”

  1. Reblogged this on Spoke Haven and commented:
    We wanted to re-blog this post by our friend Sarah Rogers. She’s a local bike mechanic and her experience of being a “Bike Lady”.

    A quote of hers was recently featured in the Atlantic Cities article, ‘Is There Such a Thing as a “Feminine” Way to Ride a Bike?’
    After you’re done reading this, head over to the Atlantic Cities site to get other women’s perspectives in the cycling world.

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