Even disregarding my appalling spandex and the mysterious plastic and foam object on my head, I bike in a way that would have horrified most late-nineteenth century lady cyclists. They would have looked askance at how I tend to hunch over my handlebars and called me a “scorcher” as they shook their heads. Many people disapproved of men scorching, but it was generally considered completely unacceptable for women to hunch over their handlebars.
During the 1880s and 1890s, men’s bicycles tended to have lower handlebars than women’s. Racing bikes, which were generally men’s bicycles, had particularly low bars, known as drop bars, which are still used today. Some women, even those who did not race, no doubt preferred to lean over their handlebars for increased speed and wind resistance, but they were roundly criticized. Fast riding was for men who rode seriously, while a woman was meant to ride in a stately manner at all times. Of course, some women did race bicycles and preferred drop bars, but racing for women was largely discouraged.
Women who rode tricycles and bicycles were encouraged to sit up straight. For women, good posture was associated with appearing feminine and elegant while cycling. In 1898, one writer wrote in the British magazine The Wheelwoman:
We are sorry. . . to notice an increase in the number of wheelwomen who ride with a pronounced bicycle stoop. This is a matter for regret, not merely because it is fatal to dignity and good looks, but because it indicates a desire of the part of a few woman to use the bicycle for speed, which is likely to turn it from an instrument of health to a means of peril.
That is, it was not only unappealing, it was bad for women’s health to exert themselves too much!
At least today, women are not as likely to be criticized for riding fast and even racing, although women’s racing does not receive nearly as much attention as men’s. Still, it is generally understood that the most “feminine” way to ride is in a dress while sitting up very straight. I am a bit conflicted about this as I sometimes ride in dresses because sometimes I am riding dressed up for my destination.
Up until quite recently, I didn’t have a bike that was really meant to be ridden while wearing a skirt, and my only women specific bike was a hardtail mountain bike, which I use for riding trails almost exclusively. Then suddenly, I acquired a Trek Chelsea District*, which has a mixte frame. Public Bikes offers a handy guide on different frame types. Both men and women can and do ride mixte frames, but mine is sold as a women’s specific design, so it is designed to better fit women’s proportions (more on women’s specific design in a future post).
Both of my other commuter bikes (a Salsa Casseroll and Trek Earl) have a more aggressive geometry, which means the bike has lower handlebars. Neither bikes are in any way meant for racing, but they are a bit more aerodynamic than the Chelsea. I never had much interest in a women specific city bike. Really, it is my husband’s fault for getting a similar bike for his very short commute and then deciding that I should have one too.
As it turns out, though, the Chelsea is an excellent city bike. It has a basket with a place to hang a U-lock! I sit up straight so it is easier on my back. Also, I can sit up and look around much more easily, making cityscapes quite enjoyable. Now, I have no intention of giving up on other types of bikes, but there is something pleasant about riding upright on occasion, as it turns out. However, I prefer to think of myself as stately– a gender neutral term– rather than lady-like.
*Full disclosure: My brother-in-law works for Trek, but I have no affiliation to Trek and this bike was purchased at a local bike shop.