Women’s Bicycles (part 1)

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Image from an 1889 advertisement for a ladies’ safety bicycle, Note the drop-frame (also known as a step-through frame), chain guard, and skirt guard, Via Wikimedia Commons

 

Today, one might think of the term “women’s bicycle” in a couple of different ways. Casual riders may think of women’s bicycles based primarily on appearance. Although many men also ride drop-frame (step-through) or mixte frame bicycles, at least in the United States, they often are thought of as women’s bikes because they allow the rider to wear a skirt more easily than a diamond-frame bicycle. This understanding of masculine and feminine bicycles dates back a long time.

 

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Peugeot Mixte, Via Wikipedia

 

However, there are also performance bicycles designed with women in mind. Women’s Specific Design (or WSDTM as Trek calls them) are meant to fit average female proportions better than other bicycles. As a side note, there is an inherent problem with thinking of bicycles as “normal” bicycles and women specific bicycle’s, rather than as men specific bicycles and women specific bicycles, but more on that later.

 

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Women’s velocipede. Note that it has a seat instead of a saddle.

 

Since the very earliest bicycles- velocipedes- manufacturers have developed bicycles for women. For women who rode velocipedes, there were early drop frames, which allowed for shortened skirts over bloomers. Women’s velocipedes had seats, while men’s had saddles, which had more to do with propriety than a deep understanding of how anatomical differences might affect comfort.

In 1885, the Rover, which some argue is the first modern safety bicycle was introduced at the British bicycle exhibition known as the Stanley Show. In 1887, Dan Albone introduced the first women’s safety bicycle known as the “Anfield Ivel.” The first mass-produced women’s safety bicycle, made the Starley brothers, who also invented the rover, hit the market in 1889.

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Two women with bicycles, c. 1895. Via oldbike.eu

 

The first women’s bicycles were designed to accommodate a woman in skirts. Some women did dress in knickerbockers or other modified costumes that allowed them to ride a diamond frame, but it was not the norm. Drop-frame bicycles had disadvantages. They had less structural integrity and thus tended to be heavier than men’s bicycles. Women riding in long skirts were forced to add accessories like heavy chain guards in order to ride safely. Still, specialized women’s bicycles contributed to making bicycling acceptable. They allowed women to wear skirts and also did not force women to straddle a bar, which had sexual connotations. Additionally, their heavier weight made it hard to ride very quickly, which was considered unfeminine.

In a later (post-vacation) entry, I’ll discuss modern women’s bicycles and why there is much more to them than being able to ride them in skirts. Indeed, for performance bicycles, skirts don’t come into the picture at all.

 

In defense of spandex

Over several years of reading mainstream articles about cycling, I’ve noticed a tendency for writers for criticize cyclists for wearing spandex. Henry Jeffreys, a cyclist who has worn spandex in the past stated (presumably somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that it’s “bad for the soul.” Certainly, spandex cycling clothes are not the most flattering, but does one always have to look good when exercising?

I often care about looking good while biking. I was rather mortified on my first date – a road ride- with my now husband when I saw that I was wearing spandex and he was not. Generally, If my main purpose for going on a ride is to get somewhere, then I’ll usually dress for my destination more than my mode of transit, although bicycling does tend to put a damper on wearing silk. My commute is only two miles, so I bike in whatever it is that I’m planning to wear that day, which might consist of a dress or a blouse with a skirt or narrow pants. When I ride to work, I also tend to ride my upright bike with platform pedals so I don’t even need to change my shoes.

For many people, casual riding (or even less casual riding) in every day clothes may work perfectly well. Much of the time, I’m happy to throw on whatever and bike. However, spandex cycling clothing serves a purpose. Well, it can serve several purposes, but I’m not here to argue for or against wearing team kits when not racing or whether or not riding covered in logos is problematic. I’d argue that it’s main purpose is comfort, and regardless of how silly it may look, it certainly succeeds at being comfortable.

As much as I don’t especially enjoy standing around in padded shorts, a chamois really does make a huge difference on longer rides. I have regretted most rides over about 15 miles when I haven’t worn cycling shorts, and yes, that includes longer rides on my cruiser. I don’t especially care about jokes about spandex. Trust me, I get that bib shorts look silly, but I am troubled by the animosity towards cyclists, which seems to be magnified when cyclists wear spandex. I also realize that on the internet one can find someone who hates pretty much anything imaginable, so I try not to read to much into it, but here I go, reading into it.

Understandably, people associate cyclists who ride very fast regardless of context with spandex, but I’ve seen people do absurd and dangerous things on bicycles wearing all kinds of clothes (never a ballgown, but I’ll let you know if that ever happens). But this association between cyclists in spandex and biking like a jerk does not necessarily reflect reality.

Jeffreys wrote that it’s more common for Lycra-clad male cyclists to act like maniacs, and that it’s rare to see women who aren’t racing wearing Lycra. His statement is at least anecdotally accurate, but I don’t really think it’s their tight clothing that’s the problem. I also see plenty of women riding in spandex, although it’s true that most of us aren’t wearing team kits. Certainly, I’d love to see more women, perhaps myself included, joining racing teams, but that’s tangential for the moment.

Not being part of a team, my spandex cycling apparel is admittedly a bit visually quieter than that the costumes worn by your average male road rider. Yet, it’s functionally pretty much the same: the shorts protect me from discomfort and the jersey allows me to carry objects without having to load down my road bike. Unlike when I ride in a skirt, I don’t have to worry as much about my clothing staying in place.

Without conducting research, I can’t say why many cyclists choose spandex. I’d hazard a guess, however, that many people would say that when going on long rides, it’s the best choice because it’s more comfortable and practical than any other option.