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Women’s-Only Bike Shops Serve Ladies Who Wrench

A woman in a cog print T-shirt leads cyclists to a space where other riders are waiting to begin a free after-hours repair class hosted by a volunteer mechanic. People stand poised with wrenches next to upturned bikes. Some have brought new tires to fit.

But this is no ordinary mechanics class. The workshop, hosted by nonprofit bike group Grease Rag, is not for men.

“There is a feeling that it is OK for men to learn these kinds of things, whereas for women it is less OK,” said Laura Kling, a Grease Rag facilitator. “Here, we have patience and humility. We share our experiences, what we are most proud of on our bikes. It is an atmosphere of support.”

Laura Kling demonstrates a repair technique for a grease Rag attendee.

Amelia Smith demonstrates a repair technique for a Grease Rag attendee. (Photo from Laura Kling/Grease Rag)

Grease Rag, based in Minneapolis, runs six ladies-only workshops across four shops. It organizes a variety of social events, group rides and bike camping trips. The workshops provide free education in bike mechanics and space for women to work on their bikes after normal shop hours in a friendly environment.

When Kling started attending Grease Rag, her social life and cycling experience changed completely. Before, she was intimidated about learning how to be self-sufficient on her bike, since the classes she attended were usually filled by men with some prior mechanical knowledge. When her friend, mechanic Erin Durkey, began teaching Kling repair skills after work, they realized that being taught by another woman could inspire more female cyclists to start learning about their bikes.

Grease Rag is one of several workshops nationwide that now cater specifically to female cyclists. In the past few years, classes run by female mechanics and facilitators have started up across the nation as women cyclists seek to give their peers more opportunity to learn about their bikes and acquire new skills.

Women account for only one-third of cyclists in the U.S., according to the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals. In an effort to understand why the numbers were so low, the association surveyed 13,000 women in 2010 to find out what would help them to get in the saddle. Aside from convenience, women said they wanted bike- and women-friendly places where they could feel a sense of community among the like-minded.

And they are finding it. Women-only clubs are welcoming increasing numbers, and bike shops are noticing a difference in their customer base. In the past year, sales of equipment designed especially for women jumped by 13 percent and demand is increasing year over year, said a spokeswoman for Trek Bikes, a leading manufacturer.

Tapping into the growing market, many stores have recently started running women-only workshops, following demand from local female cycling clubs, such as Magic City Chix.

Set up in 2011 by Kim Cross, Magic City Chix now has more than 600 members. Lack of confidence on the road alone is one of the greatest barriers to women riding, said Cross. Through the Birmingham, Ala.-based club, women learn how to look after their bikes while on the road.

“It is so empowering when you know how to fix a chain or what to do when you have a flat,” said Cross. “It’s really not that hard, but most women just haven’t done it. And fear of the unknown is greater than the level of challenge than they would face.”

Bike Link, a Birmingham bike shop, hosted the Chix’s “Wine, Wenches and Wrenches” evenings last year. Using the guise of a social event to break the ice, shop mechanics taught members about their bikes and common repair techniques in an environment more akin to a wine and cheese night than a chaotic bike shop. At the last class, ladies learned how to change tires and oil their chains properly.

By demystifying these techniques, women don’t need to rely on another person for help if they run into problems on a ride.

“The lesson made us feel more empowered to fiddle with things without fearing that we’d ‘mess them up,’” said Cross.

Other women’s clubs, such as the Velo Vixens in Gainesville, Fla., adopted the Chix’s model after being inspired by the success of “Wine, Wenches and Wrenches.”

After taking classes, women feel they can go on longer rides and explore new and more challenging routes, said Lauren Streifel, a Velo Vixen organizer. Even beginners feel more comfortable since it’s likely that someone in the group has the skills to keep everyone safe and on track.

Biking gives women a sense of freedom totally different from driving a car for the first time, said new Velo Vixen Michelle Budny. Previously reliant on her car to get around, Budny is now hoping to start exploring the city on her bike instead.

For cyclists who are mothers, more have started cycling with their kids to school as their confidence has grown.

“There is a silly little adage: give a women a bike and she will change the world,” said mountain bike trainer Tania Juillerat, who lives in Indianapolis. “She is teaching her friends, teaching her children and the next generation.”

Juillerat motivated Cross to start Magic City Chix after she attended one of Juillerat’s mountain biking workshops. Like Cross, Juillerat is a mother and rides regularly with her 11- and 3-year-old children. If Juillerat couldn’t do simple repairs like fix a chain, she said she wouldn’t feel comfortable taking her kids along.

Being able to have fun without worrying about your safety, or that of your fellow riders, safety is key to getting more women riding, she said.

“All of us have been in a situation where if we didn’t know how to change a flat we would have ended up in trouble,” said Cross. “If you can do it, it does wonders for your confidence. And that confidence carries back over into the rest of your life. You feel like you can handle anything.”

Email:  chc2149@columbia.edu

Updated March 1: The photo caption has been corrected to note that the woman demonstrating repair techniques is Amelia Smith, another Grease Rag facilitator, and not Laura Kling.
February 18, 2013