Bike Focals: How do we correct cycling’s vision problem?

I used to have this happy little theory that time on a bicycle bestowed special powers. Like some radioactive spider bite, biking could magically flatten our tummies, deepen our lungs and beef our hearts and quads.

And (most significantly) biking could sharpen our eyes.

In cycling, it pays to see what’s coming. (Photo, bikerumor.com)

Riding gravel improved our perception, I believed, by making it cool to explore. Cool to feel wonder.

Most gravel rides with friends include the sentence: Well, would you look at that? And gravel riders will naturally coast so as to do that close looking. We’re cattle gawkers, deer admirers. Sky enthusiasts. We practice seeing such things as creek beds and farmsteads and thunderheads, the wind and its mills.

Would you look at that sky? (Photo, Hannes Thirion)

Holy buckets, the things we learn with our biked-up eyes. We learn that the shape and gloss of cottonwood leaves, for instance, make them uniquely twitchy on their stems and shiny in their sun. And this special combination of tremble and sheen can out a cottonwood at 500 yards–if you know how to look for that particular treasure of pale coins blinking in the sun.

Eastern cottonwoods do their pretty blinking thing by the water. (Photo, homestratosphere.com)

I got in the habit of congratulating myself for this nifty noticing. And I looked for more and more places to try out my new and improved biker vision.

“I used to be … sort of blind. Now I can … sort of see.” Bill Callahan, “Rococo Zephyr,” 2009 (Photo, KUTX Austin)

Sure enough, there was plenty more to notice as my rides circled back into town. Swap the rows of corn for lines of Lincoln vehicles, and I could even see my own feminism in that different light of a pickup’s high beams.

Biking in traffic, I’ve felt (for seconds at a time, anyway) what it’s like to try and move inside a potentially dangerous system built for someone else’s convenience.

I’m OK. It’s fine. This is fine. (Photo, bikeroar.com)

While I’ve dodged it so far, the threat of violence out here is pretty well paved. I’ve ducked a couple chucked bottles (both times, mostly-full Mountain Dews) and heard the gunned engines of men determined to beat me to the crosswalk. (You win, fellas.)

I don’t imagine there’s research on the correlation of loving Mountain Dew and hating cyclists, but it matches my lived experience… (Photo, BMEzine.com)

Like many (most?) of you, I know people who’ve been hit, killed. And I’ve heard the talk that inevitably follows–with a particular kind of blaming that women will recognize.

Well, was he wearing all black? What business did he have riding at that time of night? Why didn’t he just stay on one of those bike trails taking over everywhere? Why, just yesterday (well, it wasn’t yesterday, but one time) I saw a guy completely ignore a red light and just go...

Women will also recognize that far more common, less visceral experience: Unwanted Attention. Back before the vaccine, Pete and I clomped into a tiny Minnesota town’s tiny gas station. Our helmeted arrival stopped whatever conversation the station’s coffee-drinking farmers had been having. And they watched us buy our Cokes.

Rolling out, Pete asked me, “What you figure they were staring at: Our spandex or our masks?”

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Two dudes in spandex walk into a small-town gas station… (Photo, heraldnet.com)

Now, there’s nothing special in any my on-the-bike experiences. Anyone who rides much, male or female, can rattle off almost-identical instances: Folks looking at you like you have two heads. Or not seeing you at all. Or seeing you only as in their way. Or maybe kinda sorta wishing they could just slightly run you over with a truck. And you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to untangle the parallels here in women’s everyday lives.

It’s the ubiquity of these experiences that let my vision trouble kick back in. Instead of seeing the problem more clearly, I think I’ve just blindly assumed that male cyclists must all kind of get it by now. That the venom cyclists receive from drivers must surely give us an ounce of perspective on the greater misogyny and knuckleheadedness that the women in our sport and in our lives have to deal with. Every. Huffing. Day.

Then I get on social media and realize how ungodly mistaken I am.

If you can’t see the problem … check your glasses. (Photo, liv-cycling.com)

I want to transcribe for you a March 8 Twitter thread by @DrTCombs:

“A few weeks ago I quietly changed my profile pic to show a nondescript white male, riding away on a bicycle. I also removed my she/her pronouns from my bio. Today on #InternationalWomensDay I changed it back.

“I live in three very male-dominated spaces: transportation, bicycling, and academia. I’m rarely able to tweet about any of those topics without receiving replies & R/Ts that range from mansplaining to outright threatening.

“Just about every time I demonstrate any sort of expertise in any of these topics, I can expect to need to follow up with multiple blocks and reports of accounts I’ve never heard of. Y’all, it sucks.

“But when I removed the obvious female markers from my profile, everything instantly changed. One innocuous thread about interactions with drivers garnered 1148 likes and 133 retweets, a podcast invitation, and importantly only a single ‘well actually’ reply.

“The rest of my tweets during that time had similar, if less viral, responses. Over the course of the month I got 109 new followers and zero harassing or threatening replies, R/Ts, or @s. ZERO.

“It made a huge difference on me, emotionally. I felt lighter, freer, much more welcome to speak my mind in the virtual spaces I occupy when I was being perceived as a man instead of a woman. For the first time, I felt like the expert my friends & colleagues say I am.

“I’m not a gender scholar, but I can attest first hand that online gender-based harassment is real, hurtful, and dangerous. Please: learn how to recognize it, call it out, and knock it off.”

Her thread made me think of a tweet I’d seen a couple days earlier by a sportswriter (@robynjournalist) who had the gall to possess a sense of humor and a uterus at the same time.

Enter the hordes of humorless middle-aged cycling men who explained to sweet little Robyn that what Tadej Pogacar was doing was actually a very common on-the-bike stretch for cyclists with lower back pain. And if she only watched the sport more closely, or if she had been around as long as they had, well, surely she would know this.

Her self-deprecating humor was lost on these men, probably because they saw deprecating her as their job, not hers. She took their condescension better than I would have (“yes I’m a cycling journalist who has never watched the Tour de France”), probably because it didn’t surprise her.

Well, it surprised me because I’m evidently still a little blind to this brand of bullshit.

But I’ll say this to the men I ride with, and the men who stumble onto this little B-road of a cycling blog. You can reap all the special powers that cycling bestows. The tiny waist and the monster thighs. You can give yourself a resting heart rate that starts with a 3 and an FTP that starts with a 4. But if you can’t see the problem of how we treat women in this sport, or if you lack the vision to make even marginal gains against it, you are wasting your time.

Now, I’m not sure whether the men who most need to hear it will ever read this far in. But maybe one or two of us are still here. And maybe there’s stuff in our past that we’re starting to look at differently now. Jokes that maybe weren’t so funny. Or some folks who deserved better than what we dealt them. Maybe a lot of folks, when we really stop and look.

If you’re seeing it in a new way and feeling like a turd, that’s OK for a while. Maybe you’ve avoided thinking about feminism or calling yourself a feminist in the past because you think it would mean feeling like that turd forever. It won’t. We’re endurance athletes. We can ride through the tough parts.

The early feminist author (can we just call her an author?) Doris Lessing described grappling with this guilt. “Oh the sad bleeding corpses that litter the road to emotional maturity for the wise, serene man or woman of fifty-odd! You simply don’t get to be wise, mature, etc., unless you’ve been a raving cannibal for thirty years or so.”

Doris Lessing in her raving cannibal phase. She’d go on to win the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature for being a total bad ass. (Photo, National Portrait Gallery, London)

Little in this life is more hopeful or more promising than simply having vision enough to see a problem. Then all we need is just enough courage to change a little bit at a time. Lessing called it “a small painful sort of courage which is at the root of every life” and “the small endurance that is bigger than anything.”


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