The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

A vehicle for empowerment: Twin Cities activists bring biking to all

By Hazel Schaeffer

As we rode our new bikes across the narrow footbridge over the highway with cars rushing beneath us toward the setting sun, my housemate turned to me and said, “This is freedom!”We had just purchased bikes from the Sibley Bike Depot, a non profit bike shop and community organization located on University Ave. in the Frogtown neighborhood. All the bikes they sell are donated and fixed up by volunteers. They only have two paid staff member but they have an open shop several nights a week where anyone can come in to work on their bike or practice their skills on one donated to the shop.

I hadn’t owned a bike since I was twelve but picked it up again my senior year of high school. A stereotypical New Yorker, I don’t have a driver’s license and take major issue with the Twin Cities’ Metro system. Biking seemed the perfect way to get around. I wanted to have my own bike at school but had no interest in spending $600 plus at Grand Performance. We’re in a recession.

I had first heard about Sibley my freshman year at an event focused on community organizations and social justice. I won a free helmet through a lottery, but it sat unused in my dorm room.

But this year I decided it was finally time to get a bike of my own and made my way to Sibley. A small purple hybrid bike with a $90 price tag seemed perfect. I really only use it to go from Grand Cambridge Apartments to Carnegie (.2 miles), or sometimes as far as Whole Foods (.3 miles). I’m not sure if that makes me a devoted or a pathetic biker, but I enjoy every second of the one minute rides.

I heard that Sibley had an open shop night every Tuesday for women and trans people. I decided to attend. It seemed like a great story for the Weekly. Plus, I had no idea how to attach the rack I’d recently purchased from Now Bikes and Fitness (with an all male staff) on Snelling.

According to Sibley’s website, “We offer safe hours for women and trans people who are traditionally marginalized in the bike world. No matter what your level of experience, we welcome you to come work on your own bike, help others, or volunteer time for Sibley.”

I was expecting a crowd, but there was only one other woman there besides Alicia Dvorak, a paid mechanic who staffs the open shop nights.

Equal opportunities reign at the Sibley Bike Depot

Dvorak picked out a bike and showed me how to repair it so that it could be sold. “Righty tighty, lefty loosey” was wrenched into my head. It was the first time I had ever handled tools besides a hammer or screwdriver. But Dvorak was patient and showed me how to true a wheel (so that it spins at a 90 degree angle to the ground at all times) and how to take out and replace a wire that connects the actual brake to the brake handle.

Dvorak said that Women and Trans night is well attended during the warmer months and is important because “a lot of women wouldn’t feel comfortable in an all-male bike shop.”

Sibley also has used biking to empower low-income people. Anyone can earn a bike through a program where they volunteer for a minimum of ten hours and make $7 in credit that they can apply towards used bike parts to construct their own bike from scratch.

In addition Sibley also started a Bike Library program earlier this year which lends out 200 bikes to low-income people for free through community organizations around the Twin Cities and is funded with a $200,000 federal grant.

Wanting to know more about the relationship between biking and women, I talked to Ainsley Judge ’11, a former coordinator for MacBike’s Bike Share program, a member of MacBike and a former intern at Sibley.

Judge said she saw the value in Women and Trans Night because Sibley’s regular open shop nights are “definitely a dude space. I could see that being a barrier to someone who wasn’t as confident [as me] about bikes.”

Judge noted that MacBike’s membership is a stark contrast to most bike shops.

“There are lots of women at MacBike so it’s a really supportive environment. No one knows everything. We all just know bits and pieces, so we work together to figure it out,” Judge said.

Cynthia McArthur: mechanic, educator and humanitarian

Sibley’s staff got the idea for its women and trans only classes from neighborhood woman Cynthia McArthur who won an award this year in human service from the McKnight Foundation for starting the Bikes for Clients program in 1998 at the Center for Victims of Torture.

McArthur worked as a bike mechanic in the 1970s and then as Associate Professor in Youth Development Education at the University of Minnesota Extension Service and as the director of a bicycle education grant, also at the U of M.

Before retiring, McArthur was contacted by a worker at the Center for Victims of Torture about how to procure bike helmets for its clients. The CVT provides complete physical, emotional, and social services to torture victims, many of whom are in the United States waiting for political asylum.

It was a nun who first suggested procuring bikes for the Center from rummage sales or Good Will, but the bikes were often in bad repair or didn’t fit their clients. So McArthur took over the project.

“I started doing it out of my garage, kind of on my own, after work,” she said. “At the beginning it was just a couple of social workers and twelve bikes. Then they expanded, and now its 50 bikes a year.”

McArthur sends out a form to CVT’s social workers to find out the height, weight, age and gender to help match a client to a bike.

Because of my social work skills, my views on political justice [and] my wrenching skills, I’m able to create a program that really does address the clients’ needs more than just a bike,” she said.

“When you’re [waiting for] asylum you don’t get any money and you can’t work, so you’re dependent on a community to feed you, clothe you, shelter you, and take you places,” McArthur said. She added that biking can be instrumental to the healing process, because of both the independence it allows and the opportunity for exercise and fresh air.

McArthur says she has heard tremendous positive feedback from her work. One client told her that besides receiving services at the CVT, “the only other thing I can do right now is bike.”

She recounted another man’s comments to her. He said, “I bike all over and it relieves my tension, my depression, my anxiety, but I also get to learn. I know more about this city than most people do.”

McArthur suffers from a chronic illness, and is now incapable of biking for more than a few blocks at a time. She says this volunteer work is a way to stay involved in biking, which has been a love of hers since she took a three month bike trip in Europe after college.

At one point, she says, she considered stopping her involvement with CVT because of her health issues, but a note from a client written by his social worker convinced her to stay. The man had been in a famous dictators’ jail for twelve years for his political views.

The note said: “When I ride my bike I can go north or south, east or west, for as long as I want. When I get tired I can lay in the grass and look at the sky.”

“And I thought, isn’t that why I bike, why we all bike?” McArthur said.

McArthur also said she laments the lack access to bike for other marginalized groups.

“The facilities in this town are amazingly good and getting better. So the ability to ride safely is there. Reaching people that don’t easily come into the realm of bicycling is the disempowering part right now … I would like to see more empowerment going into the disabled community. There are a lot of people with mental handicaps living in groups who would want or need to ride a bike to the bus stop, to their work, and they don’t have bikes or proper training. It would be great for their fitness or their well being… but no one has given them a bike or taught them to ride… and yet it’s a whole audience that the bike community doesn’t even

The elderly is another group missing out on biking. McArthur attributes this partially to the fact that people in bike shops are “young and tall and fast so they think that way,” and therefore have difficulty knowing how to meet other people’s needs.

Biking for the right to vote

While McArthur has used bicycling for empowerment in her own lifetime, Macalester Professor Corie Hammers, WGSS, who is teaching the class Gender and Sports this semester, noted that “the bike has been very much a tool for women’s liberation and struggle” for over a hundred years.

Biking became mainstream in the repressed Victorian Age. “The bicycle came to be for women a sign of physical mobility, empowerment and freedom. Women were taking to the streets, venturing into the public realm unaccompanied by men, and going into spaces far removed from their normal (circumscribed) routine. It was certainly seen as a threat to the social order since such movements defied what was expected of women during this time–the genteel, ‘ladylike’ (white, middle-class) woman of the Victorian Era,” Hammers said.

There was the “idea that it would break down the social order and the family unit would be destroyed,” which reveals just how revolutionary the bike was, Hammers said. It was also a morality issue, “that riding a seat … was going to arouse sexuality and desire in women.”

Biking at the turn of the twentieth century also started a dress reform movement so that women could actually bike. Bloomers, the billowing pants often seen worn in pictures of women’s rights activists, were invented for biking. They are a stark contrast to the rib-bruising, air-constricting corsets that woman had worn previously.

While biking, “Women [don’t] have any boundaries on their movement. And I think that the bicycling is about transgressing boundaries … Learning how to ride a bicycle for the first time is empowering. It’s about strength and competency and know how and taking over public space,” Hammers said.

Suffragette leader Susan B. Anthony once said that bicycling has “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Giving women the tools

McArthur has empowered torture victims, youth, and women to ride using her mechanic skills. But they weren’t easy to develop. She started working at a mom and pop bicycle shop in the 1970s after graduating college with a degree in Social Work and Political Science when there were very few women mechanics. In fact, there still are.

“I got really good at it and people would come in the bike shop and want me to fix their bikes. But initially they would say, ‘No we don’t want the girl to fix [our] bikes.’ They’d say, ‘are you the daughter of the owner?’ I couldn’t be there on my own,” McArthur said.

On the flip side, she notes, “there was a real chauvinist attitude at the shop. If there was a repair that wasn’t fun to do they [the male workers] would say, ‘Well you don’t have to do it.’ No, I did have to do it because if I wanted the legitimacy of being a true mechanic, I had to do the crap as well as the fun stuff.”

Armed with a masters degree in Experimental Education, McArthur began teaching a number of community bike classes in the 1970’s. Students came from all over the Twin Cities community, but in particular, she taught women.

She says that bike mechanic skills were not the most valuable part of the lesson, because those skills are lost if not used regularly. Teaching people how to access their bikes’ internal workings, effectively communicate its problems to mechanics, and how to hold tools was the aspect of the training which her students found most useful.

One of McArthur’s proudest moments came when a women approached her in class and said, “You know, I was able to fix my screen door because of the skills we learned last time and how I learn to use this tool.”

Where to next?

But how have the early advancements in biking for women paid off today? Women still make only 77 cents to the dollar, and over seventy percent of bikers nationally are men. Hammers noted that there is no women’s Tour de France. Considered one of the most physiologically demanding athletic events in the world, the legendary bike race is the epitome of masculinity.

“I was in a bike shop the other day getting a chain and this guy asked if I needed instructions on how to put that on and I said ‘No,'” McArthur said. “And he said ‘Are you sure?’ So I’m getting that after thirty years in the field and being very confident that I am a very good mechanic. What’s a young woman to feel when she goes in wanting to try?”

Even at Sibley, an organization dedicated to making biking accessible to people of all walks of life, there are barriers to the bike world.

Michelle Thomas ’10 has attended a few open shop nights at Sibley over the past three years. She recently went to a bike class where a volunteer was demonstrating skills, like how to tighten brakes, and then had them try it out on their own bikes.

“I was fixing my own bike and one of the guys comes over to check on me, one of the volunteers, and he starts doing it for me! And I watched him and I actually made a joke ‘Well, if you want to do it all for me…’ And he looked at me all concerned, ‘Really, you want me to do this? Don’t you want to be learning about bikes?’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m kidding, but you’re doing it all, you’ve done 90 percent of the work at this point.’ I couldn’t help but think, this happens all the time, every time I’ve ever been to a bike shop I get treated like I’m a woman, as if that means that I don’t know as much as a man would know, or I’m not as capable as fixing this on my own, I’m not strong enough to take off my own seat,” Thomas said

Sibley’s regular open shop night, which is often crowded, is usually 90 percent male.

“Sometimes I am the only women here,” Dvorak said.

A new movement called “Cycle Chic” seems to be gaining force. A September New York Times article on the trend described fashionista bikers in New York City who aim to be “pedestrians on wheels,” putting appearance before safety or, presumably, comfort. One art dealer quoted in the story claims that she prefers to wear kitten heels because they are “better to hook onto the pedals.”

I showed a copy of the Times article to Hammers.

“Given [the bicycle’s] history, that these women today are using the bicycle in part to express a particular fashion aesthetic-one that exudes a genteel, yet sexy demeanor-is somewhat unsettling. If the author of the article is correct in noting that these bicyclists look more like pedestrians on wheels, than I am not sure what to make of this. They certainly aren’t using the bicycle in a way that bespeaks empowerment and entitlement to public space-rather, it seems merely to be another instance where the bicycle is being co-opted from one of power to one of expressing ‘(hetero)femininity,’ “Hammers added in an email.

Regardless of whether the woman is wearing bloomers or “a scarlet dress with a slinky 1920s feel,” as another woman mentioned in the article was attired, biking continues to provide a sense of both literal and figurative freedom.

“I didn’t realize until I had gotten into it [her CVT work], but a bicycle is a literal thing, it’s a vehicle, it’s governed by rules, it’s something that can get you from A to B. It’s also figurative. It gives you freedom, a sense of relaxation, it makes you feel confident, be stronger, be healthier. A bicycle has this duality; it can be a vehicle to fitness and happiness and all these other things … You don’t need to go to a river, go to a rock face, take a class or join a tennis team. You can just go biking,” McArthur said.

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