The Vagenda

On Yer Bike: Sustrans’ Cycling Tips for Girls were Practically Victorian

I’ve lived in London for just over two years, and have cycled here the entire time. I love my bike, which is currently a rusty old Puch with no gears and a broken seat. It’s kind of a piece of crap that I paid too much for, but it’s my piece of crap, and its freedom is priceless. So no, Mr White Van Man, I will not ride whatever else you’re offering me, ta.

I read cycling charity Sustrans’ “cycling tips for women” with disappointment and flaming irritation. The tips are not only patronising and sexist but offer nothing practical. Tips include, but are not limited to carrying a comb because your hair is a mess and you’re ugly, wearing leggings under one’s skirt to protect one’s modesty (you hussy!) and wearing waterproof mascara in case the strain of going up a hill makes you cry and then you’ll look ugly.

As another blogger put it: ‘you patronising bellends, you pissing cockdumpling morons…hair and makeup advice is not effing safety advice’.

Sustrans have now removed their original blogpost and replaced it with a right-on article about why women don’t cycle as a way of justifying their emphasis on appearance (apparently a MASSIVE 8% worry about not looking hot while in transit,m so it’s obvi a massive problem). Clearly their PR department has had a mare because they’re now backpedaling furiously on Twitter (though I can’t seem to see an apology anywhere, tbh). Lol. Here’s what the original post had to say:

What to wear:

“For shorter skirts, wearing tights, leggings or shorts underneath will keep your modesty intact.”

Or instead, y’know, wear whatever the hell you want. Even the Telegraph managed to be more progressive than Sustrans on this:

‘In mainland Europe, where cycles have been part of the general cityscape for decades, people adapt their cycles and their speed to suit what they’re wearing rather than the other way round. Instead of racing to work on a road bike as many do in London, they ride in exactly what they put on that morning. Sites such as make it plain that on a bike with a skirt-guard and a step-through frame, it’s perfectly possible to pedal across town with stilettos, two children and several large items of kitchen furniture.’ 

Well, ish. 

Mostly, I cycle in brightly coloured mini skirts because that’s what I like to wear off the bike and, because life isn’t like GCSE French (Je vais a l’ecole en velo, miss) my mode of transport does not define me, at all. 

And for the record, I don’t really care about my so-called modesty, because I’m not a sodding Victorian lady who’s been told to cycle side-saddle or that riding a bike will ruin my ‘feminine organs of matrimonial necessity’’. It’s like you’re trying to get me in a corset and bloomers (back then deemed appropriate cycling wear). 

If I’m wearing a pair of leggings under my dress, how would I be able to stand up on my pedals as I’m zooming my way down Rosebery Avenue, airing my fanny to the wind, laughing “look at my butt!” to the snooty commuters I’ve left behind? It’s like my favourite thing. 

Sometimes I do cycle in trousers. I like to tuck the ends into my socks so I feel like a pirate (an unfulfilled fantasy) and it is awesome. 

“Waterproof trousers aren’t sexy”, say Sustrans. So? You might meet someone cute at a stop light, sure. If they turn you down because of your waterproofs then they’re not worth what’s under them. 

Staying “fresh” and “beautiful”:

“Take some cleansing wipes and deodorant with you”.
Gee, thanks, I swear my deodorant was magnetically locked in my bathroom like a Morrisons trolley in an out-of-town shopping complex.
No one wants to smell like a compost bin, but we’re grown-ups now and I think most of us have got this personal hygiene thing covered.

“You can remove [your vest] once you arrive at your destination.”

Another great tip! I always wait to be told when and where I can remove my clothing. 

When it comes to helmet hair, “Take a comb or brush with you to revive your style”. 

Oh just fuck off, would you? (Incidentally, doesn’t ‘revive your style’ sound like it would be the title track on a nineties eurodance album? Just me? – Ed)

FYI, what Sustrans doesn’t recommend, but I will, is getting a rear mud guard – otherwise it’ll look like you’ve shit yourself as soon as it starts raining. See? Practical.
Staying safe:
By far the most important thing about cycling is staying alive, right? Squished at the bottom of their “tips” is a phone number and a suggestion that we “boost our confidence” by going on a course.Hmm, OK, but unless it’s an obstacle course giving handy hints on avoiding lairy drunks, moron pedestrians crossing the road without looking, or idiot taxi drivers opening their doors when I’m clearly right there, I’m not sure how useful that’ll be for me.
Here are some more immediate suggestions:

Don’t cycle drunk. The only time I’ve been injured as a cycling adult was when I was drunk. It’s really scary and I definitely thought I was going to die.

Invest in some safety hardware. You could be the best cyclist in the world (you’re not) and still not make it home safe – there’s no counting on the idiocy of others, so don’t.

Do wear a helmet. I also have a neon sash because I cycle a lot at night, and lights, plus spare batteries. Fun fact: you can get fined £80 for not having lights on.

Also, get two locks so no one can nick your front wheel.

Cat-calling and unnecessary ogling will happen when you’re on a bicycle, just like anywhere else. Mostly I just ignore it. Sometimes, I get proactive if I’m feeling sassy. Once I was cycling to Clapham and some guys were having a right old perv as I was stopped at a red light. I looked at him and after a good 20 seconds yelled out “PENIS!” really loudly. He and his friend both looked embarrassed and then I got to cycle off like the wind, leaving them in my dust. It felt good. 

I like to ride my bike for fun, for exercise, and because it’s cheaper than get getting the tube, faster than getting the bus and unlike being on public transport, if I’m covered in sweat at least it’s my own. I’ve got freedom to go where I want when I want. At night, I feel safer on my bike than I do walking. That’s all way more important than the state of my hair. It’s just a shame that Sustrans haven’t woken up to the fact that the interweb is full of hilarious, witty women cyclists with many, many more profound things to share with the world than when you should be taking your fucking vest off. Don’t women cyclists have enough of a hard time battling sexism without our own team getting involved?

In 1896 American suffragette Susan B Anthony said that ”I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.’’ From reading Sustrans’ cycling tips, you never, ever would have thought it. 

- FT

9 thoughts on “On Yer Bike: Sustrans’ Cycling Tips for Girls were Practically Victorian

  1. I know how to do my hair thanks Sustrans, what I want to know is how to fix the chain if it comes off, how to use a puncture repair kit, and also, how not to be hideously mangled by some twit in a tractor (cycling in Norfolk brings its own special challenges). Thankfully the internets can tell me. Thanks, the internets. (Apart from the tractors bit. I’ve been winging it with that one).

    I will add to the good advice above just this. Take the lane when you cycle – don’t hug the kerb too tightly, as this tempts cars to leave you only as much space as you have left yourself. Be more assertive. I personally pull in when it’s safe for people to pass because I cycle on single track lanes a lot, but I will not wobble about on the verge to let people squeeze past, they have to wait until we reach a passing place.

  2. Sorry – wanted to re-write my first couple of comments.

    As a cyclist I think the most important thing to consider when cycling (and this applies to cyclists of any gender) is safety. An intelligent adult of any gender will make their own appropriate decisions about cycle safety. What I wear to cycle and how I look the other end is utterly immaterial compared to a) the joy of riding a bike and b) getting from A to B in one piece. I prefer to cycle in scruffy clothes and high vis – because I just happen to be a person who gets quite sweaty when I exercise so I take a spare top or a change of clothes with me. But everybody should make their own decision about that.

  3. I almost always wear skirts or dresses (I find them much comfier than trousers) and if my skirt rides up when I’m cycling, so you can see the crotch of my tights, I just reflect that I’m still rather more “modest” looking than I would be if I was wearing skin-tight cycling lycra… :P

  4. I’d just like to point out that there is a wealth of information on the Sustrans website covering all the above mentioned issues about bike fixing and helemts and riding safely. This article was I believe produced in response to questions asked by women who wanted to commute by bike, but had concerns over having to look (and smell!) smart for work at the other end).

  5. The other day I cycled in a maxi dress because I like maxi dresses and (recent discovery) I like cycling. I highly don’t recommend it, not because of looking stupid but because the attitude of “I’ll stop if it gets caught in the chain” is not so effective when it does indeed get caught in the chain and you’re half-way over the Shepherds Bush Roundabout. However, there are ways around it which don’t involved leggings, namely bunching up as much fabric as possible and shoving it into the pocket of your jacket.

    It did mean I showed an awful lot of thigh and quite possibly knicker to the sunbathing citizens of Hyde Park but I figure, lucky them.

  6. Do wear one of those emergency services fluorescent jackets as well as lights. Halfway along Via dei Fori Imperiali, a white bike chained to a lamp post marks the spot where a girl cyclist was mown down by a cab. A lot of people here don’t bother with lights and they wear dark clothes.