Strangers Yell Me Things

I love riding. Most of the time I ride alone. Which I love. I also love going on an amazingly inclusive group ride once a week. It’s a mixed-gender ride, but sometimes I’m the only girl. Or one of a few girls. Although I love it when other women come and have become friends with some of them, I also love the gender disparity.

I love riding with guys. One might quietly offer helpful advice about my riding position, or cornering, and another might let me ride his wheel to catch my breath on a long hill. One day a larger and faster cyclist pulled me downhill wildly faster than I ever could have gone out in the wind on my own. It was crazy fun. 

There’s a jocular camaraderie that makes me feel safe and relaxed. I love being along for the ride, and I enjoy riding among friends. Most of the guys are super welcoming and supportive. Most seem glad to have women along, which I found surprising at first.

Only 24% of American cyclists are women. In countries like Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, the percentage of cyclists who are women approaches and even exceeds 50%. There are myriad reasons for this disparity in the US. Of course I have all kinds of anthropological hypotheses, rooted in both larger culture and cycling culture.

One way I think larger society acculturates women not to ride is by teaching us from a very young age that we are less than men. Less fast. Less big. Less strong. Less mechanical. Less competent. Less safe unescorted. Less good at reading maps...

Which makes some women feel less confident, as if women on bikes are impostors and not actual cyclists. Some women can feel particularly vulnerable around men on bikes. Especially when the men on bikes seem frustrated or angry at that there exist women on bikes.

Seattle cyclist Nikki Lee confirmed many of my biases about sexism in larger culture in an article called Ride Like a Girl: cycling is awfully similar to being a woman. Lee uses cycling as a beautiful metaphor for being a woman in the world. She outlines many small-but-dangerous hazards, which she calls environmental microaggressions. Her use of this term echoes established paradigms about societal barriers to minorities. The money quote, in my opinion, is this:

Welcome to being vulnerable to the people around you. Welcome to being the exception, not the rule. Welcome to not being in charge.

This. For women on bikes, the challenges are not just the cars, and the curbs, and the gravel at the corner, but also some of the men on bikes. Who can be both physically and psychologically intimidating, regardless of intent.

Men on bikes are our natural allies. Cyclists should always be supportive of and encouraging to other cyclists, if for no other reason than making cycling safer for everyone. But men on bikes don’t always act like our allies.

Which is why I make time to take other women out on bikes and to support women-only riding groups. Women need the option of safe spaces to learn to ride, build fitness, and hone skills, free of embarrassment, or sexism, or pressure. 

A dude I don’t know reminded me of all of this when he yelled at me this morning.

I’m not even sure what he was yelling about. It was hard to make out the words over the wind and traffic noise. Which demonstrates how unhelpful Yelling At actually is. 

Circumstantial evidence makes me think he might have been angry. About how I communicated that I was moving left to go around a muddy water hazard on the trail? That my moving around the slippery mess SLOWED HIM DOWN at the exact moment when he finally caught up to me? 

It’s confusing because after he passed me on his gorgeous bike, while Yelling, he slowed the pace. Which then slowed me down while I slowed even more to let him get the hell away from me. Because I wasn’t sure why he had been Yelling. 

Men yelling things other than, “Good Morning!” or “Car Back!” or “Looking Strong!” or “Jump on my Wheel!” or similar can sound threatening. (Pro tip: Smiling, or otherwise exhibiting friendly body language would help alleviate this impression.)

Maybe he was actually being friendly at me and being winded is what made his tone sound so aggressive. Stopping at the next red light to commiserate about all the mud on the trail would have been fine, if that’s what the yelling was about. 

If he was a buddy, we could chat about how I might handle that hazard differently next time. However, if he really was my friend, we wouldn't even need to talk about it because he wouldn't care that I slowed both of us down for a nanosecond to get around safely and keep us both dry.

A friend, and even a friendly stranger, would only care that we’re out on bikes having an awesome ride. A really nice guy might even fist bump me for being so fucking fast that he had trouble catching up.


John Grant wrote a song about the yelling dude for me.