Pittsburgh’s cycling community creates safe spaces for women and LGBTQIA individuals in biking

Women and queer cyclists utilize Free Ride Pittsburgh’s shop during its weekly Women and Queer night. Current Photo by Annabelle Hanflig.

By Annabelle Hanflig
Pittsburgh Current Intern

In the biking community, there exists a phrase called “no-drop.” It means that on any given group excursion, not a single cyclist, no matter how far behind the pack they ride, will be left to go it alone.

This particular principle is one of the many methods certain circles of bikers use to make their craft more open and inclusive.

Biking has gotten quite the reputation in the city of Pittsburgh. The installation of bike lanes was a contentious topic during the 2017 mayoral election. Earlier this year, Pittsburgh City Councilor Erika Strassburger introduced legislation to move oversight of issues regarding pedestrian and cyclist safety from the state to the city. At the same time, Pittsburgh has recently grown to be one of the most bike-friendly municipalities in the country, ranking eighth in a list of major American cities with the most bicycle commuters, according to a 2016 report on biking from the League of American Bicyclists. We even have the oldest city-wide bike master plan in the country.

But beyond the bountiful hills and bike lanes, Pittsburgh is home to a slew of bike collectives, advocacy groups and events that ride around the typical elitism of cycling to draw in riders of all stripes within city limits. How these groups go about making their marks vary, but they all seek to foster bike-centered community building, education and safety.  

For many, especially those who identify as a woman, queer, transgender, non-binary or anything outside of our typical notions of gender and sexuality, biking is more than just a means of transportation or a mildly bearable way to stay in shape. It can serve as anything from an empowering outlet to a necessary refuge. As Julie Mallis of Bike Pittsburgh puts it, it’s a “vessel which helps people prove to themselves that they’re capable of great feats.”

Mallis is the Education Program Manager for Bike Pittsburgh and is tasked with running the women and non-binary programs for the biking advocacy, education and community non-profit founded in 2002. They organize and host coffee meet-ups and rides for women and non-binary bikers, so participants can escape and address the challenges that come with partaking in the male-dominated cycling world, Mallis said.

“I think it’s a really great place for people to come together knowing that it’s not going to be dominated by men,” Mallis said. “It’s not like we’re just saying ‘oh let’s meet up for a bike ride’, we’re meeting up for a bike ride with intentionality.”

The inclusion of women and LGBTQIA folks is purposefully built into the infrastructure of bike collectives and co-ops all over the country. Bike Collective Network, an online resource that connects people working in not-for-profit biking projects, provides a “Starter Kit” applicable to anything from building a shop from scratch to expanding the reach of an already established one. Under the “Common Activities” section, one can find the suggested framework for a “Women’s Only Night” bent on “encouraging more women and transgender people to get involved and learn in a comfortable space without men.”

For BCN, creating safe spaces for those with marginalized identities is a necessary, although tricky endeavor. Finding the most inclusive language and forging a space that feels authentic is no easy task, but a healthy shop depends on it. In cementing the purpose and execution of opening up space for bikers with marginalized identities, Bike Collective Network aims to make the organizations that house them more open and equitable.

Besides the groups that aim to open the roads to all Pittsburgh cyclists, a host of events held throughout the year provide additional space to make more bikers feel welcome. There’s the annual Frigid Bitch Alley Cat Race, hosted by Pittsburgh Babes on Bikes, which takes women and non-binary cyclists on a race through the city in the dead of winter to benefit the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. There’s also the Pittsburgh Underwear Ride, which has cyclists don their drawers on a ride to promote positive body image.

    For cyclists with marginalized identities, building and defending these spaces is akin to surviving in them. Kat Gregor of Highland Park says specialized events like those hosted by Bike Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Babes on Bikes have helped her explore the intersection of her hobby and her identity without feeling threatened.

    “Without these spaces, we risk danger alone. There is a great power in a room full of cyclists that don’t look like the Tour de France riders,” Gregor said in an email. “These spaces are critical to allow marginalized people to be seen and heard. There is something very special about connecting over shared interests and struggles.”

In the summer of 2017, Katie Blackburn, a council member at the bicycle collective Free Ride Pittsburgh, was putting a new set of pedals on their bike during open shop hours when they were approached by an older male shop user. The man, who Blackburn had never met, proclaimed that they had chosen the wrong pedals. Knowing this not to be the case, Blackburn brushed off the gratuitous comment and continued to service their bike. Shortly after, Blackburn momentarily walked away from their bike and across the shop. It was during this time that the man took the pedals off Blackburn’s bike without their permission.

“I felt very violated. I was frustrated,” Blackburn said. “I was like ‘I don’t feel safe in this space. I can’t do what I needed to do’ which to me was build this bike. I now had to watch what other people were doing.”

Esther Chavéz services the derailleurs of her bike. Current Photo by Annabelle Hanflig.

Free Ride Pittsburgh had been hosting a weekly women and queer night where riders of marginalized identities could utilize the shop without fear of falling into similar situations, but it was defunct at the time of Blackburn’s incident. The event had been on an indefinite hiatus after its staffers decided a few years prior that they could no longer uphold the integrity of the space on top of their other responsibilities to the shop.

Upon hearing what had happened to Blackburn, then-president Scott Kowalski was moved to reach out to Free Ride users who had experienced comparable frustrations with the intent of finding a way to forge a safe shop for all. Kowalski himself didn’t identify with the people he was trying to make space for, so he passed the power to those who did. Free Ride’s Women and Queer Night was up and running again shortly after.

“For the women and queer identities, there’s a lot in society that constantly pushes one down. It’s a constant barrier of getting cat-called or getting told you don’t know what you’re doing and feeling and internalizing that,” Blackburn said. “We’re trying to create a space for those that may not otherwise have voices.”

For some female and LGBTQIA bikers, the intentional creation of these spaces brings mixed emotions. They’re no stranger to being pushed aside, but don’t necessarily see the solution in further exclusivity. Is pushing oneself further away from those who have historically oppressed you making the kind of change necessary to tear down those very same walls?

Blackburn sees these spaces as a temporary fix to a problem their community is actively working to solve.

“It is a challenge because do we really want to separate that space. Our goal is not to keep it separate forever…. but we’re envisioning it as a stop gap. This is a short-term solution to integrate the population to a whole shop that is safe for everybody.”

Blackburn has been a cyclist in Pittsburgh for 10 years, but a car accident left them misplaced and afraid in an environment that only ever felt like home. The space created for them at Free Ride and beyond, they said, is what got them back on the seat.

“To be in a space with other queer folk and to be reminded, even though it’s been years later, I still seek that ability to connect with folks who understand that challenge, who understand that pain, that trauma, and I don’t need to explain it. I don’t need to explain myself, I don’t need to explain it to anybody else.”

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