The gendered aspects of bike maintenance

"I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can't get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."

--Susan B. Anthony, 1896

Last night, in one last effort to unpack our belongings before we fell into bed in a mangled heap, Chuan and I put together our bikes. Or, rather, he put the bikes together and I watched, to learn how it is done, so that I can stop relying on him, in typical gendered fashion, to keep our bikes in repair and the toolbox in order.

I have always enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together again, for those simple acts of destruction and creation teach us so much about the origin of common things. This must be part of what motivates my cooking and knitting: a desire to understand how things are made, their forms and purposes. Yet lately I am conscious that these activities, in our small household, are occurring in stereotypical fashion: while I engross myself in cookbooks and knitting magazines, my husband researches the latest model computer and plans new ways to put our bookshelves together. Before we were married, before I left home, and with no brothers in the way, I also did these things. But marriage has brought with it the convenience of specialization, and despite our best efforts at equal partnership, we too often follow the patterns set out for us: I nurture, he solves; I create, he fixes.

I know what is going on here. There are simply too many external and internal motivators (social learning theory, anyone?) that push me to be domestic and him to be analytic, so that to deviate from those roles requires a bit of effort on both of our parts, such as last night, when I found myself staring through my bike's carbon fork and trying to determine whether or not the front wheel was on straight. Was this really me? This woman who is learning to not only ride, but repair and maintain, her bike?

Yes, this is me, and I find that, once I get started, there is no limit to the things that I can take pleasure in, whether they fall under a masculine or feminine rubric. I want to ride because I want to go fast, breathe hard, get dirty and get lost. I want to ride because my body feels good when I'm above the wheels, going hard, going fast, and because riding reminds me of a time when athletics were about keeping up with the boys and not looking good for the boys. I want to get out on the loop around Central Park and surprise a few of those old men in tights, show them that I can keep up with the best of them, even if only for half a lap. I want to ride today in this body, feminine and soft and speedy all at once, and just be me.

But first, I have to build my bike.


ClpX said...

Ooh, I caught this post on the ED Digest feed and I'm glad I did. :) Passing boys on your bike: always so fun. Passing anyone, actually, but boys especially. I started out not knowing how to change my tire, and through willingness to learn, I swapped my chainring this spring, all by myself.

Boys will follow your piston-like legs for miles if you say something like "gear ratio" or "I built my wheel myself." :)

Go you!!

Ai Lu said...


I have also discovered the usefulness of knowing a few words of bike terminology; they are like a secret code into the biking world.

So glad to see that this post resonated with you!

Keep pedaling,
Ai Lu