Some months ago, Pete did a talk on bike safety and maintenance at our local WI. Now, before you start picturing a load of silver haired ladies staring blankly at the nice young man showing them how to change a tyre, let me point out that the demographic of the Nunhead WI isn’t quite that traditional. Much of the Nunhead branch, from what I understand, is made up of 25-40 year old professionals/mothers/creatives, or any combination thereof. Women like me.

It was after this talk that Pete received the shop feedback of which I am most proud. I paraphrase, but a member told him that she loved Rat Race because she never felt patronised or embarrassed there. That she was treated no differently to any other customer, and was never sneered at or assumed to be stupid.

I was over the moon when Pete gleefully reported this back to me later. This has always been one of our major aims – that neither gender, sexuality, race, religion nor anything else would have any effect on how we treat you. (Unless you’re rude. We hate rudeness.)

And we’re not knowledge snobs, either. If you want to come in and talk to us about the complexities of SRAM’s latest wireless electronic groupset then that’s great, come in and we’ll chat. But if all you want from your bike is something that looks good and gets you from A to B in safety and comfort, then that’s fine too. You don’t need to know the intimate details of how your bike works if you don’t want to. That’s what we’re here for. And that goes for women and men (or however else you may identify).

Which is why the recent campaign to get women on their bikes – STRONGHER – has really rubbed me up the wrong way.

I have no doubt that it comes from a great place, and it is championed by female cyclists and cycling advocates whom I admire hugely, and even one of our brilliant customers. And the main message is really worthwhile. As a woman cyclist and a bike shop co-owner anything that gets more people, particularly women, cycling has got to be encouraged.

Well, almost anything. Because where the campaign falls flat for me is the Strongher Stamp.

It is only one part of the campaign, but it seems to be to have the potential to be pretty damaging. The Strongher Stamp is a sticker that approved bike shops can affix to their windows declaring themselves to be ‘women-friendly’. Again, in principle, it’s not a terrible idea (although it is a shame that women-friendly shops aren’t the default). But the execution is misguided at best, and the criteria which the shop must satisfy to be awarded a Strongher Stamp are, frankly, baffling.

Shops need to have:

  • A female changing room available
  • 30% of products suitable for women
  • Women-friendly service.

They will be rated higher (and therefore be more likely to get a Stamp) if they:

  • Have a women’s corner (WTH??)
  • Have coffee / tea available
  • Organise events for women.

Wow. Where do we start…?

Admittedly, we are not primarily a retail outlet, so we’re not going to fulfil some of the criteria simply because of the limitations of our remit, but I find myself totally confused by the first point.

Are most bike shops provided men with changing facilities and nothing for the women? Or is it, as I suspect, that changing facilities are lacking, and what facilities there are, are unisex? Perhaps of greater concern for Strongher would be are the changing facilities adequately equipped. With properly closing doors and enough room to swing a cat (or, almost as elegant, wriggle into a pair of thermal bib longs). It doesn’t matter to me at all who has used the cubicle before or after me, as long as it is clean, comfortable and reasonably spacious, and I can change in private without anyone accidentally barging in while I’m half way through changing. Job done.

As for having 30% of products suitable for women… well, that wording is important. I note it doesn’t say women-specific. And so, 30% seems an awfully low bar.

Again, we’re not retail driven, so my perspective on this is likely skewed, but thinking of our stock holding probably at least half of what we sell is ‘suitable for women’. Tools. Lights. Helmets. Lubes. Energy products. Bar tape. Bidons. Pumps. I’m sure there’s more. These are all ‘suitable for women’, in all their forms. (Although I guarantee you that someone somewhere has made it in pink and stuck a flower decal on in and sent it to market labelled ‘for her’. This is a dangerous and condescending practice and should not be encouraged.)

How about suggesting that where a product is gender specific (ie, clothing, saddles, frame etc) that the shop should carry a similar sized range for men and for women. Say, within 10% of each other. The current wording allows for an extensive range of men’s clothing and saddles while women are told to be grateful that the shop stocks lights, gels and mudguards that are ‘suitable’ for them. Dear.

Onto the best bit… Strongher also promises that shops will be more highly rated if they have a women’s corner.

Say what!?

What exactly is a ‘women’s corner’? Are we expected to devote an area of our shop to kittens and baking? Any decent retailer knows that how you group and display items matters. You’d be insane to scatter women’s clothing randomly around the shop. Shop owners set things out to make their shop easy to navigate, and to lead customers to consider other things they may want or be interested in buying. It’s shopkeeping 101. So I can’t believe this needs to be addressed on that basic a level – “keep your women’s stuff together and easy to find”.

Therefore, I can only assume then that a ‘women’s corner’ means more than that. I hope – but doubt – that the criterion is a nod to retail psychology; personally I don’t know much about how differently men browse products to women, but if that’s something you can take into consideration, then that’s bound to be great for your business.

If, however, what you’re talking about is softer colours and pretty lampshades on one side of the shop (as seen in a certain large, South East London bike retailer) then thanks, but no thanks. I can buy a bike without girlie soft furnishings, and to suggest that a bike shop is addressing my needs better because they’ve dimmed the lights a little or provided me with a velvet pouffe to sit on while I try on a new pair of road shoes is ridiculous.

And finally, a shop will be rated higher by Strongher if they have tea and coffee available. Now, I love a cup of Joe, but (and this may shock you) I don’t go to my bike shop to get it. I go to my bike shop for inner tubes. For kit. Accessories. A service. Not a cuppa and a nice sit down.

I have nothing against the new breed of café/bike shops springing up around the world. They’re great, lots of them, and I love a pint at LMNH as much as the next girl. But I refuse to believe that a bike shop becomes more women-friendly just by offering her a caffeinated drink.

As far as organising events for women goes, that’s a great idea. The more events there are the better, so I can’t really find fault with that, except to say that it might be a little outside the remit of your local bike shop. Maybe one for the trendy café/bike shops to run with.

It seems to me that Strongher’s list can be boiled down to one, simple criterion. And it’s the one that they tack on the end with no explanation as to what it really means…

Have a ‘women-friendly service’.

They don’t go into detail about what that might look like, but then it is difficult to define. One thing it certainly isn’t, is the treatment I got on a visit to a rather well known, large, high-end shop in South West London a while back where I was summarily ignored for 20 minutes as I browsed the accessories, while men were offered help almost as soon as they set foot in the store.

We, as shop owners and workshop managers, also need to address the lad culture of the workshop. Many’s a time I’d visit Pete (before we struck out on our own) in workshops plastered in pictures of half-naked women. I know the bike workshop is a largely male environment, but leave it at home boys. That’s not appropriate workplace behaviour.

And it’s not just the mechanics. We’ve had at least one sales rep refer to a lady cyclist with the words ‘come on then lads, would you!?’. I’m happy to say he got short shrift in our workshop. The boys refused to engage and simply said ‘we don’t really go in for that kind of talk here’. But it’s endemic.

This is the kind of stuff we need to be addressing. We need grassroots change to the attitudes to women in cycling, everything from design and manufacturing (I am capable of riding a bike without flowers on it, you know) to prize money and opportunity for the pros. Let’s start a proper conversation about what that would look like. About what meaningful change to the way cycling and bike shops treat women would actually mean, in practice.

We have an extraordinary crop of British female cyclists at the moment. Laura Trott is a double Olympic gold medallist and an incredible seven time world champ. At 24. And Becky James has come back from serious injury to become a contender again. And there are plenty more. Dani King. Jo Rowsell. Tracy Moseley. Lizzie Armitstead. Jess Varnish. Hannah and Alice Barnes. Shanaze Reade. Dame Sarah Storey. The list goes on.

These are the stories that it’s important to tell. As well as the everyday cyclists. About half our amateur and semi-pro racing customers at the shop are women. And then there are the commuters, the weekend warriors, the girls who ride (gasp) just for fun.

The rest of the Strongher campaign appears to be doing great, and important, work pushing the benefits of cycling to women very well. Carry on, ladies. Tell them about the fitness, about the freedom, about the happiness. Tell them about the weightloss if you have to. Or just that you can eat more cake. Fine.

But please, please don’t tell them that what they need is a shop that will stock pink things and give them a cup of tea. It’s supremely patronising.

If equality is what you want, equality is what you have to ask for. To settle for anything else does a huge disservice, not just to us and all the other shops who make it a central tenet of their work to treat everyone with the same consideration and respect (which we will continue to do, sticker or no sticker), but also to the amazing women picking up their bikes and riding out into the world every day.

(pic courtesy of strongher.cc)

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