No question about it: Montreal is a city of serious bicycle love. We ride everywhere here — to class, to work, to play. You can see where the parties are from the number of bicycles locked to the surrounding fences. Many an adventurous Montrealer can tell you about doubling up and biking home from far-flung lofts, the long road to sleep barely illuminated by the first hint of the breaking dawn.
Cycling for transportation or leisure is ubiquitous in our environment, and yet many casual riders can feel intimidated by a perception that entering an established cycling culture requires specialized gear, effortless mechanical skills and encyclopaedic knowledge and vocabulary. Even more stifling is the time and practice it can take to build confidence to ride the roads alongside traffic, other cyclists and pedestrians. While these issues can be tough for anyone to surmount, they can be especially unnerving for women, for whom the challenges of establishing themselves as riders are often compounded by feelings of exclusion by a male-dominated cycling culture.
Well ladies, hold onto your helmets — there’s a local group that wants to make it easier for you to get on the saddle and have a little fun in a totally casual and supportive setting.
Vélobabes is made up of women of all ages, languages, identities, orientations and skill levels who get together every two weeks and go for a casual, social bike ride to new locations, typically ending up with a cold brew or two on a terrasse. I joined the babes for a ride on a perfectly fresh and clear July evening. Our destination was a rock quarry near the TOHU in St-Michel, a round trip of about 10 kilometres from our starting point in Parc Laurier.
Emily Hill is the organizer behind the group. She established the ride ritual this spring because she felt there was a gap in the established cycling subcultures that made it difficult for a casual rider to find company and not feel left behind.
She explains: “I felt like there wasn’t a social ride, an informal social ride, that existed in Montreal already. There are social rides for different niches, like the spandex people with their carbon fibre bikes, and the fixed gear people with their awesome fixed gear stuff, and I totally support them. But I don’t ride a fixed gear, and I don’t have spandex, and I didn’t have anywhere in the middle — I felt that there were women who would want that too.”
Clearly, Hill was on to something, because a dedicated group of riders (usually a dozen or so) are coming out for each ride. With the Facebook group membership growing fast, now connecting over a hundred women cyclists, Vélobabes is becoming an important network for women riders.
“À DROITE!” cries the chorus of riders, laughing and chatting as we approach a right turn. We’re travelling north on a quiet, wide, one-way street. To ensure no one is left behind, the riders at the front make sure to loudly call out which direction the group will go at each intersection. The information is passed in the same way across the middle and back of the group. If only part of the group can get through a green light before it changes, they wait for the rest to catch up before continuing. When we reach our destination, we stop for high-fives and photo-ops.
Riding back in the twilight along a tree-lined bike path, we’re treated to a panoramic view of St-Michel on the way to our final destination: Gainzbar, a comfy bar near the south end of the St-Hubert Plaza. Over a round of cold beers, conversation inevitably turns towards the group’s experiences cycling in Montreal, and of being women in a culture that’s often associated with masculinity.
When I ask the group what would help to get more women on bicycles, rider and St-Henri bike shop owner Fiona Timmins says there’s power in numbers. “It’s critical mass. The more people that you get, especially the more women you get, the more other women see women riding, and not just riding on weekends, but riding every day. That’s the only way to do it. In general, if you get a critical mass, politicians will actually create better bike lanes.”
Riding is one thing, but eventually every rider is going to have a flat tire or a broken chain. Learning the basics of bike mechanics is something that interests many women riders, but can be a difficult hill to climb. Several riders share their stories of going to bike shops and garages, only to be ignored or mansplained at. Feeling intimidated when entering spaces like repair shops, especially while wearing feminine clothing or having a bike decorated with flowers, seemed to be a universal experience. Though many in the group have also had positive experiences at bike shops and DIY garages, feeling self-conscious about a lack of knowledge or experience may prevent an individual from taking that first step through the door and discovering how manageable bike mechanics can be for anyone.
Cherrilyn (who asked that her last name not be used) is a regular at a DIY garage, and finds she sometimes doesn’t get much help from the male mechanics. About a particularly frustrating visit, she tells us, “I was standing there with a wrench for about 15 minutes and all the dudes were just ignoring me and looking past me, and going around asking all the other guys if they needed help. Finally a woman mechanic comes in from outside who was helping someone out there, and right away she was like, ‘Hey, do you need help?’ and I was like, ‘YES, thank you!!’ Usually the women mechanics are way more attentive and explain things more. The dudes are more like, ‘I’ll do it for you.’”
Hill adds: “Fixing your own bike is really accessible, and I feel like men and women alike don’t always realize how easy it is to do yourself. Places like bike coops exist, but sometimes experts go there and talk expert talk to each other. That makes it hard to break in as a beginner, so it’s easy to believe that something you can fix is over your head. I hope to work with a bike shop and do some workshops for women. That’s one of the goals for the future of Vélobabes, to be as educational as it is fun.”
Mechanics aside, the group’s rides have already been a positive learning experience for rider Elise Fortier, who tells the group that the rides have helped her familiarize herself with riding on the road in traffic, something she didn’t feel confident doing before. “I would have never begun biking again if it weren’t for this group,” Fortier says. “The first time, I didn’t know anything, didn’t know the rules, what to do in traffic… so it’s really reassuring to me to have people who know what they’re doing without being condescending. Now I can go on the big streets, and I couldn’t before.” She laughs, “I’m really much more confident now, maybe a little too much sometimes!”
The more experienced members also express that they find value in the group. Cherrilyn, who usually uses her vintage 1963 Raleigh for transportation more often than leisure, says, “It’s nice taking a ride and just seeing stuff, seeing new parts of the city, or places you couldn’t go by car or by bus.”
Caroline de la Roseraie, who was an urban cyclist in Paris and Vancouver before arriving in Montreal, describes how two collisions with inattentive taxis has made her more conscious about safety on the road. The group dynamic where everyone looks out for each other is a nice change of pace for her. “I used to explore a lot by myself but now I want to go with other people and share new places, and to go more slowly because sometimes I’m really aggressive on my bike. I think it’s really good for me to be in this group because it’s helping me learn how to ride safely.”
As the group discusses ideas for future rides, workshops and t-shirt designs, it’s clear that the Vélobabes have hit the ground rolling. Suggesting that the group organize rides even more frequently, de la Roseraie sums up the feelings of bike riders everywhere: “I want to ride every day. It’s like a drug!” she says with a laugh as she empties her glass. ■
Vélobabes organizes casual bike rides for women every two weeks. For more information, check out their Facebook group. Their next ride, heading to the top of Mount Royal, takes place today, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 8 p.m., departing from the corner of Mont-Royal & Esplanade.