Nail polish and chain grease: A tale of biking while female

February 23, 2016                 4m read time
Hillary Berkowitz Nussbaum

Historically, more men cycle than women. That's slowly changing as media, bike shops, and city planners begin to address issues causing the cycling gender gap. According to 2014 studies from Citi Bike, Divvy, and Hubway on bike sharing services in three major U.S. cities, only one woman for every three men gets around on a bike. Read on for Hillary's personal story of facing the biking gender disparity head-on while sporting her purple manicure with pride. 

I’ve never felt particularly feminine on a bike. I’ve always envied those women who manage to glide along the Hudson River Greenway in a dress and heels, remaining upright with ease—but I’ll never be one of them. I’ve executed epic pavement dives in regular old sneakers and shorts, and rarely arrive at my destination without smudges of chain grease across my legs.

That’s not to say I’m a novice biker. I’ve spent time on tri-state trails and can tackle an NYC bike commute with the best of them. It’s just that I max out the capacities of my balance and coordination on the basics of riding—navigating hazards such as potholes, branches, pedestrians, pets, turning cars, tricycling tots, and the dreaded taxi door—and don’t have enough left to compensate for the added peril of a pair of heels.

No, I’ve never felt particularly feminine on a bike—until I went riding with a group of men.

Bikers going down a steep rock Michael G Smith

Bikers going down a steep rock

Michael G Smith


Last summer, my other half and I joined a multi-day group biking trek through Utah and its awe-inspiring national parks. We signed up last minute, without hesitation: Biking, camping and hiking amidst some of our country’s most impressive vistas? Yes, please. The latter was more appealing than spending our vacation lazing on a beach.  

The trip would be physically demanding, but not beyond our capabilities. I was more concerned about whether there would be enough coffee in the morning, and how much my head would itch after five showerless, helmeted days, than the difficulty of biking itself.

On the morning of our first full day of riding, we cycled over a series of rolling hills. As I pulled up to the front of the pack, one of the men keeping pace with me remarked, “Wow, I’m impressed. I thought you’d be a lightweight.”

He meant it as a compliment, and I took it as such. At first.

As much as I love shattering people’s expectations—and believe me, I do—the satisfaction is always undercut by one question: Where did the erroneous assessment come from in the first place? Sometimes it doesn’t matter; sometimes it does. But in the interest of self-awareness, I can’t help but wonder why this man, who had known me for less than 24 hours, assumed I wouldn’t be cycling at the front of the pack.

There’s an obvious answer: I’m female.

Historically, gender alone is reason enough for someone to make assumptions. In my co-ed softball league, when I—or anyone else with two X chromosomes—step up to bat, the opposing team inches towards the infield. The presumption is that women aren’t as strong or skilled as even the least athletic-looking guys, which makes it even more gratifying when my bat makes contact with the ball, sending it—and all of those assumptions—sailing towards the outfield.  

Woman with her bike in a desert Dudarev Mikhail

Woman with her bike in a desert

Dudarev Mikhail


But the biking trip was a different scenario. There were two other women on this excursion, and no one would’ve mistaken either of them for “lightweights.” They looked like the kickass athletes and outdoorswomen they are: One dressed in the rugged staples of New England’s brand-name wilderness outfitters, the other in the slick, adventure-junkie gear favored by those who spend their winters chasing powder out west. They looked the part, so no one doubted them.

And me? Well, in my fitted fuchsia fleece and virtually spotless, bright purple running shoes, I did not appear prepared for a week in the woods. And, as one of the men in our group noticed, I had (inadvertently) painted my nails the exact same shade of purple as my sneakers. Real tough, right?

From that first morning on, the trip became more than simply enjoying the great outdoors, more than just taking a fun vacation. I wanted to prove that a seemingly “girly” girl can keep up with the boys.

With that self-imposed burden on my shoulders, I pushed myself harder, pedaled faster, tackled the trails with more determination than I otherwise would have. When I might have gone easy on myself, walking up a craggy stretch of singletrack, I resolved instead to struggle to the top.

Woman on a bike Inu

Woman on a bike



I didn’t finish with a perfect record. It was my first time on a mountain bike, and sometimes gravity (and rocks and roots) won out, forcing me to tackle a steep uphill on foot. Sometimes I let my fears get the better of me. When uphill climbs turned to downhill stretches, I took it slow, preferring to ride my brakes rather than in the dirt. In defense of my cautious approach, it’s worth noting that my other half ended up with a nice set of bruises—purple, to match my shoes!—and an elbow full of pebble-sized pockmarks after speeding around a turn; I was the last one to finish every single downhill, but at least I finished them intact. Kudos, me.

But there were times—and these are the times I remember most vividly—when I struggled with every ounce of muscle to keep my pedals moving, to push to the top of a hill without giving up. It’s hard to ignore the stereotypes that are foisted upon you, and even harder not to question yourself when everyone else is silently doubting. And while I thought I was proving to the rest of the group that ‘feminine’ and ‘tough’ aren’t mutually exclusive, that one can be a ‘girly girl’ and still be strong, I realize now: I was also proving it to myself.

Hillary Berkowitz Nussbaum

Hillary is a freelance writer who likes to camp out in small NYC coffee shops and in the great outdoors.

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