...I work at a bike shop because I love to build and work on bicycles. There’s always something new coming in the front door. Sometimes it’s quite literally half of a bike, (for not everyone remembers that they’ve mounted their frame to the roof rack before pummeling into the garage.) Other times I’ve had to cut open foam-stuffed wheelchair tires with a hacksaw just to get them off the factory wheels. A man brought in two bikes from somewhere in rural Summerfield, and the most beautiful spider with fuzzy legs and colorful UFO-shaped eyes crawled out of the seat tube. My coworker even happened upon a small family of mice inside a bicycle box- they had been shipped all the way from California!
I love the hiiiisssss of the air compressor as I inflate a newly changed tube, the grawahawahaeeeehhh!!! of the grinding machine as I round off the edges of a shortened seat post, and I even like the smell of rubber tires and degreaser that linger on my clothes after I return home from it all. I love using the derailleur hanger-straightening tool to fix “hopping” across rear cogs, and I take great satisfaction in making a 1970s steel-frame road bike shift its gears like new. I love cutting off new cable housing, capping the ends with ferrules, lacing new cables though, setting tension screws, and replacing dried-up old brake pads with fresh new rubber ones. And then, stuffing my pocket precariously with a 5mm hex and a petite flathead screwdriver, I relish the feel of zooming out between parked cars outside in search of an open space to test out my handiwork.
Do we work in an immediately sexist environment? The kinds of people we encounter on a daily basis are continuously giving us pause for re-evaluation. When a gruff six-foot-two mustached man with pocket protector challenges our shop dynamics by implying that only one half of population here can be successful mechanics, it’s funny-- but it’s also depressing. Afterward, it’s almost as if we become sexist ourselves, for a bit, too.
The attitudes we collectively encounter and have to handle with a gender-specific response sometimes can alter our own behaviors during the next half-hour or so. “His bicycle will probably be worked on by me. I should stuff the seat tubes and handlebars with tampons.” Or, “Well, little lady, it can’t be helped. We both know I am the one with the penis, sooo… guess that means I'll need call him for some man-chat after you do all the reapirs on his bicycle.” The shop fluctuates between tension and laughter. In our antics of re-enactment, we go through a temporary state of extreme sexism ourselves- (strange, but necessary. )
We chuckle and point out the funnier things about our situation because it’s all we can do, but we also do it because it clears the air and allows us to come to terms with who we still are as a shop. Like children playing house, we re-enact the chauvinist things we see and hear as sort of a way of dealing with the ignorance that often steps through our shop door. It’s both funny and more effective to translate the naiveties into our own interactions. It eases the stifling effects of working with a public made up of widely varied backgrounds.
If a repair is small enough to not consume too much time, we are often able to work on a customer’s bike or wheel while they wait. I think the biggest leaps forward for public perception about gal mechanics happens during those short repairs. A father drops off his kid’s bike, for example, and decides to wait with his son and his daughter while I re-install a set of fenders, change a 20” tube, and tighten the brakes for him. At some point, the children usually get curious and dart into the work area, followed by a reprimand by the parents to get back out and stay by their side. But! After peeking around to get a glimpse of “What’s that weird noise, Daddy?” (Air compressor) or “Why’s she got the biciggle up high?” (Work stand) or just flat out shyly exclaiming their Mom or Dad, “It’sah girl working on my bike!”
Kids are used to seeing their dads struggle with tool-stuff, and they’re accustomed to seeing their moms drop off the car with a male auto-mechanic. In most families, children still come to expect certain roles to be played out by specific genders. Had a flat coming back from the Aquarium at the beach without Daddy along? A kind man stopped out of good will to help the stranded mother and children. What about when the AC broke and everyone was all sweaty and miserable, until the repairman came... I’m not a feminist in any kind of extreme sense; I don’t have the time to get angry or offended when someone acts surprised about exchanging their money for my labours, "it is what it is."
I chose to learn how to work on bikes because I love riding them and I like to work with my hands, not because I wanted to prove myself in what has been until now, a mostly male- dominated industry. And I haven’t really proven anything, if you take into account all the episodes of sexism I still come across! By simply being here, though, maybe i'm helping to plant new ideas in both the children and their parents who visit our shop in order to get back on the road. A little boy finally sees that maybe he should’ve let his sister help repair his broken GI Joe after all, or a little girl who always holds back from “boy” activities might see that it is not a trade-off! She can get her hands dirty and learn to more self-sufficient, all while still retaining her identity as a female!
So, if your bike is broken, your tire has gone flat, or your mechanical abilities evade your grasp, consider asking the “skirt” to do it. You’ll thank yourself later!