by Kat Hunter
I’m not one to complain about men opening doors for me. (I’m usually carrying a 34-pound toddler.) A little gallantry now and again, as long as it’s not expressed in a way that undermines and insults, is a great thing.
But in the world of cycling, some men can be overly “helpful” to women cyclists. Nine times out of ten it’s well meaning, which is why we nod and smile at the advice-giver instead of bludgeoning him with a water bottle. I’ve had strangers ride up and comment freely and critically on my fit, equipment, and even gearing. In my first year of riding, one older gentleman told me I should stay out of the big ring for a few years to save my knees. I know men cyclists encounter these annoying authoritarians, too, but the frequency with which female riders attract their attention seems to suggest that we’ve been flagged: clearly, not having a penis is indicative of a physical and/or mental disability.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the men who are aware of how even the purist chivalry can be perceived; they don’t want to be “that guy,” so they hang back even when they genuinely just want to help. So how do you approach a woman without coming across as condescending? It’s not as difficult, and we’re not as sensitive, as you might think.
Is it necessary? The first rule of thumb is, make sure your assistance is warranted. If it’s some minor point and you don’t know the woman well, it’s probably best to keep your thoughts to yourself. Would you say or do the same thing if the cyclist was a guy?
Be an authority. I have a litmus test for people who are welcome to give me unsolicited advice: they need to be in a higher category and/or have raced longer, have a career in or related to cycling, or be extremely smart and tech savvy. I also much prefer if they actually know who I am and where I fall on all those scales, too. A cat 5 telling a cat 1 woman how to ride her bike is annoying; I don’t care how much of a cycling prodigy he is.
Be humble, even if you are an authority. A little dose of humility and respect goes a long way. Everyone is new sometime, and everyone makes mistakes, so try to put whatever it is you’re trying to help with in the context of your own failures and foibles. Most women will pick up on the fact that you’re treating them like an equal and not an idiot, and they’ll listen and learn.
Ask nicely. Some women will want your help with mechanical issues and others won’t—your best bet is to ask. I like the ambiguous “Need anything?” In the case of changing a flat tire, for example, that question could mean anything from “Do you need a tire lever?” to “Do you need me to do that for you?” You can avoid feeling like a jerk, and she can avoid feeling like a damsel in distress. I used to prefer it if the guys I was riding with changed a flat for me because I knew they were standing around waiting and I’d be slow. To each her own.
Never touch. Or not unless you know her well enough to know that it’s okay. Touching (when it’s not necessary or isn’t in a race situation) can come across as demeaning or just plain creepy. Elbow, hip, bike…doesn’t matter; that’s very personal space. Some guys will give a woman a friendly push out of the blue in a race or a fast group ride. Personally, I’d like to say thanks but no thanks on that one. The gesture is nice, but most of the time it just succeeds in surprising me. I’ll use your wheel any day, though, so come around and motor me back up that way if you’re feeling generous.
The key, always, is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. I’d say “just treat us like one of the guys,” but we’re not one of the guys, and that’s okay. Letting us have a wheel, leading us out for a sprint point, not shoving us off the road or yelling at the other guy who just tried to—as bike racers, we’re primed to take advantage of every opportunity we get, to capitalize on the strength or weakness of others, so any woman with sense isn’t going to complain about a helping hand or wheel. White knights are welcome and appreciated! Just don’t be surprised if our manners aren’t very ladylike in turn and we pull ahead of you at the line, okay?