The Future: What Do You Want Your World To Be?

The Future: What Do You Want Your World To Be?

I’ve been thinking about change lately. My original concerns were Charles Darwin, climate change and species loss, but my brain has spun off in a variety of other directions—ebikes, land access, bicycle design and how cycling treats women. It’s a lot to take in, especially if you try to consider them all in a single evening. It’s not something I recommend. Let’s just say I’m grateful you can ferment grapes and grains (just not all in the same vessel).

Back to Darwin for a bit. One of the ideas that comes through in his materpiece On the Origin of Species is that Darwin believed that the world changes very gradually. Descent with modification was the idea he was working with in that book. As a gradualist, he rejected the idea of the sudden mutation. But the world is full of examples of sudden, massive change, or saltation. Polydactyl cats are an easy example. There’s no way to go from five toes to six incrementally. One day a kitten is born with an extra toe. Boom. There’s no going from five to five and a half to six. Also, volcanoes. That’s a pretty big change.

Saltation is good stuff. It’s the establishment of a new country, like the United States. It’s the invention of the airplane. It’s the civil rights movement. Big changes like those come with a certain attendant upheavel, just like volcanoes. To go with a pleasant example, think about how air travel transformed societies and our ability to know, to see, the world on a first-hand basis.

The bicycle itself was a pretty radical idea. The derailleur? Saltation. The carbon fiber frame? More saltation. All those inventions emerge as a result of someone asking the question, What if?

In trying to project what the future will bring, there are two ways to consider it. The first, extrapolative, is charting how things change and then using the previous rate and amount of change to extrapolate where things will be in a year, in five years, or even 100. Folks who resist change dislike this concept, which is a bit like disliking reality, because the world does not stay the same. Any time someone argues that market forces should be our guide to the future, what you get is an extrapolative arc of change. It’s steady and predictable.

However, when someone asks What if?, we get the works of Shakespeare, the movies of Steven Spielberg, but also (and less delightfully) the Segway. We also get the establishment of democracy and Facebook. This is the domain of the creatives; psychologists call it normative thinking.

One of the ideas floating around in my head as I was judging Best in Show at NAHBS was how it is possible to incent change. By offering certain rewards we can guide the creatives toward certain paths. If there is one thing I’ve despaired of in looking at the bikes at NAHBS, it has been that the number of rando bikes vs. the number of full suspension mountain bikes does not square with the number of people doing those two things in this world. I was acutely aware that in giving a nod to a full-suspension mountain bike we would be telling the world that the awards NAHBS gives are pretty equal opportunity. The awards can’t only be about pretty. We need to recognize creativity across the board. In giving the award to Altruiste, I think that message will begin to get out.

The subject I keep returning to, though, concerns society. We have a lot of questions about what our political process should be, about what the healthy reach of social media looks like and how we achieve that, about how we treat women. I’m not the guy to answer any of those questions, nor do I wish to entertain a conversation on those topics here. I’d like, instead, to consider a small slice of that last issue: the treatment of women in cycling. On this subject I have two questions. Both are normative. The first is: What do we want the participation of women in cycling to look like? The second question is also normative, but adds in a dollop of saltation. That question is: What could women’s participation in cycling look like?

Imagine for a moment that women represented 50 percent of all cyclists—in each and every discipline. From track to trials,  from group rides to gravel grinders, half of everyone you saw on a bike was a woman. Think about what that increase in population would mean for our visibility on the road, literally, as well as what it would mean figuratively in our visibility in the political process. Think about what that would mean for bike shops. Think about how that would play out for viewership numbers for races, both in-person and on TV. And think about what that would mean for advertising and sponsorship.

There’s a simple piece of math here—with greater numbers comes more sponsorship. That’s bigger sponsors entering cycling as well as all sponsors spending more money. And the amazing thing is that with a bigger audience to reach, not only do the women do better in their sponsorship, the men do as well.

Unlike with volcanos, we don’t have to destroy our world to make it fresh and healthy. From more participants at cycling events to bike shop revenue, every direction I shine the light, cycling looks healthier and more vibrant if more women participate. The question I put to us isn’t Do we want that? To argue against more women participating is to argue against a healthy sport. The question, really, is:

How do we get there?


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  1. Tominalbany

    I think about why I’m into it. It’s because the bike resonated with me at a very young age (Independence and mobility!) AND I saw Greg LeMond arguing with his team car about beating Hinault or supporting Hinault. (Boy I really wish he’d have taken a shot at Hinault!)

    Anyway, we keep things open for our son and daughter. and don’t discourage either based on gender. A potential role model for cycling for my daughter (besides me!) is her 3rd/4th grade teacher’s daughter, Emma White. (Look her up. She’s the real deal…) We’ve followed her races (road and CX) and spoken about results and the hard work Emma put in.

    My daughter’s looking to buy a bike with gears next (she’s 10). Not sure if she’s big enough for a 24″ wheel bike yet. I’ll take her to the shop in the next few weeks. Hopefully it finally warms up enough around here that she’ll want to ride!

    I want to raise two cycling enthusiasts. There’s no telling which path they’ll choose but, I make sure we get out on wheeled toys as often as possible regardless of season. (skooters, bikes). But, I chose the bike on my own. Neither parent did much but make sure I had a bike to ride..

  2. Winky

    Safer streets is the area on which I’m primarily focused. Women’s participation at the grassroots level is reduced by the perception of the safety of cycling on our roads.

    This is a million miles from discussion of equal prize-money for the vanishingly small percentage of women who are paid to ride their bikes. Equal prize-money is where I’d end up only once everything else was fixed, not where I’d begin. In-between is the necessary adjustment in attitude by many of the sports’ (male) participants. Reading about , hearing about and actually witnessing some of the shit that goes down is depressing to say the least.

    Riders – be inclusive and friendly, not creepy. Be supportive not egotistical (you can get those intervals done after the club ride – and no-one cares how fast you are except you – it’s true).

    Shop-guys – be helpful, not dismissive (you don’t know what any customer does or doesn’t know or what they need until you LISTEN to them).

    Manufacturers – stop making assumptions about “what women want” (get the sizes and function right – the colours will work themselves out – this seems to be getting way better already).

    Female riders in my life have attested to all these things as being issues that affect them to a greater-or-lesser extent, but really, the people who have been most affected are the females who don’t ride because of these sorts of things.

    1. Author

      Prize money is on my mind as well. I see that as a canary that can indicate a lot, but certainly not the be-all issue. I’ll get to it in another post.

    2. Girl

      I completely agree with all of your points, Winky. I serve on our local Bicycle Safety Commission (which is 50-50 male/female). I think the greatest concern of the females is safer streets. People will not ride if they are afraid of traffic, and they will not encourage (allow?) their children to do so, either. My parents (especially my mom) were overprotective, but their childhood recollections of safe streets (less traffic, polite drivers, fewer distractions) served my ends; they thought cycling was safe for me, so they let me do it. And as I got older, I was allowed to travel farther, because they felt it was a safe activity. Of course, now I will ride as drivers zip past at 50+ mph, hoping they don’t hit me. But I cannot expect most people (male or female) to feel this is a good idea. My hope is that greater involvement of women in cycling will evoke that “saltation event”–a cultural change that focuses on the safety of the vulnerable (cyclist, pedestrian) over the convenience and “rights” of the powerful (automobile).

    3. AC

      If there’s a single factor that would help road cycling, it is safer streets. More education for drivers, more education for cops who don’t even cite drivers that kill cyclists, and harsher penalties for drivers. (side note… not to get back to that boycott thread, but why is a shooting labeled gun violence while a driver mowing down a cyclist is an ‘accident’ and the media feels compelled to note whether the rider had a helmet on).

      IMO the prize $ discussion is a huge waste of time, most of the time. Perhaps podium finishers should receive the same, but beyond that, paying 1/2 field in one class and 5% in another is neither fair nor equal. I would encourage promoters to get rid of prize $ for amateurs completely. Use it to lower the cost of racing for all instead. Or shift toward larger classes, like fondo type events, where the economic issue to the promoter of a large payout for a small turnout is muted.

  3. Shawn

    “By offering certain rewards we can guide the creatives toward certain paths.”

    But if they followed those paths, would they not be reactives, not creatives? Creatives march to the beat of their own drums. They suffer for it. Sacrifice for it. Experience definitional passion. They are in to things others aren’t; they are only geniuses (or “creatives”) if their beat catches on.

    1. Author

      Great point. Some creatives can’t be coaxed on one direction or another. And that’s just fine.

    2. Shawn

      But to answer the questions: I want women’s cycling to look like the look on my daughter’s face after a couple hours of shredding. She’d rather hit the trails than the mall. She’d rather pedal than steer. She has crowns and gold cups, and they’re not the Disney Princess kind. More of that, and the rest of women’s cycling falls in to place.

  4. Quentin

    As it happens, I just spent today walking around Amsterdam, which is an eye-opening experience for an American cyclist. Of the massive number of cyclists I saw, I’d say half were women. As a man I have the privilege of not needing to think much about my safety in many situations where the average woman does. My wife is more of a runner than cyclist, and in more than one place we have lived she has modified a habitual running route in response to encounters with creepy men of various sorts. Meanwhile, I’ve been riding my bike basically anywhere I feel like since I was a teenager without giving it that much thought. I think many women would just as soon not have to think about their safety in any more situations than they do already, so cycling falls of the list of recreational activities, and the gym or treadmill it is. I don’t think women will take up cycling in urban areas until good infrastructure exists. It’s my understanding that Amsterdam got the way it is due to a conscious decision decades ago, because there was a time when cyclists were getting killed by cars just like they still are in American cities now.

    A couple of years ago I learned that my sister, who had never previously shown any interest in cycling, had gone and bought herself a new road bike because she had got involved in a women-only group ride and was going to do a women-only non-competitive cycling event. I think those kinds of events are a great non-threatening way to get women to try it out.

    1. Shawn

      I really like this comment. Essentially, make — through decency and infrastructure — a world where biking for women is a normal part of life they can do without weighing consequences. Your post makes me see that my comment is limited: it’s fine for young women who have a more sport-oriented interest in cycling (a traditionally male-ish outlook, arguably), but it just doesn’t translate to the vast untapped population of women on 2 wheels. Cheers.

  5. Michael

    Quentin and Winky have some good comments/ideas. I think about my reaction, as a male, when someone yells at me or throws a bottle at me when I am out on the road. I feel threatened, and angry, but I don’t assume I’ll see that again on that ride, or any time soon. What if, instead, it was really common to have people yelling things at you, perhaps threats? My wife definitely feels that.

    On the volcanoes: as a volcanologist, I just want to say that volcanoes are the ultimate sources of nearly all our air, water, and soils. They are good, and many do this without much destruction at all. There are a few bad apples out there, though….

  6. Aar

    I like the comments of both Winky and Quentin too. Particularly as it pertains to making cycling safer.

    Asking about prize money and other aspects of current cycling culture might be anti-creative (or just not creative enough). One of my favorite truisms is that the significant challenges we face today can not be solved by the thinking that created them. No matter how much us men (the author and all commentors so far appear to be male, self included) might want to drive the change that brings ladies into “our sport”, we need to relinquish ownership and allow women to lead themselves into a cycling culture that they own. For that, cycling needs female leaders who want to involve other ladies, not to conform to the existing male dominant paradigm that exists in cycling today.

    A good place to start might be identifying female leaders in cycling today and asking them what they need to do to get their non-cycling friends to get on a bike regularly, then empower them to do those things without fear of failure (I know, a bit utopian). Anyway, I’m thinking of the female CEO of ENVE, the ladies who brought cycling infrastructure to Portland and NYC and others like them. Yet, I have the full realization that ladies who are successful in cycling today got there by conforming to the existing culture. So, looking to them as a bridge to the ladies they “recruit” and maybe a few iterations of recruitment beyond that may build the types of leaders who can create a cycling culture that is inviting enough to females that we start to reach gender parity. It sounds like a long process but the way to accelerate it is to provide funding for it. “Here’s some money, go recruit ladies into cycling” doesn’t sound too creepy, does it?

    I truly hope our cycling culture successfully bridges the gender gap. It will be a very different culture as a result. I suspect I’ll like it better than what we have today.

    1. Aar

      Part of what I was trying to say above was that I don’t think we get more ladies involved by changing cycling competitions. I think we involve ladies by enabling ladies to socialize cycling amongst themselves in ways that appeal to ladies from product design, through shopping to experiencing. Along the way, gentlemen cyclists may just find the ways that ladies cycle are more appealing than the way we are cycling today.

  7. Tim

    I really think there are two different parts to this problem. There’s the actual act of bike riding itself and then there’s cycling culture. They are definitely related but they aren’t the same thing. Please note that I’m basing this off of my experiences in various cities in Australia but I assume that it has at least some similarities to the situation in the USA and probably other places as well.

    I’m only taking a rought guess here but I would say that on average bewtween 10 and 20% of cyclists that I see are female but most of them are what I would describe as casual or practical cyclists, very few of them are ‘serious’ cyclists (i.e. Dressed in lycra on a fancy road bike looking ready for a race). Of that ‘serious’ group I’d say it’s between 2 and 5% are female. That tells me that female cyclists don’t embrace the cycling culture in the same way that male cyclists do. I suspect the reasons for that are many an varied and some of them can be changed just by modifying cycling culture, some require changes in wider culture and the roles of each gender, and some are probably based in biological differences.

    I believe the biggest gains for increasing female participation can be made by focusing on making the act of riding a bike more accessible and less dangerous, as done in Amsterdam and elsewhere in Europe (as an added bonus it will likely improve male participation as well). Once that cycling base is increased there is more chance of female cyclists shaping their own culture to fit where they want to on the spectrum of cycling.

    As far as changing the existing cycling culture in Australia (and elsewhere), there is real room to improve when it comes to stopping sexist behaviour. If a group of cyclists want their group ride to be semi-competitive and somewhat ego driven then they should be able to do that, be they male or female, without being made to feel uncomfortable. For some people that type of group provides a level of motivation and excitement that they wouldn’t get otherwise. Other cyclist who want a less competitive, more socially based group ride, should be able to find one of those in their local area and hopefully not have it ruined by overly competitive individuals. By increasing the number of bike riders at a basic level we should be able to fill out every spot on the spectrum of cycling and increase the chances of females being able to find a like minded group ride in their area.

    That’s a long winded ramble for me to say that I believe by improving cycling infrastructure and reducing the acceptance of sexist and anti social behaviour is the only real avenue to increasing female participation in cycling. I think it is the only way to begin a gradual process that over time, might get the female participation rate close to 50%.

  8. Superdave

    This wave of fondos, “gravel” events and other participatory focused rides will lessen the barriers that can often intimidate new riders. We saw it in the 80s with running, late 90s/early 00s with triathlon and now with CrossFit/Mud Run/Spartan events. There will be an upswing of cyclists outside the more typical draws of TdF viewership inspiring MAMILs.

  9. David

    re: Quentin’s post: We were in Amsterdam last spring (a fantastic place to visit, even without the cycling!), and were also blown away by all the bikes, and the way cycling is part of the everyday fabric of life there. My wife was also struck at how few helmets she saw on riders (in fact, I think the only people with helmets we saw were those on high end road bikes who were obviously heading out of town for what was clearly a training ride). At dinner one evening we asked my friend (a native Hollander) about it, and he said that accidents between cyclists and motorists are apparently not common, and it may be because of the innate courtesy and deference that motorists give cyclists there. He thinks that is because all of those motorists are also cyclists themselves.

    Besides the obvious implications of that idea regarding the safety of cyclists and motorists sharing the same congested urban streets, I think there is a deeper one. It suggests that the act of riding changes your attitude towards public interactions with others in so many ways , and for the better. Food for thought- but I still can’t imagine riding without a helmet!

  10. Shawn

    Perhaps the answer is to adapt cycling to women rather than looking for ways to adapt women to cycling. There are a number of other sports/exercise activities where women’s participation rates exceed men’s.

    In Holland, cycling is a practicality. Unfortunately, that won’t happen in the USA until we run out of oil (or electricity), space, and love of autos. So maybe we should try to understand why women participate in greater percentage numbers in activities like dance, yoga/pilates, and gym activities — maybe less time/more intensity, regular schedule, less equipment investment, less risk of traumatic injury, convenience, social interaction, etc. — and see if any of those things can be ported to cycling. (It surely isn’t the fear of exertion while clipped-in: Spin/SoulCycle is all the evidence needed to show that women like to pedal and get a punishing workout….)

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