Ladies: Are bike shops *still* failing us?

I can’t tell you how many emails I receive from women who want advice on how to buy a bike. Many of them are intimidated, frustrated or even scared. They feel that they don’t know what to say or ask. That they’re spoken down to.

They have no idea where to start – they just know that they want to ride bikes.

They know they’re smart enough, savvy enough, strong enough and brave enough. They just aren’t sure what all that techno-mumble-jumble crap that is coming out of the salesperson’s mouth means. But they’re pretty sure they’re being had.

Are they? Are we?

Everyday more and more women are climbing onto bicycles. It’s our time. We’re here and we’re ready to ride. Are bike shops ready for us? What’s your experience? Do you have ideas on how bike shops can be better?

Do you have a story to share?

Let it rip.

I’ve been contacted over the past few months by several large companies (a shop included) to help them figure out how to better serve us. I’m excited, energized and enthusiastic about it – and I have commitments from them that they will be willing to take risks, trust me, and do what it takes to truly make a shift-change.

What do they need to hear?

Today I’m asking specifically about bike shops but I promise later to also address the question of the larger industry. We’re making strides, to be sure, but we’ve got a long way to go.

Take a moment, if you will, and leave me a comment. Tell me about your bike shop experiences – good and bad. What’s working? What’s not? What can retailers do to make it easier and more comfortable to shop in their stores?

I appreciate your input. And – if you don’t feel comfortable sharing with the public here (I encourage you to do so, the dialogue will be interesting) – feel free to use the contact form to send me a note directly.

Whole lotta grit,

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  1. I live in Chicago and, like Step Through, use my bike solely for transportation. I’ve been riding in Chicago for about 10 years, and, in the beginning, I just expected to be treated like an idiot in bike shops and would only go if I needed something done that I didn’t know how to do myself. Now I wonder if I was partly treated that way because I expected to be – you know how people can sense that kind of thing. Anyway, I eventually found Uptown Bikes and felt like they listened to me and gave excellent service. I’ve been loyal to them ever since.

    More relevant to this discussion is that I have spent a tremendous amount of time during the past year talking to different bike shop owners about this very issue. Obligatory background: like other people have mentioned, I was always frustrated by not having the accessories I wanted, particularly attractive ways to carry things. As an industrial designer, one day a friend and I decided to just make them ourselves. I’m including the link not (just) for self-promotion, but to give you an idea of how different our bags are from other bags in the marketplace:

    I remember actually feeling nervous about taking these bags to bike shops to see if they would carry them, thinking that they wouldn’t “get it” and I would be laughed out of the store. To my pleasant surprise, most owners were very interested in the product from the get-go, despite the completely different look and higher pricepoint. They often confessed that they realized they didn’t have a good grasp on what women wanted. I’ll break it down this way: of the, say, 15 stores I initially talked to, we were laughed out of 3 (20%), carried without hesitation by 7 (47%), and carried with hesitation by 5 (33%). The hesitant contingent would usually have to check with a girlfriend or wife first before making the purchase. As far as I can tell, the wife or girlfriend always gave an enthusiastic thumbs up.

    I found this experience to be quite encouraging because it showed me that it’s more about being under informed than being an “old boys club” with no hope of infiltrating or changing. I think having more women active in the industry (manufacturing, retail, buying, consuming, etc) will undoubtedly help show everyone which needs overlap and which needs are unique. Pink isn’t a solution, nor is a crappy inexpensive substitute.

    Thanks for starting this conversation.

  2. I’m never sure if it’s my bike shop or if it’s me. I guess I feel the same way about going in to a bike shop as going in to a comic book shop. Like I’m new to the school & I’m trying to sit at the cool kids table. Not because bike or comic book people are cooler than other people. It’s a clique thing.

    I think that’s just me because they’re always nice and helpful. It’s just that I need to get up the nerve to ask the questions.

    The thing that they do wrong (and this is not just with women) is they guess too quickly what kind of a cyclist you are and then run with that category despite evidence to the contrary.

    Recently I wanted to buy a touring bike for commuting. I already had a hybrid style bike and wanted to move on to something a little different. Because I said the word ‘commute’ they seemed to assume I was riding 3- 6 miles a day & I was riding a lot more than that… which was why I wanted a different style of bike.

    I think there is an issue in bike shops where the people who work there belong to one ‘tribe’ of cyclists or another. They’re in the ‘road’ tribe or the ‘mountain’ tribe. If you’re not a member of the tribe they’re either trying to push you in or guessing at your needs in a way that shows that they really can’t understand why anyone would bike your way.

    I think that was a mostly nonsensical rant. I hope you find at least some part of it helpful.

  3. Dwainedibbly

    Frankly, if you’re not a hardcore recreational cyclist, most shops around here seem to go out of their way to try to intimidate, regardless of your gender. I don’t think it’s a cycling-specific thing, though. I’ve seen the same thing at sailboat dealers, surf shops, etc. I think it must be a macho thing.

  4. I’ve been riding as a commuter for seventeen years. I’ve lucked out with most of the bike shops I’ve patronized–though I rarely had a female mechanic or retail assistant, I was treated without condescension.

    The only outrageous experience I had was in the mid-Nineties with a shop in San Francisco that called itself (Something) Revolution–I’ve forgotten the first term in the name. My expectations were pretty high for a place that promised to be revolutionary. I went in to get a kickstand for my bog-standard, modest hybrid bike.

    The jackass minding the store guffawed in horror, disgust, and amusement–why, this dumb little woman wants to clutter up her bicycle with a kickstand!! Next she’ll be wanting fenders or a chainguard!!

    He responded in careful, sarcastic, snotty tones that attaching a kickstand would “slow the bike down.” At no point had I mentioned ambitions to ride the Tour de Femme or the Olympics Trials, so I have no idea where he acquired the idea that I gave a fig about my $250 bike’s speed.

    Much as I wanted to punch him in the mouth, I just turned around and left the shop, which failed as a business a few months later. There is justice, eventually.

  5. Here’s a tip…best question you can ask any customer, male or female in a bike shop….I was looking for something for my mtn bike (don’t remember what) & went to a shop I had not been to before…they asked “Where do you like to ride?” When I mentioned some of the tougher local trails they did look a little surprised, me being a middle aged woman and all, but instantly gave me good advice relevant to my riding. And it sounds friendly, even to someone who just wants to ride on the bike path.

  6. This just in …

    The #whyweride blog ( now has a map of female friendly bike shops. And better yet, you can share your own favorites!

  7. Like Step-Through, my interest is in cycling as transportation, and the lack of appropriate gear currently on the North American market has led me to vintage roadsters off Craigslist and Kijiji, NOS parts from eBay, and a lot of DIY in my future.

    Here in Edmonton we’re fortunate to have a bicycle coop with a women-only day every two weeks, which makes going in to ask questions and get advice less intimidating.

    Shop staffers I’ve encountered have varied, from eager to learn what I’d like them to be carrying, to friendly and happy to recommend the mechanics at a different local shop who know more about English-made bikes – who I’ve not tried yet. I’ve also encountered staff at more than one shop who were dismissive (“Why would you want to weigh your ride down with that?” with a sneer when I asked about front baskets, “You should just bring it in for us to tune up” with an assumption that I’m not capable of adding a little of the oil I’ve just asked for to a Sturmey-Archer coaster hub without screwing up the bike. I’ve also been ignored for the first fifteen minutes I’ve been in the shop while I’ve browsed (basic customer service: say hello and ask if you can help, please).

    I’d like bike shops to carry decent child seats (like Bobike’s), baskets capable of holding a couple of bags of groceries, chainguards (or chaincases) and fenders to replace the ones that have been stripped off older commuter bikes during the fads for racing and BMX, and harder-to-find items that are commonplace in Europe like skirt/coatguards and cupholders. I’d like to ride my bicycle in my everyday clothes, and have a cute helmet that goes with everything. I’d like the staff to have a healthy respect for a bicycle that was designed for durability, ease of maintenance, and occasional use, instead of smirking about how heavy it is (I’m riding it, not carrying it or racing it).

  8. Kathleen D. Parker

    I bought a new bike almost 40 years ago now. It was a Raleigh 10 speed and I loved it. I had regular handlebars put on it, ( instead of the racing bars that were so popular ) and i also had them remove “The Bar” You know, the one that makes it a man’s bike. lol Anyway, the shop followed my wishes and I road that bike for many years. Now my daughter rides it in her college town. I have bad hips and a worse back, so today I’m considered lucky that I can walk, much less pedal. But I have wonderful memories of that bicycle and the freedoms I found while riding it.

  9. This is an excellent topic, and I’m glad that it is somewhere where it can be discussed by a broad range of women, instead of lots of us talking about it to each other in isolated little conversation.

    As an elite racer and as a woman who has worked in shops I think that over the past several years service to women who want to ride has gotten better and better, especially as the industry has slowly come to the understanding that yes, women do want to, and will spend money on bikes and bike things. Having worked in two shops I can say from experience that the treatment that women get in shops is totally dependent on the shop owner and their business philosophy. If the owner recognizes women as valuable customers than he/she will train their staff (hopefully) accordingly.

    The first shop I worked at was terrible at selling things to women, partly because even if I was excited to talk to the woman, the whole air in the shop was one of contempt, and of course she would usually end up leaving. The second shop was much better, and they actually stocked women’s products and supported women in general.

    However, another note is that it’s not always easy to be a woman working in a bike shop. We’re talking about women being intimidated by bike shop employees, how about the other way around. I’ve lost count of how many men AND women coming into bike shops simply would not listen to a thing I had to say about bikes because they already assumed that I knew nothing. Oftentimes these people would leave with a bike, after I gave up and let one of my male co-workers go and sell them something.

    Women in all facets of the industry, be they customers, employees or industry workers need to be treated with respect, and if we don’t know something that doesn’t mean that we are stupid, or unwilling to learn.

    I also think that the supposed air of intimidation in bike shops hurts the customer/shop employee relationship even before they come in the door. I had so many customers that spent the first five minutes of our conversation eyeing me like I was some sort of bird of prey, as though I didn’t care one bit about what they bought as long as they dumped half their wallet at me. Negative. And thankfully many of these people came around and actually admitted to this after they realized that I didn’t want their money, I wanted them to leave with a bike they would be happy with for a long time.

    But I digress. I think that in general the woman/bike shop relationship has made strides, but it has a long way to go.

  10. I’m also from Chicago, though I just moved here in August and only started riding a bike in October (this. was. major.). I had bike friends and had been into plenty of bike shops back in Austin and even owned some bikes, but the culture there at every level for so dude-centric that it was indeed intimidating for a girl who knew absolutely nothing about bicycles.

    In Chicago I’ve had a totally opposite and wonderful experience with people from Working Bikes, Blue City, West Town, and Rapid Transit. The most obvious thing in all those cases are that they have savvy women on staff (and as an owner for Blue City I know). I have to say though that the whole cycling culture here feels a lot more inclusive and positive than it did at home (but as has been mentioned, maybe that had more to do with my own insecurities and concerns than the actual environment).

  11. Heidi,

    I am bike mechanic at Chicago’s Rapid Transit Cycle Shop, I also coordinate events and classes for the shop. Maria from PoCampo is one of our valued customers and we are happy to carry her bags, we are even arranging a bike winter fashion show to advertise all our local made wares. Currently we support local female artists such as PoCampo, Floyd Boberg, Elise Robison and many more.

    I am a man, and we have mostly male mechanics, we do usually have one female mechanic during the busy part of the year as well. Of course some of our balance comes from our female owner, our female general manager, two female buyers and female sales staff. We really strive to be a neighborhood bike shop and cater to everyone equally. I am not interested in harboring a macho front, bikes are for all.

    I have started working on events specifically for women, our classes so far have been a very even mix. I am really interested in your research and I am dedicated to making our shop a place where anyone would feel welcome and at home. Please consider us a resource and if there is anything I, or any other Rapid Transit staff member can do for you, we are happy to help.

    Keep Rolling,
    -Robby S

  12. Gear. I’m talking about bike shorts, rain pants, camelpacks, etc for big girls. I don’t want to get into a moralistic food conversation or anything. . . I’m a size 16, I’ve been steadily losing weight since I started bike commuting last year, and it’s a slow, healthy, no-yoyoing process. However, until I get my butt size down to a size twelve or below, I can’t find bike clothes that fit. I’m not racing or anything, so I’m not as worried about getting flashy spandex, but I’d pay a lot of money for some rain pants that not only fit, but fit over something underneath.

  13. I’m not a racer, but have two bikes for commuting, errands and just fun. I don’t own a car.

    Bike shops where I live (Denmark) would go out of business if they didn’t cater to women as more than half their customers are women.

    When I visit the US and Canada I mostly find very different shops. They are filled with guys and there is a cloud of testosterone in the air. The staff and other customer are often condescending.

    I know there are exceptions, but the difference between the average shop in København and most American towns is dramatic.

    It has been said that women are an indicator species for biking. When you have a lot of bikers, you have about half of them being women. When there are few bikers, they are mostly men.

    Women should go out of their way and trade at shops that make an attempt to understand us. Vote with your business.

  14. I purchased my BIANCHI road bike in 2004 from River City in PDX Oregon. While I love this bike, I have discovered that the chain is not a Campanolo chain. The bike was supposed to be sold with Camagnolo Mirage/ Veloce components. Is there any recourse I can take? I have asked other bike shops and the sales staff said that the bike should have been sold with a Campy chain.

  15. Just came across this doing some research… I own a bike shop in Bloomington, IL. It rocks (if I do say so myself) and my Friday Night Girls Only rides are the BEST attended in the area. If you own or run a bike shop and do not cater to and recognize women as a major market, you’re crazy! Recognizing what women want, and making them feel comfortable when they come in is one of the best things we have done so far.

  16. Hey Girls,

    what do you think about bike shops only for women? I mean shops with bikes and great variety of clothes and shoes only for girls.


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