Exploring the Gender Gap: A Youth Perspective on Women and Cycling

Samara Cathirell Tweet us samaracath samaracath October 19, 2017 1 Comments

Samara is a sophomore at HB-Woodlawn Secondary School in Arlington, VA and has been involved with Phoenix Bikes since joining their Earn-A-Bike Club in elementary school. After being part of the youth mechanic program for several years, she was a founding member of Phoenix Bikes’ junior racing team. She currently races for Squadra Coppi.

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This blog was adapted from a keynote address given by 15-year-old Samara Cathirell on October 7 to the Youth Bike Summit in Arlington.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) reports that just 26% of cyclists in the greater metropolitan area identify as female. But, if you were to look into a spin class, the majority of the people exercising are female. Why is that? In an area rich in bike-friendly infrastructure as Northern Virginia and DC, where the trails are well-maintained and welcoming, why aren’t more women out riding?

Rude Comments and Shorter Race Times Add Up

Sometimes I go running with my mom and disgusting men passing in their cars will honk at us, as if to say we look beautiful. The first time it happened, I asked my mom, “Was he honking at us?” She said yes, and I realized society really hasn’t made it that far in terms of equality. There are still people who think women should care about every opinion they have about us. Sometimes, we are spoken to in a condescending tone and other times we get catcalled. I’ve learned that when stuff like this happens, the best thing to do is completely ignore the situation, because when bullies get attention, they get fuel. I do my best to just brush it off, but I never forget. I can’t help but wonder, “Is this one of the reasons why women don’t ride?”

There are subtle biases in bike racing as well. A women’s 15-18-year-old road race is sometimes two laps, while the equivalent men’s race is three laps. During DCCX, a popular regional cyclocross race, women in the “under the age of 19” category will race for 40 minutes, while the equivalent men’s race will last for 45 minutes. Time discrepancies between genders continue throughout all age and skill categories. Why, after all of these years, are women still treated as less than we really are? A few minutes here and there might not seem so bad, but if you are suppressed for long enough, you begin to internalize the bias and believe that there is no wrong to it. You just get used to it.

Once, during a road race, USA cycling officials messed up the results for my category. The four other girls and I who had made the podium realized the mistake and took it upon ourselves to let the officials know. One of the officials had the audacity to say to us, “Why do you girls even care? It’s just a race.” I was stunned. Would they say that to a group of men? In moments like that, I catch myself wondering if it’s even worth fighting for an equal playing field. Why do I even bother stressing so much on an issue that most likely won’t be fixed in my generation’s lifetime? But I believe that we, as a whole, have to at least make a dent in the damage created by people who came generations before us. In times as divisive as today, we can no longer afford to stand back and let other people fix our problems. We need to become our own best advocate.

Samara addressing the audience at the Youth Bike Summit in 2017

Samara addressing the audience at the 2017 Youth Bike Summit.

Working Toward Change

At Phoenix Bikes, Arlington’s non-profit bike shop and youth development program, we have two women-only programs. The first, All The Cycle Ladies, is for women who want to learn how to properly dress for the weather, stay safe while riding on the roads, and learn the fundamentals of bicycling. It encourages women to stay involved, or get back into cycling at an age where it may be less relevant in their daily lives. Our other program, Chainbreakers, founded by Evelyn Murcia, a bike mechanic at Phoenix Bikes, is a club that meets every few weeks. It has a similar focus to All the Cycle Ladies but is geared towards girls in middle and high school. Both of these programs exist as a way to engage girls and women in biking activities in an environment that is non-judgmental. Many bike shops host their own ‘women’s only’ events and there are countless women’s-specific cyclocross clinics held this time of year. Also, WABA has a very active ‘Women & Bicycles’ group. Phoenix Bikes, WABA and other great organizations have recognized a need and are working hard to encourage women to safely use cycling as a means of transportation, and make them feel more included in the cycling community.

Programs like these are important, but there are also steps to take as an individual. Write to the race directors when you notice an inconsistency in the race times for men and women. Call people out when you hear misogynistic or politically incorrect comments, and don’t just shrug it off.

I envision a future where men and women feel equally included in racing, and biking in general. A future where women are able to exercise without feeling objectified and everyone stops giving in to the subtle biases that have been bestowed upon us.


To learn more about this year’s Youth Bike Summit and their keynote speakers, visit YouthBikeSummit.org.

  • suzanne dingwell says:

    Samara, bravo! Your post is not only timely and relevant but also well-written. Thank you so much for taking the time to create it, and for the wonderful example you are setting in the community. Ride on!


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