Before moving to Baltimore two years ago, community organizer Casey McKeel was the lone woman who co-founded a volunteer-run bike co-op in Lansing, Mich., a shop where people could both have their bikes fixed and learn to fix them. “Me and two other white heterosexual males, and I hadn’t really thought a lot about that dynamic before,” she says. “We’d all be in the shop and, time and again, people would go straight to the men in the shop, assuming that they were the ones who knew the answer to something.”
It’s a phenomenon that McKeel has since had cause to examine, having met others with similar experiences. And recently, she and a small group of other cycling advocates—including Rebecca Lopes, Tiffany Finck-Haynes, Myloh “Bones” Jackson, Sandra Morrison, and Gabby Vigo—launched an antidote: Baltimore Bearings, a women, transgender, and queer bike collective. The members met through various DIY local bike endeavors and rallied around the observation that, even in cycling, white male heterosexuality remains the social norm.
They aren’t the only ones taking note. In late May, on Bicycle Times magazine’s blog, Jill Missal, the founder of geargals.com, penned a detailed reply to an April Bicycle Retailer and Industry News blog post that explored cycling’s proverbial elephant in the room: The industry has had zero growth since 1990. One of the key factors in this flat-line growth, in Missal’s opinion, is the industry’s sidelining of female consumers: “Professional women over thirty are a fast-growing consumer market because we have money to spend on ourselves. Lots of us ride bikes and have great careers so why would we spend time with idiots who talk down to us, demean us, and condescend to us?”
While Missal directly addresses cycling’s retail industry, what’s at stake here isn’t merely market equity. What Bearings and other radical biking organizations want isn’t merely better consumer choices, but a cycling culture in which all riders take part in their community’s cycling conversations.
The goal, plain and simple, is more people on bikes. “One of the things I’ve noticed a lot, especially in Baltimore, is that biking isn’t a sport and a leisure for everyone,” McKeel says. “For some people it’s their only mode of transportation and it can be viewed almost as some sort of negative thing—it means that you’ve lost your license or you can’t afford a car. It doesn’t mean, I can afford this really awesome bike and I have the ability to ride it to work. And so one thing that I’d like to see is those communities that are riding bikes for [reasons other than leisure] to have some voice in shaping bicycle advocacy. I think people within the cycling community are recognizing the need to have greater diversity within who is making these decisions and having a voice in these decisions.”
Baltimore Bearings began to take shape last summer, when McKeel and a few other women started the Ladies Ride, an all-women group ride. (They’re planning to expand it to a women, trans, and queer ride this summer.) After one such ride in August, Finck-Haynes, Morrison, and Vigo grabbed a bite to eat and started talking. “We were like, ‘It would be so cool if we had our own shop that was run by women and we were actually able to call the shots and had this other space where guys weren’t taking our tools out of our hands,’” Finck-Haynes says. “At this point it was more a theoretical idea, and then we got a meeting together and contacted a few other people and decided to do it.”
Myloh “Bones” Jackson, who joined subsequent meetings, was one of those they contacted. “There was a women and trans night [at Station North’s Velocipede Bike Project] but I think it excluded certain people who identified as queer and who don’t necessarily want to go into a space that looks mainly even female-bodied,” Jackson says. “And so it definitely excluded trans masculine folks who wanted to be in that space but felt awkward. So we talked about who we wanted to appeal to, who we wanted around, to make sure that the people that were there were people who felt comfortable, who wanted to have that kind of safe space. We’re open to all people—we just want people to know that it’s run by women, trans, and queer-identified folks.” (McKeel, Finck-Haynes, and Vigo are all former Velocipede regulars.)
The group found a home for Bearings in the BrickHaus Art Center in North Baltimore, founded by Ben Graham-Putter and Adam Farkas, adding to the already impressive hub of creative workers in a former A&P Grocery building on Greenmount Avenue. Bearings has created a compact shop a quick ride or walk from upper Charles Village, Waverly, or Remington, all neighborhoods lacking bike shops at the moment. They want it to be both a functional bike shop, staffed by members and volunteers capable of handling tune-ups or mechanical problems, and a school where bike expertise is shared. The shop opened in early June, with classes and other events slated for the entire month (see bmorebearings.org for more details).
The group also hopes to become a part of the community in which the shop resides. “I think it’s going to be really awesome to reach out to neighborhood people, when they find out that we’re here,” Jackson says. “So instead of saying, ‘Hey can you fix this for me?,’ we can say, ‘Yes, but, do you want to come next Thursday night? We’re going to be working on brakes.’ Because part of this project is us learning too. If you want to come in here and just learn how to change a tire, that’s cool. We want people to come in here not knowing anything and be comfortable asking anything and not feel intimidated by anyone.”