Amy Johnson, Timberley Jones, and Natalia Vargas
We tend to take for granted the things and people that are always around. Some of that is normal — an unfortunate part of being human — and some of it is willfully ignorant but can be remedied the moment we decide to see and appreciate more, and see them more clearly.
The Invisible Cyclist in a Myth
Invisibility plagues our cycling community in more ways than one. For some riders, recognition is a long way away because we’re still fighting for representation. For others, their seats at the table when identifying problems (the only way to solve them) are thoughtlessly given away. And for all of us, we somehow get stuck with the burden of proving that we aren’t to blame when a reckless, inattentive, or aggressive motorist drives their vehicle into our unprotected, armor-less bodies, claiming they simply didn’t see us. In which case, the invisible cyclist is a myth.
Bike Crash vs. Bike Accident
At Bike Law, we understand the glaring difference between a bike crash and a bike accident. One is preventable, the other an act of God. And while intent may not be the catalyst for either, the outcome is still riddled with significant harm. The crash epidemic rages on, and until the number of vulnerable road users who pay for walking and bicycling with their lives is zero, it is up to all of us to do what we can when we can to make our roads safe for everyone who shares them.
We’re All in This Together
I’ve always said that we’re all in this together. I believe it to be true. Even in the most polarized of climates, the bike has a natural way of bringing people together who might otherwise never cross paths. I personally attribute most of the joy and growth in my life to the relationships and experiences that come from the bike. And the women with whom I’ve ridden and become dear friends are the reasons I do what I do everyday; the reasons that even though people call me on their worst days, the feeling of defeat is always overpowered by hope, my desire for justice, and love.
Today, on the eve of Women’s Cycling Day, I want to talk about why, in a time when destruction and division are inescapable in so many ways, the bicycle continues to serve as a binding and building tool: With every pedal stroke, we strengthen our bodies, minds, and communities. We connect with the world and the environment in a different way. It’s more intimate. And honest. And bicycling pays it forward for others, too. The more people that ride, the safer and healthier our world becomes.
Women on Bikes: Amy, Timberely & Natalia
Amy Johnson (Bike Law Tennessee), Timberley Jones (Owner of Spokes Digital Media, cyclist, crash victim, and advocate from Atlanta, GA), and Natalia Vargas (new roadie, veteran bicyclist, and budding Florida bike advocate) have unique perspectives on the importance of the bike, the role it plays in their personal and professional lives, and the reasons that riding is an irreplaceable staple even after experiencing things like the injustice of a crash. And I have a special appreciation for the ways that each of these women play necessary roles in growing female ridership and how they do it together as part of the same team, even though they’ve never met.
Timberley (who I met for the first time at the same GA Cyclocross event where I met Katrena Hunter and her son, Josh) explains the fluid evolution of her relationship with cycling:
“It’s a lifetime partnership. I’ve dipped and dabbled in a lot of different bike things and the journey continues. I thought I wanted to ride competitively then I realized, I like riding a bike so I don’t have to workout. So my bicycle relationship moved toward transportation and lifestyle because I believe a body in motion is the way to sustainable long term health. Then, I figured if I’m going to be biking everywhere I need to learn how to perform maintenance. Working in the shop was fun but, all I thought about was being outside and actually riding my bike. Then I moved on to being an advocate talking about diversity and inclusion and being on the team that launched Bike Share. That journey was also fun and included a lot of learning lessons.”
“When I was consistent with attending conferences I still felt like there is something else out there for me in the bike industry. I did not enjoy spending time in cold conference rooms or having conference organizers take or ask for my intellectual property and not be willing to compensate me. One of my favorite bike adventures was my 700 mile self supported bike tour. I connected with communities along the way and grew my Spokes Digital Media brand. That’s my sweet spot out riding enjoying nature and still having the opportunity to connect and engage with people. I had to take some time off to plan my family. I can’t wait to plan my next long distance bike adventure. As a new Mom my current relationship with bicycles includes riding close to home along the Westside Atlanta Beltline. I haven’t rode in traffic since I got hit in April 2019. My brand Spokes Digital Media is empowering and encouraging bicycle content creators to document and share their unique journey.”
Every part of Timberley’s life has been touched in an impactful way by the bike. And as her life and interests, responsibilities, and schedule changes, her relationship with cycling does too. It’s that kind of flexibility and awareness that are useful tools she uses in her work as an important woman in the scalable growth of safe bicycling.
Amy Johnson can easily say the same. As a Bike Law attorney, she’s not only a woman who rides, but one who helps to protect and represent other women (and men) who share her passion during their most desperate times of need. As a mother, wife, and advocate, too, there is an ebbing and flowing of deep, personal feelings that impact the way she gives her best to those around her. Like Timberley, she reflects on how some things may change, and others remain the same:
“My relationship with the bike is like an old friend you can pick back up with where you left off no matter how long it has been since you’ve seen each other. I am looking forward to getting back into it in a way that I have not been for 5 years.”
But while she always finds herself back in the saddle, there are other parts of her multifaceted involvement with cycling that have been impacted by her experience as a bicycle crash lawyer with an inside look at things that many others don’t (or choose not to) see.
She continues to say, “I’ve decided that enforcement is problematic, and while I have long thought that alternative sentencing as opposed to incarceration is the appropriate punishment, I am rethinking the whole idea of enforcement as a big part of the 3 e’s . I’ve started paying attention to advocates such as Courtney Williams on Twitter who have been decrying enforcement as part of vision zero for a while now. Current events have also brought back old feelings and memories. Right now all of the people I am advocating for are white and fairly well off, and I’m not saying they don’t deserve an advocate; they do. But, I’m far removed from my original bike advocacy beginnings where I saw the bike as a tool for someone to improve their life. I saw the bike as an equalizer and a social justice tool. I represented indigent people trying to keep a minimum wage job, and gave them bikes, or plugged them into the local bike co-op. I coached an inner city swim team, and walked with families who were struggling, teaching them how to swim, and sharing the usefulness of bikes with them. I’m so far removed from that time in my life right now.”
Amy goes on to say, “Personally, lack of childcare during non work hours, and being overworked and having too much on my plate during working hours have been my biggest challenges. The women’s specific group rides I would like to go on given my current fitness level are offered during non working hours when I don’t have access to childcare. The leaders of women’s riding groups are my heroes. I think I am just a few months away from being able to get back into regular cycling as my kids get older.”
Motherhood, our careers, lack of accessibility and resources for many, and too few hours in a day can make the squeeze felt by all of us seem tighter and tighter. But for every break we have to take from our beloved time in the saddle, our established presence and representation opens the door for new riders and women who are pedaling for the first time to take our place in the peloton and with fresh legs and a light heart, grow female ridership in ways that American cycling has never seen before.
Natalia started riding as a little girl in Puerto Rico, rode with her mother and siblings as a child, commuted as a college student, and began road riding 2 years ago.
She says enthusiastically, “I started riding in 2014 with a cruiser, then a commuter, and now a road bike! The bicycle is important to me because it allows me to cover a lot of territory and experience new adventures every day. You can be riding in the same area and discover something new. I also love experiencing the unexpected when I cycle. When I have difficult decisions to make, the bike is always there to guide me because it provides a different perspective and allows me to look at things from a different angle. As long as I’m healthy, the bike will always be there until my old age.”
It’s not easy finding membership to any club as an adult, especially when it’s dominated by men who oftentimes fail to see value in the numerous benefits women bring to riding bikes. Many women report being disrespected and spoken down to at shops. They have countless stories of mistreatment in group rides or by motorists who feel extra comfortable being aggressive or misogynistic towards cyclists just because they’re women.
But just like we’re seeing in the context of other current events and the panic that’s felt by some middle aged white guys who are desperate to hold on to their relevance, most women aren’t shying away from the challenges before them. We simply begin to do the work needed to fix the problems and move forward. Whether it’s a flat tire or time to split the atom, women are taking on the leadership roles that used to exclude us. The unknown, while intimidating at times, engenders a different response from women than men, too. We are more courageous. We are proving that we’re qualified. And we are more and more visible.
Natalia says, “A challenge for me right now is to learn bike maintenance. This is something that is difficult for me but necessary to learn. I think that maybe this is a struggle for some women. I will have to find someone to teach me bike maintenance or I will have to watch YouTube videos and try to do it myself.”
Getting More Women on the Bike
Timberley’s take on this resonates with me and Amy a great deal. She says, “I have accepted the reality that these streets are not made for us. After being hit by a car on 2 separate occasions I have changed my style and haven’t ridden in traffic. I want to be around to see the changes that we are fighting for be implemented.”
But she hasn’t given up at all. In fact, she is more deeply committed to leading and lifting up other women riders who might have lots or nothing in common with her other than a love and appreciation for the bike.
Timberley continues, “I believe it’s important for women to be connected to the community so they can get advice from other women. I support women making, creating and curating their own spaces. Women have a direct influence on the culture shift. Women have buying power. Women ride so they should be seen, heard, and be present when important decisions are being made. I believe we influence each other through actions. My brand Spokes Digital Media is on a mission to connect people through bikes. We’re influencing a culture and mindset shift by utilizing social media and entertainment to retain and encourage diverse riders. Imagine if bicycles crossed paths with other brands and industries outside of cycling. Bikes should have commercials during sporting events and prime time tv.”
Case and point: Our differences are so insignificant because we have so much that’s important in common.
With a shared approach to inviting other women to ride and feel comfortable doing so, Natalia adds, “Our community of women riders should reach out more to our female friends and do slow rides with them in order to encourage them to start cycling more. I think getting younger girls (for example, middle school aged and above) more involved with group cycling would be great (something similar to Girls on the Run). I have started a personal project where I edit a monthly video of my rides for that particular month and share it with my friends. I’m trying to make them fun and highlight all the positive things that I see while on the saddle. I think this is helping them see cycling in a more positive way. I want them to feel the happiness of cycling regardless of the kind of bike that you have, or how fast you go, or where you ride. As far as I’m concerned being on the bike is already all the fun you need.”
So what about the known risks and dangers that Timberley, Natalia, Amy, and I understand and have learned to manage? How do we convince others to join us if doing so puts them at risk? The overwhelming takeaway from these women as well as all the others with whom I’ve spoken and had the pleasure of spending time in the saddle is this:
Yes, there are dangers. Yes, there are risks. But we stand to gain so much more by opening our eyes, denouncing willful ignorance, and firmly planting our feet (and our tires) not in spite of, but because of the challenges that come with being a woman on a bike. We didn’t create these problems. But we are the solutions. Women on bikes will make bicycling safe. And there is no better time than the present. Now is now.
Timberley explains in more detail. “Using Webster’s definition of safe: free from harm or risk, secure from threat of danger, harm, or loss. No, I don’t think Atlanta is safe. This is not knocking the many advocates and professionals that work many hours trying to make it safe. Atlanta is bicycle friendly on paper but it’s not safe for bicycle riders or pedestrians. It’s not safe because as a culture we don’t value life and we have a lot of distractions. Our aggressive car culture has produced entitled and dangerous drivers. Also, our leadership talks a good game about improving infrastructure but that is a long and outdated process.”
The COVID Bike Boom
“But current events have had a positive effect on the bicycle industry. I could not contain myself seeing all the people and families on bicycles when we were shut down.The same Beltline that I supported or organized many rides along is being utilized by families on a regular basis. I love to see the city move through space on bicycles. Whatever new norms we are heading towards for the future I really hope it gives people time to utilize their new bikes and appreciate nature. I also hope cities start taking infrastructure more seriously. I gave birth in April so I was witnessing the bike movement while on my neighborhood walks. Even though I wasn’t biking I am blessed I was able to witness the movement. The simple act of riding a bike is growing in popularity across the United States. Bikes shops have been sold out and global supply chains are barely keeping up with demand. If you are a bicycle advocate, city planner, or lawmaker it is our job to figure out how we are going to keep the bicycle momentum going and the excitement flowing into a culture shift. Professionally, with my brand Spokes Digital Media I’m actively connecting with stakeholders discussing many outlooks and visions for the future. Will Craigslist have an abundance of bikes for sale in the upcoming months?”
“I’m interested in discussing how we’re going to retain the new and returning riders. How are we going to connect the riders to a community that offers support? How can we make aggressive drivers aware that they are out of control? How can we make it stick? How can people become advocates for safe driving in their peer and college circles?”
Natalia says, “I was a cyclist prior to the pandemic. Recent events have definitely highlighted the importance of cycling in my life. When everything shut down, I think that I had a low-key depression because we couldn’t go anywhere. But I always had my bike and cycling helped me to feel better. Bike riding also allows you to connect even more with the cycling community because it’s an activity that allows for socializing and exercising while also social distancing. I also remember seeing photos of cities that had cleaner air since no one could drive anywhere. That is also a case in favor of more cycling infrastructure. It’s good for our health and for the environment. And for those who cannot take public transportation due to COVID, bikes are there to get you to work. There are countless benefits! This year has definitely put a spotlight on bikes.”
I couldn’t agree more. Amy and I spend our days thinking about women like Timberley and Natalia. We are always scanning the horizon for additional ways to advocate for the kind of inclusiveness and change that will transform the role that bicycling has in American culture. We are looking for ways to grow our community. We know that the more of us there are, and the more diverse our community is, the safer we will be; the closer we get to the kind of balance needed to ride a bike being an honest reflection of how women are perceived and treated in all areas of our lives.
Amy adds, “being subjected to sexism, being the only female on a ride, being discounted in conversations, having to listen to sexist jokes and “locker room” talk” are things that need to change.” We need more “appreciation,” says Timberley. “If our culture wasn’t ass backwards people that ride bicycles would be praised instead of being on the receiving end of constant disrespect. Just because people don’t understand or don’t want to ride a bicycle does not make the people that want to ride less important to society. There also needs to be more representation from diverse women in marketing and ads. To give the younger generation hope.”
Natalia shared this with me: “When I was a teenager, I remember a driver who threw a soda cup at me as I cycled on the road. Last year, I remember some guys catcalling from a pickup truck that drove past me. On the positive side, I think that little kids and girls like seeing women cyclists. They always wave and cheer me on. For me, the spirit of cycling is all about adventure, freedom, exploration, awareness, mobility, and a deep connection to the world.”
For me, my love for the bike has grown deeper and my personal connection to the importance of cycling grows stronger and stronger because of the direct professional exposure I’ve had to women like Amy, Natalia, and Timberley and the challenges and injustices they’ve fought against and experienced. And the reason I am not afraid to get back in the saddle in spite of my own discouraging experiences and exposure to others’ pain is that I have found my sweet spot in this amazing peloton of female riders.
The safest, most comfortable way for me to encourage and advocate for other cyclists is by riding with the amazing women like these who invited me to join their club and welcomed me onto their team.