She Bikes Charlottel

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About sixteen years ago I packed up all my belongings, as well as my daughter, and made a cross country, summer long move to Charlotte.  I made a month-long stop in Ripley Mississippi and worked briefly as a waitress there (not quite my skill set) before moving us out here to be close to my brother, as well as my X’s family.   My last few months in Seattle, during my free time, which was quite limited, I’d gotten back on the bike for the first time in six years. I’d been off a bike since we left Monterey, where I was a full time commuter.  I’d also been a full time commuter in San Francisco, which, despite being hilly, has been one of my favorite cities for cycling.

I drug my pawn shop bike that I’d purchased in Renton, Washington for $40 dollars, out to Charlotte thinking maybe I could pick up bike commuting where I’d left off.  I’d gotten a cheap car from my parents on my way to Charlotte and I wouldn’t be car free again (I never owned a car until I got married) for a lot of years. However, the job I found out in Ballentine was not convenient to my home in a tiny Elizabeth Quad apartment.  So I drove my entire first year. My second year in Charlotte I got a job at Park Road Montessori and sometimes I would commute to school down QRW to Freedom Park and across from there. At that time I was riding a Roadmaster mountain bike and trying my best not to get killed in this town that was all about cars.

At that time I hardly ever saw other bike commuters, and it was extremely rare (like unicorn rare) to see a woman riding a bike.  Needless to say, I did not commit fully to bike commuting at that time, though as soon as I could, I got my daughter on a bike. We’d practice in the big parking lot on a hill behind our quad which was not a great place to learn how to ride a bike, since once you got started on the downhill, it was hard to stop until you eventually ran into the peach and fig trees in the wild backyard of the house behind the lot (or learned to use the brakes).  Lots of skinned knees and tears later, Madison finally learned, and we started riding around the neighborhood together.

That was it for a long time, riding with Madison and doing the occasional, white knuckled ride out to school and back (which is a terribly long uphill on your way back to Elizabeth if you are riding a bad mountain bike).  Eventually we were living out in Plaza Midwood, where Madison was older, and I tended to commute more often, but still, it was all lone wolf style bike riding. Most people just didn’t ride in Charlotte, and that was that.  When people say now that riding in Charlotte is scary, I think back to those days, of seeing no bikes ever, and of not ever seeing any women riding bikes. That was mostly true even in San Francisco (most of my fellow commuters both there and in Monterey were men).

It was not until several years later that I met Pam, a tiny firestorm of a woman, who was and still is leading a ride out of Plaza Midwood, called the Tuesday Night Ride (shortened to PMTNR).  She was in the business of getting people on bikes, and she was serious about it. By then I’d begun working as a raft guide as well and riding out to USNWC on a bike to work sometimes. I still had a car, but found I was using it less.   I met a lot of people on those Tuesday Night rides that I’m still friends with today, but Pam was the first woman cyclist I met who did my style of cycling, which was commuting. Not only that but she lead a ride and also taught (and teaches) a cycling commuter class called Cycling Savvy.

At that time my daughter was in her “room” phase.  By that I mean it was difficult to get her out of her room.   She was in high school by then, and every Tuesday evening, I’d open her door and ask if she’d come go ride with me.  And every Tuesday she’d say no. But then one Tuesday she said yes, and to be honest, it kind of changed our lives little by little finding times to ride bikes together again–we hadn’t ridden bikes together since the time I’d driven out to McAlpine Greenway to ride bikes in the hot summer sun and found, only after I’d made her ride a mile or two and she was crying, that her tires were actually flat.   

That was one of the years that CMS cut the budget for assistants and I took a pretty big pay cut, which was coupled with my car needing a 700 dollar repair in order to get registered.  We talked about me changing jobs, but Madison reminded me that I really loved my job. She was working by then so she said, “I can buy my own clothes this year.” I parked the car in the driveway and didn’t look back.  It took me another full year and a half to get rid of that giant piece of metal taking up space in the driveway, but eventually I did that as well.

It was then that I started meeting a lot of Charlotte’s women’s cycling community, I met CeCe who’s no longer in town, who was car free here in Charlotte.  I met a bunch of cool mountain biking women, I met and briefly worked for Dianna Ward and through her met some other awesome cycling women like Nadine and Kenya. Kenya is now a bike mechanic.  I met Charlotte around that time as well–Pam eventually brought us together so we could create CLT Bike Camp. I’d already started co-leading Bicycle Friday with my friend Heather and Ms. Christy (Heidi Kelly eventually joined us in leading our ride)l.  I met Christine who supports cycle commuting and people who want to get started, at her job at BOA–she’s a tremendous cycling advocate. There was Debra, who attends the annual bike summit, drives a bus, teaches a League of American Cycling class and works to get older folks on bikes.   Sarah leads the JoyRide out of Amelie’s.  Ang works out of the Trek store in South Charlotte, and is amazing getting at getting people on bikes and teaching people how to be more visible. Stephanie Bush (I met her pretty early on actually at the white water center) is a mechanic. Phyllis works to get people in Grier Heights healthier, more connected, and riding bikes.  Noelle is a good friend, awesome generator of terrific ideas, and a just in general fantastic woman. Ann Groninger helped me through my accident, and is now on the board of CLT Bike Camp. Linda does bike tours all over the world.  Kate’s the Cycling Coordinator for Sustain Charlotte. I’ve met women who race pretty seriously (April and Merryl and Sarah Griffith) and those who have been or are, car free like me (Charlotte and Jessica and CeCe and Anna Benton and Kenya and Rachel).

I’m mentioning these ladies right now because it seems pretty terrific to me that while women are in the minority of people riding bicycles (one out of every three cyclists in the US is a woman), it feels like in Charlotte, we’ve hit the perfect storm of women coming together in a climate of mutual support, who are not just riding, but changing the landscape of cycling not just in terms of gender, but also in terms of moving cycling and connection forward in this city.  I’ve so enjoyed the relationships I’ve formed with these women, and the cooperation and creativity that happens when we get together in community and talk about, and listen, to ideas. My friend Heather has always said that we are creating the world we’d like to live in with Bicycle Friday. We’ve created a space where change can happen. I think that’s what women in the cycling community of Charlotte are doing every day.

All that said, I’ve always felt that cyclists make for a uniquely opinionated and occasionally cantankerous bunch and that means it’s not all cake and roses.  I’ve gotten in big disagreements with women who cycle in Charlotte. And it’s just possible that some of those disagreements have been at least partially due to my own stubborn ideas about how things should go.  But in the end I look around at what is happening here in this town and I remember what it was like to take those first terrifying commuter rides to school in this car centric city all the way back in 2003, and I know we’re creating the space where I want to ride my bike.  I know we’re creating a city where I feel comfortable moving into the left hand turn lane and riding on Queens Road West (even though that guy wanted to get out of his car and beat me up that time). It’s taking time and effort and to be honest, it’s been some of the best work of my life.  So when I look around, I’m excited and inspired every day to see so many awesome women riding with me.

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