Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition had a happy hour discussion on "Engaging New Cyclists" and asked me to speak on behalf of Grease Rag. Engaging new cyclists is a passion of mine, and I was more than happy to participate. This is the rough outline of my speech. I could write pages on the topic!
Grease Rag is a group for WTFs- Women, transgender, and femme cyclists. We want to encourage people to ride their bikes with skill and confidence, because we believe that biking is a gateway drug to a better lifestyle. As a group, we are open to cyclists of all skill levels, but to be the most inclusive, we try to be very "beginner-friendly."
We have a committed group of core-facilitators that are partnered with bike shops in 3 different communities that work together to provide 5 FREE DIY shop nights.
1st and 3rd Thursdays are at Sunrise Cyclery in Uptown
2nd and 4th Thursdays are at the U of M Bike Center with the Hub
2nd Tuesdays are at Recovery Bike Shop in Northeast
If you are interested in learning more about our event model or starting your own group, please ask!
Primarily we aim to engage cyclists with our DIY open shop nights, but we also do bi-monthly rides, some longer weekend rides, potlucks, craft nights, parties, skill-shares and classes. We also use social media to create online community networks with other WTFs.
Like "new cyclists," women and transgender folks are not a homogenous population. Besides not having male privilege and riding a bike, you can’t make any other assumptions about similarities within our group. Because of the diversity of people we are working with, the barriers against biking are unique and complex and varied, so we have to try a lot of different strategies.
I'd like to speak about how we engage new cyclists through the shop night, but if you're interested in how we make our other programs beginner-friendly, please ask.
In general it is fairly easy for us to engage our "new" cyclists because the population of Grease Rag is self-selected: people come in because they want to.
During our open shop nights we offer a space where women and transgender people, together, make up the majority, instead of the minority. We encourage using the space as a social space, having a bike or having a bike project is not necessary. People have found riding buddies, race partners, people to commute with, friends, and roommates through the group.
In an attempt to be inclusive we try not to judge bodies or identities as they come in the door, but ask, "Are you here for Grease Rag?" If they are, it's an easy question to answer, if they're not, we can make it clear it's a WTF space and they can decide from there whether or not they should enter the space.
During our open shops we pause, get everyone together, and do a go-around. We ask, "What is your name? If you feel comfortable sharing it, what is your preferred gender pronoun?" "What are you most proud of?” and a fun question like, “If you were a bike part, what would you be, and why?” or, “When was the last time you shaved your legs?" This is a chance for us to be positive about things we do and are proud of, a chance for people to make their gender preferences known, and it's a chance for us to take a breath together.
When you walk into the shop for the first time, we realize it is a really scary experience. You’re in an unfamiliar space with unfamiliar people, and you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone to try something new. Questions like, “What’s wrong with your bike?” assume prior knowledge and can be intimidating and leave people flustered. Instead, questions like, “How long have you had your bike? What kind of riding do you do? Is anything bothering you about the bike?” are questions that don’t require “bike shop experience,” but still allow us to communicate. Tell us that your bike squeaks when you’re trying to stop, and we’ll teach you about brake pads, brake adjustments, deglazing your pads and toeing in your brakes. This is a nice way of sharing knowledge without making anyone feel judged for their lack of experience or for the kind of bike they have.
We have a strict “DIY” policy. We will hand you the tools, demonstrate if need be, but you will be doing your own work on your bike. You’re never alone, but we don’t want to take anything away from your eventual moment of accomplishment and triumph. Never underestimate that reward! That moment brings indpendence and freedom.
I make a conscious effort to call tools and components by their proper names, and if I don’t know what something is called, I ask. It can be frustrating to learn something new from someone that doesn’t explain which tool you need and why. “Just use this, here,” isn’t the kind of thing we like to do.
With all of this emphasis on our shop nights, you might be left with the impression that our mission is to teach someone everything they would ever want to know about bike mechanics, but mechanical skills are only part of the equation. Part of the shop night is putting WTFs “behind the counter.” Grease Rag participants meet and work with the employees of our partnering bike shops and become more comfortable and confident in the environment. Do you have a favorite shop that you go to because you know you can shoot the shit with your favorite mechanic? Open Shop is an easy way to set up that relationship. It’s easy to come in and say, “We met last month at Grease Rag, can you help me out?” The shops that we work with get repeat customers and the participants expand their comfort zones. Take the intimidation out of the bike shop.
I personally believe that the best way to get someone more involved with biking, is to take someone that has an interest, and give them personal attention and encouragement. Be a role model. Make it look easy and fun and cool, and bike-curious people will seek you out. Show them routes, talk about clothes, cargo, what works for you and doesn’t work for you. One thing that Grease Rag aims to do is make everyone that comes in confident enough where they feel it’s natural to be in that mentor role, where they would be comfortable helping someone else become comfortable with bikes.