Appearances Matter

I have a particular interest in getting more women and girls cycling and I have written before about why I believe there are not more women cycling. This is a complex subject and there are many reasons why there are not more women on bikes. In this post I am only considering one reason and one form of cycling – appearance and cycle commuting.

Not all women worry about their appearance. Personally, I am a bit of a scruff most of the time. I love my jeans, can rarely be bothered to put on makeup and often have better things to do than straighten my hair. I can get away with being a scruff at the moment, as I am not working. When I go back to work, I am going to have to put a bit more of an effort in. Looking smart doesn’t make me any better at my job, it is just what is expected so I have no real choice.

One of the reasons why being a stay at home mum makes it easier for me to cycle everywhere, is that I can choose to be as scruffy as I like. I do not have to worry about helmet head and smudgy makeup. If I’m honest, I can even get away with being just a bit sweaty sometimes.

If you are heading to work, for many women (and arguably some men) it is just not that simple. Most employers have expectations regarding the appearance of their staff. If your workplace does not have showers, this can be very difficult to live up to if you arrive by bike (depending on the distance and terrain involved in your commute, and also the weather conditions).

But even if your workplace does have showers, it is still not always easy. Especially if you are female.

For many, becoming workplace presentable involves hair brushes, hair products and straighteners. Also makeup and jewellery (which I personally don’t really like to wear on the bike). There is a need for different shoes to go with different outfits. Then there is the need for a coat of some sort, because a skirt and cycle coat looks just a bit odd.

Just thinking about the logistics is enough to make me reach for the car keys or the bus fare.

Rightly or wrongly, the reality is that women tend to be more concerned about appearance than men. Rightly or wrongly, this is one very real barrier to cycling for many women, especially when it comes to cycling to work.

I gave this some thought during my recent loan of an e-bike from Edinburgh Bike Cooperative. I wondered if e-bikes might be a solution to this which could work for some. So, I decided to conduct an experiment.

I was returning the e-bike to the shop on an evening which was also my bike club, Hervelo’s AGM. The ride from my house to the bike shop is very similar to the cycle commute my husband does every day – from the outskirts to more or less the city centre. Could I arrive at the shop as presentable as I set off, having cycled the whole way?

In the interests of science, I therefore set aside my natural scruffiness. I wore a dress, straightened my hair and put on makeup.

Before: about as smart as I get!

There are a number of reasons why I would not normally choose to get on a bike dressed like this:

  • I have a lot of hair and it takes a long time to straighten. If I have made the effort, I do not then want it messed up.
  • When makeup goes wrong, it can look ridiculous.
  • I do not want my good shoes scuffed by the pedals.
  • I worry about displaying my pants when cycling in a skirt or dress.
  • A cycle coat would look odd so I have to wear a decent coat, which is not simple to wash so I really do not want it getting sweaty.

Yet, get on a bike I did. Not just any bike, an e-bike. E-bikes have a battery and an electric motor. The motor only works when you pedal and it cuts out about 15.5mph (I believe that this is a legal requirement). You can ride an e-bike faster than 15.5mph, but you have to do the work yourself. Edinburgh Bike Cooperative carry a range of e-bikes which can be loaned. I had specifically asked for a ‘step through’ type bike (with a low or absent top tube) with this experiment in mind, as these bikes are easier to ride in a skirt or dress. The bike I was loaned was a Specialized Como Turbo 2018.

During: ready to go

I am fortunate enough to have reasonable bike routes around where I live. After three years riding a cargo bike most days of the week, I also have a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of them. There are more direct routes between my house and the bike shop, but I chose to take the one which avoided all busy roads, especially as I set off at 5:20pm – prime time for congestion.

Since my aim was to avoid breaking a sweat at all costs, I turned the electric assist up to full power. Obviously, this means that I was not getting as much of a workout as I would with less assistance. But my aim was not to get a work out, it was to get to my destination safely, quickly and still presentable.

I can honestly say that I did not break a sweat at all on the way in. This is despite the fact that I was running just a little bit late so had to rush to make sure I made it before the bike shop shut. There were no serious climbs on the route, but any uphills I did do were no effort at all with the power on full. I obeyed the laws of the road at all times. There was a huge queue before one junction because of cars turning right onto a busy road. Since I was turning left, I got off and pushed the bike along the pavement and back onto the road which had a cycle lane. Much faster.

I arrived at the bike shop on time (just), unscathed, and (if I do say so myself) still presentable.

After: not even a rosy glow, and makeup unsmudged!

After this experience, I would definitely consider an e-bike for commuting when I go back to work. There were simply no appearance logistics to consider. I did not have to take any clothes, shoes or anything else to change my appearance when I arrived. I just got off the bike and got on with it. I did have to carry a small rucksack on the bike which was a bit irritating, but that was simply as it was not my bike. If it were, I would have decent capacity panniers on it.

Admittedly, the weather was on my side that evening, in that there was no rain. Had it been raining, it would have been more challenging. But then, walking and staying presentable is more challenging when it is raining, even if that is just walking to the bus stop or from the car park. Everything is more challenging when it is raining. And nobody ever said that if you are going to cycle commute, you have to do it every day.

Once I had dropped the bike off, I went to my bike club AGM (at a pub, obviously), then home on the bus. Handily enough, the pub was on the route I would have walked anyway, from the bike shop to the bus home. I therefore thought it would be interesting to use my trusty Garmin to measure the walking sections on the way home, as well as the cycle in. This allowed me to compare the two journeys.

Mode of TransportE-BikeWalk / Bus / Walk
Total Distance7.09 miles1.41 miles walked.
Roughly 6 miles on the bus.
Total - 7.41 miles
Time BreakdownBike: 33 min 29 secsWalk to bus stop: 19 min 6 secs
Wait for bus: 5 min
On bus: 29 min
Walk from bus stop home: 7 min 4 secs
Total Journey Time33 min 29secs60 min 10 secs
Calories burned155162
Cost£0£1.60 (bus fare)

On the subject of cost, although the journey by bike cost me nothing, obviously there is a significant cost involved in buying any bike. E-bikes in particular, are not cheap. But then, neither is the bus. Not if you are using it every day. A quick look at the Lothian Buses website suggests than an annual rideacard is your best value option, assuming you are working full time. This costs £630 for the year. The E-bike I borrowed costs £2,999. The same cost as nearly five years of annual rideacards. But there is a huge range of e-assist bikes now on the market. There is bound to be an element of getting what you pay for, but there is also an element of getting what you can afford. A reader on my previous post about e-bikes said she had a ‘cheap and cheerful’ (her words) Pendleton e-bike and that she absolutely loved it. At £750, this is not so much more than an annual bus pass.

It is the journey time which really strikes me. It took almost twice as long to walk and get the bus. Admittedly, I did use the time on the bus to read a book. This is something of a luxury to a stay at home mum (unless the book is by Julia Donaldson, that is a very frequent occurrence). The man behind me who was loudly chewing on very minty chewing gum did detract somewhat from my reading enjoyment, but never mind.

My conclusion from my highly scientific experiment is that e-bikes really could be part of the answer to cycling to work for some women. Yes, we still need to push for improved infrastructure and increased understanding from other road users, but these things take time.

And e-bikes are by no means just for women wanting to cycle commute. My husband cycles to work (a very similar journey to my experimental route) daily. He had a go on the e-bike and his comment was that it would make his daily commute much easier too.

Uphill with very little effort!

I do not think that everyone needs, or even wants an e-bike. But I feel I have a better understanding of their uses having tried one, and there is certainly a time and a place.


12 Replies to “Appearances Matter”

  1. I agree with all of your points, and would add that, having invested in a high specced ebike, it has got me back on the road again – i stopped cycling 10 years ago due to age, being chubby, and moving to a hilly area. However, i am wary of leaving it locked, in areas that i would have happily have left my old conventional cycle in. I love cycle lockers, but they are few & far between.

  2. Great article! There’s also cycle schemes to help spread the cost of buying a bike and save a bit of tax on it if your employer offers that. I have built up over the years a collection of waterproofs and thin layers to help me cycle in all weathers, having started as a fair weather cyclist. I really feel the cold so I often wear waterproofs just to keep the wind out even when it’s not raining and I have a couple of waterproof peaked hats which I can tuck my hair into and which keep rain out of my face (but good waterproof mascara is also a must).. I have to carry shoes with me as I only cycle in trainers (though plenty of people manage to cycle perfectly well in other shoes), I think it is just because I don’t have great balance and I don’t feel safe otherwise. I eventually invested in good quality waterproof panniers. In the summer I cycle in a work dress, trainers and a pair of cycle shorts underneath (so I don’t have to worry about my dress flying up when cycling), with a pair of mules or or sandals in my pannier. It does mean a bit more planning but I’ve developed a sort of system over the years and (as long as I check the weather forecast daily) manage my cycle (five miles – or two miles, as I work in two different locations- each way across central London, which is reasonably flat) daily and actually really enjoy it, without arriving looking too scruffy, I’d say the only downside is having to carry shoes and waterproofs, whist the upsides are freedom to go anywhere, save time and money, keep fit, not causing congestion or pollution. ❤️

  3. I wear a buff over all my hair any time I’m on the bike. Keeps it all neat & clean. I have very long hair so because it’s all tucked up it doesn’t catch the spray from the wheels.

  4. As well as making commuting easier, e-bikes are great for keeping people cycling as they get older. I have two friends who would have virtually stopped cycling but an e-bike has enabled then to keep going and enjoying the assisted exercise and social aspect of group rides.

  5. I was a regular cyclist until 2 years ago when I was hit with a rare disease that meant having my adrenal glands removed, followed by a diagnosis of a rare incurable cancer, needing a couple of operations and now careful management. I tried hard to get back to cycling but struggled to even ride 20 miles….it stopped being fun. I tried an e bike and BAM the fun was back. After a short test ride I went back to the shop and bought one. I can once again cycle with a smile on my face. I get as much of a workout as I feel I can manage. Cost wise I estimate that the money saved in petrol costs will mean that the bike will pay for itself in two years. I love the open air and the chance to once again join friends for fun, social cycle rides.

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