How a Sarah Beat Her Fear of Riding a Bike in the City

Riding past gender norms & fear to have fun on 2 wheels

When I moved to the Bay Area, CA in 2015, I was determined to get around on foot and by public transportation.

Many friends suggested that I take up commuter biking, and indeed most of my friends in the Bay Area were avid bikers, both for reaction and for everyday needs. To my amazement, biking culture was prevalent enough in the Bay Area that at least among my friends, I noticed that they all biked just about equally, regardless of gender.

No way, I said. Frankly, I was terrified of being hit by a car, or careening down a hill and having my brakes fail. Growing up in a small town, a middle school student at my school had been killed biking home from school. His death was deeply mourned in the community and served as a cautionary tale. As a teenager, it was mainly the boys who biked, and of those boys, a handful had been seriously injured from being hit by cars.

Plus, I didn’t know how to take care of a bike. Buying one felt like a big expense that I wasn’t ready for. I had no idea what I was doing- I was sure if I shopped for a bike, I would get it wrong. I would look like an idiot. I was intimidated to go into bike shops and potentially solicit eye rolls of annoyance or condescension from the invariably almost entirely male mechanics.

So I dug in my heels, literally- and hit the pavement. I walked everywhere, took BART and the bus- most often all three. I did this for three weeks before I caved.

It was taking me nearly an hour to get anywhere, even when I was only going a few miles. As someone looking for jobs, taking gigs and temp jobs, being an itinerant house/pet sitter, volunteering and participating in community events, I was all over the place. Many of the places that I needed to get were at least a mile from a BART station or the bus didn’t run very frequently to the nearest stop.

The biggest issue aside from the inconvenience was feeling unsafe. Walking alone at night, or waiting for the bus in the dark, and even at times during the day, I felt uneasy. As most women and femme-presenting people will tell you, street harassment is very real. Being robbed, while certainly not commonplace, is also much more likely if you’re on foot alone. What really did me in was a day when I was leaving a shift volunteering for a youth arts organization.

As I was about to leave through the front door, my supervisor stopped me “there are some gentlemen in front that would be best for you to avoid. Please leave through the back door instead.” That was the deciding moment. I did not want to avoid certain areas or engage less fully out of fear. I started to realize that a bike could provide enhanced independence and personal safety in addition to convenience- freeing me up to contribute more to my communities.

I set out to buy my first adult bike. It definitely had to be light enough that I could throw it over my shoulder to carry it up and down the stairs at BART stations. It needed to be primarily a road bike. And in my heart of hearts, I really wanted it to be pretty. I just didn’t want a heavy, black steel clunker if I could help it. What can I say, I had a vision.

Maybe it was fate, but on my first try, I opened Craigslist just to see what people were selling in the area. The very first listing that appeared said: “XL women’s road bike.” I clicked. There she was! A Scott Contessa Speedster. White, with lavender accents. The lightest weight possible in its class. Sleek and built for speed.

I knew as soon as I saw it- this is my bike! To add to my luck, the seller wasn’t in an easily accessible location on BART, which is probably why it hasn’t sold within minutes of listing it. I borrowed a car, and a day later, walked out of a local bike shop fully accessorized, tuned up, and ready for the adventure to begin.

What immediately surprised me was how empowering it felt to know I could get where I wanted to go myself. Depending on how many miles I was willing to pedal, I could get anywhere in the Bay Area for free, minus my BART ticket if I needed to cross the Bay. Whether riding alone at night or during the day, I knew I was much less likely to be followed or hassled. Most of the time I was zipping by too quickly for anyone to get a good look at me.

Plus, as it turns out- it was fun! I quickly grew to love the speed of my bike, the wind in my hair, and feeling in charge of my commute schedule. I felt proud of learning how to take care of my bike. I got stronger and more fit. It was a total transformation from where I began- terrified at the mere idea of riding on city streets.

I would love to encourage other women, trans, non-binary and femme-presenting people to consider taking up cycling, scooters and mopeds.

I hope that you’ll find as much joy, empowerment and convenience as I did. It’s also hope inspiring to see the Bay Area create more and more bike lanes and even bike and pedestrian-only streets, paths and corridors. May we all spend less time in cars, and more time on lightweight vehicles!