When The Ice Broke (from Fellownews 1994)

Maynard was one of the guys who shunned me back when I was a newbie.  He was known for his look: a perfect jersey, perfect haircut unruined by a  helmet.

Most days I relished having a booing section. What better fuel for the rage-furnace than the undisguised disdain of  the In Crowd?. Competitive sports are an atoll of respite shored up by many an insecure male against a rising sea of feminine involvement.

If I didn’t irritate a few of those guys, I wasn’t doing my job.

“Job?” you inquire. “Didn’t you say you’re Allergic to Work?!”

Quite so, alert reader!

I VOLUNTEER.

At least five hours a week I can be found poking holes in rigid gender roles.

I get to enjoy being destructive, loud, and scary without actually breaking any laws.

Win-win.

When I’m through (and yes, I AM FULL OF MYSELF on this day) little boys will prance into ballet class and art school while girls get filthy muddy on their bikes, coming home to exhausted daddies  doing laundry. I do think that the world will get better when the women are treated right.

But the author of this guest piece….I laid on the ol’ Wombat Charm and  won  this guy  over.  Thank you, Maynard, for allowing me to share it fifteen years later.

When the Ice Broke By Maynard Hershon

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At Interbike, I attended a panel discussion organized by WOMBATS founder Jacquie Phelan. Phelan and several other industry women of note sat on the panel. Their topic: “How to make our sport and our industry more hospitable to women.”

The audience was primarily bicycle dealers and their employees, so the discussion focused on contacts with women customers in bike shops. Trust me: given that topic, you will not soon run out of things to talk about. Ask any woman cyclist.

Shouldn’t be difficult to find one: According to statistics supplied as fodder for the discussion, women constitute: just over half of all cyclists, nearly one-quarter of cycling enthusiasts, and (gosh) about 3% of the “cycling workforce.”

It felt a little funny being a guy in that meeting. If 97% of the cycling workforce is us guys – the inhospitality to women that provided the meeting’s topic is largely our doing. It’s down to us, those of us who encounter women in our cycling-related work or our riding.

The meeting audience was mixed, more women than men, but not by a lot. You got that “preaching to the choir” feeling about the men. Guys who attended were those who already feel strongly about gender parity and fairness. They were guys who own or work in shops that strive to treat women (and other humans) fairly, kindly, sympathetically. Not a sexist brute in sight.

Still, the few men who spoke up sounded kinda defensive, as if they could not stand the thought that someone might lump them into the masses of offending, low-consciousness, unsupportive men. Men who might let a new bicycle leave their store imperfectly fitted to its new female owner. “Not in OUR shop, no way,” was the message.

Considerable discussion revolved around the issue of fitting that bike to the woman buyer as she wants it today – or fitting it to the woman she will be, after some weeks or months of cycling. Or offering to make the requisite changes in 60 days free or nearly free. And trying to make a living providing such time-intensive, painstaking service. Not easy.

I admit I said nothing, not a word, throughout the meeting. I was happy to listen to the panelists, especially to Phelan and Portia Masterson, a bike shop owner from Golden, Colorado. I’d read Masterson’s columns, typically about women’s issues, in Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, a fine trade publication I intend to resume reading when they act on my several pleading calls and begin to mail it to me again. Please.

On the basis of reading her stuff, I was prepared to react unfavorably to Masterson in person (you may feel you’d loathe me, too) but after her first comment, I realized I was waiting for whatever she’d say next. She understood her audience, knew whereof she spoke, presented her ideas logically and appealingly… Impressed the hell outa me, is the truth.

But it’s Phelan I’m thinking about, and I want to think out loud.

I haven’t always been fair to Jacquie Phelan.

In the late ’70s, I was a Marin County bikie, brought up in the sport by traditional road cyclists who’d been around since the ’60s. They taught me how things were supposed to be: black shorts, white socks, cotton hat worn just so; pecking order, pack manners, proper respect.

Phelan came along on her PX-10 and was immediately strong, so strong she couldn’t be dropped on group rides or in races. Took her a while to add bike-handling and pack skills to her considerable strength; obviously she did so, and in spades.

During that period she wore a dorky Bell Biker with a rubber ducky glued on top. What nerve. She fell down a lot, dressed funny, didn’t know (or couldn’t care) about certain fabled Euro-cycling icons. She generally failed to behave as I felt a proper new roadie should.

I took it upon myself to judge Jacquie Phelan and declare her unwelcome on our rides. Froze her out, you could say. I feel my disapproval and that of a few other establishment roadies encouraged her to take up the brand new sport of mountain biking, a decision that has benefited both Phelan and cycling. Try to imagine women’s off-roading without her.

Thus Phelan and I (we live maybe 15 miles apart) ignored each other from the late ’70s until early 1994. For a decade and a half if you invited one of us to your party, you probably did not invite the other.

When the ice finally broke, she broke it.

In September, ’93, I began my work for VN with a column about my father and myself, a piece I found particularly hard to write. My father’s and my life together was seldom peaceful. It was difficult if not impossible for me to earn his praise, an all-too-familiar story.

First of ’94, I got my usual dismal cold and spent a few days in bed, surrounded by tissue boxes, feeling sorry for myself. At my lowest, bluest ebb, the phone rang and who could it be but my ancient cold-war enemy Jacquie Phelan.

Someone had mentioned that VN piece to her, she said, then faxed it to her. She’d had issues with her father too, over approval; the piece touched her and she wanted to tell me so. I got so I really couldn’t breathe.

I was stunned. Jacquie Phelan, on the phone telling me something I’d written had touched her. I imagined how hard it must’ve been for her to call me. How brave.

I thought about all the times I had indeed disapproved of Jacquie Phelan, when I heard she’d done this or that, stuff she’d actually done, stuff that was probably only legendary. I thought about how I’d piled my disapproval on top of whatever she’d experienced from her family.

I wondered how I’d felt justified all those times in applying my standards to her behavior. Nothing she did ever harmed anyone. I blamed her because she didn’t share my rigid sense of personal dignity. Then I thought about dignity and how much one really needs. About how Phelan has maybe 90% of the sense of dignity she could have – and I have 125% of what I need. I have too damn much. Hey, I couldn’t wear black cycling socks to save my life.

We stayed on the phone for, oh, 45 minutes. Since then, we say hi when we see each other, talk a little. Maybe it’s still a bit uncomfortable between us. Hell, after 15 years…

I watched her at the Interbike meeting. She’s smart. She’s wise. She’s funny. She has learned to keep a little distance. She knows how she’s perceived by the sport and industry: naked mud-caked crazywoman. She can walk around that perception and look at it, joke about it, use it even, if she feels using it will help accomplish her goals.

Her goals? Appears to me she’s trying to do what she can for cycling, particularly women’s cycling. Trying to encourage people to get out, ride their bikes, get dirty, have some fun. She endorses adventure. Hard to argue with any of that.

Jacquie… Thanks for putting together the meeting, thanks for doing all you have for the sport. Thanks especially for making that phone call.

I’m sorry it took me so awful long to come around.

END

~ by jacquiephelan on April 11, 2009.

3 Responses to “When The Ice Broke (from Fellownews 1994)”

  1. Great article– for bringing attention yet again to women’s issues in bike shops, and for reminding me (yet again) why I began the ice-breaker’s blog to begin with.

  2. Don’t take this the wrong way, but an american 6-8 is a large cycilst. A Womens medium in cycling clothing would be in the 4 range. Professional women cycilsts are generally 5’4 and weigh 100#, many are smaller, you will infrequently find a woman racer over 120#.To put it in perspective, the same holds true for men. The typical male racer is 5’8 and weighs 140#. He would wear a medium. A 6 160# male racer would certainly wear a large. You do find them larger, though not often. So, it’s not a conspiracy to make you feel fat. They’re just catering to the demographic. Unless you’re 4 feet tall and wearing a size 6, you sound like you’re built just about right to this horney old monkey ..

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