Busting Stereotypes One Wheel at a Time

Submitted by: Tory Gibler, Masters Student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Department of City and Regional Planning

The following is derived from an interview with Athena Wollin, a bicycle mechanic at Oak City Cycling Project, graphic designer, and board member of Oaks & Spokes, a bicycle advocacy nonprofit in Raleigh, NC. Originally from central Oregon, Athena has lived in Portland, Boulder, and now Raleigh. She loves bikes and the bicycle’s form and movement inspired her early graphic and animation work. This led to a fascination with the bike’s mechanics, and the happiness bikes provide while riding.

What does a regular day at the bicycle shop look like for you?

Each day is completely different, but as soon as I’m in the shop I’m ready to help people fix their bikes or help them feel more confident on a bike. I’m ready to help them find their future bike or help them figure out where to go on their bike. It usually starts by putting a bike in the stand and wondering where the day will go.

As some background, I’ve been at Oak City Cycling Project for almost two years, and back in January I received a scholarship from Quality Bike Products (QBP), a large parts distributor, to attend the United Bicycle Institute. Every year the scholarship is offered for FTW (Femme/Trans/Women) folks, and helps these individuals feel more confident with their mechanic abilities and become certified technicians. [The institute is] great, very challenging, fascinating and fun.

You’re also involved with Oaks & Spokes, Raleigh’s bike advocacy nonprofit. You do some community focused work through the nonprofit and the bike shop. Can you talk a little about the work that you do?

I should backup and state that what really motivates my community work, stems from being hit on my bike by a person driving a car. After the crash I had to deal with all of the mental nonsense that happens, the anxiety, and the physical repercussions. It almost scared me away from staying on my bike and getting back on a bike. But I started to try to find ways to connect with audiences who resonated with that sort of anxiety or nervousness. Ultimately, I wanted to help them overcome those same feelings.

People should still feel safe and happy on a bike, so with Oaks & Spokes I’m trying to focus a lot on the beginner rider or folks who don’t necessarily consider themselves cyclists. I want to knock down the perception that if you’re a cyclist, you’re spandex clad, you’re riding 70 miles, and you have no fear on a bike. That’s one type of cyclist but there are plenty of other types of people on bikes. No matter what, if you’re a person on a bike you should feel safe on that bike.

These beginner rides through Oaks & Spokes, like the Bike Buddy Program, are trying to teach people how to navigate Raleigh streets and connect from neighborhood to neighborhood. These rides are oriented around helping people normalize and turn things into a routine while on a bike so they don’t feel it’s a challenge to pick up the bike and get out the door. The Jitterbuster ride with Oak City Cycling Project is very similar but is more Greenway focused. The Jitterbuster rides are slightly longer, so people can understand that they are able to ride 10 miles. The ride might go on a residential street with cars for a small distance, but you’ll get to the Greenway. Once on the Greenway, you can ride for an hour or so, and it’s beautiful, and I want to help people find those experiences.

Along the same lines of community organizing, advocacy, and teaching –you have a unique perspective because you are a woman, as am I, and women are not represented as much in the cycling world / people on bikes world. What has that been like for you as a rider, as a mechanic, as an advocate? Trying to bring more spotlight to FTW people on bikes.

Definitely FTW folks are underrepresented and it’s basically because this industry is well known for being for older white men. [The industry’s accessibility for FTW people] has started to expand throughout the past several decades. But there is still a predominant factor where it’s primarily by men and for men and it becomes this situation where all of the knowledge, experiences and shared information gets passed down from man to man. And we’re trying to figure out how to build the same level of interaction for FTW folks.

We have a lot of catching up to do. The QBP scholarship is a good example of a program filling this gap, as it invites women to apply without necessarily having mechanic skills. The program is about bringing FTW folks into a protected space to ask all the bike mechanic questions that perhaps they were too nervous to ask the guys at the shop.

It was very shocking to hear other women’s experiences where they’re not allowed to pick up a wrench. Women are working the front desk, or public outreach, and these roles are important to the shop, but there’s this unspoken distinction that they are not a mechanic. I get it whenever I pick up the phone at the shop. “Hi, this is Athena at Oak City Cycling Project. How can I help you?” “Hi, Can I talk to one of your mechanics?” “Yeah, I’m a mechanic. How can I help you? I could try to answer your question to the best of my ability.” And then they get frustrated because their image of a mechanic is a man.

You’re really getting to the heart of the stigma occurring in the industry. You’re combating that, just by your presence and clarifying to people your abilities.

It’s not necessarily about being overtly direct. Instead I just want to normalize everything. I will pleasantly correct you, as I am a mechanic and I will fix your bike. I happen to be a woman but first and foremost I am a bike mechanic, and I’d gladly fix your bike.

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