Editor’s note: This column debuts today. It will appear the second Friday of the month.
Walk into a bike shop in Minneapolis, or anywhere else, and you see — what? Bikes, of course. Tires. Tubes. Panniers. Helmets. Water bottles. Oh, right: And you see guys.
The bicycle business is absolutely full of guys. And absolutely not full of women. The Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association, in fact, recently reported a survey of 544 bike shop owners about their staffs. A third of the shops had absolutely no female employees; another third had one female employee; and the remaining third had two or three female employees.
Two thirds of the shops surveyed had all-male service departments — that’s the mechanics. Another 20 percent had just one female mechanic on staff. About 6 percent (one in 20 shops) had two or more mechanics who weren’t men. This would not be news to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which in 2016 named the job of “repair and maintenance” as the nation’s third-most gender-segregated job, with women holding just 10.9 percent of the jobs. Only construction and logging are lower.
The good news: This segregation is not just a cultural problem, it is also a business problem. For despite what it might look like around the Twin Cities, these are not exactly boom times in the bike industry. Nationally, bike sales have been flat in this century, the number of bike shops has dropped 35 percent in the same period, and bike riding by half the population, women — again, nationally — is actually dropping.
Which is why, in a significant gesture of enlightened cultural and corporate self-interest, the bike business is working to integrate itself. Just last month, Quality Bicycle Products (QBP), the Bloomington-based bike industry colossus (Surly, Salsa, and the nation’s largest distributor of bike parts) announced its fifth class of scholarships for women to attend a two-week bike mechanics school in Oregon. The first year, two women went. This year it will be 32 from around the country, two from Minnesota: Lucy Roberts of Minneapolis and Acacia Wytaske of Mankato. More than 300 women have been applying for the training every year.
It’s an investment not only of QBP, but also Minnesota bike companies like Park Tool and Dero, and industry heavies such as SRAM and Michelin. REI has another mechanic school scholarship program that last year sent 16 more women to a master technician course. A bike frame building supply company in Portland now offers grants to women starting out in bike building.
“These kinds of connections haven’t existed before,” said Kaitlin Johnson, a former bike mechanic who now runs QPB’s scholarship program. “Even if you’re interested, it’s intimidating when you walk into a bike shop, and it’s all guys. We hope that will change.”
No bike for Jared or Ivanka?
President Donald Trump’s year-end tax bill included, inexplicably, a repeal of the federal bicycle commuter benefit, which until this year, allowed businesses to reimburse biking employees up to $20 a month in commuting expenses. None of the reports from Washington I saw explained the repeal. But in a bill that reportedly will add at least $1 trillion to the national debt, it could not have been a serious budget issue. The bike commuting tax break annually cost the federal government about $5 million.
One clue might have come last August. The grounds of the White House then included a nine-slot bike-share station. The Obama administration requested its installation in 2010 for staff to use to scurry back and forth to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
According to the district’s Department of Transportation, a Trump administration official called — again, without explanation — and ordered that the bike-share station be removed. And now it, like the bike commuter benefit, is gone.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. Reach him at mplsbikeguy@ gmail.com.