BFF Bikes joins field of local female-focused cycling groups

When Annie Byrne and Vanessa Buccella met on a cycling team in 2012, both wondered why the sport often seemed skewed toward men. 

To attract more women to cycling, they started a meet-up group for female riders, with the tagline "A Cycling Community Geared for Women," that morphed into the idea to open a bike shop in the same vein.

Now their female-focused bike shop, BFF Bikes, the first of its kind in Chicago, is the latest addition to a field of local cycling organizations geared toward getting women more involved in the sport.

Evidence of the cycling gender gap can be found in various national reports on the sport, and among the observations of local riders. Within the region's community of bicycle racers, Byrne said, "a men's race can easily sell out a race with 75 or more slots," while many women's events have struggled to attract more than a core group of 15 or so riders.

In terms of day-to-day commuting and recreation, the city's most recent data dump on Divvy, its bike share program, shows that women make up 31 percent of the bike share's membership but only account for about 21 percent of the total trips on Divvy bikes.

"Women are the minority in the sport, in bike shops, and in the resources that are out there," Byrne said. "So we thought of creating a shop that was very focused on putting women first—a shop for anybody, but one created by women and run by women."

In recent years, more groups focused on female-rider experiences have cropped up around the city, including the Women and Trans Night at bike shop West Town Bikes, and a number of racing teams, meet-up groups, and women-led rides.

Lauren Gill, a cycling blogger and member of Tiny Fix, a "female bike gang" of ten women who host rides around Chicagoland and compete in races, said she has struggled to find cycling organizations and groups that aren't mostly men.

Gill, 25, of Humboldt Park, said gender is important to her when it comes to cycling because women can face different challenges than male riders—among them, finding bicycle frames that fit their bodies, condescension from male mechanics and street harassment from drivers, pedestrians or other riders.

"There have been so many times where my ride is disrupted by a harassing remark or a car beeping at me, only to realize that I am being very childishly hit on," she said. "It's more threatening, and I wonder if male riders don't understand the full experience of being a female cyclist."

BFF Bikes, which Byrne and Buccella opened in March on Armitage Avenue in Bucktown, sells unisex bicycles, helmets and tools, and apparel made for female bodies. The store also hosts a women-only cycling team—a rarity in the competitive community of mostly gender-neutral and men-only racing teams.

Last week 11 women on the BFF team competed in the Gaper's Block Crits, a beginner-level cycling race on a short course.

Buccella said BFF Bikes is among a growing number of female-focused shops cropping up around the United States, including Gladys in Portland, Eleanor NYC in New York, Peddle Chic in South Carolina, and Unlikely Cyclist in Orange County. For her, the value of these shops is creating a space that feels less intimidating to women just getting into the sport.

"So many women go to spin classes or do triathalons or 5Ks, and I want to tell them, don't be afraid of this," she said.

Editor's note: Vanessa Buccella works at WGN-TV, which is owned by the Tribune Company, which also owns RedEye.

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