Trying to Stay Balanced: Carolyn of Women BikeDC

Once I moved to D.C., I began to regularly cycle around town. This city is nice and small, pretty flat, and the public transportation is just good enough to tolerate using, but bad enough that it is frustrating to use every single day. Plus, cycling is so cost effective and efficient. It saves money and is faster than public transportation and cabbing. So, of all the forms of transportation, I prefer cycling.

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, nice bike commutes and Women BikeDC interviews, these are a few of my favorite things… you know the rest.

Today I have the pleasure of featuring Carolyn, a woman I met while she was out riding with a mutual friend on an urban ride around town.

I was totally impressed when Carolyn told us that she had built up her own bike– a task I find quite daunting– like it was no big deal. What? It’s a big deal to me. I asked if she would be up for a Women BikeDC interview and I’m so happy she agreed!

Tell me a little about yourself and when you started riding.

I work in the environmental field here in DC. Since living here, I’ve also spent a few years working part-time as a mechanic and teaching basic maintenance classes at a local bike shop. I started bike riding when I was really young and have always liked it, I did some commuting by bike here and there, but got really into it after I built my own bike and felt an attachment to it.

Once I moved to D.C., I began to regularly cycle around town. This city is nice and small, pretty flat, and the public transportation is just good enough to tolerate using, but bad enough that it is frustrating to use every single day. Plus, cycling is so cost effective and efficient. It saves money and is faster than public transportation and cabbing. So, of all the forms of transportation, I prefer cycling.

Carolyn - commuting to work

What sorts of things do you do by bike?

I use my bike for everything! In D.C. I commute year round, meet up with friends (coffeeneuring, shows at the 9:30 Club or Kennedy Center), and take excursions (the National Arboretum, Old Town Alexandria, and through Rock Creek Park).

I also really like exploring and visiting other cities by bike. It’s a great way to see sights and connect with the place I am exploring.

How has riding a bicycle influenced you?

Recently I think it’s toughened me up. In the past couple of years, I’ve biked pretty much every day that I could, even on snow days (which is really scary!).

When I use my bike to get around during a deep freeze, rain or snow, I really go to town wearing enough clothes and gear to stay warm and dry. I feel super-prepared to face the elements.

Biking has also opened up a really great community. With many of my friends, I’ve built stronger relationships with them over biking, and I’ve also made new friends just from biking.

I made a great friend with a woman that I repeatedly ran into at the bike rack in our office building and in the ladies restroom when we were changing clothes. We bonded over our struggles with dressing for commuting and work, and minimizing the impact of being sweaty.

I also feel more connected to my city. I like how I can see things from a different vantage point than I would from a vehicle. A city also becomes so much smaller and accessible when I have a bike.

Distances that take an hour to cover by walking or public transport are reduced while on a bike. I can connect to and explore a new city. And I couldn’t ever live in a place where cycling wasn’t part of my regular routine.

Carolyn -

What features do you think make a city bike-friendly and why?

Of course, bike lanes can make a city bike-friendly. But interesting streets with nice architecture, beautiful trees, and narrow lanes can make a city a nice place to cycle through.

The good about riding in the D.C. area?

The trails in D.C. are really nice. I like that I can easily start cycling in the city, hop on a trail and find a nice route, and have a nice uninterrupted ride. You can really get your legs going.

D.C. is also very bike-friendly. There are a number of cyclists, there aren’t many hills, and the city is small so the cycling is accessible.

Carolyn - riding

How could the D.C. area improve for cyclists?

In general, I think that D.C. is great for cyclists and I know a number of people who transitioned to using cycling as their primary form of transportation in D.C.

But if I have to be nitpicky, cycling in the D.C. area could be improved if we could develop a common understanding between cyclists and drivers about how to share the space. I feel sympathetic to the challenges drivers face with bikes on the road, but I also know first-hand how horrible drivers can be.

While the number of cyclists in D.C. is increasing, the reality is that cycling will never be the only mode of transportation. There will always be cars and cyclists on the road, so it would be great if we could all learn to co-exist.

What do you think keeps more women from riding?

In my experience there are a number of challenges and barriers that can make it seemingly difficult to break into full time cycling.

First, is getting a bike. I can see how finding and purchasing the right bike can be an intimidating task. It requires knowledge about components, frame shape, and material.

Plus, a woman has to understand and be able to communicate her preferences and needs for a bike, and that can be challenging in an industry which is dominated by men.

If a woman has a bike or has purchased one, then the next challenge is figuring out how to balance dressing in a fashionable outfit, fancy shoes, and small purse with being functionally appropriate.

One way to solve this is to have a bike with a sweet step-through frame and good basket to facilitate riding around in a dress, skirt, or professional outfit– or carrying home the farmers market haul.

I don’t have a step-through frame yet. In the meantime I carry a bag, full of everything I need for cycling and the destination I’ve cycled to. Storing outfits and shoes at work makes it possible to balance function while cycling, and fashion during the other times.

Also, I think that we can spend more time teaching women about how their bikes work and enabling them to take care of their bike and properly use it. It takes away the mystery and helps make cycling more accessible.

Showing ladies how to change a flat tire helps them be prepared for those unexpected punctures. A few bike shops around town offer free sessions about bike maintenance or fixing flats–I used to lead one!–and there are a few bike co-ops in the area that offer support to cyclist.

I know that some people find riding in the city and passing very closely amongst cars to be horrifying. I would recommend using streets that have designated bike lanes, even if it means going a block or two out of the way and gaining confidence riding among cars. Eventually riding amongst cars becomes more comfortable and all the streets become ridable.

Also we can support each other by helping a friend on her first trip cycling through the city, and show how it’s not scary and totally do-able.

Carolyn -ugh gravel

What suggestions do you have for employers who want to be bike-friendly?

A place to change clothes, possibly a place to shower. Definitely bike racks to securely lock up.

How does it feel to be a woman who rides in an area where women are less than 26% of the riding population?

Wow, I didn’t know that statistic. I feel great contributing to the 26 percent!! And now I wonder how I can help get more women cycling.

What are the issues you deal with as a woman cyclist, or is it something you think about?

Beyond the personal challenge of figuring out what I am going to wear, it’s not something I’ve considered. In general, I think the issues I deal with are universal to cyclists.

Carolyn - building my bike

Tell me about your bikes!

The bike I ride almost exclusively is one that I built myself. I built it when I was a volunteer at a bike co-op in Santa Barbara, California. They had a program where, once you helped them build at least two bikes for the shop to sell, you could build a bike for yourself using the components available at the shop for free.

At the time I wanted a bike at an affordable price, and was looking for a type of bike that suited my style and preference. I jumped on this opportunity to build what I wanted and got the added perk of learning about bikes.

My experience with bike building started with stripping old bikes down to the frame, keeping the components that still had some life left in them, and recycling the rest. I later moved onto repairing and replacing components on used bikes, and finally building up bikes for the shop to sell. I learned so much this way—- understanding the mechanics and physics of how the bike works.

After volunteering for about a year, I finally worked on a bike for myself. I started with a steel frame.

The first thing I did was re-face the head tube and bottom bracket shell. I got to use this crazy and expensive facing tool, which was so cool (and I got a glimpse of the fascination that men have with tools).

From there, I just assembled from bottom up– bottom bracket, crank arms, threaded headset, fork, stem, handlebars, brakes, derailleurs, wheels, cables and so on.

The main challenge of building a bike this way is finding a component that fits the bike, but will also work with the other mismatched components. I also learned how to true a wheel, which really is a meditative experience.

The end result is my franken-bike. This bike is made from an old steel frame, mismatched fork and components cobbled together—that functions well enough for me to ride on. It’s not particularly special, but I put a lot of effort, sweat and blood into building it and am really attached to it, even though everyone else sees a beater.

I also “have” a tandem. (How do you describe ownership of a tandem?) I guess it’s more appropriate to say it’s a bike I share because I couldn’t ride it without a captain.

The tandem is awesome, because when you ride it around town, or anywhere, it’s the happy-maker. It makes everyone smile, people shout and wave with enthusiasm at us. The only thing that could make the tandem even happier is a trailer full of chubby babies and cuddly puppies.

Which bike accessories do you consider must-haves and why?

I’m not the best person to answer this question because my bike has no accessories on it. But, because it doesn’t have any accessories, I can see that there are a bunch of things that would be really handy: fenders, bell, water bottle cage and a rack.

If I had to suggest one “must-have” I would say, go for fenders.

Carolyn -ridng again

One of the best adventures you’ve had on a bike?

While I was visiting Cambodia, a friend and I took bikes from our hostel to spend a day volunteering at a local orphanage. On the way home, we had a problem with the chain on one of the bikes and could not get it to function.

We tried a few times to make the best of it, but eventually, the back wheel seized up. Just as we began walking/dragging the bike back to the hostel, it began to pour rain and we had to hitch our way back to the hostel. It was a great adventure, because the bikes gave us freedom to really explore the countryside outside of the usual buses and tuk tuks.

A phrase summarizing your bicycling experience?

Trying to staying balanced.


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