Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Women Bike PHL #9: Women As Bicycle Customers and Racers, with Julia Hillengas

Julia Hillengas grew up in Philadelphia and is back in the city after living in the Bay Area, where she joined a cycling team and worked in a bike shop. 
How have bikes been a part of your life?
Growing up in Southwest Philly, there was a lot of concrete around, and not a lot of structured activities. As soon we all had bikes, they were our gateway to go far away, to explore more, to not be confined to our one block. It really opened a lot of doors for us, and as I got older especially, and I know this is true for some of my friends, it was really empowering. When you were going through something you would leave your house, temporarily leave your neighborhood, to go for a ride and then come back. Of course we were too young to drive and you couldn't take the bus everywhere, so it was just a way to give you an outlet.

As I got into college I started to commute by bike. It got me from A to B, a lot quicker than SEPTA, it was cheaper and I was on a budget, so I fell back in love with it again. I've been an athlete all my life, I was a college soccer player, so when I stopped playing college sports I was like, well, what about racing, what about cycling? So I picked up triathlons, and then I really got into bike racing in the Bay Area. Every time I found some new facet of cycling I got instantly hooked again.

You worked at a bike shop in the Bay Area. How did you get involved with that side of the cycling community?
I was working multiple jobs and trying to find another one, and I was thought, "Well, what do I want to do if I'm going to work in retail or customer service?" I would totally love to sell people bikes. I think really what got me in the door was that the manager wanted a woman in the shop. I had done pretty entry-level bike mechanic stuff before, so I was knowledgeable enough and knew enough how to speak about bikes, so he was willing to train me on the job. They were a much bigger shop and they would get a lot of rookie cyclists coming in, and I think they didn't know how to handle their women customers. They weren't sure how to sort of bridge the anxiety, and they wanted another woman to talk to them.

Did you ever sell women-specific attire?
We definitely had women-specific attire, and honestly, I wouldn't wear any of it. There was always debate over who we were ordering from, what people wanted, and what the clientele was. Even the color of women's bikes was always in contention. We had women who came in and wanted pink shorts, and a lot of women who came in and didn't want pink shorts. So it always felt like, as someone working for a shop, you couldn't win. But I think the thing is, compared to the number of offerings you have for men, you only have a fraction of that for women. And the solution is you need to stock more things. Women customers are not a monolith, it’s not one profile. And having more options instead of saying, "Oh, you're a woman, here, this is for you," is going to make people more comfortable.

Do you have any ideas on how to make it easier for more women to start cycling? How to overcome that anxiety you talked about? How do we find that tipping point that makes people willing to try it?
I think it starts with a buddy. You need someone who's going to be there to introduce you to it and answer all your silly questions, like what do I do when I get to work, and what should I wear? Have someone who can answer those questions and then sort of pressure you into it, like, hey, we're going to go out tonight, let's ride. And give you that encouragement and that push to do it. A lot of my peer group, we ride to wherever we're going, so that's always a push. And when someone is visiting from out of town, it all of a sudden changes your social sphere, because they don't have a bike, what are we going to do? [Ed: Bike Share!] And I think when you notice that’s happened to you, when you don't know what to do because your friend came to town and they don't have a bike, that's when you know you're totally bought in. 

Can you talk more about how you got involved in the racing scene? 
On a whim of wanting to do something competitive, I entered a sprint triathlon and rode my single-speed steel frame bike in the bike portion of it. I'm not a strong swimmer, but the only thing that got me through the swim was, "If I can get through the swim, I get to ride my bike." So I got through the swim, got out, rode my bike, and just loved it, had a blast. I wanted to do more triathlons, so I bought a second bike with gears, a racing bike, and then found as I was doing triathlons that I really only cared about the bike portion.

Before I left for California I found some training criteriums up in Lehigh Valley. It was women and juniors in the same race (so, teenagers) and I totally got my ass kicked. I had no idea what I was doing, I was under-trained. Usually if you do a 5k you're like, "It's cool, I'll be in the middle of the pack." No. Dead last. I wanted to figure out how to get better, and I realized you actually need to join a team in order to race, so I found a women's team in the Bay Area, started training with them, and they were a wealth of knowledge about everything you need to know. There are all these etiquette rules about drafting, how you ride in a pack, things I had no idea how to do. Even just the technique of when and how to shift because I'm so used to riding single speed bikes. So there's a huge learning curve.

Did they sit you down and say, "Ok, this is what you're going to do," or did you learn as you go?
It was a little bit of both. Being a women's team they took a much more educational approach to it. They would have team lectures or chats, and we would go on team rides, and a coach or a leader would talk you through what we were doing that day and really focus on individual skills that people who just like to ride their bikes wouldn't necessarily know about.

People take it really seriously; in any given race there's probably only one or two rookies there. So many people have much more experience than you. But it was fun, I had a lot of support and started doing better in races. You have to want to spend a lot of time on your bike. It’s not an easy thing to pick up on the weekend and put down again. Unless you're really going to make that commitment it's a hard sport to try and do. And of course there's all the gear.

So you have two bikes - can you tell me more about them?
I actually just downgraded from three. The bike that I ride most of the time I love, it's my first adult bike, is a steel-frame old Schwinn that I converted to single-speed and replaced other parts. I've had it for eight years. And then I have a Specialized racing bike that has a carbon fork and fancy components. It's funny, I spend a lot of time on that bike training but I just don't have the same love and connection that I have with the bike that I ride to work.

From when you left Philly to when you came back did you see a shift in the cycling culture?
Definitely. There's just been a lot more talk about biking and a lot more bike shops. I know the five shops that I would go to when I left, and I came back and there's double or more of those. It's been really fun to see that pick up and so many more people out. When I'm biking to work there's traffic in the bike lane.

Do you ride in the winter?
I do. When SEPTA wasn't a viable option I was much more gung-ho about it, I'd ride for the whole winter, put on lots of layers, or change my clothes. I actually have this dream to get a snow bike that has big fat studded tires, and just ride around in a big field of snow and fall over. I want to fall over on my bike in the snow, it just sounds like so much fun. People do that in Minnesota, and I'm like, all right, let's go.

One of the things that I am trying to capture is that when you start riding a bike you suddenly have this way bigger city to work with. Have you ever been going somewhere and said to yourself, "Man, there's no way I'd be able to do this if I wasn't on my bike!"
Absolutely. I still don't own a car, and anytime I go out socially, it's just easier for me to go there by bike. Especially coming back late at night, SEPTA isn't running, or not running that often, and waiting for a bus doesn't necessarily feel like the safest thing to do. Because I have my bike and because I can get off exactly where I get off, and go home whenever I want to go home, that feels like a safer option anytime of day. So I never hesitate to go out.

We talked about racing gear, but when it comes to commuting do you use any gear other than bike and helmet?
No. When it's hot out, I'll wear a different shirt than what I'm going to wear at work. Sometimes I'll change my pants from jeans to something nice. And that's what I like about it, you get on and you're ready to go.

Do you have a dream bike, other than a snow bike? If money and time and anything else weren't a factor, what would you get?
I'm in love with steel frame bikes, it's a smoother ride, it feels so much nicer, so there are a lot of handmade steel bikes from Philly, from across the world, and they are pieces of art that are functional and beautiful and are really great to ride. So one day hopefully I can afford one of those. Bilenky Cycle Works is in Philly, he's been around for a while. I look at his stuff and I'm like, can I afford him yet?

Have you ever had the opportunity to fix up or build a bike up from parts?
A lot of the guys I worked with at the shop were really big into mountain biking and I hadn't done a lot of that, so they would bring in spare parts, and I found an old frame. We did this big shop project to build up a mountain bike, and then they took me out and showed me some trails. And then I've overhauled my commuter bike a couple of times, replacing parts and stuff. You feel more connected to your ride when you've done some of the work.

Anything else you want to add about biking?
Just the obvious - wear a helmet! I didn't when I first started riding as a kid. Even as an adult I was one of those people who was like, ah, I don't need to wear a helmet, my hair's going to get messed up. But what I found with both myself and other people is that it usually takes an accident for you to become a convert to helmets. And luckily I walked away with [only] a concussion, but I went into the windshield of an SUV, and after that, now when I see anyone riding without a helmet I'm like, why would you do that! But I also was that person before. So yeah, its important.

This interview is part of our Women Bike PHL Campaign. If you are, or know, a woman who would be a good subject for a profile, contact Katie Monroe at katie@bicyclecoalition.orgInterview conducted and transcribed by Claudia Setubal. Photos from Claudia Setubal and Julia Hillengas.