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Photo by Hal Bergman
Looking back, I wouldn’t blame Nona Varnado for rolling her eyes.
It was the 2012 Youth Bike Summit in New York City, NY, and I was at the front of the room presenting on “Women in Bicycle Advocacy” and promoting the first National Women’s Bicycling Forum that was coming up a few weeks later.
To me, the evolving Women Bike program was a ground-breaking, game-changing shift for the bike movement. To Nona Varnado, an entrepreneur and advocate for women in cycling who sat politely in the audience, I was late to a party she had started years ago.
A decade before the bicycling boom in New York City, Varnado was a daily bike commuter. Long before the cycling lifestyle came into vogue, she had pioneered a fashion line. And, now living in Los Angeles, CA, it’s fitting that she calls herself a “conductor,” because she’s creating a symphony of cycling efforts that resonate with audiences who are not attuned to the benefits of bicycling – at least not yet.
In some ways, Varnado’s story is typical of countless female riders. Living in Brooklyn and working a professional job in Manhattan in the early 2000s, she tired of having to sequester herself in a bathroom stall to change clothes. At the time, there were very few options for riders looking for function and fashion. Instead of throwing up her hands at the boys’ club mentality of the bike industry, Varnado stepped in to fill the gap, launching her own label in 2008.
But she also recognized the need to cultivate her own customer base by building a vibrant women’s cycling community. Her next step: A women’s-specific bike blog – The Bird Wheel – that doubled as an event hub. For NYC Bike Month 2012, The Bird Wheel presented a Ladies’ Program that departed from the tired routine of Lycra-clad commuters communing over bagels and featured a variety of fun twists on bike culture, like a night of Bike Burlesque and a leisurely Bicycling Brunch.
“The Bird Wheel was always intended to bring a female perspective to a wide range of timely subjects,” she told me in an interview last year. “The most rewarding experience that I remember having from writing The Bird Wheel is when the amazing Laura Solis (Named 2013 Advocate of the Year by the Alliance for Biking & Walking) biked from the Bronx to an event I held in Brooklyn (and on a workday!) to thank me for introducing her to all the amazing advocacy and culture groups she’s at the forefront of ... through reading the blog. I never knew!”
In late 2012, having geared up the conversation in NYC, Varnado took her vision to the City of Dreams – and Los Angeles was fertile ground for Varnado’s efforts. “It's only in the past few years that women have started to equalize or exceed men in advocacy or planning, but in L.A. you see the Ovarian Psychos and The Bodacious Bike Babes (BBB!) in the community; Ma Bell holding it down at the Bike Kitchen; and an overwhelmingly female staff at the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition,” she said. “It creates a different kind of atmosphere that's more social, welcoming, and complex. We all have our place and there’s plenty of space for everyone.”
It didn’t take long for Varnado to once again see an opening for her own ingenuity. Back in NYC, her friends Kim Burgas and Kimberly Kinchen had created a brilliant program to engage hesitant bike commuters. NYC Biketrain is akin to any other public transit route, providing an expert “conductor” to empower and educate new riders, and facilitating a rolling party that creates safety in numbers. Arriving in car-centric L.A., even Varnado, a committed, seasoned cyclist, was wary of riding on the high-speed streets. Knowing that countless other bike curious folks were put off by the daunting urban landscape, Varnado launched LA Bike Trains.
“I realized the combination of social rides for transportation could be a serious game-changer for a place like Los Angeles,” Varnado said. “I saw what has traditionally been small friend and co-worker groups as a scalable transportation model that can be flexible enough even for the complexity of a megalopolis ... Empowering a huge number of people too afraid or uncomfortable to bike, even occasionally, is something that can show the world that sprawl is not something that we, as a society, have to turn our backs on. And if Los Angeles can do it anyone can. And so far the response has been fantastic. People were waiting for something like this.”
“A lot of our riders are people that the rest of the bike industry doesn't want to address: adults who don't race, don't understand anything about bikes, don't identify themselves as cyclists and don't yet understand why a bike should cost more than $150,” she added. “By the time they've participated even just two times most people start to get it.”
But what about people who don’t get it? What about people who aren’t connected to the cycling community in any way, who aren’t exposed to the joys of riding a bike? How do we reach the masses? To tackle that age-old advocacy challenge, Varnado went back to her roots – her degree in art from Cooper Union – and created a beautiful union of cycling and culture: a bike-centric art gallery called Red #5, Yellow #7.
“No one really knows how to effectively bring in non-cyclists to talk about bikes – but what if we had a really awesome gallery that just happened to revolve around bikes, able to frame the conversation to the art and design community or education and entertainment demographics?” she said. “[The] R5Y7 [gallery] is an experimental lab: We can see what works and what doesn't. We’ve found new ways to engage a sleepy and disparate local network with informative lifestyle workshops. The gallery installations appeal to other media outlets and visitors ... There's a transformative power that objects have. It gets boring talking all the time. Visual experiences are key.”
Already, the gallery has hosted exhibits like “Bikes in the House!” – industrial design showing bikes as a beautiful part of daily life – and workshops like “Sweat, Hair, and Fashion on a Bike” and “Nutrition for Women.”
For Varnado that innovative, big tent mentality extends beyond the gallery, beyond the routes of the bike trains, infusing even traditional advocacy efforts with a new focus on reframing cycling for the masses. For instance, in February, Varnado hosted a Bicycle Commuter Festival and Summit – but she dressed up the marketing and content to emphasize (gasp!) fun.
“No one wants to go to a conference but everyone wants to go to a killer festival,” she noted. “By creating a festival environment and making learning fun, we’re able to cross boundaries that traditional sports, advocacy, and promotion can’t match.”
While Varnado’s efforts continue to expand, she’s now bringing the initiatives under a single umbrella. The Bicycle Culture Institute, a new non-profit, is “dedicated to advancing the mainstream dialogue on contemporary cycling issues by connecting people to new (bicycling) ideas.” And it’s not just about game-changing initiatives like the art gallery; identifying gaps in traditional advocacy that can be bridged with cultural projects. It’s also about a new way of thinking about bicycle advocacy; cultivating mentorship, diversity and the space for innovators who don’t have traditional links to bike advocacy or industry.
And that’s what’s most inspiring about Varnado and her work. At the 2014 National Women’s Bicycling Forum, she emphasized the need for us all to set aside our egos and adopt a “philosophy of abundance.” She called for us to reject the competitive notion that there isn’t enough to go around, and instead recognize that a unified bike community floats all boats by pedaling cycling beyond a niche audience. Cooperate, collaborate, and participate: That’s how we’ll make real change.
Carolyn Szczepanski is the Director of Communications at the League of American Bicyclists and founder of the League’s Women Bike program. Before joining the League, Carolyn spent nearly 10 years as a print reporter.