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Liz Jose and WE Bike NYC are carving out a place for women in the bike world.
More than once, Liz Jose had to look at her fellow organizers and ask, “At what point do we stop in the interest of riders’ safety?”
It was a journey of more than 260 miles (418 km) from New York City, NY, to Washington, DC and the late-February weather was just short of perilous. It wasn’t just cold – it was ski-goggles-to-keep-your-tears-from-freezing frigid. The gusting wind was slicing through Gore-Tex like butter, blowing in a deluge of snow that would paralyze the East Coast for days.
Still, Jose knew that it would take an ultimatum to put the brakes on the 10 diverse women riding from the Big Apple to the National Bike Summit. “We were so motivated as a group,” Jose said, “that no one was going to give in.”
The “WE Bike to DC” ride was more than a means of transportation to the nation’s biggest bike advocacy event – it was a statement. When the group rolled up to the steps of the capitol in their matching purple jackets and smiles of accomplishment their success rippled nationwide. “It wasn’t only the physical feat of biking all those miles,” Jose explained, “but the fact that we were carving out a place for ourselves in the bike world.”
It’s hard to believe that Jose started cultivating that space little more than two years ago when she moved to New York City for graduate school and her personal and professional passions led to the creation of WE Bike NYC.
As part of her thesis, Jose was examining how bicycle education could address self-esteem, body image, and social connection for young girls, but was having difficulty getting a local school to pilot her curriculum. At the same time, Jose who cycled for transportation was interested in using her bike for physical fitness, but couldn’t find a women’s riding group that wasn’t tied to racing.
As a bike shop mechanic, steeped in the male culture of the cycling world, Jose suspected that she wasn’t alone in looking for other ladies to ride with. “So I sent email to 30 people and got a huge wave of responses – many from people I didn’t even know,” she recalled. “That was the moment I thought, ‘Oh, there’s definitely a need beyond just me for this to exist.’”
The name WE Bike NYC – an acronym for Women’s Empowerment – defined Jose’s desire to create an inviting space specifically for women-identified riders built on feminist principles, collective leadership, and simply having fun. Even as the group was in its conception phase, women Jose had never met trekked to her bike shop on the Lower East Side to help turn the idea into reality. WE Bike NYC grew quickly and organically, as women eagerly offered their ideas and, more importantly, their leadership, from writing a newsletter to organizing rides around the city.
“The biggest thing, at first, was to keep showing up,” Jose said. “There had been a couple of smaller women bike initiatives in New York, but they were sporadic and run by different groups. The fact that we had continuous rides and were there when we said we would be was a big deal.” And, right out of the gates, WE Bike NYC had a tangible goal to mobilize and unify members: creating a team and training together for the popular 5 Borough Bike Tour.
Another key to success was getting women out of the saddle. “When you’re on a bike, there’s a fear that others will be faster or that the group has already left,” Jose said. “But with a fix-a-flat class, you just show up and people will be there. You’re all learning the same thing so it’s not about a certain level of ability – and it’s also really social.”
For Jose, the social component was paramount. WE Bike NYC wasn’t just about bringing women together, but introducing them to the countless cycling communities in their own urban backyard. In addition to traditional, no-drop rides, WE Bike NYC hosted field trips, like a trip to the velodrome to get a taste of track racing and a bike frame builders tour that showed, beneath the veneer of ultimate bike nerdiness, a welcoming group of approachable artisans who simply love bikes. “The bike world in NYC is huge but segmented, and it’s hard to break into if you’re a newbie,” Jose said. “So the goal with field trips is to open up those different areas.”
Instead of raising questions about segregating the sexes, WE Bike NYC has become an intentional example of how a dedicated space for women can also act as a catalyst for bringing groups together. One of Jose’s favorite memories? “At the end of frame builders tour, we had a barbeque, and invited Social Cycling and Black Label Bike Club,” she recalled. “Social is a group that does evening rides and black label is part of the tall bike scene – they’re very different groups. But we were all hanging out, eating burgers, and taking bikes.”
Jose has integrated that ethic in WE Bike NYC’s core programming, as well. The group has an expanding collection of logos with the same style and typography, but different riders – a mom with a child, a woman with an Afro, a busty lady with ample hips. She also created an innovative Mujeres en Movimiento (Women in Motion) initiative to engage Spanish-speaking women – by providing relevant knowledge and cultivating a sense of ownership in the organization itself. “Engaging Latina women is done by creating accessible resources where these women can literally and figuratively see themselves – or people who look like them,” Jose told me last year.
That’s more than a bullet in a mission statement – it’s also a commitment to action. For instance, last year, after the first round of mechanic classes, a 55-year-old participant in the Mujeres program wanted to join WE Bike NYC’s Mothers Day event – but she didn’t yet have the ability or confidence to ride the full 10 miles (16 km). So Jose rented a tandem bike and pedaled with her, and a handful of other Mujeres participants, from Corona, Queens to Roosevelt Island. “For five or six of the women it was their first bike ride of all time in the city,” she said. “It took us two hours to go 10 miles, but we got there. We had pizza and hung out together and there was this amazing camaraderie. Everyone made it; it didn’t matter how long it took us, or how far we went, we just shared time together.”
With the success of the NYC group that sense of camaraderie has grown beyond the bounds of the five boroughs. In true WE Bike NYC style, Jose remembers a meeting in 2013 when someone shared a bold idea: Wouldn’t it be cool if we rode to Washington, D.C. for the Bike Summit? “To be honest, the first time around the table there was a lot of ‘Ahhhh, I don’t know,’” Jose said with a laugh.
The logistics, the fundraising, the distance were a level of challenge not yet broached by the still-young, all-volunteer organization. But, even in just a few short years, WE Bike NYC leaders had cultivated relationships with other women’s cycling groups – like Women Bike Philadelphia, and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association – and they immediately supported in the idea and the ability of the NYC leadership to pull it off. “With the confidence they showed in WE Bike NYC, we thought, yeah, let’s do it,” Jose recalled.
In addition to raising $11,000 to support the ride, WE Bike to DC elevated the national profile and importance of women’s cycling groups. For Jose, even when the gender gap in bicycling no longer exists, when there’s no pressing need to highlight the impact and voices of female rider by pedaling 260 miles (418 km), there will still be a critical role for groups like WE Bike NYC. And, as she transitions from the organization she founded to a new job at Bike Works in Seattle, she hopes her efforts will continue to shift not only the women bike movement but bicycle advocacy at large.
“I think a space where women can come together, meet each other and empower each other is a valuable space no matter what else is going on in the bike world,” Jose said. “Mujeres en Movimiento started because we needed to reach out to other communities and meet them where they’re at. I’d love to see WE Bike NYC continue to explore different communities, to find out how bikes can benefit different parts of the city, and come together with all other groups to interact. That’s why I think we’ve been so successful. What we do creates bridges and personal friendships and opportunities to interact. And you don’t have to talk all day on a bike. You can ride together and have an experience even if you don’t speak same language.”
Learn more about WE Bike NYC at webikenyc.org