In this latest SheCycles post, we get to know Robyn Jankel, in her own words. If you’re unfamiliar with SheCycles, it’s a serious of posts in which we’re introduced to a range of perfectly normal, completely different and absolutely awesome women, in their own words.
Click here to read all the SheCycles posts.
That’s enough from me, and I’ll hand you over to Robyn (@RobynJankel on Twitter – do follow her!)
I’m Robyn, I’m 36, and I’m originally from London but I now live in York. I’ve had a portfolio career thus far, from teacher to talent agent. I ran a B&B in the before times, and I’m an aspiring writer. I love decorating things with unnecessary abandon, which is why I ride a bicycle covered with flowers and fairy lights. There is always space for more flowers and there is always time for cake.
What does it mean to you, as a woman, to also be a cyclist, and how (if at all) do you feel it’s different from what men experience?
I’m not a sporty cyclist, nor am I competitive generally, so I don’t care about Strava personal bests, but this does seem to be a constant discussion when it comes to cycling. If ever I hear men talking about cycling, it’s almost always along the lines of fastest, furthest, strongest, etc, and I immediately feel cut off because even if I were into that, I wouldn’t be able to compete.
I do think it’s important to remember that different people cycle for different reasons, and I’m no less valid for pootling along to the shops and visiting friends. I spent a long time saying “Oh no, I’m not a cyclist” because I just didn’t feel that I belonged in that category, and now I can see that it actually benefits the cause to say “Yes, I wear floaty dresses and sandals whilst I ride my bike and I am a cyclist”.
It’s not talked about much, but as a female cyclist it’s important to remember that there is an intersectionality with being a woman in a man’s world, and a cyclist in a motorist’s world. This means that the harassment is increased on both sides. So male cyclists will get shouted at and abused, but they don’t get the misogynist language which female cyclists do, or the sexual innuendoes which can be really scary, especially late at night.
Sometimes I get shouted at by men in cars or vans and it turns out they’re giving me a compliment – nice bike or whatever – but I’ve received so much abuse over the years that I tense myself to expect “you sl*g” every time I see the window being wound down, and that’s a horrible way to live.
It’s thankfully far less common in York than it was in London, but I would get called all manner of sexist names on the regular, and when you combine that with the intimidation of a person in a two-tonne metal box, it’s just a huge inflation of the fear that many women feel on a regular basis by simply existing. It’s definitely a large part of why there is a skew in the gender proportion.
If cycling were normalised then it would at least take away the abuse given to cyclists and then we can deal with misogyny another time.
Do you feel women are treated as equals in the world of cycling, and if not, what can be done about it?
My area of interest and expertise is cycle campaigning and I certainly feel that women are not given the attention they need in this area. Cycle infrastructure has traditionally been built by men (white, able-bodied, healthy, middle-class, young/middle-aged men at that) and so it’s hardly a surprise that they are the demographic who use it the most.
It’s very easy to dismiss the gender gap in transport cycling (70/30 nationwide) as because women
don’t like it, or don’t want to mess up their hair, but it’s such a lazy narrative. Studies show that women are more risk-averse, and less likely to do something because of perceived, if not actual danger, so there needs to be emphasis on making cycle networks actively look safer, both from other road users and general safety concerns.
For example, a lovely off-road path is very nice during the day, but if it goes through poorly-lit woodland then very few women will be comfortable using it, and certainly not at night. Then there’s the fact that women are statistically more likely to be doing the shopping, transporting children, and travelling by non-radial routes, none of which is routinely considered when cycle infrastructure is being built, even today.
And then you’ve got the irritations which build up over time; cycle storage on trains being designed for people with better upper body strength; cycle racks too close together to allow for women who have curvier low halves and therefore find it harder to squeeze between them; women being directed towards shopper bicycles and then parking not being designed for a bike with a basket. Most of the time, cycle infrastructure is built with the average user in mind, and the average user, as with literally everything, is a man.
What got you into cycling?
Ironically enough, after that epic rant, it was actually my ex-boyfriend. I lived in London at the time, and he got around everywhere by bike. I had been tentatively interested in trying out the Santander Cycles (then Barclays Bikes) but was unwilling to do so without a helmet.
However as a categorically non-sporty, non-athletic person, I was too nervous to go into a sports shop and ask someone to help me buy one, which again is a concern held by many women. It’s especially tricky because transport cycling isn’t a sport, but in this country we tend to equate the two, unlike the Dutch who have separate words for utility and sports cyclists. So I had simply watched from the sidelines. But my ex was an avid cyclist and keen to get me into it, and I didn’t need much persuading. I started with the Barclays Bikes, practicing in parks and side roads, and worked my way up to commuting.
After fighting for a dock one too many times, I knew I needed to buy my own bike. I did, and I haven’t looked back. Fast forward eight years, and I’ve moved to York and am now co-chair of my local cycling campaign!
To you, what’s the best thing about cycling? And the worst?
The best: it’s the laziest way to travel somewhere, and the most faff-free way to get exercise into my day. I love that in a well-planned city (not so much York), I can get door to door on my bike without walking. That was my joy in London – no need to walk to or from the tube station, I could just roll right up and park outside my office door. Lazy!
Additionally, I really hate the idea of slogging away in a gym. Spending time exercising for the sake of it feels like a slow death and an absolute waste of time. Cycling for transport means that I exercise accidentally and actually do something practical at the same time. It’s very satisfying.
The worst: the terrible, terrible infrastructure. The way that we are expected to ride in the gutter, over glass and gravel and drain covers, beg to cross the road, take primary position in front of HGVs, park our bikes on shoddy toast racks down an alleyway, all whilst the government says “We love cycling, everyone should cycle”. And the fact that research has shown people literally view cyclists as sub-human. It blows my mind that people dislike me because of the way I choose to travel around, especially when by cycling instead of driving, I’m actively making their lives easier.
Tell us some of your cycling dreams and aspirations?
Last year I cycled the Trans-Pennine Trail on my Dutch bike, just to prove that I could (and also to find out whether it was possible), in high heels and a leopard-print coat. It wasn’t easy, but I did it, although I also gave myself Achilles tendonitis by the time I reached Doncaster and had to slope home by train.
I’d love to do some more ridiculous journeys on my absolutely impractical but totally beautiful bike, and prove to everyone who thinks it’s all about being the best, the first, the fastest, that actually it’s just about giving it a bloody good go. And looking fabulous en route.
As a woman, what can you do to make cycling more normal, and more inclusive? And what are the biggest obstacles in your way?
Join your local cycle campaign! When I joined, I was the only woman on the committee; now there are five of us. Representation and visibility matter. I am often the one speaking on behalf of the campaign on the radio or TV because I don’t look like the “average cyclist”, and it helps to spread the message to the world at large that we don’t all wear lycra (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it is the stereotype), and to people who are tentatively interested in cycling that there’s no need to look or dress or speak like the cookie-cutter expectation.
In terms of obstacles, I routinely butt up against council officers who have no desire or impetus to make change happen, and who are all older white men and can’t imagine that anybody experiences life differently to the way they do. They will often dismissively expect cyclists to take the lane, for example; and this simply isn’t possible if you’re a nervous 70-year-old using an e-bike for the first time, or a parent with an 8-year-old alongside. It’s the lack of imagination and the unwillingness to shut up and listen to other people.
Tell us about you – what motivates you, what scares you, and what makes you happy?
It’s cheesy but my motivation is the knowledge that I have the power to make a difference. I moved to this city because of what it has to offer, but it could be so much better, and I’m doing everything I can to make that happen.
What scares me? The idea that so many people are apathetic and would rather embrace the status quo than the concept of change. More practically, I’m scared by other road users on a daily basis.
What was the biggest challenge or obstacle you’ve had to face?
Acknowledging that I have something to say when it comes to cycling, and that my voice is valid. Imposter syndrome is real. I am now part of the York Civic Trust, which is filled with (almost entirely male) retired transport planners and experts in their fields, and I spent months worrying that I had nothing to contribute.
It’s taken me ages to realise that I have a lot to add and that just because my experience is different, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong; quite the opposite, in fact. I’m coming at it from a different angle and that’s a very good thing. I mean, that and riding a 25kg Dutch bike over Windle Edge on the TPT, which was quite literally the biggest obstacle I’ve ever faced.
Is there an achievement or contribution that you are most proud of?
How many times can I bang on about the TPT and the York Cycle Campaign?! Because both! I’m really proud that the York Cycle Campaign has gone from a dormant organisation when I joined and helped revamp it, to a significant stakeholder which is included in discussions with the council. We’re riling up the locals now, and I’ve even had a few petrolhead anti-cycling Facebook stalkers, so you know you’re making a difference when that starts happening.
Actually, I have a smaller one which did make me very happy. Six years ago I wrote a blog post about how cycling makes you accidentally fit and last year it was posted by someone I don’t know into a Women in Cycling facebook group. It got great feedback and they didn’t know I was in the group. I was so pleased that something I’d written, from the perspective of a very unsporty cyclist, was so well received by the people I’d written it for. It made me realise that I do have a worthwhile perspective and I should be proud of that.
How did cycling change you?
It turned me into a campaigner! I was always politically vehement but never really active in a sense of doing something about it. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that I could influence local politics – it felt like such an impenetrable and mysterious behemoth – but through my cycle campaigning, I learnt how it works and how it’s possible to get involved and make change happen.
It’s slow, and an absolute bloody nightmare almost every step of the way, but there are routes in. I really hate to just moan on the sidelines; if something’s wrong then I like to get stuck in and do something about it. But prior to this, I didn’t know how. If I hadn’t started cycling, I wouldn’t have been aware of all the problems, and I’d never have started campaigning to change them. I use cycle campaigning as a way to scratch my feminist itch, too, so I really focus my attention on ensuring equality of access for all underrepresented groups.
How has your cycling impacted on your family life, and your life overall?
I’m single, no kids, so there’s no family to impact! But my life generally definitely changed when I made cycling part of my everyday life. I became fitter, I got to know my city better, I thought about myself and my impact on the world differently.
I used to drive all the time without even thinking about it. These days I do my shopping by bike, go to my appointments, and visit all my friends that way (and I’d commute too, if commutes still existed). It simply wouldn’t occur to me to drive in York as the first option.
Now, I only drive if I absolutely must, like if I’m carrying something far too heavy and bulky for the bike, or I’m travelling somewhere out of the way. I keep the car on a trickle charge because I use it so infrequently; I just don’t see the point in taking it out when I could far more easily cycle everywhere I need to get within the city limits.
What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you?
I often forget how recognisable my bicycle is, and how small York is. Pre-pandemic, people would often say “I noticed you were at the cinema on Wednesday” or “So where were you cycling back from at 11 o’clock last night?” It’s definitely taken away any semblance of anonymity so it’s a good thing my behaviour’s squeaky clean, officer.
Where would you most like to go cycling? Why there?
I really want to take my bike on more ridiculously inappropriate trips, just to prove that I can. At the moment I’ve got my sights set on the Danube; I figure if families can bikepack along there then Grazel and I can do it too. It’s only about 1,200 km. Sadly Covid is putting paid to that at the moment, so I might consider doing some more long-distance trips in the UK, probably in a ballgown or something.
If you could change ONE thing about cycling, what would that be?
Properly decent infrastructure! I could go into detail but we all know what that means. Or more generally, forcing the government and local authorities to actually, truly, follow the transport hierarchy and put cyclists about motorists. You can’t put a cycle lane there because otherwise what will happen to the parked cars? Do you hear yourselves?!
What bike do you ride? What made you choose that one? If you have multiple bikes, which is your favourite, and why?
I ride a Dutch granny bike – to be precise, a WorkCycles Oma called Grazel, and I love her. I chose this model because my boyfriend at the time had the male version, had done a heap of research before buying it, and couldn’t recommend it highly enough. When I looked into it, she ticked all of the boxes. For full and painstaking detail, I actually wrote a blog post about her here. But the short version is that everything is enclosed, so she requires absolutely zero maintenance.
She is heavy but that makes her phenomenally sturdy, and she is so well balanced that I can fill up one pannier and leave the other one empty and not even notice. She has hub dynamo lights, so I don’t have to faff about with adding them on and taking them off. She has a C-lock on the back wheel so I can leave her briefly outside a shop. Basically she is the most low-maintenance, low-effort, laziest bike I could possibly buy.
And cycling for transport should be lazy. It should require minimal effort. It should be the most convenient, straightforward, hassle-free way to get from A to B, and riding a good-quality Dutch bike is a big step towards achieving that because they are specifically designed as utility vehicles for city cycling. She’s built for comfort and strength, not speed, but I still often glide up to the lights at the same time as the road biker who overtook me earlier.
What advice would you offer to women who are thinking of starting to cycle, or are new cyclists?
Start slow with the basic manoeuvres. Practice in a park or backstreet, and get used to stopping and starting, indicating, looking behind you, etc. Go with a patient, experienced friend – ideally another woman – who can guide you and take charge of directions.
Don’t make your first trip one where you’re trying to get somewhere for a certain time; build up to that, and just cycle for the joy of it at the beginning, or at the very least for the practice. Seek out cycle shops which promote themselves as being female-friendly, and try not to think of them as sports shops, which personally I find quite intimidating.
And bring snacks.