Biking for Girly Girls

Leslie Carlson

Recently, I attended a business meeting at which the subject of women and biking came up. Several of us there were impressed with a woman who had ridden her bike to the meeting, but wondered why more women didn’t ride. “It’s the hair,” one woman surmised. “Who wants to show up at an important meeting with helmet head?”

While on the surface this comment seemed superficial, I believe there is some truth to it. Helmet head, a stripe of mud down your back, your skirt blowing up around your ears—the intersection of biking and women's fashion can be unbelievably awkward. Those of us who like fashion and love biking are desperately in need of some help.

A caveat here: if you own any piece of biking equipment that is labeled “high performance” or if you ride around town in a European-style Lycra jersey, then you can stop reading right now. I’m not talking about biking as recreation or biking for maximum speed, but how to get from Point A to Point B and still look presentable enough for a client meeting. Since I’ve been biking (and meeting with clients directly thereafter) for the past few months, here’s what I’ve learned:

Change your hair, or live with helmet head. My solution to the ever-present problem of helmet head was to ask my hairstylist for a helmet-friendly ‘do. She looked askance at me, grumbled under her breath as she cut, but she managed to give me something that looks OK post-bike helmet. Your other options are growing your hair long, or ignoring the fact that your hair looks crappy on the days you bike.

Be careful with skirts. I made the mistake of biking in a skirt only once—and after a stiff gust of wind blew it up, I now change into my skirt at the office. Other women I know wear bike shorts underneath their skirts, but these can be bulky and hot. Attention Oregon fashion designers: Why doesn’t one of you make a lightweight, under-skirt knicker-style underwear that those of us who bike in skirts can wear?

Ignore everyone racing by you. Biking in street clothes means you'll never ride as fast as the Lycra bikers zipping by you at high speed. Don’t worry about it. Just continue on your leisurely way, knowing that you are contributing to your own health and to the health of the planet, even if you are doing it at a slug’s pace.

Please make bike fashions cuter! I’m tired of looking like a guy on my bike. I want a pink helmet, but all I can find are black, dark grey, medium grey and dark blue. I’d also like a bike “skort” that could double as a work skirt (that means it has to be cute and functional.) Attention bike equipment makers: I, and many of my female biking friends, are ready to buy your fashionable biking products once you get around to producing them.

Just do it. For all my complaining, I love riding my bike to work. Seeing the sunlight glinting off the Willamette, hearing the birds, breathing the fresh air—the benefits of getting out of your car far outweigh my minor fashion complaints. There are lots of people trying to help biking be more female-friendly, including the City of Portland's Office of Transportation. I hope to see you riding out there this summer—skirt and all.


  • Bob (unverified)

    Life has got to be very good.

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    Life has got to be very good.

    Not so good, because if more of us don't get on bikes the planet is going to be a cinder in about 50 years or so.

  • Sponge (unverified)

    Very well said. However, if my wife catches me riding with a skirt, I'll have some serious splainin' to do.

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    Leslie, congratulations on being one of the 25 people taking the "low car diet."

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    Sometime within the past two-three years, I think we passed the tipping point in bike commuting. As an irregular bike commuter in Portland over the past 20 years, I've watched as it went from being a fringe group of riders willing to dodge cars to a seasonal activity (the first sunny day, rider traffic would triple) to full-fledged commuting. I now see a preponderance of regular people riding bikes--slowpokes on regular bikes dressed in work clothes. They lycra-wearing speedsters are still out there (the hippest of whom now cruise on single-speeds), but they don't dictate the pace anymore.

    I come across the Hawthorne Bridge, and I find myself caught in traffic jams on a regular basis as 10-20 bikes jockey along the bike lane.

    As an irregular biker who has always gone sort of fast, but also always rode a relatively cheap bike and commuted in work clothes, I delight in seeing these commuters. We're all out there getting healthier, saving the environment, and having a pleasant time in the fresh air. It is my great hope that the traffic jams become thicker.

    (As a now-mostly-bald man, I don't have to contend with hat hair, however. But I've found skirts to be no problem, so long as you ride cautiously.)

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    Leslie, congratulations on being one of the 25 people taking the "low car diet."

    Thanks Chris; today was the first of my official 30 car-free days (and yes, I rode my bike). I hope to be blogging about it soon.

    Jeff, let me know when you cross the Hawthorne bridge by bike in your skirt, because that's something I'd like to see.

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    For those looking for men in skirts on bikes: while sparsely attended, most of the people in this year's "pretty dress ride" were men.

    And for those interested in good women's cycling apparel, I suggest checking out our local Hillsboro

    That said, clothing designers definitely need to continue to make more functional gear, for the everyday commuter, that doesn't look like it's just for cyclists when we're biking.

  • B (unverified)

    About that mud stripe -- I've seen some fairly ingenius constructions made from articulated sliced 2-liter bottles and wire. I know it could look like crap, but I'm sure the women on this board could compete with the engineering students at our university. Their fenders worked very well, were supported so they didn't drag on the tires, and stayed together for years. You can choose a sytlish bottle color or cover them in Oakland Raiders/flower stickers if you like. Your SO will be impressed.

  • jami (unverified)

    i'm a she-bike-commuter, but i work in a lab at ohsu, so i can wear rough clothes all the limb-long day if i choose. i miss long skirts on occasion, but if you've got your hot bike legs going, i say go with a shorter skirt with bike/yoga/lycra shorts under. let the suv-drivers break their necks seeing how far they can see. if you're biking and staying healthy, you don't need as much aqua net and prada to look good.

  • Jessica Roberts (unverified)

    Good for you, Lesley! I also love to bike in a skirt (here's a blog post I wrote on the topic.). Some tips that make it work for me:

    1. Fenders! Somehow, I didn't know about these for the whole first year I biked, and suffered the gritty skunk stripe down the back to prove it. They're cheap and they work (and it's considerate to the cyclists behind you).

    2. Leave nice clothes and shoes at work. Then you can wear whatever you want to bike in and pull what I like to call the "superman routine" once you get there.

    3. Try out your dresses and skirts on bike -- some seem to fly up, while others work just fine for biking. (I keep wanting to invent some kind of clip-on skirt weight, like a tablecloth weight, for the rest, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.)

    4. As Leslie says, put up with biking a little more slowly, especially if you're wearing heels (which I like to do from time to time).

    5. Join the City of Portland's excellent Women on Bikes series of rides, classes and workshops for fun, good company, and learning.

    Jessica Roberts Metro-Area Advocate Bicycle Transportation Alliance

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    Taking a cue from my congressman (Earl), I bike to City Club and other meetings wearing business clothes. In the rainy months, I wear a windbreaker or heavy jacket and carry my blazer in my bike bag, swapping them out in the lobby or the men's room when I get to my destination. I also carry a brush to get rid of helmet hair. In hotter weather, I will ride a bit slower and not wear any kind of jacket until I get to my meeting (again pulling out the blazer from my bike bag).

    A few years ago, I bought a mid-sized Rubbermaid tote box that could be locked with a padlock. I drilled some holes in the bottom and attached it to my bike rack with some U-bolts. This allowed me to carry a lot of stuff on my bike securely. I could go grocery shopping and leave a bag of groceries in it while doing another errand or stopping off for a beer. I could leave my laptop in it rather than lugging it everywhere I went. And I could put a whole change of clothes in it for going to work or meetings. It was rectangular and thus not very aerodynamic, but it functioned quite well as a bike trunk. Some bike company ought to manufacture something like this.

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    As a Portlander currently living in Oxford, UK, I spend quite a lot of time as a bike commuter these days. I don't own a car, and use my feet, bike, and public transport to get around. I'm certainly not alone--I'd guess there are more bikes than cars in Oxford by a factor of two, since parking is horrible, insurance is expensive, and half the population are students.

    So, I've got my little bike fitted with fenders(or mudguards as they're known in these parts), lights for evening rides, and a cute little wire basket on the back for my groceries. I ride everywhere, summer and winter, and while my student lifestyle means I can potter around in jeans most of the time, I've been known to ride in a skirt and, on one occasion, in evening dress and heels to a black tie dinner.

    All around me, people of every age and physical description are cycling the streets of Oxford as well. Grandmothers, parents with children strapped in behind them, professorial types in tweeds--you name it, it will cycle around here.

    I hope that when my Oxford days are over, I'll keep up my cycling ways, wherever I land. And while I hope that some enterprising company makes some fashion-forward cycle wear for the working girls -- a generation cries out for something not made of spandex in fugly patterns -- I've learned that you can bike in just about anything.

  • Mike Tewfik (unverified)

    I happy to inform all that Leslie now has a Pink helmet care of her supportive husband who found one at the Bike Gallery.

  • Janis McDonald (unverified)

    Thanks for giving me a shout out! I will write more about commuting by bike later - I am in the mountains of California right now. The link that is in your article up above links to my 2005 program. For a link to the 2006 Women on Bikes program by the City please go to (or click on NE Hub and then Women on Bikes).

    Congrats on the new helmet and riding your bike. Hope you are enjoying the low car diet! Cheers, Janis

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    For the men who want to wear a skirt.

    As someone who has biked many miles in his Utilikilt, I can say it's all about the weight of your "skirt." I've never had any trouble with it blowing upwards at all. The weight of the fabric holds it down, no problem.

  • Sarah Birmingham (unverified)

    Thank you Leslie! I thought I was the only frustrated person pumping away on a granny bike, while being overrun by the hornet helmet set here in Portland. I am a consientious (yes I get out of the way for you all -- see my mirrors?), basket-on the-front (yes filled with flowers, vegetables, or my kitten!), skirt-wearing, all-out girly cliche. Insert Sound of Music clip here. Please, fellow riders, I don't want to race you! Call me a nerd. Bike riding is not about competing to me. It's an enjoyable form of transportation and I would rather not wear tight-ass spandex clothes that look and feel like hell, while riding something that makes me lean over and spill my boobs to the world. Incidentally, hell to me is a hot day with people in cars making fun of me biking to work and telling me to try to be a "real" biker.

    I also get no respect from bike store employees who scoff at my bike and my clothes. I won't mention names, but jeezus REI, I have to buy a helmet too, so give me the time of day.

    To all my feminine sisters and brothers biking in skirts, I feel for you.

  • Sherry (unverified)

    Loved your ideas Leslie. And Mike, glad you found her a pink helmet!


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