SILVERLAKE — I wasn’t going to make it to the top of this hill, not on this heavy, steel, beach cruiser bike. After riding only about 20 feet I said out loud, “I’m not gonna make it, I’ll just walk it from here.” The group bike ride started to move past me up the hill at Barnsdall Art Park. But then, a gentle voice from behind me: “I got you, I won’t leave you behind,” and someone put a hand on my back and began pushing me up the hill, using their e-bike to lighten the load.
Though the riders of the Trash Panda Cycling – Gender Expansive Ride (GXR), a group of women and gender queer cyclists that ride throughout LA County, had assured me that I would be taken care of if I joined their weekend morning ride, I’d still been apprehensive.
In the more than ten years I’ve owned my baby blue beach cruiser I had never gone more than a mile or two from home. I always rode on the sidewalk. Even for running quick errands, my parent’s preferred I drive because the roads are dangerous for cyclists — and for women.
And standing at the top of the hill at the park I realized my anxieties about my bike, the roads, and slowing down the group had almost kept me from enjoying this beautiful ride.
I had just met the riders of the GXR a few hours earlier but they had my back, literally.
Bicycle riding groups, clubs, and collectives are nothing new — they’re in essence a way for cyclists to come together to ride their bikes around LA’s less than bike friendly streets, some even host clinics and repair workshops. LA’s streets usually lack bike lanes, and those bike lanes that do exist are mostly unprotected. As anyone who’s ever tried to ride their bike through LA streets can attest, it can be a little scary.
But recently there’s been a shift in how many newer collectives build community. Collectives have historically been cisgender, male dominated spaces. Class, race, and gender, as in most sports, have created barriers to cycling — according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 67% of all bike trips are made by men, and most commuter bikes average over $600. Still despite that there was a 55% increase in bike sales at LA shops during the pandemic.
Both the Gender Expansive Ride (GXR) and Wild Wolf Cycling Collective (WWCC) organize rides, clinics and events ranging from beginner-friendly street rides, to advanced multi-day bike campouts, and gear swap meets, all centered around serving women and anyone outside of the gender binary.
Prominent among the riders of these new groups is Paula Outon, a bike shop owner, who sometimes leads rides with Wild Wolf Collective. Originally from Mexico City when she first came to LA she went where she thought she’d belong, and started working at a bike shop in downtown LA. But to her surprise she struggled to find connection. It was her first job in LA and she felt like the business didn’t care about the people it served.
“I might as well have been working at a grocery store or whatever,” she said in an interview.
As Outon explained, cycling can be dangerous, but for many cyclists in LA there are other added circumstances that have made the bike community hard to be a part of.
Outon has always felt empowered to make change for herself and those around her, so in 2019 she open her own shop, LA Cyclery, out of a small basement. She wanted to create a space not only to sell bikes but to build a home for people like herself.
Outon, a trans-woman, has seen many of her sisters struggle to find community, oftentimes feeling othered. She said when she decided to open her own bike shop it had to be different.
“I was always dreaming of that space where everybody was welcome, also the representation of what it means to have a business like this as a transgender woman, which for me was very important in terms of visibility and an opportunity.”
Speaking about more established bike groups, Outon noted that there were even times where outright harassment was allowed to take place in group settings.
“We definitely come from a very misogynist, transphobic and in general, difference-phobic background,” said Outon.
Anne Marie Drolet, one of four lead riders with the Gender Expansive Ride (GXR), a bike group based in LA County, said she experienced that same thing when she began riding in LA even though she was attending group rides that claimed all riders were “welcome.”
“I would still have moments where I was uncomfortable because I would get immediately sexualized by people and the ride kind of felt like it was a way for people to find prospects for dating, you know, or like, people didn’t see me as fully human,” she said.
Susie Lowber, a lead cyclist and organizer with Wild Wolf Cycling Collective (WWCC), who ride across LA County, also reiterated that sentiment, “I think there’s a big difference between, like, a ride or group saying ‘we welcome you,’ versus a group being like, ‘we’ve built this for you.’”
Outon, Lowber and Drolet, along with their fellow lead riders across LA County, are creating and curating the spaces they always wished for, opening the doors to a more inclusive, intersectional biking scene for underserved and underrepresented cyclists of LA.
In a video Outon posted to LA cyclery’s Instagram last year, she is standing outside her bike shop, which is now a storefront on Sunset in Silverlake, with cyclists and their bikes standing all around. Her dark wavy hair pokes out around her helmet as she explains the guidelines for the Wild Wolf Cycling Collective ride she is about to lead.
“We cannot create community unless we create a safe space for everyone,” she says in the video, explaining that on this ride and at WWCC there will not tolerate bullying, sexism, or queerphobia of any kind.
Outon’s storefront now serves as a hub for one of those groups. It has become a beacon of acceptance and inclusivity.
“That’s [why] we’re intentionally creating this space, to intentionally step away from all of those behaviors and trends that dominated for many, many, many years,” said Outon during our interview.
She expressed that, for many, cycling has become almost a political act, but in the end it is very simple.
“We just want to ride bikes with our friends,” she said.
Lowber, of the Wild Wolf Cycling Collective, agrees with much of what Outon says.
Her cycling collective began as a weekly ride and race team but she felt they could do more for the community.
“After the pandemic, we kind of transitioned from like a race team into what Wild Wolf is now, which is more of a cycling collective,” said Lowber.
“The main goal of Wild Wolf was to encourage and celebrate women, but also like, trans, non-binary, gender-fluid riders in the bike scenes — and have a space for that, because so many of the other rides like this don’t really have that space. It’s like very, very male dominated.”
Something that is apparent in all of these spaces is that every ride, every event and all community guidelines were intentional, tailored to foster not only a welcoming environment, but one that feels safe and mindful of everyone attending.
“I just want community, you know? And I want to be seen as an equal. Which, like, shouldn’t be so much to ask for,” said Drolet.
Wild Wolf not only aims to make a space safe for riders of all women and all genders outside of the binary, they also aim to create accessibility to biking and their bike campouts by hosting gear swap-meets, and they are creating a gear library where new riders can borrow things to outfit their bikes for any WWCC ride they’d like to join.
Both GXR and WWCC are open to riders of all levels and invite women, and all non-binary riders with any kind of bike to join their no-drop rides.
“We try to cater to all ability levels on “no-drop” rides. So we never we never leave anyone. We always keep the pace really chill. We call it a party pace,” Drolet explained.
Drolet, Lowber and Outon, as riders at the forefront of this movement, have found that the LA bike scene has not only been receptive but is excited to have groups like this paving new paths across the county.
Despite the outpouring of support they have received there are still bumps in the road, and they have faced some criticism when it comes to one of their key ride rules, which is that the rides are closed to cis-men.
Drolet said they have had some men say that it is exclusionary and goes against the idea of being an “inclusive” ride. However, the way she and other lead riders see it, all other rides are centered around cis-men and these rides are trying to carve out a space for themselves “I’ll hear people saying, ’I just want to ride my bike. I don’t want it to get dramatic’ … like, so do we?“
But the needling concerns of a small group of naysayers aside, the rides continue to grow. And why wouldn’t they, the wind rushing across your face, the city flying by, the tick tick tick when you aren’t pushing forward on your pedals. Standing at the top of Barnsdall Art Park hill, I knew the group ride had made me feel at home behind the handle-bars.