Why you should care
Women should be able to cycle as freely as men.
When Vivian da Silva Garelli Machado from Niterói, a city in southeast Brazil, meets her female friends to cycle each week, it’s more than just a bike ride with like-minded people. It’s a way of mapping safe routes in a city not made for cyclists. It’s also a way of sharing experiences of sexual harassment. It’s a “form of empowering our bodies, our destinies and our lives,” she says.
Machado is part of an all-female cycle group called Pedal Maravilha that brings women together, while also deepening a dialogue about safety and discrimination that cyclists — both women and men — face daily in Brazil. It’s far from the only group of its kind. Across the country, from Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul in the south to as far north as Tocantins and Amazonas, at least a dozen all-female cycling groups have emerged, where there were none in 2010. And they’re drawing more and more women.
Pedaleirax, a group from the south of Brazil, started in 2016 and now has more than 1,600 members. Pedal das Gurias, also from southern Brazil, started with 52 participants in mid-2016, and now boasts more than 3,000 members. Women are organizing cycling events nationwide — for other women. An annual cycling event called 100gurias 100medo started in 2016 from a collaboration between Pedaleirax and Pedal das Gurias, and is now held in different cities each year. Then there’s Feminismo Sobre Duas Rodas (Feminism on Two Wheels), which focuses on São Paulo, a city where just 6 percent of cyclists are women, according to the Association of Urban Cyclists of São Paulo. This group started in January 2018 and already has nearly 600 members. Like 100gurias 100medo, it teaches women basic bike maintenance, helps them form cycle groups and teaches them their legal rights both as women and as bike users.
A group of women together is an unparalleled force. No one can beat it.
Cris Oliveira, cyclist
Brazil’s poor cycling infrastructure forces cyclists to share heavily congested roads with fast-moving vehicles, often with tragic consequences. In 2014 — the most recent official figures from Brazil’s Ministry of Health — 1,357 cyclists were killed, up from 1,348 in 2013. For perspective, there were 729 cyclist deaths in the U.S. in 2014 and 749 in 2013. And that’s just one of the reasons the female cyclists are banding together.
The other reason? These groups also serve as support networks in the face of catcalling, muggings, sexualization and objectification — daily experiences for female cyclists in Brazil. “A much-needed environment, not just to vent but to strengthen us, knowing that we are not alone,” says Machado, describing how she sees these groups.
The challenges facing Brazil’s feminist cyclists aren’t small. Even popular tourist cities like Rio de Janeiro — which hosted the Olympics in 2016 — are built for cars. And for bikers? “If anything, conditions have got worse,” says Naomi Orton, a cyclist and Ph.D. student who researches discourse analysis and social movements at Rio’s Pontifical Catholic University.
Two cycle lanes in Rio have collapsed since 2016, one of which left two people dead after it fell into the sea, and yet reconstruction hasn’t begun, Orton says. “With the passing of the Olympics, these projects have simply been left to decay,” she adds. The city’s mayor, Marcelo Crivella, has allocated just 5,000 real (approximately $1,500) to improve cycling infrastructure in Rio in 2018, and many other cities have announced no investments at all.
By grouping together and campaigning on social media and through public demonstrations — such as Critical Mass, the global cycling advocacy movement, and their own similarly organized rides — these feminist cycling groups are trying to take on this official callousness. But the discrimination female cyclists face is also a major motivator. Groups like 100gurias 100medo — which launched in Porto Alegre in 2016, moved to Florianópolis in 2017 and will be held this June in Rio de Janeiro — emerged from that desire for equality, says Cris Oliveira, a cyclist from Porto Alegre and one of the event’s founders.
“We saw that more women wanted to cycle and use bikes as a form of transport but stopped when they faced discrimination,” she says. The discrimination begins at bike repair centers, where women say they are often treated as stupid or are overcharged for replacement parts. “So, we decided to teach basic mechanics to women to empower them further,” says Oliveira. The event now brings together cyclists from all over the country who come to the three-day event for bike-related debates and discussions, and to participate in workshops.
These feminist cycling groups are clear they aren’t anti-men. In several cases, their membership is just for women, says Oliveira, and men who try to join are respectfully asked to leave. But Brazil also has many mixed-sex cycling groups that give ample space for both sexes to cycle together, and the feminist cyclists are comfortable with that.
Some of the leaders driving this trend were even reluctant to identify themselves as feminists initially, they say. But the reality of the Brazilian street hit them. “I didn’t want to be a feminist, but on the streets we have to deal with harassment, and so I ended up being a feminist to fight for our rights,” says Oliveira.
The women enjoy support from many male bike riders too. Marcos Serrão, a cyclist in Rio de Janeiro, says the growing movement of all-female cycling groups and events will help break stereotypes that paint women as cycling only for leisure. “It really increases their self-esteem when they discover they’re not alone,” he says, adding that he wants female cyclists to “be seen as a solution to traffic, not an obstacle.”
The opportunity to “become stronger” together and “learn from each other” is beautiful, says Oliveira. She’s planning a solo cycling trip across Brazil at the end of the year, and hopes to document that journey on social media to encourage other women to start using bikes. There’s no stopping them, she suggests. “A group of women together is an unparalleled force,” says Oliveira. “No one can beat it.”