Portland has a new bike shop. But before you react with, “Really? Another one!?”, keep in mind that unlike any other shop in Portland, Gladys Bikes (Facebook) at 3808 N Williams caters specifically to women.
The shop is the work of 30-year old north Portland resident Leah Benson. I stopped by yesterday to check out the space and learn more about her.
A native of Wisconsin, Benson moved to Portland five years ago. She previously worked for Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc., a non-profit that provides education and advocacy for women going into non-traditional employment (mostly building and construction trades). Benson has also been an active volunteer with the Community Cycling Center.
While she’s ridden her bike her entire life (“I grew up in the middle of nowhere, so I had to ride my bike if I wanted to do anything,” she said) and started biking to work in her early 20s, it wasn’t until she moved to Portland that biking became a larger part of her life. “This is such an easy city to become immersed in bicycles,” she said, “it became not just something I did to get from point A to point B, but so much an integral part of my life.”
“Sometimes it’s nice to be able to walk in and say, ‘Oh, there actually is something that relates to me and fits my body already’.”
— Leah Benson
As she got more into cycling, she felt like something was missing during trips to her local bike shop. “It just never felt like there was a place for me,” is how she put it. Then one night, while talking with some friends (“To be honest, were griping a bit”) she recalled that, “I was like, ‘Man, I just wish there was a women’s specific bike shop!’ and I thought, you know what, I like new challenges and this is something that’s important to me. I’m going to give it a try.”
One-and-a-half years later she opened Gladys Bikes.
“It’s really hard to strike a balance between being honest about the female experience and not just making blanket statements and stereotypes about what it means to be a woman who rides a bike.”
— Leah Benson
The space is small, and for now at least, it’s sparsely populated with products. Benson says she’s on a month-to-month lease and she wants to start small, grow into the space over time, and then eventually move into a larger location. That strategy makes sense, since a bike shop that caters to women is a new concept in Portland.
“In a lot of ways it’s an experiment,” Benson shared, “Looking to figure out a way to cater to a fairly wide swath of women and do it in a way that’s successful. It’s really hard to strike a balance between being honest about the female experience and not just making blanket statements and stereotypes about what it means to be a woman who rides a bike — or just putting a big pink flower out and saying, ‘You’ll all identify with this, so come on in!'”
Benson says she offers women a “semi-custom experience” and that one of the main services she provides is fitting women to their bikes and then offering the accessories and components that “make sense for them.” In a loft above the service area, bike builder Natalie Ramsland will offer custom bike fits. “The idea being that it shouldn’t be something that you have to have a lot of money for or feel like you’re a racer to have a bike that fits you — whether you’re riding a 20-year-old bike or something brand new.”
Fit isn’t something that’s necessarily more important for women, Benson explained, but, “It’s gotten wrong more often for women.”
In addition to helping women get comfortable, Benson’s selection of products also caters to her mission. The first thing I noticed in the shop was the expansive selection of saddles. Gladys Bike customers will find a dozen to choose from. While many shops will carry just a few saddles that work well for women, Benson believes that it’s important to have an expansive selection.
“All bike shops are always very willing to special order things that relate to women,” says Benson, “But sometimes it’s nice to be able to walk in and say, ‘Oh, there actually is something that relates to me and fits my body already’.”
Along with a great saddle selection, Benson also carries as assortment of fashionable Cleverhood rain ponchos and an assortment of essentials including: lights from Portland Design Works; Nutcase helmets; cycling caps from Double Darn; panniers, backpacks, and bags from North St. and Po Campo; and all the other Portland riding essentials. The shop doesn’t carry a bike brand yet, but Benson says she might offer Papillionaire, a line of vintage Dutch style city bikes from Australia.
And there’s a mirror on the wall with a hand-written sign that says, “You look perfect.”
A bike shop that caters explicitly to women is new to Portland, but Benson is part of a growing national “Women Bike” movement. Since it became an official focus on the League of American Bicyclists at the 2012 National Bike Summit, the effort to get more women interested in cycling has gained considerable momentum. Women Bike is now a full-fledged program and campaign for the League and female business owners and advocacy leaders are emerging all over the U.S. bike advocacy sphere.
“My gut says that we’ll see more and more successful shops like this as the women bike movement grows.”
— Elly Blue, publisher and author
Like Pedal Chic in Greenville, South Carolina and The Unlikely Cyclist in Costa Mesa, California, Gladys Bikes joins a growing list of bike shops for women. According to author, publisher, columnist and feminist commentator Elly Blue, “All three are basically regular bike shops that have the baseline assumption that the standard customer is female; as opposed to most local bike shops that tacitly assume a male audience.”
Blue sees nothing short of a cultural trend in the making. “My gut says that we’ll see more and more successful shops like this as the women bike movement grows… and it’s really refreshing to see that Portland’s ahead of the curve on this.”
Benson says she’s not surprised to see the women bike movement has caught fire. For her part, Benson sees her role as simply bringing people together. “This women bike thing is something a lot of women have been talking about for so long. Shops try their hardest, but sometimes just aren’t comfortable places to go into… the atmosphere just doesn’t feel inclusive.”
As for whether or not men will feel comfortable at Gladys Bikes, Benson laughs, saying that’s a question she hears a lot. “The answer is, it’s just as comfortable of a place for men. In fact, half the people that have walked in so far have been men. My goal is to welcome everyone, but explicitly make sure this is going to be a comfortable place for women that hopefully has the things that they need.”
— Gladys Bikes is located at 3808 N. Williams Ave, Suite 132 (behind Cha! Cha! Cha!). You can meet Leah and learn more about the shop at an event she’s hosting on October 17th. The name of the event is, “Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Your Bike (But Were Afraid To Ask)” will kick off a monthly discussion group where attendees will write down their burning bike-related questions on anonymous notecards and they’ll be answered by experts. Visit the Facebook event page for more info.