The morning air was full of anticipation—and car horns—in downtown Brooklyn on Tuesday as Qinglian Zhang and Lilach Shafir prepared for their third bike commute to Manhattan, where both women work. Lilach is Qinglian’s Gear Femmes commuting mentor, and the pair talked layering strategies before setting off into the bike lanes.
Gear Femmes is our new education initiative for women/trans/femme cyclists; through classes and programs, specialized instruction, and community events, aspiring commuters develop their bike commuting skills with support from the Gear Femmes community. Class sizes are small and instructors consistent, which allows each participant to focus on whatever obstacles they’re facing. The aspiring bike commuters are then matched with mentors who literally show them the way with techniques and route selection. Since Lilach and Qinglian both live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan, they were a great mentor/mentee match.
Several months ago, Qinglian was skeptical about her ability to commute on this route by bike, which includes the intersection at Jay and Tillary Streets in Downtown Brooklyn. “I didn’t even want to walk there during rush hour,” she said. The Gear Femmes program helped change that outlook. On their first commute together a few weeks ago, Lilach observed a transformation. “She was a totally different rider than when we went at it at the beginning of the summer. There was such an increase in both skills in confidence—the magic combination to take on hectic Downtown Brooklyn.”
Qinglian first became interested in bike commuting when she noticed that Citi Bike could help close a gap in her transportation routine. She works for a company that manages collections at museums around the city, and realized that instead of walking several long avenues to a museum from a subway, she could take a Citi Bike instead. She still found the thought of riding on NYC streets daunting, but was inspired by her dance instructor, a bike commuter here in NYC, and her Dad, who commutes daily in her home city of Shanghai. She thought that if they could do it, she could, too. She had the will, and Gear Femmes helped her find the way.
Qinglian gained fundamental bike skills and knowledge during the Gear Femmes basic classes earlier this summer, but it was her participation in Gear Femmes Bike Camp in August and September and that really gave her the confidence to start a commuting routine with her mentor, Lilach. Qinglian attributes her progress to the “Amazing Gear Femmes crew,” including instructor Aliya Tyus-Barnwell, who, according to Qinglian, “Knows my potential better than I do. She encourages me to take an additional step when I hesitate. When she says, ‘You are ready!’, she is always right.”
Qinglian is also grateful to her other instructors like the “patient and detail-oriented” Emily Lazar, who showed her how to communicate with drivers by signaling and using her voice, and Karen Ash, who taught her the ins and outs of using Citi Bike (how to report a problem, for instance, or how to get an additional 15 minutes if a dock is full).
During the Citi Bike #WomenWhoBike Scavenger Hunt in September, Qinglian remembers how Kristina Sepulveda—Bike New York’s Youth Programs Manager, who conceived of and leads Gear Femmes—instilled a new level of city-cycling confidence in her. “Kristina smashed my fear of cycling by leading me to ride on Broadway and Fifth Avenue in midtown, two of the most crowded streets in Manhattan!” she said.
Kristina is extremely proud of Qinglian’s progress. “She was one of our first Gear Femmes students, and she threw herself into the process of growing into an urban cyclist with a deep sense of dedication and courage,” she said. “Qinglian has worked hard to reach her goals by the end of the season and it has been an honor to be part of her journey, alongside our excellent teaching staff and her gracious and generous mentor, Lilach.”
As Qinglian pedaled behind Lilach on Tuesday, Lilach looked back like clockwork to check on Qinglian and offer praise, encouragement, and advice: “It helps to make eye contact, because that car didn’t know we were there.”
Lilach, a seasoned bike commuter, signed up as a mentor because she noticed the gender imbalance among bike commuters, and wanted to help more women/trans/femme cyclists benefit from commuting. “Qinglian’s doing all the work; I just get to look back and see her smile,” she said.
Qinglian has come a long way, and is resolved to go even further. “Hopefully, in the near future, I’ll be able to lead and look back and see Lilach.”