Heels on Wheels: A lady’s guide to owning and riding a bike, Katie Dailey

Book Review

“The bicycle is the most civilised conveyance know to man.  Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish.  Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.” Iris MurdochWhen I picked this book up from my holds at the library, I was ready to be disappointed.  The cover image is cute and I was ready for yet another expose of all the reasons why women just don’t do cycling as seriously as men.

How wrong I was.   From the first pages through to the index, this book is for anyone who wants to use their bike as part of their regular lifestyle.  Though targeted at women, the information is relevant to all.

‘The bicycle is just as good company as most husbands and, when it gets old and shabby, a woman can dispose of it and get a new one without shocking the entire community.”  Ann Strong, Minneapolis Tribune, 1895

The book starts with several pages of quotations by women about the impact of cycling.  Katie Dowling then introduces herself as a Londoner and cyclist commuter and writes about the superiority of the bicycle over other methods of transport in the urban environment.  For example:

It’s easier to be punctual – once you’ve been cycling for a while you’ll know roughly how long it’ll take you to get anywhere, without having to factor in public transport delays or heavy traffic.  

However, Katie Dowling acknowledges the pitfalls of cycling and gives a list of tips:  Cycling in the City: Five things to look out for when you’re cycling in the big smoke.  These include potholes, garbage trucks. crazy taxi drivers, car doors and inexperience riders.  

After a humourous description of some ‘typical’ types of cyclists (are you a fashion victim, earth mother, speed demon or retro rider?), complete with delightful illustrations by Clare Owen, Dowling moves on to choosing the correct bike for your needs, including tips for checking out second hand bikes.

Chapter 2 is titled ‘How to Incorporate Cycling into your Lifestyle’.  It covers issues of hair and make-up and how to cycle in a skirt, as well as gender-non-specific issues of helmets, gloves and glasses, being seen, wet weather gear, shoes, lights, carrying gear, bells and, very importantly, avoiding being a smelly workmate.  While the focus is female, the information is all practical and presented lightheartedly.

Then it’s onto the bike vicariously as Katie Dowling outlines some essentials for staying safe on the bicycle.  These include such things as being visible, taking lessons for skills and confidence, following road rules, forward planning, being assertive and taking your road space, coping with intersections and potentially inattentive drivers.  Some riding tips include being wary of buses, scanning to the side and rear regularly, never riding in ice or snow, braking, medications, and staying off the bike when affected by alcohol.

‘Don’t take for granted that any driver knows what they’re doing though.  Never assume a motorist has looked in his/her wing mirrors; they might not have.  When cycling alongside white vans, try to make fleeting eye contact with the driver so you can be sure they’ve seen you.’

The next chapter is about keeping your hard-won bicycle – where and how to park your bike, bike locks and bicycle insurance.

I thought of that while riding my bike.”  Albert Einstein on the Theory of Relativity.  

Should I cycle when pregnant?  Can I give a friend (or a pet) a lift on your bike?  Should I listen to music or the radio whilst cycling?  What should I do if there is an accident?  Chapter 5 is more practical advice answering these and other potential cyclist questions.

The final chapter deals with basic bike maintenance – puncture repairs, pumping tyres, simple adjustments and bike cleaning.

This little, beautifully illustrated and presented book kept me entertained all the way to Melbourne on the train.  It’s aim is to demystify cycling for women, and support them to become confident enough to incorporate cycling in their every day lives.  Even for those of us who use our bikes as regular transport, there are new perspectives.  It’s worth reading for the numerous quotes like:

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling.  I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.  It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.  I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel … the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”  Susan B. Anthony, 1820-1906, abolitionist and leader of the American women’s suffrage movement.  

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