Women Building Bikes – Bikes Designed For Everyone

From marketing to manufacturing, the business of cycling has long been overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly…

From marketing to manufacturing, the business of cycling has long been overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. But actual bike ridership reflects a different reality. The number of Black cyclists in the U.S. nearly doubled from 2010 to 2019, and the number of Latino cyclists rose 29 percent, according to a 2020 MRI-Simmons Spring survey. Over that same decade, white ridership grew by just 3 percent.

New data from Strava Metro, which collects and contextualizes the app’s anonymized dataset, shows that in the U.S., more women than ever are riding: Women uploaded 47 percent more bike rides in 2020 than they did in 2019. In New York City, the number of women using bikes in 2020 increased by 82 percent over the previous year. Other major U.S. cities are showing a similar trend.

Independent bike builders Elizabeth Colebrook, Swanee Ravonison, Megan Dean, Caren Hartley, Jackie Mautner, and Danielle Schön

The industry is still catching up, especially when it comes to delivering high-quality bikes for every type and shape of rider. Julie Ann Pedalino built custom bicycles out of her Lenexa, Kansas, workshop for seven years before retiring in 2020, and she has thought a lot about who deserves a “good” bike. “The common messaging is you earn a good bike if you’re riding fast enough or hard enough or if you’re strong enough. I don’t think that’s true,” says Pedalino, who was an avid gravel racer before health issues forced her to ride less. “I enjoy my good bike just as much now as when I was all those things. I think we need to broaden the category quite a bit of who deserves to be a cyclist.”

For years, bikes were designed around a man’s body, reflecting—at least in part—who was doing the designing. Then many of the major bike manufacturers began targeting the women’s market with “women’s-specific” bikes. But the approach had its limits. “Women’s-specific bikes are supposed to fit this average or maybe idealized woman’s body. But a woman’s body can look like a lot of different things,” says Jackie Mautner, a Philadelphia bike builder who creates custom frames under the name Untitled Cycles. “I don’t think that [marketing] speaks to the diversity of gender, to the diversity of actual bodies.”

The six women featured here are independent bike builders, and their devotion to fit, function, and detail is helping to accommodate riders who don’t embody stale notions of who a cyclist is and what a cyclist looks like. Their work is slowly pushing the industry to reflect who we are as people—and as people who ride bikes.

Here they speak candidly about their building philosophies, how it feels to be underrepresented in their own industry, and what it takes to make bikes for all riders.


ELIZABETH COLEBROOK

Beaumont Bicycle / Shropshire, England

Liz Colebrook works on a bike in her Shropshire studio. Her background in occupational therapy informs her approach to bike design.

Courtesy Elizabeth Colebrook

“How many women frame builders are there in the world who’ve got a background in occupational therapy?” It’s a rhetorical question, but Elizabeth Colebrook answers herself anyway. “I don’t think there are any.”

In fact, Colebrook, 58, is probably the only one. And there’s little doubt that her background shaped her approach as an artisan builder.

Colebrook started riding as a kid on a tricycle. “I just wanted freedom, she says, “and the bicycle is the first independent form of transport for a child.” At the age of 12, after splitting the cost of a new 3-speed with her parents, she promptly took the bike apart, painted it, then put it back together again. That was just the beginning.

GET MORE GREAT STORYTELLING WITH EXCLUSIVE MEMBER ACCESS!

Later she went to art school, bought a bike from a housemate, and pretty soon was removing its bottom bracket. Then she started fixing her friends’ banged-up bikes. There was something exhilarating about the feedback loop that came from figuring out a problem and making people happy. She did a bike maintenance course for women, and while everyone else was fixing flats, Colebrook was rebuilding a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed. “I absolutely loved it,” she says. “The smell of the oil. It was like I’d found my tribe.

elizabeth colebrook

The head tube badge on a step-through Liz Colebrook built with a Gates Belt Drive, disc brakes, and front/rear racks. “This bike rides like a super-nimble Roadster,” she says.

Courtesy Elizabeth Colebrook

Colebrook’s mother, a nurse, had always pushed her to try occupational therapy. But it wasn’t until she was 36 and had spent her entire career as a bike mechanic that she started to think about it. Maybe it was time to try something new. So she went back to school and worked as an OT for four years. It didn’t last—she couldn’t bear the paperwork. She landed at Islabikes, a company that specializes in children’s bikes. It was the grandparents who came into the shop with their grandkids who really got her thinking about building bikes. The grandparents wanted to ride, but they lacked the range of movement to get on and off the saddle.

“Many of them were similar to the clients I’d had as an OT,” says Colebrook. “So I started thinking, What’s needed here is a step-through, lightweight frame. It’s got to have low gears and fit all sizes of people.”

There are people who still want to do things under their own steam. I’m very keen to keep people cycling.

elizabeth colebrook

A city step-through built by Liz Colebrook for a 72-year-old client who wanted a riding position that reduced strain on her neck. Says Colebrook: “Mechanical disc brakes, a swept-back handlebar, and ergo grips give her a very comfortable hand, arm, and shoulder position.”

Courtesy Elizabeth Colebrook

Colebrook founded Beaumont Bicycle in 2016. (Beaumont is her middle name.) As a builder, she’s guided by the “amazing gift” she gained from doing occupational therapy—the ability to assess the commonalities of person, task, and environment to design a bike that suits all three. She figures in a rider’s health, her aspirations, who she rides with, and where. So while she does build bespoke classics for discriminating riders, Colebrook is known for her ability to accommodate people with limitations. She designed a frame with a lower bottom bracket, shorter crank arm, and a longer length for a man with achondroplasia (dwarfism), and a maintenance-free, step-through bike with hub gears for a customer with Parkinson’s. For riders who can’t afford new bikes, she offers a fitting for a small fee and suggests affordable upgrades that will better protect arthritic hands or ease upper body strain.

“There are a lot of people who will buy an e-bike now, and that’s fantastic,” Colebrook says. “But there are people who still want to do things under their own steam. I’m very keen to keep people cycling.”


SWANEE RAVONISON

Atelier Pariah / Nevers, France

atelier pariah

Swanee Ravonison at her workshop in Nevers.

Julie Glassberg

If she’s got the energy for it, she’ll humor the doubters.

Yes, I can build bikes.

Yes, I know what I’m doing.

Yes, this is my shop.

But if it’s been a long day, if she’s tired and not in the mood for defending—again—her knowledge and her skills to certain customers, she won’t bother.

Go somewhere else.

Swanee Ravonison, 47, grew up 150 miles south of Paris in the small city of Nevers, and started riding at age 6. As a bike rider, she was nearly always the only female, and always the only person of color in a group. She remembers placing second in a regional road race as a teenager, an event that typically sent the top three finishers to the next competition level. She says she wasn’t allowed to advance. The fourth-place finisher was chosen instead.

I had never owned a new bike. I was always fixing old ones. I figured the best way of getting a beautiful bike was to make it myself.

swanee ravonison

Ravonison works on a bike in her studio.

Julie Glassberg

“The region didn’t want to be represented by a Black person,” she says.

Racism has always angered her. But it’s never stopped her. When Ravonison decided she wanted to learn how to build bikes and couldn’t find anyone willing to teach her in France, she found a program in Copenhagen.

“I had never owned a new bike,” she says. “I was always fixing old ones. I figured the best way of getting a beautiful bike was to make it myself.”

atelier pariah

Ravonison says that most of the bikes she makes these days are all-terrain bikes, like this one. She says she favors “raw and natural” treatments.

Julie Glassberg

atelier pariah

“Création
Sauvage” is painted on the inside of the chainstay. It translates to “Wild Creation.”

Julie Glassberg

Ravonison loves solving the puzzle that is frame building. Getting the tubing and the geometry just right so the “machine,” as she calls it, does exactly what she wants it to. She’s now in her seventh year as a builder, and she’s the owner of a custom build shop called Atelier Pariah, a name that embraces her outsider status in a sport that is even more male and white in Europe than it is in the U.S. (“In France, just seeing a woman on a bike [for sport] is unusual. Forget about seeing a Black woman!”)

swanee ravonison

Julie Glassberg

swanee ravonison

Julie Glassberg

Her design aesthetic is simple: clean lines and, ideally, no paint. That way customers can see the care and craftsmanship that goes into each soldering point. She’s made touring, gravel, fixed gear, and mountain bikes, but the builds that have given her the most pride are the ones she’s done for couples.

“Normally, the guy is the one who gets the nice bike, and the woman has the one that’s too small or too big or too heavy, she says. “When these women finally get on one of my bikes, it changes their lives.”

Ravonison still lives in Nevers. She’s still one of its few Black residents. She’s never seen another Black cyclist in the regional clubs, and when she’s seen a fellow BIPOC racer in local events, she says she’s heard disparaging remarks. And then there are the people who try to question if she belongs as a builder, as an artisan.

But Ravonison has surrounded herself with a supportive community. She channels her anger and frustration by modeling inclusivity and possibility with her social media posts. And she stands behind the quality of her work.

“I don’t think of myself as unique until someone brings it up,” she says. “I hope my product speaks for me, and what it says has nothing to do with being female or Black.”


MEGAN DEAN

Moth Attack / Tucson, Arizona

megan dean

Dean brazes a seat tube and T47 bottom bracket on a gravel bike.

Natalie R. Starr

Back when her main goal as a custom frame builder was to get as many people on bikes as she could, Megan Dean was cranking out 20 to 25 bikes a year.

“That’s kind of what broke my hands down,” says Dean, 37. “It’s a lot of repetitive motion. Sometimes after working, I couldn’t hold onto anything with my right hand. I thought I was done for at one point.”

She’s since dialed it back, right-sizing her business, Moth Attack (so named after a long-ago kitchen infestation when she lived in Los Angeles). That move—plus a good chiropractor, a lot of ice, and switching to a mill to cut tubes—toned down the tendinitis that threatened her livelihood.

When I went to NAHBS in Austin in 2011, I wasn’t surprised to be the only woman there.

megan dean

Megan Dean photographed in Eagle, Colorado, before she moved to Tucson.

Natalie R. Starr

Dean, who now lives in Tucson, Arizona, began building frames full time in 2009 after designing and constructing storefronts for Urban Outfitters, then working as a bike messenger, and while still racing on the track in L.A. She calls herself the “old woman on the block.” When she first started going to trade shows, she would often be the only female exhibitor. “When I went to NAHBS in Austin in 2011, I wasn’t surprised to be the only woman there,” she says. But the community welcomed her.

“Probably the most eye-opening thing about putting myself on display was like, I could hold my own,” she says. “There were people there who I still super look up to and appreciate and people whose work I think is fantastic. But I was capable of the same level.”

Imposter syndrome has since given way to a general anxiety that hits whenever she tries anything new as a builder. But in a way, Dean thinks that persistent, low-grade worry about being good enough keeps her sharp and from getting too comfortable creatively. She’s built track, cross, and road bikes for years, but these days she’s focusing more on off-road models. Before she built her first hardtail, she rode mountain bike after mountain bike, breaking the geometry down angle by angle to analyze the handling until she had her vision dialed in.

megan dean

The T47 bottom bracket and seat tube for the gravel bike Dean is working on in the previous image.

Natalie R. Starr

megan dean

Two track bikes and a fixed gear road bike hanging in Dean’s workshop. The one in front is her personal track racing bike, with True Temper S3 tubing and a custom bar/stem.

Natalie R. Starr

When it’s time to build, particularly when it’s time to fillet-braze—using heated brass to join the tubes—her husband doesn’t bother talking to her. She’s too deep in the zone. “It’s almost meditative to me at this point,” she says. “Like if I wore a heart rate monitor, I’m sure it would settle right into my resting heart rate. I love brazing.”

And while Dean has scaled back on building—both to preserve her health and spend more time teaching young girls from low-income families how to rip on mountain bikes—it just means she gets to be pickier about the bikes she makes.

“I think people are valuing things that are locally made,” she says. “No one builds bikes better than people in Taiwan, we all know that. But their environmental controls aren’t great. Their labor is…not paid well in a lot of places. I think people have the ability to affect that more now, or even just want to feel like they can.”


CAREN HARTLEY

Hartley Cycles & ISEN Workshop / South London, England

caren hartley

Caren Hartley silver brazing a bottle boss into a steel frame at her South London studio.

Sophie Green

If she wants design inspiration, Caren Hartley rarely looks within the world of bikes. Instead, she scopes out the lines and contours of machines and structures like cranes and bridges. And she thinks deeply about objects. About why, say, a certain mug feels good in her hand versus another. Why do I like this one so much more? This allegiance to the principles of art—pattern, balance, and proportion—rather than what’s already been done in bike building, has cemented her reputation as the owner of the bespoke Hartley Cycles, and co-owner of the semi-custom collaboration, ISEN Workshop, both in South London.

“I came at frame building from a maker’s route,” says Hartley, 37. “I thought I’d be working as a fine artist, selling work through galleries, making sculpture or contemporary art. My background was craft, but I wanted to be doing more conceptual projects. So I was a bit uncomfortable in both the fine art world and the craft world.”

caren hartley

Hartley does the final paint polish on a frame before it is built.

Sophie Green

caren hartley

All Hartley bikes are painted in-house. “All the colors are hand mixed by myself,” says Hartley. “Every frame we paint is unique.”

Sophie Green

Eventually, discomfort turned to unhappiness. Then, in 2014, a friend who’d had a bike stolen offered to pay for Hartley to attend a frame building course to build her a new one. She started thinking about how building bikes ticked a lot of boxes. It involved metalwork and problem solving. She had many of the creative skills already. And bikes were practical. At the time, she was regularly commuting to her job as an artist.

I came at frame building from a maker’s route. My background was craft, but I wanted to be doing more conceptual projects.

caren hartley

A custom ISEN Titanium All Season painted with their own Chromovelato paint, which has a colored mirror/chrome effect that takes many hours and stages to create.

Sophie Green

“Cycling for me was this functional thing of getting from A to B. It was much cheaper than public transport, and I really enjoyed the freedom. A bike takes you exactly where you need to go. You can leave when you want. You don’t have to rely on anyone. It gave me total independence,” says Hartley, who has since branched out into road riding, bike packing, and cross-country riding.

With Hartley Cycles, which she started in May 2014, Hartley became known for her skill in making bikes for smaller riders, as well as her use of functional-but-beautiful asymmetry in the bike’s seat bridge and seat tube collar. In 2017, she and fellow builder Matt McDonough of Talbot Frameworks created ISEN Workshop to better scale their work. “We realized that a lot of people don’t need a fully bespoke bike. What they need is a bike that’s really well designed for them, and there’s overlap with what people need. So we built a range of sizes that captures most people.” Smaller riders are very much within that range. Hartley says women make up 50 percent of ISEN’s sales.

caren hartley

Sophie Green

caren hartley

Sophie Green

In a way, things have come full circle for Hartley. She was invited to two museum exhibitions in London to showcase one of her Hartley Cycle builds. “They were exhibitions that I’d really strived for in my previous career and never managed to get into. It was like affirmation. Like, oh, you’re doing the right thing.”

These days she speaks to design departments in local colleges because she wants young women, especially, to know that a career in manufacturing or engineering anything—not just bikes—is both rewarding and possible.

“If you don’t see other women doing it,” she says, “you might not know it’s an option for you.”


JACKIE MAUTNER

Untitled Cycles / Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

jackie mautner

Hannah Yoon

What do you want the bike to do?

This is the question that espouses the design philosophy of Jackie Mautner.

“Some people are looking for a Swiss Army bike that does everything and so does nothing very well,” she says. “To arrive at the purpose of the bike, it’s better to think of where you’re going to ride and what kind of riding you’ll do. That gives me the parameters to explore what details will give it that special touch.”

Mautner’s special touch is the result of a trajectory that began with drafting classes in high school followed by a degree in architecture, a custom frame building course at the United Bike Institute, and then a job building bikes for Breadwinner in Portland, Oregon. Now she’s on her own with Untitled. Adjacent to that trajectory has been her progression from commuter and bike polo player to cyclocross racer and endurance rider.

jackie mautner

Jackie Mautner miters the seat tube for the bottom bracket of a bike frame at her studio in Philadelphia.

Hannah Yoon

Her Untitled work is inspired by such artists as Keith Haring and Piet Mondrian, and by her fellow builders who’ve adopted an outside-the-lines approach to what it means to put tubes together.

“Joints give you a lot of options,” says Mautner, 38, who now lives and works in Philadelphia. “You can do a lug joint, a TIG-welded joint, a fillet-brazed joint, or a bi-laminate, which sort of has the making of a custom lug. I got really inspired seeing the work of Tom Porter at Porter Cycles, and then I stumbled across Danielle Schön and Julie Ann Pedalino’s work, and they’re all doing very interesting things with bi-laminate construction. I’ve just realized how much potential there is in each joint of a bike frame.”

jackie mautner

A gravel/adventure bike Mautner built for the Swift Summit NW race, a mixed-terrain double century. The paint is inspired by Keith Haring. The seat stays bend at the seat tube and continue forward, creating space for a custom bag.

Hannah Yoon

It’s that route to inspiration that Mautner, who is transgender, hopes to pay forward to aspiring builders who are underrepresented in the industry. Because she remembers the early days before muscle memory had set in and one file stroke became one file stroke too many, and when a frame she’d labored over ended up covered in scratches, she is always willing to talk and share her skills. She envisions forming a collective where women and femme folks support each other. Where a painter could team up with a builder and someone else doing assembly. Where people could be vulnerable and problem-solve in a safe space.

She explains that the barriers to entry in this business are steep, especially for those who lack privilege. “Can people afford classes at a frame building school? Do they have the time to learn? Will they get recognition and respect from established frame builders?” There are the costs of tooling up and paying for space to work, the psychic toll of microaggressions, the exhaustion of constantly having to prove yourself. The lack of diversity is systemic, and Mautner envisions addressing it with scholarships for frame building schools, mentorship programs, and support networks. “It would make sense not only to lend support to those who’ve ‘made it,’ but also to offer support to all those who want to get into frame building.”

When you see a person of color expressing interest, go out of your way to work with them. If you see a woman struggling to be heard, elevate her voice.

jackie mautner

Mautner rides in Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley Park.

Hannah Yoon

She doesn’t know how long it will take to get there “but it’s worth striving for.” In the meantime, Mautner will continue to support opportunities on behalf of those venturing into an industry that doesn’t often reflect who they are.

“When you see a person of color expressing interest, go out of your way to work with them,” she says. “If you see a woman struggling to be heard, go out of your way to elevate her voice. [We need to take these] extra steps to encourage folks who are different to come into this industry, to retain them, and set them up for success.”


DANIELLE SCHÖN

Schön Studio / Squamish, British Columbia

danielle schon

Schön holds a race-oriented cyclocross bike with a geometry she designed for tight handling and a fast, “whippy” feel.

Alana Paterson

Danielle Schön has been making things since she was a kid. Her mom kept the bottom half of their kitchen pantry stocked with markers, glue, and construction paper, and pretty soon she was sending her creative kid to a neighbor’s house to learn how to sew—little bags first, then teddy bears and clothes.

“I grew up with a single mother, so she was adamant about me learning how to do things myself, like, ‘If you learn how to sew you don’t have to pay someone to fix your pants,’” says Schön, 32. “I remember being in the driveway and she’s showing me how to change the oil in her car, and I was like, 10.”

Along with self-reliance, her mother taught her confidence, something along the lines of, You can do whatever you want, and if some man says you can’t, f#ck ’em.

danielle schon

Danielle Schön at her studio in Squamish, BC.

Alana Paterson

Those early lessons served her well. After earning a fine art degree in photography and printmaking, and while working as an IT strategist in Toronto, she got a degree in welding—an interest she’d had since college. During her two years learning industrial welding, there might have been one woman in one class, she thinks. Soon after that, she attended a couple of frame building courses. She was a commuter turned alley cat racer turned road rider, and by then bikes had taken over her life. She got excited about combining her fine arts background with her new fabrication skills. So she opened Schön Studio.

danielle schon

The mountain bike Schön made for the 2019 Philly Bike Expo. She used a 29-inch wheel in front with a 27.5-inch rear wheel. “The mullet wheel choice was for more rollover and descending quality. A smaller wheel in back allows for shorter chainstays and a more responsive bike. Full 29-inch bikes can feel boat-like on smaller riders,” she says.

Alana Paterson

danielle schon

Danielle holds some reamer parts; reamers help ensure that certain components pressfit perfectly into a frame.

Alana Paterson

danielle schon

A polished stainless steel logo gusset stretching across the top tube and down tube of the hardtail pictured above.

Alana Paterson

But Schön didn’t want to just bang out plain bikes. “I just like to make cool things,” she says. “I want to have an idea and build it into a thing whether it’s a piece of furniture or a bicycle.” She’s made a doughnut bike: a track bike with hand-carved lugs meant to evoke pink frosting oozing down each tube. And in 2019, she built a mountain bike and used a bi-laminate construction for the seat tube in the shape of a hand with the thumb and forefinger joined. (And if you’re in the know, you know it’s a reference to the Circle Game, and that whoever rides that bike would basically be able to punch everyone who looks at her.) It was technically and artistically challenging, although she wound up removing the lug because of recent negative associations with the symbol. “I didn’t want there to be any other interpretation without context,” she says.

I just like to make cool things. I want to have an idea and build it into a thing whether it’s a piece of furniture or a bicycle.

danielle schon

The CX bike has a higher bottom bracket, short chainstays, and a steeper head tube angle for responsive steering. “It’s a super fun bike that rides like a dream and is ready to party!” she says.

Alana Paterson

What’s less fulfilling and fun is being a minority in both the fabrication and bike worlds: The welding colleague who told her an instructor was nice to her because she’s got a great ass. The guy on a site who said she’s too pretty to be a welder. The man who wouldn’t sell her gas tanks without first condescending to her. The well-intentioned but ignorant comments at bike shows that go something like, “Oh, you built this? Wow. Good for you.” The invisible forces that sometimes make her feel like she has to work twice as hard for half the recognition; that make her feel unequal and unwelcome. It’s insulting and annoying and exhausting.

It doesn’t happen all the time, of course. But when it does, she channels what her mother taught her.

Screw you. I’m here.