Women on Bikes Series: Rachel Dingfelder

In Rachel's own words: "I've been commuting for around 9 years in Pittsburgh, I helped run a volunteer bicycle co-op a few years ago (where I learned mechanics, learned a lot of the skills I use at my current job like volunteer coordination, conflict resolution, nonprofit management.)

I also volunteer with BikePGH and have been involved in women/trans cycling events. For my job I do development for a nonprofit birth center (prenatal, GYN care, and out-of-hospital birth with midwives)

It really matters to me to do most things by bicycle so I ride to work, the store, and just about anything happening in the city. Panniers and lobster gloves are my best friends. It's very important to me in a political sense to be present on the street riding a bike, and help advocate for better bike infrastructure in Pittsburgh."

Find Rachel on Twitter!

When did you first start riding a bike?
The first time I rode a bike was when I was a kid. I lived in Suburban/Rural New Jersey and would ride around my yard, to the park, and my friends' houses within a two mile radius. As an adult in Pittsburgh, I started riding about 10 years ago, in college. 

What motivated you to ride as much as you have over the years?
At first, it was for social reasons. My friends started riding bikes to classes and parties, so if I wanted to keep up with them I needed a bike.

It was, and still is often thrilling to go places by bike, so that was some good motivation! I think social reasons are still a big part of it - most of my friends ride bikes, and half the fun is getting from point A to point B with them. I also love not worrying about parking, love feeling alert when I get to work, and want to be a part of making my city better and safer by being on the street and advocating for things that benefit people who bike and walk.

What kind of riding is your favorite? (paved, gravel, mountain, etc.)
I like riding in the city, so mostly pavement and urban trails.

Do you remember how you felt on your first commuter ride? How did it go and how did you feel?
I remember the first few rides, though it's all a little hazy. I had a clunky old bike that a friend pulled out from behind a bus stop. It definitely had things wrong with it and I had no idea what, so I just prayed it wouldn't fall apart while I was riding it. I remember that my shoulder bag kept falling forward and that was really annoying, I was tricky getting used to starting and stopping. 

I didn't think about the ride as a commute in the way that I do now, and I don't remember thinking about what would happen if I got hit by a car - it just didn't cross my mind. I was trying to get used to just being on the bike, and figuring all these little things out, like how some purses and bags just don't stay put while riding.

If you had nervousness at all, what do you do or think to overcome it?
Pittsburgh is hilly, so I was nervous about getting up hills and didn't think about the fact that if I kept riding, the hills would start to come easy. I just thought, "wow, I can't do this," and I would walk up the hills, which is perfectly fine but kind of discouraging. I didn't think about shifting, and then my next bike was a single-speed so it wasn't an option. I found that riding with other people pushed me up those hills the first few times I did them. Riding with other people also pushed me to go faster and get my "Pittsburgh Legs." I often had no choice but to hustle along behind them. I think this was ultimately a good thing. It gave me lots of confidence. 

Do you use clipless pedals? If yes, what are some tips/suggestions for beginners that you would share? If no, are you thinking of trying it out at all?
I used clipless pedals for less than a year, about six years ago. The pedals and the shoes were comfortable, but I didn't like always having to carry my street shoes with me. I know some people just rock the clipless shoes once they get off the bike, especially now that styles are a lot nicer now than even six years ago... but I like being able to wear all my cute boots and shoes on and off the bike. I use velcro Hold Fast straps, which are kinder to my leather shoes (than metal clips), and super comfortable with any shoe I wear.

If you are a commuter what are some of the challenges you face and how do you overcome them?
Poorly designed, fast roads are a problem. I look at our city bike map or Google maps and plan out a chiller route, even if it takes a little longer. Luckily, Pittsburgh is an old city with lots of narrow, neighborhood roads so there is usually a good way to get somewhere. Scary drivers are also a problem, so I try to ride as predictably as possible while at the same time riding as if no one can see me. I trust my "spidey-sense" a lot - that feeling you get when you just know the person coming up behind you is going to right-turn you, or whatever stupid thing they are about to do. 

Do you commute even if the weather isn’t ideal? Why or why not? If yes, what do you do to make it more tolerable?
Yes, I usually commute in the rain and in the wet, cold, dirty winters of Pittsburgh. To deal with the cold and snow I wear lobster gloves and warm, waterproof hiking sneakers. I have these amazing "Winter Leggings" from American Apparel which are good for 30+ degree days, look cute for work, and I can layer tights under them for colder days. I could go on and on about layering and winter bicycle fashion! When it rains I have waterproof pants and a rain jacket that I just throw on over whatever I'm wearing. I used to ride on those really bad, scary, icy winter days... but nowadays I am a little more risk-adverse so I let myself walk or take the bus on those days.

Have you had a bike accident? If so, how did you recover on a physical/mental/emotional level?
Yes, I was hit by a car in 2009, in broad daylight. They were coming towards me and hit me as they were turning left onto a side street. It took me six weeks to heal from my injuries (and over a year for some of the pain to fully go away), and I'm thankful it wasn't worse. Luckily, everyone involved had insurance so I didn't have financial stress like many others do when they get hit. For a few months after the accident I felt really jumpy whenever I was in an intersection or passing a side street. Mentally, I recovered by continuing to ride every day.

What do you love about riding your bike?
I love not having to think about making time to exercise. I love everything cliche about riding in the city at night - warm nights, city lights, the reflections on the river (we have three in Pittsburgh!), blinky lights blinking against street signs, smelling flowers while riding by them. I love not having to worry about parking. I love feeling energized when I get somewhere. I love trying to figure out how to carry things on my bike... and I LOVE my panniers and I love packing them full of groceries.

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them?
I am short, so both my bikes are tiny. Both have fenders, a rack, and colorful top-tube pads made by a lovely friend who likes to sew. I have a Salsa Casseroll which is set up as a single-speed right now. Everything on it is gold and red, and it has riser bars which I love. I chose it after my other single-speed bike got ruined in my crash.  For any short people out there who are interested in bikes under 51cm, I'm pretty sure Salsa stopped making the Casseroll in small sizes, which is a bummer.

My other bike is a Surly LHT. With some help, I built it myself and got everything exactly how I wanted it, or at least close enough. I chose it because it's sturdy and practical, it was a good value, and it comes in tiny sizes.

What are some tips/suggestions you would give to someone new to commuting?
Don't automatically bike the same route you would use while driving. Take some time and plan out a calmer route beforehand. Realize that it takes time to reconfigure your mental map of the city. Find a confident, experienced, patient, and somewhat safety-oriented friend who you can ride along with, and follow their lead. Contact your local bike advocacy group and see if they have bike-to-work pools or group rides. Get some fenders for when it rains. Also, it's OK to arrive at work a little early to change your shoes or into your work clothes. No one will think you're weird, and if they do, they'll get used to it.

What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends?
Winter: Like I mentioned before, winter lobster gloves (I have the Pearl Izumi ones) and heavy leggings are awesome. Warm, waterproof shoes or boots and a hat for winter are essential.Once you got the extremities down, everything else is up to you. I invested in a nice Patagonia soft shell jacket a few years ago, but before that I just wore two scrappy hoodies with two thermals all winter and that worked great, too. 

Summer: Wear whatever you want. Get some little shorts/bloomers to wear under skirts and dresses. That's about it.

Bike Accessories: I could not live without my waterproof panniers or my waterproof backpack, which is essentially my "purse". The panniers are made by Axiom - they are huge and totally worth the price, and the backpack was made by a skilled friend -www.jkilburg.com. I have a Knog Blinder front blinky - it's bright, it rocks, and it's USB-rechargeable. The back blinky is a Planet Bike USB-rechargeable light. It also rocks! Don't use a cable lock - use a U-Lock or something even burlier. 

Tell us about when you helped run a volunteer bike co-op-what was it like, what did the co-op do?
In 2008-2012, I volunteered with Free Ride, which is an all volunteer-run community bike shop. It's been around for 13 or so years. It runs an earn-a-bike program, classes, youth programs, bike build-a-thons for kids who need bikes, has fundraisers and other parties, and is there as a resource so people can learn bicycle mechanics. It has endless bike parts and bikes available in return for a donation or volunteer time trade. I helped staff the shop, was on the collective council (which is sort of like a working board of directors) and was the Treasurer for a while. 

The shop helped me learn about collective/volunteer-run spaces. No one got paid (except when independent contractors taught classes), decisions were made by consensus, and the philosophy behind it all was to put the tools in the hands of the person learning, instead of doing the work for them. It strived to be a non-hierarchical, radical space where theoretically anyone could walk in and volunteer time to trade for parts or even and entire bicycle, even if they didn't have mechanical skills. The shop itself was organized chaos, with bikes and parts as far as the eye could see - you were literally up to your knees in bike parts sometimes. I was full of amazing people who became my core social group. The people who are there now are awesome, too! 

Being an organizer of the shop gave me the opportunity to learn and hone skills that I use in my current job and other endeavors - managing other volunteers, dealing with conflict and hard decisions, setting up processes to make things work smoothly, and managing financials and donations. It also, of course, gave me the opportunity to collaboratively learn with and from people who came into the shop. I am extremely grateful for the experience, and am really happy Free Ride still exists and works it's magic.

Tell us about BikePGH and what you do when you volunteer for them
BikePGH is Pittsburgh's bike advocacy non-profit. They work with the city, community groups, planners and others to make the streets safer for people who bike and walk. They are extremely effective and do a lot. I'm a member, and I've helped with parties, mailings, bike valet and bike counts. They recently hosted Pittsburgh's first Women's Bike Forum. I attended and also facilitated a discussion for it. The discussion was about safety issues while cycling - crazy drivers, street harassment, etc.

You mentioned you did your first bicycle tour-how did that go? What did you do to prepare yourself?
In October, I did the PGH to DC trip on the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Towpath. I went with my gentleman friend and took my Surly and my panniers full of stuff. Most of the planning entailed figuring out how many miles to do per day, booking B&B's and strategizing which snacks to get from Trader Joe's. I also got my first pair of padded shorts. Next time I'll get the butt cream. I would have liked to have had the butt cream!

The trip overall was amazing! It only rained once, for about 45 miles before we got to Cumberland. I didn't have any mechanical problems until I was two miles away from the end of the trail in Georgetown. I got a flat. Doh!

What would you like people to think about when they make the decision to ride a bike?
Please get some front and rear blinkys so people can see you at night, and take a bike maintenance class so you can make sure your bike is safe before riding it.

What would you like to see happen with your city in terms of bike safety and infrastructure?
We're hiring for our second bike/ped coordinator now, so I'd like to see someone amazing get that position. I want all engineering and public safety efforts to go towards eliminating crashes for everyone using every mode of transport. Some people would say that's unrealistic, but we need to have this as a goal. I would like to see more street trees, because they help slow down traffic and do a ton of other wonderful things. I'd like to see more bike racks and corrals in places that need them, and I can't wait for the bike share to be implemented. We're getting our first separated bike lane this summer, so I can't wait for that. I want to see Pittsburgh do something like the famous Ciclovia in Bogota - like an open streets event. I want people who won't bike in the city now to feel safe enough to try.

How do you advocate for a better biking infrastructure? What tips or suggestions would you give to someone who doesn't know where to start? 
Find your local advocacy group, see what they are working on, and get involved by volunteering or responding to action alerts. When you want to make change in your neighborhood, contact your local politicians like your city councilperson, neighborhood organizations, etc. If your city has a way to report things like unsafe road conditions, bad lighting, and other dangerous situations - use it, especially if it relates to bikes. Find group rides - chances are, some people on the group ride will be involved somehow in the bike scene.