In Berlin, before the wall fell the 36th Kiez, or neighbourhood, was Kreuzberg. Today a girls’ fixed gear group has grown around the southern side of the city with a name that hat tips the old city design. SHE36 started out of a desire to make sure women had a space to get strong and confident with their bikes, and has grown into a tight knit group. I met them in a Berlin summer downpour sheltering under some trees and drinking rum, then later in the sunshine as they did track stands, drank coffee and ate biscuits – mostly all at the same time. Tamara and Kate, founder and first member, explained what the group is about.
Tamara: SHE36 is a fixed gear group built in Berlin one and a half years ago. It started with the idea of trick meetings for girls and it’s still the only female fixed gear group in Berlin. We concentrate not only on trick meetings but also on participating in races – criteriums – and some of our members have got licenses for training on velodrome. We also organise social events and support girls from other cities who ride fixed and we try to write and speak about girls who are not allowed to ride bicycles in other countries, and support projects which support women.
Claire: So you started one and a half years ago. What was cycling in Berlin at the time? What made you start it?
Tamara: Riding bicycles in Berlin has a long history of course, even fixed gear was kind of old-fashioned when I started cycling, but it was still male-dominated. I felt there was a big difference between being a girl or a boy as a part of this community. I’ve noticed that a lot of guys excluded girl participants when they were doing fast rides. If [females] come along to a ride or a fixed event, they couldn’t be so open and relaxed and learn things properly because they felt “so little” and “weak.” I have heard this opinion also from other girls. That’s how the idea came to try it with females and to get more confident together. It was a good idea, I think.
Claire: When did you start riding fixed?
Tamara: I started it three years ago. I couldn’t ride a bicycle at all before. I met a guy who I fell in love with and I lied to him that I also had a yellow bicycle. Then I bought it very fast and was riding a single speed, then I built it to a fixed gear bike. One year later I told him the truth, but it had already no importance, because I was very passionate about [riding fixed].
For me, it was the only true bicycle nature. It’s so simple and light. No senseless gears. No brakes. It feels so natural.
Claire: So you fell in love with cycling once you got that yellow bike?
Kate: I started cycling, I think, two or three years ago on a single speed, here in Berlin. First using it for commutes to work and then riding it more for fun. One day I saw some guys riding fixed and was really impressed with the power and that you cycle only with your legs. I don’t know, I was so fascinated by the whole…
Kate: Yeah, simplicity.
I was really impressed by the art of cycling so I asked a friend if he can help me to build up or change my gear to fixed. He also helped me to understand how a bicycle works because I didn’t know anything about it: I had a bicycle, it worked, and as long as it worked it was totally fine for me but I couldn’t change a tyre or fix anything – and I got flats very often – welcome to Berlin. So I was really happy about the little workshop and the switch to fixed gear. We left two brakes on the bar so it was safer to ride home. It was my first fixed gear ride, alone, 15km away from home. I was so nervous. It was so hard for me to continue to pedal and getting used to it, the whole ride was a thrill.
I later asked some guys I met at Critical Mass if they have time to shop me some tricks but we never met again. So I tried to find other girls and then found Tamara in March 2015?
Tamara: It feels like two years ago.
Kate: We met in Gleisdreieck park.
Tamara: So Kate was the first other member.
Claire: How quickly did SHE 36 grow from that point?
Tamara: Oh at the beginning it was very very slow. Maybe one year ago everybody came at the same time. I guess we got the attention on our first ride in January 2015, with the idea of raising some money for the project against women trafficking in Eastern Europe. Keirin bicycle shop supported us with Ass Savers and free espresso after the ride. There were so many women that came out to it – 50 or 60. Just attracted by small handmade flyers we left in some bicycle shops. It was so amazing.
We had music and rode through the whole center. Then we ended up in Keirin bicycle shop and there were all the messengers, also guys – they also gave money [to the cause]. We collected maybe 300 Euros but it was a big thing to us. The project was so hopeful.
After that, we made a group and some of the girls from the ride got involved. Now we have about 12 regular members and maybe eight more who join from time to time. It’s very interesting how the group is spread – girls who like to race and girls who like trick meetings. Anyone can join, even if they don’t have fixed. They can try our bikes and we’re always open to helping people build up their bikes.
Claire: How long did it take you to get used to riding fixed from when you got the bike and started feeling comfortable on it?
Kate: It’s not that hard to ride fixed but if you don’t have the confidence to take risks and try fixed without using a handbrake, it can take a long time. It’s easier to talk to other girls and ride with people that you trust, or that can tell you advice – then you get more comfortable. Everybody struggles with it in the beginning.
I tried to ride as often as I can, tried to remember tips that Tamara told me on our first meeting and I practiced a lot on my way to work – especially how to track stand – so I got better and better and now it’s like I’m flying sometimes. I feel like I’m at one with my bike.
The funny thing is that I rode a single speed a few weeks ago for the first time I switched to fixed because we went on a long ride to the Ostsee – the Baltic Sea – so I thought it would be more comfortable to ride a bike with… what’s it called again?
Tamara: The kind of bikes where you can stop pedalling. Freewheeling?
Kate: Freewheeling. It was so easy to get back to freewheeling. But the strange thing is that I did’t feel confident with it. It felt kinda wrong.
Tamara: I also noticed the first week that I had to ride a road bike, after my fixed was taken by the cops, the first day was so fearful. I was so unconfident and so jealous of the people riding fixed. [Recently] I had to learn a lot of biology and there was one interesting thing about neuroplasticity: we have some nerve synapses in our brain and when we repeat something like the way to handle, the next days we don’t need to think about how we ride. So these synapses connect in a way they stay for a long time. They are plastic-like – they can change themselves and when they build a new synapse, when you have a lot of positive emotions. When you are so experienced that a fixed bike has got to your brain then you can’t just change to a more comfortable bike and feel comfortable. Your synapses are so so strong due to these positive emotions that you can’t switch so fast. It takes a long time – maybe longer than [normal] – to get used to a simplier bicycle because you have too good time and too good feeling riding fixed gear. You just pedal, all the time. Like, go for your life.
Claire: What are you both riding right now?
Kate: I bought my bike three years ago in a shop called Velosaloon here in Berlin. They build up vintage road bikes and single speeds.
In my opinion most of the old road bikes are ugly colours or full of labels or stickers, I don’t like that. I like simplicity, clean frames and no branding and stuff. So, I looked through the rows of bikes and just saw one which they’d built up as some kind of a hipsters bike – a really vintage bicycle with a moustache bar, brown bar tape, a leather saddle and silver parts with a dark blue frame. It looked good but didn’t suit me. I asked if I could test it and change parts. I rode it just for 15 minutes and said “yes, take all my money!” I immediately fell in love with the bike as we changed the saddle and the bars to a normal flat bar. It was so cool to sit on a bike that is sort of made for you. You don’t feel that so often. It totally suits my body or my way of cycling.
But still I like changes every now an then so I switched to fixed and sometimes change parts like the bar or grips to get a new feeling. When I compare it to a few years ago, it’s still the same bike but now way cooler with a blue to purple fade and stickers on it. It’s like an art project but it’s still a simple bike with chrome parts.
Claire: Tamara, why have the police taken your bike?
Tamara: It’s forbidden to cycle brakeless in Berlin. The same as in London but the difference is the difference of controlling it. I liked it so much after trying to ride brakeless and I was always careful. I knew this day would come because some of our friends have the same problem. We have bicycle cops and normal police and they control the streets. Sometimes they forget to control cars, but never the cyclists – I don’t know why they have to control peaceful cyclists who do nothing dangerous. They just ride through the red light when there is no traffic and they will still be caught and have to pay high fees. But the guys who are parking on the bike lanes rarely get problems.
If they catch you the first time without brakes, you have to pay a really high fee. The second time you’re caught, they [check] you in the system and if you ‘positive’ they take your bicycle away. In the next days I got a letter where they said they will damage it in 12 months so there is very small chance to get it back, even if I get a lawyer.
I want my body part back.
Claire: Ouch. That’s hard.
Tamara: It’s hard.
Claire: What are your plans for the group in the next year?
Tamara: The plans are to develop our racing skills because a lot of girls who want to join need partners to train with and to take part in criteriums and sprints and long races. That’s why we need to concentrate because the other girls coming from other cities are really strong and some of them are doing it as their work and they get paid for it. We don’t want to make a champion from one of our members, we just want to keep on a good level.
The most important thing is not to be good and impressive as fast riders but to be impressive by uniting female cyclists. To cycle with a good purpose. We want to support people who can’t cycle too, like refugees. We had an event to support refugees and bring them some sanitary goods, where we collaborated with another well-known group, Fahrtwind Berlin, and we had an amazing result. It would be silly not to do that again. Now we know about more projects and they ask us if we want to help them – they always have a female background. We’d like to not just have a girls group but have be a social action itself.
The difficult thing is to find a balance and show that we exclude dudes for a reason, without giving them a feeling of being discriminated.
Kate: “Ah look, the feminists are coming.”
Claire: Ah, yes. This is a really interesting point.
Tamara: We have already heard some opinions who assumed we were these angry vegan feminists. It’s not so. We are just vegan feminists. Haha.
Kate: And sometimes we do organise rides where guys can also take part. It’s not that important whether it’s a girls ride but we mainly want to concentrate on rides and trainings with girls because it’s more supportive and less competitive. Girls get more confident without boys around. And we really don’t care if you can ride 40km/h, that’s more a man’s thing. Haha.
Claire: So it’s more about having a safe space to practice in.
Tamara: Yes. Exactly.
SHE36 come together once a month for a practice day. Find the next date and time on the SHE36 Instagram and SHE36 Facebook. Check the SHE 36 blog for the latest goings on – and they’ve just released their new kit, which is just a big gorgeous.