Frocks on Bikes

2008 –

Theme: Sport and recreation

This essay written by Kate Jordan was published online in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 2019.

In 2008, four women attending a Go By Bike Breakfast on Wellington’s waterfront realised they were the only ones in everyday workwear. Everyone else was in lycra and sportswear and almost all of them were male. The women decided something must be done.

Originally, their group had a strong environmental focus. The first rides they organised in Wellington and Auckland – with more than 200 cyclists each – ran in conjunction with 350 Aotearoa, a climate change action group. As they developed their kaupapa (guiding principle), however, they moved away from an environmental focus towards ‘normalising everyday cycling’. The fun, social side of cycling to events was to be explicit, while climate and exercise benefits became implicit.

The group estimated that women made up only a third of all cyclists and faced more barriers than men in regularly cycling. Helping women, they reasoned, helped all those who wanted to cycle. As trustee Christina Bellis later stated, ‘If the streets are safe for women to bike, they're safe for everyone.’ [1] Frocks on Bikes was born.

Frocks on Bikes set out to create events that furthered their kaupapa. Leah Murphy, original Frocker and trustee, recalled that they decided events would be 'first and foremost for women and support things that we knew women liked to do, but not exclusive, as their friends and family and partners could come and be part of it.' [2]

The primary purpose was not to ride a bike, but to hold a fun event that was facilitated by bike travel. Various events, in Wellington and other centres, included picnics, movie nights and Valentine’s Day rides. A large part of ‘normalising everyday cycling’ was encouraging people to wear whatever they liked when they cycled, moving away from the idea that cycling was only for lycra-clad sportspeople.

Fashion shows and Glow Wear

With the mantra that ‘cycle wear is anything that is in your closet’, Frocks on Bikes in Wellington and Auckland organised fashion shows that promoted wearing everyday clothes while cycling.

Wheel Stylish fashion show

Frocks on Bikes.

A model at the 2010 Wheel Stylish fashion show in Wellington.

The first ‘Wheel Stylish’ event took place in 2010 in Wellington. Local fashion and bicycle retailers loaned clothing and bikes, and the models (Frocks on Bikes supporters) paraded down the runway on bikes. The event was repeated several times.

Another initiative combining safety with fashion was ‘Be Seen, Be Safe, Be Stylish’ in 2014. In partnership with Greater Wellington, Wellington City Council and Bicycle Junction, Frocks on Bikes displayed various reflective and ‘high-vis’ cycle wear.[3] Two years later, Project Glow Wear emerged: a Greater Wellington Regional Council competition encouraging fashion designers to incorporate reflective elements into their clothing. [4] 

Street skills

Frocks on Bikes also organised Street Skills sessions. As part of the directive to help women first and foremost, these classes were only for those identifying as women, and were led, where possible, by women. This was to create a safe space where women felt comfortable asking questions. These sessions included helpful basics, emergency stopping, handling tricky corners, road code and rights, brakes, shoulder-checking, and one-handed riding. They were offered at low or no cost.

Funding and structure

Frocks on Bikes was set up as a not-for-profit group and became a registered charity in 2013. [5] Its primary income came from donations, government grants, and fundraising. [6] Rather than members, it had followers.

The Frocks on Bikes structure was largely organic. As the message spread by word-of-mouth, groups (nicknamed ‘flocks’) sprang up all over New Zealand. Auckland started about the same time as Wellington, and flocks took off in Christchurch and Tauranga not long after. Smaller groups, with varying levels of activity and longevity, sprang up in places as diverse as New Plymouth, Dunedin and Waihi. There were also groups in Perth, Melbourne and Hanoi.

The group in Wellington became the ‘mothership’, providing the smaller groups with the logo and a page on the website. Such a loose organisational structure, however, had its drawbacks. Some smaller groups did not quite fit within the Frocks on Bikes kaupapa, their rides being more about fancy dress and carnival than ordinary, everyday clothing.

Advocacy

Advocacy naturally became an element of Frocks on Bikes’ work. They made submissions on the Hutt Road and Island Bay cycleways in Wellington, and used their profile to encourage others to do the same. They also exercised positive advocacy by encouraging followers to be friendly on the roads – a ‘show don’t tell’ policy.

Frockers also presented at the Velo City cycle planning conferences in Vienna and Adelaide. Some of the core Frockers took up roles promoting and supporting cycling in private and public organisations. For example, Isabella Cawthorn set up a business, CycoCivica, and advised NZTA about urban cycling. In 2019 Leah Murphy, original Frocker and long-term trustee, was the project manager of cycleways for Kiwirail; Pippa Coom, an Auckland Frocks founder, chaired the Waitemata Board; and Jessica Rose was an Albert Eden Local Board Member.

Love to ride event

Frocks on Bikes.

Frocker Alice Coppard at the Love to Ride event in Wellington in February 2016.

Scaling back

Around 2015–2016, the mothership in Wellington started to scale back their events. As with many volunteer organisations, a little organiser fatigue set in, and there were problems passing the leadership to fresh hands. The organisers also perceived that they were ‘winning’ – more people were riding their bikes more often in everyday clothes for everyday tasks. Other groups (including local councils) had started organising similar events, having recognised the importance of elements of the Frocks’ kaupapa.

Kate Sheppard Ride

Frocks on Bikes.

Frockers at the 2019 Kate Sheppard Ride held in Wellington to mark 125 years since women’s suffrage was won.

As part of scaling back, Frocks shifted from larger events (such as picnic rides for 200–300 people) to smaller, more specialised events, for example art rides for 30–40 people and progressive dinner rides with e-bikes for 12–16 people. They also took on more collaboration rides, sharing the organising and fundraising duties. These included the 2018 Kate Sheppard ride, held in conjunction with Heritage New Zealand to mark 125 years of women’s suffrage. In some other centres, such as Christchurch and Tauranga, regular events, large and small, were continuing to be held through 2019.

Kate Jordan

Notes

[1] Bellis, Christina, interviewed by Kate Jordan, Wellington, 2019.

[2] Murphy, Leah, interviewed by Kate Jordan, Wellington, 2019.

[3] ‘Be Seen – Be Safe – Be Stylish | Thursday 19 June’, Frocks on Bikes blog, 27 May 2014, https://frocksonbikes.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/be-seen-be-safe-be-stylish-thursday-19-june/; https://www.facebook.com/events/be-seen-be-safe-be-stylish/234382986760401/

[4] ‘Project Glow Wear – a competition for high-vis fashion designs’, Frocks on Bikes press release, Wellington Scoop, 30 May 2016, http://wellington.scoop.co.nz/?p=89312

[5] Registered charity No. CC49651.

[6] Frocks on Bikes annual returns, available from charities register.

Further sources

Frocks on Bikes blog: https://frocksonbikes.wordpress.com/

Frocks on Bikes Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/FrocksonBikes/

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