Though just over a year and a half old, it’s clear that Gladys Bikes has already begun to make its mark on the Portland riding community (while recently visiting the city, it was the most recommended shop to visit by the women I spoke with). Rather than being adapting a current model, the shop, brainchild of Leah Benson, was designed from scratch with significant feedback from community members and focus groups to start valuable conversations about bike fit and comfort across price points, disciplines, and facets.
Though named for the personal bicycle of Frances E. Willard, suffragette, and founded to address opportunities within the equipment and experience of women on bikes, the shop manages to be inviting and effective for any person of any gender or riding experience…
BIKERUMOR: Did you spontaneously go “I want to start a bike shop and I want it to be about this.” Or did you work your way through other bike shops? What motivated you to start this particular model?
LEAH: No, I hadn’t worked in other bike shops. Prior to this, I’d done something completely different. I actually did political advocacy for women going into building and construction trades. And I’d worked in non-profits for a long time and it was great, but I was ready to leave that realm for a lot of different reasons.
Bikes have always been an undercurrent in my life, especially since moving to Portland, and I was having too many conversations with women in my life about how shops didn’t necessarily serve them. Whether it was that you walked in and couldn’t find a bike that fit your body and your needs at the same time or just that the dynamic of the shop didn’t really make you feel like you wanted to engage with it. My parents were entrepreneurs; they’d always been business owners. I knew it was something I was going to do eventually. So from those conversations I was like I think this is my business. So it started there.
BIKERUMOR: I’m seeing Bianchi, lots of Bianchi, and you’ve got Liv, and you have men’s and women’s bikes here. You’re inclusive but you’re directed, you’re not exclusively women.
LEAH: No, I would say women-focused, not women only. A lot of that being that as, you know, just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean that women-specific geometry works for you because we all come in different shapes and sizes. So, for a lot of people, men’s geometry can work better. We just tend to stock brands here that work for a large swath of people. Bianchi, one of the reasons I like them a lot, especially for steel road frames, is because they just have shorter top tubes than most other brands out there doing something similar and that alone makes it so they work for a lot of folks better. So I don’t think it necessarily has to have the women’s specific design stamp on it for to work for women’s bodies.
BIKERUMOR: Do you want to talk about your saddle library? How did it come to be? Did you just have this really cool shelf… or…
LEAH: I just had this really cool shelf laying around… no. This was actually in the design for the shop from the get go. When I got ready to open, I had endless amounts of conversations with people around the city and some really fun focus groups. One thing that women specifically talk about all the time is saddle pain and discomfort, so much of that being you can press your thumbs into something only so many times and assume that has any kind of bearing on how it’s going to feel on your ass- which it has none.
A “try it before you buy it” program made the most sense to get something together. Being able to try a whole bunch of different saddles is an important part of this, but the more important part is the conversation surrounding it. People come in, and I think we’re all pretty good at having candid conversations with people in that I have a background in sexual health too, so I’m really unafraid of using anatomically correct language. It helps to spell it out and be like, people talk about sit bones because it’s kind of clinical and comfortable to talk about it, but actually your labia length comes into play just as much as your sit bones if not more.
BIKERUMOR: I’m going to see if they let me say “labia.”
LEAH: If people are coming in- I don’t want to be vulgar to people if they are uncomfortable with it but I try to get people to talk about what is actually going on. Like, a lot of people with balls like to talk about that too because that is as much of a factor. So the saddle is great in that part because people can actually talk about what they are feeling in their body, so they can actually ride off on something that’s good, that will make them ride their bike more, which is really what the ultimate goal is for all of this. And being able to talk about labia is pretty great. It’s so important.
BIKERUMOR: Poor Bike Rumor.
LEAH: So that’s the saddle library. I think one of the reasons why I like it a lot too is even though the conversations about having the saddle library happened because of talking with women, it’s something that relates to people no matter what gender you are. So we get people from all gender representation, all types of different types of riding styles because everyone is trying to find something that’s comfortable to ride on.
BIKERUMOR: It’s great. You can just walk them into the fit studio back there.
LEAH: And you can walk them into the fit studio. And that’s a great way to start a conversation about fit because fit is something for a lot of people that’s seen as something you do if you’re a racer or if you are really serious, whatever that means. Whereas Natalie’s perspective on fit is absolutely beautiful, that everyone deserves to be comfortable riding a bike, so we get just as many people on $40 frankenbike cruisers as we do on $4000 carbon bikes that go through it. And the saddle library works as a really easy entry point to be like, let’s talk about fit as it relates to your butt, and we can move forward.
BIKERUMOR: Can you give an example of one experiential victory, one customer victory that stands out for you- like having a customer in and blowing up their lives with a bike?
LEAH: I feel really lucky in that there are a lot of them. I’m trying to think of just one. I think just in general I would just say that we have the pleasure of selling so many people their first adult bike here and that’s really amazing. People talk about how they rode bikes as kids but haven’t felt comfortable. And it’s amazing to get people out and commuting and going on road rides and whatever they want. And the best part is that we’ve been open for a year and a half now, which is enough time for people to come back for their second bike. That’s super cool for me. That people have gotten their feet wet, whether that’s recreational riding or commuting or one specific facet of what it is to ride a bike and then want to broaden it by bike touring or racing or whatever that is. I think there are a lot of wins with the saddle library too. One of the most common things that we hear is that it wasn’t supposed to hurt to ride a bike and it’s great to be able to offer people that experience, that it can be enjoyable to do it- doesn’t that suck?
BIKERUMOR: It really does.
LEAH: There are a lot of well-meaning people out there who give really bad advice to other folks about the need to suck it up and that it’s supposed to be painful. “You’re just whining.” I think that’s just cruel, and not really doing a lot for the bike industry to broaden its base. Cause don’t suck it up. It’s an activity where if you get set up right, you should be able to do into your ‘80s and beyond.