On a visit to South Africa, BikeBiz editor Carlton Reid talked to Ellen Feibig, co-owner of bike shop start-up Femme Sportif of Cape Town. Is this the first women-specific bike shop in the world?

Woman-specific: the bike shop

South Africa isn’t just about blacks and whites any more, it’s now got a corner that is decidedly, proudly, defiantly pink. Femme Sportif flies against the anti-stereotype that says to make something into a woman’s product you paint it pink.

Ellen Feibig and her business partner Tanya Knight have thrown caution to the wind and made their new 105-sq m bike store into a den of girly colours. There’s a bright pink couch, and fittings clad in classy grey accents. To add to the femininity there are splashes of sparkly silver. And then more pink.

Femme Sportif is in Tokai, one of the affluent suburbs of southern Cape Town. It would scare the pants off your typical bike shop customer. Your typical bike customer, in South Africa as in the rest of the world, is a bloke.

Your typical bike shop staffer is a bloke. Bike shops are bloke heaven. But many are hell for women, and Feibig believes she and her business partner are tapping into the zeitgeist.

Many bike shops in the UK, on mainland Europe and in America have sections dedicated to the growing women’s market but BikeBiz has been unable to find a bike shop aimed 100 percent at women. Femme Sportif could therefore be the first. It opened on 13th March 2006.

South Africa has a phenomenally healthy bicycle industry. The Cape Town bike show had 72,000 visitors in 2005. The world’s biggest bike ride is a 109-km tour starting in Cape Town. The Cape Argus Pick n Pay Bike Tour attracts 35,000 riders every year, dwarfing the London to Brighton ride.

And where London to Brighton has lots of fair-weather cyclists on beat-up, will-be-back-in-the-shed-tonight bikes, the Cape Argus ride attracts similar fair-weather cyclists but even the fat, never-again guys will be invariably on £1500 road bikes.

Recreational cycling in South Africa is mainly for rich whites. Increasingly, it’s an activity done by the ‘beautiful people’ as part of their fitness regimes.

Of the 35,000 riders in the Cape Argus tour, 30 percent are women, up from 15 percent two years ago. Women’s cycling in South Africa is on the rise.

And that’s why Ellen Feibig, German by birth, and her business partner created Femme Sportif. Feibig has spent the previous eight years as a bicycle tour guide, taking German and Swiss cycle tourists on two week road and mountain bike tours of South Africa.

The guiding is history, Feibig is now a bike shop owner.

Femme Sportif is one of four high-end bike shops in Tokai.

“There’s definitely a place in the market for such a shop,” said Feibig.

“My business partner and I are cyclists but as women we feel poorly served by most bike shops. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, bike shops cater mostly for men, there isn’t much out there for women.

“Women always ask, where can we go? Where can we buy?

“The demand from women is there. The products for women are there. But too many bike shops choose to underestimate this growing market.

“I’ve been cycling for eight years and to begin with I often struggled to find women-specific accessories and clothing. Now, when you open Bicycling [a South African magazine licensed from the US mother-ship] there are ten pages of women’s specific products. Two, three years ago there might have been half a page or one page at most.

“It’s not just saddles any more, there are women-specific helmets, shoes, track pumps, you name it.”

The products might be there, but the retail experience isn’t, reckons Feibig. Bike shops too often make only a token effort at catering to women. The changing room is the grotty loo. Mechanics leer. Male sales staff snigger behind the scenes when a shapely woman asks about saddles.

“This attitude problem from some men is one of the key reasons for having a women’s specific shop. Personally I will go into any bike shop, I’m confident and pretty open but not all women like to be surrounded by men when they’re shopping, especially for clothing. It can be intimidating. And men don’t really know what’s good for you, even though they may think they do.

“Just because a man’s race jersey comes in pink doesn’t mean it will be good for a woman.”

Cycle retail is a male dominated area but that’s not the make up of the modern market, said Feibig.

“There are more women cyclists out there than many men realise. Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In many ways it’s an untapped market.

“We were thinking about doing just clothes and accessories to begin with but following surveys of prospective customers we found there was a clear demand for offering bikes too. There are an increasing number of women-specific bikes being launched and they’re now genuinely designed for women, it’s no longer good enough to fit a wider saddle and call it a women-specific bicycle.”

Femme Sportif will get even more women cycling, believes Feibig, the shop isn’t out to poach customers from the existing bike shops of Tokai. Women will be coming out of the woodwork, fired up that there’s now a shop catering to their needs.

“The streets of Tokai are full of cyclists. We are surrounded by cycle shops. But we’re not competition, we’re offering something different, something the other shops do only as an afterthought.”

Feibig and Knight are aiming high:

“We are already thinking about expanding into the northern suburbs of Cape Town and women in Johannesburg are asking left, right and centre when we’ll open there."

Later this month, Femme Sportif will start a woman-only cycle club, creating a community for itself.

“The club will be very sociable, it won’t be all about speed. Beginner ladies don’t know where to go, what to do, who to cycle with. If they feel intimidated in a shop staffed with men they probably wouldn’t join a club that they felt was an extension of this.

“Our club will stage women-only clinics, hold talks, organise social evenings. We want to be the centre of the cycling world for women.”


Is Femme Sportif the first woman-specific bike shop in the world? If you know of any others, now or from the past, please emailwomen@transfer.bikebiz.com

In other news...

Planet X looks set to appoint administrators

Rotherham-based bike company Planet X could be set to enter administration, according to documents filed …