Those who don’t bike often wonder about the passion of those who do. Even bikers are often at pains to put into words the reason they trade the comfort of the car for a physically demanding transportation option that exposes them to Mother Nature’s caprices.
For India Viola, the deep-seated draw of the bike is in the forefront of her consciousness.
“When you’re bicycling, you can actually observe what’s going on around you,” said the 41-year-old cycling advocate. “You can do this walking for sure, but biking you can cover so much more terrain and yet still be able to watch the little animals that cross your path, other human beings, maybe with their companion animals, actually make a smile, eye contact.”
Viola has spent a good part of her adult life making it possible for others to experience the connection and fulfillment that fuels her passion. Thirteen years ago, she and Ali Dwyer launched We Are All Mechanics, a class for women who want to perform routine maintenance on their bicycles.
Recently she became one of only two women to join the board of the new advocacy group Madison Bikes, which aims to push for improvements that will make the city’s bicycling network more accessible for those who would bike — if not for a treacherous intersection or busy roadway that keeps them from going where they want to go safely and comfortably.
A Madison transplant from Boston and the mother of a 4-year-old boy, she brings to the table a constellation of talents that include martial arts, woodworking and neurobiology, a field in which she holds a doctorate from UW-Madison.
How did you get involved in biking?
I got into it originally when I was a middle schooler. Instead of sleep-away camp I was very lucky to be able to go to on summer bike tours. That was sort of my first taste of biking. One summer I did an east-coast New Hampshire, Vermont trip, and these were led by a company out of New Hampshire. Then I did a trip in Nova Scotia. Then I did a west-coast trip. That really was unique and not something that my friends were doing.
How did you get into bike mechanics?
I went home to Boston for a little while to kind of lick my wounds after dropping out of college and volunteered at a local bike shop in Boston. When I came back I had this idea that I wanted to work in a bike shop. I was 20 and walked in on one of the days when they were having a major sale at Williamson Bicycle Works, and I was hired on by somebody in the service department. It’s kind of a funny story because he wasn’t really supposed to hire people but they needed assemblers so he said, “Come back tonight,” so I went in and pretended and tried to follow along with what everybody else was doing and started putting bikes together.
Were you the only female mechanic?
When I started there was one other woman, but she left. I was the only woman in the service area, and I have this distinct memory of women coming in and saying they wanted to work in the repair shop, and they would always get pushed out onto the sales floor. I just kind of squeaked in, so there was a piece of me that wanted to try to do something about that.
And We Are All Mechanics was your opportunity?
The idea in the beginning for me was an apprenticeship model, but that never happened. I guess as soon as we started our first class was just fixing a flat, opening up your hub. It went from sort of having the idea of a pipeline for women to become bike mechanics to how can we help people feel more empowered when they’re on their bike and get to know their bike and be able to do some of the preventive maintenance and when they go into a shop not to feel super intimidated about asking about having their bike serviced.
Why is the class only for women?
Our intention and our goal is really just to try to create an atmosphere to alleviate the anxiety that a lot of women feel. It seems like right now, in our time and place in history, it needs to be a woman-only atmosphere in order for anxiety-free learning to happen.
Is it the same on the road? Do women feel intimidated biking?
The ages of the women in our classes tend to be anywhere from early to mid-20s to 60s, even a little older sometimes. So I think there are generational experiences that women have gone through. Young women don’t seem to be intimidated in the same way in pursuing sports that were traditionally male-dominated.
By teaching women to perform maintenance on their bikes, do you think you’re empowering them to get on their bikes?
I think so. I think once people go through our classes and they feel, “Oh, if I get a flat I can totally fix it. If my brakes are rubbing I can deal with that,” or “I can go into a bike shop and know what to ask for.” I think people come out more likely to bike more often, transportation cycling or recreationally.
So Madison Bikes is a natural extension: You’re hoping to make people more comfortable with biking.
People are going to ride more with a connected network that feels comfortable, if they’re not anxious about a particular intersection or a gap. Like you know how to get through this leg or I know how to get through that leg of a trip, but right in the middle there’s this nasty part where you don’t know what to do.
You’re one of only two women on the Madison Bikes board, and the men are for the most part white professionals. Any plans to diversify?
We are keenly and I think painfully aware of the lack of diversity of the board as far as social economic, gender, race, all of that. We’re really falling short. We kind of just wanted to get going, and now we have to come to grips with some of those issues.
Unlike some of the more hard-core bikers, you’re at peace with using a car when you need to. How do you see biking in Madison from behind the wheel?
I feel like when you get behind the wheel of a car it uses a different brain region, like you really feel entitled to be going the speed limit, or faster, and if something slows you down it feels personal. There’s been increasing infrastructure that’s helped. Some pretty critical bike lanes have been striped. I think generally bicycling as a legitimate form of transportation seems to have gained traction in Madison.