Woman on red floor. For some, it’s hard to go with the flow and cycle during the cycle.Photo: OMARPHOTOWORLDAs someone who writes about gender and cycling, I get asked a lot — why don’t more women ride bikes? My answer is usually that sexism is the problem in general, and economic inequality and the division of unpaid labor in particular. There’s nothing essentially gendered about transportation choices.

But every month I get blindsided by the reminder that there is one issue that really is ours and ours alone.

Menstruation, while it’s something most women deal with for many years of their life, is hardly a singular, universal experience, though.

Many of the women I spoke with for this piece bike right through their periods with no problems. They were surprised that I was even asking. I was surprised that they were surprised. Clearly this is a topic we don’t talk about enough. When I pitched the story to Grist’s managing editor, Ted Alvarez, he loved the idea. “We like to publish edgy stories,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s that edgy to talk about having your period,” I responded. It’s an issue, after all, that half of us can relate to directly and the other half can only gain a better understanding of humanity by hearing about. But he has a point: For some reason it’s taboo to discuss menstruation in public.

So in the interest of getting the conversation started, I will tell you that for the past 21 years of my life, everything has slowed down to a crawl for two days a month. Heavy flow, exhaustion, hideous cramps, sore muscles, and a brain-sucking sense of doom mean that getting on a bike, much less off the couch, can be a real struggle. This is often when I do my best thinking and writing, but going anywhere is a pure drag.

Apparently I should listen to these signals, says Dr. Andrea Seiffertt, a health practitioner in Santa Barbara, Calif., who combines Western and Ayurvedic medicine:

Your cycle is when your body is purifying and “re-booting,” so taking it easy is the most important thing … While light exercise and movement makes things flow better and definitely helps with muscle cramping and aches, pushing against or ignoring your body’s messages to rest isn’t healthy. If possible I’d suggest public transport or carpool on those days, or if you work from home like I do, permission to chill more than a normal day.

While I heard from women who have similar experiences to mine, many other women I spoke with said that they have more energy than usual during the heaviest days of their periods and actively seek longer rides as a way to manage the discomfort of cramps and bloating.

“Definitely listen to your own body,” responds Seiffertt.

Some issues are more universally frustrating. “I have a white saddle,” says my friend Maria Schur, who works at a local bike shop and races bikes in her free time. “Sometimes it gets red.” 

Schur is admirably unflappable, but for those of us who do most of our riding in street clothes rather than easily-changed Lycra, a lack of functional menstrual products can be a messy problem. Pads bunch and chafe — and reusable ones are worse than thin disposables. Tampons, for those unfazed by getting intimate with nasty toxins, can leak — and oh, that uncomfortable string.

Writer and bicycling mom Marion Rice voiced this frustration in an article a few years ago, and dozens of responses rolled in giving accolades to silicon cups for use by the menstruating pedalers of the world. The two widely available brands are the Diva Cup and the Keeper. Word to the wise: Several women said the bottom tabs of these cups can chafe unless they are cut short.

For every woman whose period poses a transportation problem — or at least a wake-up call — there seem to be several for whom it is just one more minor logistical detail when getting ready to ride out into the world.

One thing that is clear, though — we don’t talk about this stuff enough. And when we do, we all seem to learn something.

For Gristy reviews of sustainable options, check out this two-part series that you and your little friend will love: