We speak to Juliana Rudell Di Simone, Director of tokyobike, who is on a mission to empower more women to feel freedom on two wheels
By Annabel Herrick
A bike can mean a lot of things to a woman. It’s transport, a tool, a toy, and when it comes to tokyobike, an object d’art. Partner and Director of tokyobike, Juliana Rudell Di Simone, never claimed to be a bike pro, but it’s her eye for quality aesthetics that has garnered the brand a cult following: “I approached tokyobike as a design brand that sells bicycles. We come from a human place, it’s all about getting more people on bikes.” Dazzling customers with striking design seems to be working – the majority of tokyobike’s clientele are bright-eyed first-time cyclists.
In 2002, tokyobike was founded in Tokyo by Ichiro Kanai. In 2013, Brazilian-born Juliana and her husband Dean became partners when the brand expanded into the Americas. The concept was simple: tokyobikes were objects, not performance pieces. Nowadays, with 42.9k followers on their US Instagram (the UK account is smaller at 23k), people love Tokyobike for its commitment to colour. Presenting a rainbow range with prices starting from $570, you won’t see black on the two main models; the closest is a dark, deep charcoal called ‘Willow.’ There’s a shade for everyone, Juliana explains: “Like what we wear, colour is everything. And just like what we wear, a bike is an extension of one’s personality.”
Another reason the brand has proved so successful is the super minimalist, compact frames that can accommodate various body types yet allow riders total control. Juliana points out that a lot of shorter women often struggled to find frames to fit and would have to resort to junior sizes. “We used to make a 45cm frame which still wasn’t small enough, so we went smaller.” Now, they offer frames that suit people from 4ft 2in to 6ft 2in and the genius geometry (“I won’t bore you” said Juliana) is not compromised thanks to a killer design team. Ungendered stock is also an important factor: unlike traditional bike shops, tokyobike don’t try to push ‘extras’ onto women. This is something Juliana experienced firsthand: “I was encouraged to buy all the accessories that are ‘expected’ on a women’s bike but they didn’t necessarily fit my lifestyle. The front basket, for example, wasn’t structurally attached, so it would fall onto the brakes. It was actually quite dangerous but I was told it was ‘cute,” she remembers.
As for tokyobikes, they are simple and open to everyone: “The idea that women have to ride a step-through (a low frame that you can step into) is a common misconception. Nowadays they are just as popular with men, especially those who are looking for comfort,” she explained. As a model and marketer once immersed in the fashion world, from the very beginning Juliana offered a different perspective within a male dominated industry. “My background is as diverse as I am,” she says. This, however, means she comes up against some challenges: “There was a lot of mansplaining. People thought I didn’t know what I was doing. There’s the idea that in order to ride a bike, you need to know everything.”
These days top bike brands see tokyobike as a competitor and Juliana recalls one moment at a trade show where she was banned from a rival’s booth: “All of a sudden people were taking me seriously,” she says with a smile. Looking back, it was when living in New York in her mid-twenties that Juliana fell in love with cycling, “I’d cross Manhattan bridge and notice that every neighbourhood had a different smell, from Brooklyn to Chinatown. That’s something you just don’t experience in a car or on public transport.” I ask Juliana about her own tokyobike (I’m assured she only has one) and she tells me it’s a faded salmon red model once used for a test ride (now discontinued). It’s her own one-of-a kind gradient, and yet, she’s not precious: “We need to allow a bike to build personality. The scratches tell stories like scars. These days my bike is quite utilitarian because I cycle everywhere, so it has evolved with my needs.”
When it comes to cycling as a woman, Juliana recognises we have such a long way to go. Sadly, she is not alone when enduring threats on her bike late at night in New York. “Sometimes it was just some guy being sleazy or shouting at me because I was taking my time. He wouldn’t dare say something like that to another man.” I ask Juliana if there are any commuter clothing brands she’d recommend (dressing appropriately as a female cyclist is another daily bugbear). She replied: “No, I will ride a bike in anything. The minute we limit a product to one purpose (i.e. ‘commuter’ clothing) it implies there’s even more to buy. Everyday outfits work just fine.” I reminded her that heels and dresses are a nightmare to cycle in and this often means enduring catcalling. She responded firmly: “The last thing you should think about is what a guy is going to say.” However, Juliana believes part of the solution is adapting our work environments: more offices with showers and changing rooms would encourage more female cyclists.
As a woman on a bike, all our decisions are more considered – the streets we take, the time of day, what we wear – and even the extra baggage we carry for protection. A woman once explained to Juliana how she sees her hefty lock as a weapon, “She’s never had to use it, luckily,” she tells me. Pushing pedal after pedal is still an act of defiance, “When I think of women on bikes I think of the suffragettes. Historically, bikes have been associated with women’s rights movements. I mean look at us – riding bikes and wearing trousers,” she ruminated. We are in agreement that riding a bike gives us a feeling of freedom and thundering power: “We move our bodies to get from one place to another using our own energy, isn’t that extraordinary?” she pondered. Now that she lives in LA, the city synonymous with car culture, Juliana sees it as an opportunity for change, “We make bikes to help people manoeuvre around cities more easily,” she states.
In recent years, tokyobike have repositioned their focus within the US market, recognising their responsibility to take part in the conversation around transport and climate change. “We’re working on programmes to improve our cities. Really, it’s about driving less and cycling more,” she explains. Once again, sexism is part of the problem, which is deep-rooted in our cities’ infrastructures. According to research from the University of Birmingham, women feel much safer in protected bike lanes, and yet these routes traditionally connect white male commuters to their corporate offices, “Not the mother taking her kid to school then rushing off to work,” Juliana points out. There’s still work to be done. Tackling the issue of representation in the cycling industry may feel like an uphill struggle but Juliana seems empowered as the anomaly. On an individual level, and as a director of a coveted bike brand, she hopes her voice will make an impact: “I speak to women all the time to help them feel comfortable on a bike. One by one, we’ll get there.”
We’ll get there