MACHINES FOR FREEDOM
Words: Heidi Swift
Images: Tracy Chandler
At 5 feet 11 inches, Jennifer Hannon cuts a formidable form on a bike. A shock of long, dark-brown hair erupts from the back of her helmet in a manner that is slightly wild. The Los Angeles native rides in a classic rouleur style with a smooth cadence, magnificent stroke and crushing power output. Hers is the wheel you want to be on when the road goes flat and long and windy — and to be caught in the vortex of her draft on a descent is nothing short of breathtaking. Follow the hair if you can handle the watts. You won’t regret it.
I like to think that the way people ride reflects something about the way they live their lives — and Hannon is at least one example of supporting evidence. She’s raw, honest and unrelenting. She acts, in life and business, from of a place of joy and grace. Most of all, she doesn’t shy away from risk — and she has the dental work from a few related bike crashes to prove it.
But Hannon’s biggest risk to date was not going full throttle into that corner in that crit in that rain. It was the day she decided to leave her career as a successful interior designer to start a cycling apparel company dedicated exclusively to serving the needs of women: Machines For Freedom.
She’d only been riding bikes for a few years when the idea struck her. It is not an altogether unfamiliar story — new female cyclist discovers that the world of women’s kit is shockingly lacking in diversity and quality; new female cyclist experiences physical discomfort related to said kit; new female cyclist fumes to herself, “There has got to be a better way!”
Most of these stories end there, characterized by a frustration that dulls with apathy over time. We wish for more but learn to settle.
But here’s where Hannon’s story takes a turn from the traditional narrative. Instead of settling — or continuing on in futile search for something that doesn’t exist — she decided to build the perfect women’s cycling kit herself and bootstrapped her company into existence using personal savings, a lot of sweat and more than a few tears.
That was three years ago; and the resulting product line lives up to Hannon’s lofty vision for a better future, not only for the elevated fit and function of women’s kit, but also for the growth and vitality of a women’s cycling culture created, defined and nurtured by women themselves. In the world of bigger brands still clamoring to figure out how to court female cyclists, the authenticity of Machines’ creation story rings truer than any flashy marketing campaign ever could.
And that sincerity of intent has only amplified as Machines continues to grow. The brand doesn’t just celebrate the predictable-if-relevant theme of fun and friendship on bikes that is often the cornerstone of marketing directed at women, Machines also gets at something inherently more human and honest — the complexity of life and relationships, the importance of intimacy, the role of compassion. These aren’t sentiments that can be easily produced by even the most rock-star-branding team, they’re things that emerge as a result of the personal and professional process of risking everything to create something you believe in — a process that has been both rocky and exhilarating for Jennifer Hannon.
And while the road has been something less than smooth, Hannon’s pluck and borderline obsessive commitment to the perfection are qualities that any bike racer, regardless of gender, is sure to admire. Her kit lives up to the hype: spot-on tailoring, luxuriant hand-feel, sophisticated aesthetics, dialed fit and high-performing fabrics deliver against the Machines promise — and then some!
We chatted via email and in person about the kit, the brand, what it’s been like to start a business from the ground up and, of course, our favorite bike rides.
peloton: Tell us about the name of your line, “Machines for Freedom”?
Hannon: The name was inspired by the famous Susan B Anthony quote: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
Women’s relationship with the bike predates the racing history that we idolize today. It goes back to the late-19th century, when the bicycle literally changed the way women lived. I think all of us, men and women, can relate to the feeling of freedom on a bicycle, but because of women’s history with the bike, the idea of freedom resonates in a deeper way.
You have an interior design degree from UCLA and spent five years designing high-end restaurants. What made you decide to make such a radical career transition and dedicate yourself to overhauling the world of women’s cycling kit?
I was having a hard time finding kit that fit well and performed. At one point I purchased every pair of bibs on the market to try and find the pair of bibs that fit me best — I’m not exaggerating! First, I measured the chamois to see which ones were wide enough to cover my sit bones. From there, I tried them all on and discarded the ones that made me look and feel atrocious. Lastly, I had to discard a few based on pure aesthetics alone. I’m not exactly a petite girl, and some designs I just couldn’t bear to be seen in public in.
After that process was complete I was left with two pairs of bibs. I rode in those two pairs and still had issues with comfort, and I hadn’t even scratched the surface of considering personal style. I just kept thinking to myself, “It shouldn’t be this hard.”
Then, after one particularly long ride in a pair of top-of-the-line bibs, I ended up with saddle sores so severe my doctor pumped me full of antibiotics, gave me her cell phone number and told me to go straight to the ER if anything got worse. That was the final straw. After that, I started doing research and talking to factories to see if I could actually get something made. And about two years later the first Machines For Freedom kit was born.
You started Machines in 2013 — what was the cycling apparel landscape like at that time? Did you run into resistance from the industry?
The landscape was different than where we are now and I think we will see it continue to build through 2016. Back in 2013 and 2014 the women’s market was still seen as an enigma. A problem to be solved. When we launched in 2014 we received a lot of incredibly positive feedback right away. People could see that this “enigma” of a women’s market was a real force with huge potential. With the start of the 2016 season, big companies are putting more substantial marketing power behind women’s lines that have been in existence for decades. They are finally seeing the possibilities and it’s an exciting change of tides!
When I started in 2013 I received a lot of unsolicited “advice” from industry veterans. I was told that an apparel company wouldn’t succeed unless I carried men’s gear as well, and vendors were constantly trying to steer me towards mid-line wares because of a preconception that women didn’t need, or wouldn’t pay for, top-dollar, high-quality apparel. I could go on. Lucky for Machines, I tend to be fueled by people telling me something is impossible. I didn’t believe it and I wanted to prove them wrong.
What is one thing that you wish you’d known when you started out?
I’m not sure I would wish for any crystal-ball glimpse into the future. If I had, I probably would have been too scared to start! Having a certain level of ignorance gave me the confidence to take the leap.
What specific problems are you trying to solve with the apparel that you make?
One of the overarching questions I kept asking myself is: Is it possible to make technical garments look feminine in form? I wanted to design something that felt feminine without relying on color and graphics.
When considering form, I had a long wish list of technical specifications: Are the inseams high enough to conceal tan lines under skirts? Will the chamois endure on all-day rides? Is it bacteriostatic to prevent infection should a saddle sore occur? Is it wide enough to accommodate all sit-bone widths? And is it placed properly in the bibs?
Are our jersey pockets maximized, even on the smallest jersey sizes? I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I pack for long rides I like to bring lots of food. And sometimes you need to pack for changing weather. Are the sleeves long enough to accommodate arm warmers or arm screens? Is the jersey long enough to be flattering around the waist and hips when I’m off the bike as well as on the bike? Will the zipper lie flat? Are the fabrics comfortable and do they dry quickly? Do they offer sun protection but still stay cool in heat? And are they not see-through?!
But that was just the technical wish list. At the end of the day, I wanted girls to simply feel amazing when they put our kit on. I wanted to design something that instilled confidence.
Are there cultural problems that you are tackling as well?
Despite new attention being paid to the women’s demographic, the cycling community is still predominantly male and stories are still largely told from a male point-of-view. For me, this singular voice often left me feeling like I didn’t fit in. And even now, as more companies adapt their brand story in order to cast a wider net to women, these stories and messages are still told within a traditional cycling framework. So Machines For Freedom is also about carving new space within the community, designing clothes and telling stories in a non-traditional way. Rather than forcing brands, teams or clubs to be something they are not, we decided to build it ourselves.
What motivates you to keep going when things get hard?
The cycling community has been a major influence and motivator in my work. When things get hard, that’s when an email will come in from a lady who, for 15 years, hadn’t found a comfortable kit until she discovered Machines. She tells us it has changed her cycling life. Or the time I was determined to take a hiatus from Bikes & Brunch, the ride I lead on the first Sunday of every month. I was feeling a little burnt out, then low and behold, despite abnormally cold temps in Los Angeles, nearly 40 people showed up to what was supposed to be my last ride! I decided I didn’t need a break after all and the ride has been going strong ever since.
Sometimes you feel like you’re working in a vacuum, and you question why you are risking your financial and life stability. And right when I start questioning things, the community finds a way of showing me that what we are doing is resonating.
Your line is full of fresh yet sophisticated prints. Where does the inspiration for these prints come from?
I look for inspiration everywhere. Nature, art, photography, fashion. But I find that what I’m drawn to at any given period is autobiographical in nature. If I look back at the more iconic prints we’ve done to date, they tell me a lot about my state of mind at the time I was working on them. Our first print, the GeoFloral, came about when the company was just forming and I was thinking a lot about the intersection of athleticism and femininity. The juxtaposition of hard and soft. I was so nervous about this print when we launched. There is so much community backlash against florals and the role they played in the “pink it and shrink it” mentality I almost chickened out and yanked it at the last minute. I’m so glad I didn’t! It’s been our most popular print to date!
The Horizon’s print is another print that is close to my heart. I started dreaming up this concept when I had just split with my husband and partner of 15 years. It was one of those break-ups where you suddenly realize that this person you thought you knew so well, you don’t actually know at all. Your past memories, present identity and future aspirations transform under a new light. You waffle between feeling tremendous loss and also knowing, intellectually, that this change in course is for the best. At that time I was thinking a lot about sunrise and sunset. How in a single moment in time the two are indistinguishable.
You’re a fan of long “adventure” rides like point-to-point randonnées and gravel grinders. What’s been the single most challenging ride you’ve completed? How did it change you? What did you learn?
That’s a tough one. They all end up being challenging for different reasons, but if I had to pick one, it would be the ride from Portland to San Francisco that I recently completed with Leave It On The Road. I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it was because the terrain didn’t consist of any arduous mountain passes like the 60,000 feet of elevation I climbed when I toured through the Pyrenees. But I jumped in with the team fairly last minute so I didn’t have enough time to adequately prepare myself for the duration — 800 miles in eight days.
By day three I had tendinitis in both knees and my left Achilles ankle and had to ride through the pain for the remaining five days. I also had some pretty heavy personal stuff going. This ride took place only four months after the divorce so it’s an understatement to say I wasn’t on my top mental game. Let’s just say, there were quite a few “bike cries” on that trip. Persevering when both your body and mind are rebelling in such a severe way was a new challenge for me. It was a good life lesson as well.
During multiday randonnées you strip away all non-essentials. You get down to basics: food, water, sleep and shelter. That trip taught me that friendship is just as important. I can honestly say I would have called it in had it not been for the support of some amazing friends. It taught me that we can’t overcome the really big obstacles alone. There are times when we need help.
What is your vision for the future of women in cycling?
In a perfect world, women on bikes would be as commonplace as women in a yoga studio. Women wouldn’t feel put off by the danger, or the kit, or the negative connotations people have of cyclists. They would see the sport for how beautiful and inspiring it is. I think if more women knew what this sport felt like, how fulfilling it can be, they wouldn’t think twice about clipping in.