The first thing Evrinpreet “Preet” Kaur noticed on the first day of her bike mechanics class last fall was that she was the only female student surrounded by 21 boys.

Kaur, 18, was in her senior year at Inderkum High School and had chosen the class hoping for an easy elective. She had never worked on bikes before, though she’d ridden them in Patiala, India before moving to the United States in 2016, and had done the occasional home repair job for her parents.

“At first I thought, ‘This is not the class for me,’” Kaur laughed. “But then I just decided to go with it … This is fun to do and it’s something new. My interest grew.”

She found herself enjoying the physical work, getting up to her elbows in the bike grease and being able to see, hold and control the fruits of her labor with her own hands. She even became good enough for her teacher, Elle Steele, to recommend her for a job opening at Natomas Bike Shop, where she built two partially assembled bicycles as part of the interview.

And that’s how, in February, Kaur became the first female bike mechanic hired at the shop.

“I was pretty surprised and I was pretty happy that I’m the first girl to work here,” Kaur said.

“She showed character and bravery that I admire,” said John Buchanan, owner of Natomas Bike Shop and the person who hired Kaur.

Kaur, now a freshman at American River College, does the same jobs as any other mechanic at the bike shop — including replacing shifters, putting new brakes on and overhauling the wheels and bottom brackets.

But in a world that’s been historically dominated by white men, Kaur’s place as a bike mechanic has come up against some challenges she hadn’t anticipated.

It’s a dilemma many women of color can find themselves in, a culture where simply being a woman and a Punjabi in the workplace can come with its bumps.

“The thing that I don’t understand is why people have a problem with me working at a bike shop,” Kaur said. “I do something that I like, but people cannot just digest this thing.”

Unforeseen bias

It was her third day working at the bike shop when a male customer made the first comment.

“Oh, there’s a girl in the bike shop,” Kaur remembered him saying. “Do you repair bikes? Do you even know how to repair bikes?”

Her manager was angry, she said, saying that if she didn’t know how to work on bikes, she wouldn’t have been hired. Yet since then, it’s become a regular customer experience, she said.

“It happens almost every day. Every day … some of (the customers) are surprised to see me,” Kaur said. “Some people will just come and stare at me while I’m working. It’s like they don’t believe me or believe that I can work on bikes.”

Kaur is audibly frustrated, recounting over the phone how these brief customer interactions and all-too-frequent dismissals have built up over seven months of working there.

She still has a lot to learn about bike mechanics, she said. But she was hired because she demonstrated that she can do the work.

“When I greet customers, they say hello to me and then they turn to a different guy who they think would know stuff,” Kaur said. “They completely ignore me.”

The cycling world is rather male-dominated, but female bike mechanics are especially hard to come by, said Steele, Kaur’s former teacher, and Raushaan Anwar, Kaur’s manager at the bike shop. Anwar has seen the surprise on some customers’ faces when they realize Kaur is a shop mechanic, he said, and the way some have questioned her knowledge.

Steele, who worked in bike repair shops and does mechanics for summer cycling tours, said the “bro-like” culture of many shops can often be unfriendly spaces for women. It’s a culture she’s experienced herself on many occasions where her skills and expertise were questioned or trivialized by male cyclists.

That culture is in the process of changing, Steele said, with more programs pushing for women and people of color to be trained in bike mechanics in the last five years or so. But there’s still much more work to be done to make the world of bike repairs more inclusive, she said.

As a Punjabi woman, Kaur said her race has also played an unexpected role at times. One time, Kaur said, a Punjabi customer came in and told her to quit her job at the bike shop. She should get a job at a pharmacy instead, she recalled him saying.

“He had no idea who I was and what like to do, he just decided to come in (and) say all that stuff to me in front of all the people working there,” Kaur said.

These kinds of customer confrontations are much more rare, she said. But it’s just another frustrating reminder of the difficulty of pursuing something she loves and excels at when her background is seen as both a limitation and an open invitation for scrutiny.

Resisting family gender norms

Even before her first day at the shop, Kaur faced resistance from her parents.

Kaur said she didn’t think working at the shop would be a big deal, just a way to explore a new hobby she was good at and would get paid for. But her family, she said, is quite strict and traditional, and were shocked by the thought of their daughter working a manual labor job.

“They think that girls are not designed to do this kind of work,” Kaur said. “At first, they were pretty mad at me … They said, ‘You’re not going to work in that bike shop.’”

There was an element of embarrassment for them, Kaur said. Gossip is a major social concern for many Indian parents, she said, and her family often compares their children’s achievements.

“They said, ‘Well, you’re going to work at a bike shop, what will our family in India think? They will say, ‘You went to America … and you’re going to work at a bike shop?’ I think they kind of felt shameful.”

So for the first time she can remember, Kaur told her parents ‘no.’ She wanted the job and she wanted to work for herself.

Arguments ensued, with her parents threatening to not let her out of the house or give her rides to work. But Kaur kept pushing back and, when they realized she wasn’t going to back down, they gave in.

Today, Kaur said, her parents are proud of her and her work. They’ve concealed her job from the rest of the family, she said, but they’re happy to see her in her element.

What really won them over, she said, is seeing how much the work changed her. A year ago, she was shy and unassuming. After the first day of her high school bike class, Kaur nervously told Steele that she would prefer to never have to speak in class or make a class presentation.

But now, Kaur has become assertive and self-confident, a noticeable turnaround from the kind of person her parents knew her as before.

“In India, I didn’t have confidence in me,” Kaur said. “I would always need somebody by my side to go do anything.”

That change and that newly acquired self-assurance, she said, is what convinced her parents the path she’s chosen is the right one. The extra pocket money hasn’t hurt, either.

‘To be first in something’

Despite the hard days that can come with the job, Kaur said she’s never regretted taking it.

“She’s always surprised me with how willing she is to figure out how to do something,” Anwar said. “She really wants to be hands on and figure out what’s going on. She actually cares. That’s a lot of fun.”

“Whatever Preet chooses to do in life, she will excel at it,” Buchanan said. “She is a wonderful, wonderful person. I’m quite fortunate to have her in my shop.”

She doesn’t take the stress of customer interactions or their microaggressions home with her. Those stay in the shop and all she wants to focus on is learning and getting better at the craft.

“He came, he spoke some bad words, he left. My day is still going to go on,” Kaur said.

She’s not sure if she would want to go into bicycle repair full time — she’s studying criminal justice — but she’s open to the possibility, she said. In the meantime, she’s just enjoying her work, positive customer interactions and the company of her fellow mechanics. Her identity has informed that experience, she said, but it hasn’t controlled it.

“I like to work there,” Kaur said. “It’s a different feeling, to be first in something.”

Ashley Wong covers Sacramento’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community for The Sacramento Bee in partnership with Report for America. A graduate of University of California, Berkeley, she has written for USA Today and the East Bay Express.

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