Three former employees of Cyclesmith, all women, say they experienced a sexist culture, unpaid training, and overly critical feedback of their work by management at the Halifax bike shop.

Hannah Estabrook, Antonia Chircop, and Arena Thomson Alamino first shared their stories with Lisa Cameron on behalf of the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre in an article that was published in Rank and File on Feb. 21.

The Halifax Examiner spoke with Estabrook, Chircop, and Thomson Alamino over the past week, as well as Andrew Feenstra, owner of Cyclesmith.

Estabrook, Chircop, and Thomson Alamino said Cyclesmith’s progressive public image and their policies, including its living wage, which the Examiner reported on here, don’t align with their experiences in the workplace.

“Our motivation in speaking out is, first and foremost, to hopefully warn other workers about our experiences that we had in this workplace, and particularly warn other women who may be interested in working there,” Estabrook said. “Many of us were drawn to working there because of their living wage policy, which is very tempting, especially for those of us who’ve worked many low-paying jobs.” 

Unpaid training

Estabrook started working at Cyclesmith on Sept. 1, 2022. A triathlete who’s been cycling since she was a kid, she was hired on as a sales associate. Estabrook said when she got her letter of offer, it stated she had to take an online training program on her own time and for which she wouldn’t be paid.

The training, which was created by a bicycle manufacturer whose products are sold at Cyclesmith, included a number of modules. Estabrook said she had concerns about the unpaid training, so she brought it up to Feenstra.

“I never had an employer ask me to do unpaid training before. To my knowledge, word on the street, it wasn’t allowed. Before starting the job, I clarified in an email with the owner, wanting to check in and confirming [the training] was unpaid, asking how many hours the training would take. He confirmed in writing that, yes, it’s unpaid, and if you complete it on time, you receive a $100 bonus.”  

Estabrook said she was told the training wasn’t very “onerous” and it involved watching some videos, answering questions, and that it was “pretty fun.” 

“I still wasn’t super keen on the idea of unpaid training, especially because I am a full-time student and I’d be working 20 hours a week as well. I’m really busy person,” Estabrook said. “I assumed it would be just a couple of hours and I would tolerate it and I’d be fine.” 

In October, Estabrook also went to the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre to ask about the legality of unpaid training. Under the Nova Scotia labour law, and as stated in the Rank and File article, all training done by employees must be paid.

Estabrook said she brought up the issue around unpaid training again in October. She said she was called to a meeting with her managers and Feenstra on Oct. 26, 2022. She describes that meeting as “confrontational.”

“They really tried to spin the conversation around on me, even though I was the one who brought forward a labour complaint I felt was very valid and I wanted to see addressed,” Estabrook said. “The conversation quickly became about me and how me bringing up this concern was an indication to them I wasn’t comfortable in the workplace, and I wasn’t a good fit.” 

She said she felt “targetted and disrespected” in that meeting.

“They ultimately said that I didn’t have to complete the training, but they would revoke the employee benefits I was offered, which can be seen as a form of retalition against an employee. Nonetheless, I accepted that,” she said. 

Estabrook said she sent a follow-up email to Feenstra after that meeting. Still, she said she felt like their treatment of her worsened in the days and weeks afterward.  

“The behavior I had experienced before of feeling targeted and feeling increasingly ignored and criticized, all of those things seemed to intensify. Nonetheless, I felt like I was a very good employee. The never offered me any sort of feedback about my performance at work or any indication I was not meeting the expectations of my job description. I was certainly believed that I was and that I had very strong sales and was a great customer service representative for their store.” 

On Nov. 30, 2022, at the start of her shift on the last day of her probationary period, Estabrook said she was called to the office and was handed a letter saying her employment at Cyclesmith was being terminated. 

“I was quite surprised to hear that and, of course, I asked them why,” she said. “They simply said ‘you’re not a good fit here.’”  

Estabrook said she asked for examples of her performance at the store, but she said the management repeated that she wasn’t a good fit.

‘There are things we can learn’

Feenstra said he was never contacted by Rank and File for comment for the article. He said he was “surprised” by the content in the article.

“Once we read it and had a look at it and kind of said, ‘Okay, there’s lots of information here and misinformation that was one group’s opinion for sure,” Feenstra said.

“There are lies and false accusations in there, but then there are things we can learn in there that are some valuable information we can look at and talk with our existing staff and get their feelings as well.” 

A smiling man wearing a black and red patterned bicycle jersey stands with his arms folded.
Andrew Feenstra, owner of Cyclesmith. Credit: Contributed

As for the unpaid training, Feenstra told the Examiner the training was initially unpaid, but he said the number of hours it takes to complete was “embellished” by the former workers in the Rank and File article, and said the training takes about 12.5 hours to complete. (In the Rank and File article, Estabrook said the training took upwards of 30 hours to complete).

Feenstra said after the first complaint about the training was made, Cyclesmith spoke with legal counsel, and made changes to the process.

Now, the training is optional for employees, Feenstra said, and wages, health care benefits, and paid sick days are not linked to the training. He said employees receive health benefits after completing a three-month probationary period.

Feenstra sent a statement to the Examiner as well that details specifics on the training.

“Also for the record, we encourage team members to pursue completion of the training modules. We make no apologies for that approach,” Feenstra wrote. “The modules are carefully structured and serve to enhance the team members’ knowledge of Cyclesmith’s product lines and of cycling more generally. A host of additional perks including the above mentioned $100 bonus, purchase discounts, event fee reimbursements for races and structured rides, and an RRSP match can be accessed by completing the optional training. Few businesses like Cyclesmith offer any such perks. Noteworthy is that made no mention of that fact.”

In our interview, Feenstra said employees who complete the training can also get perks such as $500 worth of products from the manufacturer.

Gender assumptions in database

Antonia Chircop started working at Cyclesmith as a sales associate in January 2021. Over her time there, she also worked in online sales and was being trained as a bike builder.

“When I first started working there, they were treating me fairly decently,” Chircop said. “I had to go down to part time for a little bit and when I came back, all of a sudden there was a shift in the attitude toward me. It seemed like they always thought I was being a distraction and I was ruining efficiency. They were constantly pulling me to the side and telling me this, even though I was acting the exact same as anybody else working there. It was so evident that even other employees would talk with me about it.”  

One issue Chircop brought to the attention of Feenstra and management was about the company’s database where it keeps detailed files about its customers. Chirop said one of the fields staff must fill out in the form is about gender. The options are male, female, or other.

Chircop said she brought the issue to the attention of management and was told just select the gender based on how a customer presented. Chircop said she didn’t feel comfortable with that method, and she said some of her coworkers were also uncomfortable with the process.

“I decided to speak up for them because they didn’t want to come forward. I was like, ‘Look, I think this should be reassessed,'” she said.

Feenstra said the database is a software system that’s used in about 1,500 bike shops across North America. The database includes details about customers, including their gender, which Feenstra said helps Cyclesmith staff decide what products to bring into the store.

“The idea of it is to understand how many things, what percentages are sold to male, female, or other. It’s to get an understanding of what our market is to make sure we have the proper products and proper selection and proper staffing,” he said.

As for the gender part of the database form, Feenstra said they are working on how to properly include a customer’s gender into the database.

“That’s one of the things we are trying to work with,” Feenstra said.

He said in the past they’ve worked with Cynthia Sweeney from Simply Good Form, whose team worked with them on diversity and inclusion training. Feenstra said they will offer that training again, “to help guide us along with that and the best practices to make sure that all of our staff and customers are comfortable and feel they are in a safe environment.”

“We won’t just follow the industry,” Feenstra said. “We’ll follow what the best practices are that the experts come up with.”

That issue with the database came up again in a meeting Chircop had with management in February 2022. She gave her final notice the next month.

“The managers really came down on me in the final meeting about that gender policy. It was even more twisted in my mind because it was two male managers ganging up on a female employee about gender policy in the workplace,” she said. “That was one of the other reasons I decided to quit.”

Treatment of female staff by management

Estabrook, Chircop, and Thomson Alamino all spoke about the treatment and feedback they received from two managers specifically. They didn’t want to provide names, but said the managers were in the roles of sales floor manager and general manager.

Thomson Alamino, who started working at Cyclesmith in Dec. 1, 2021, said she felt the criticism early on.

“Pretty quickly, I felt the attitudes from management were really pedantic and critical,” Thomson Alamino said. “I didn’t feel there was a lot of warmth or friendliness that I witnessed my male coworkers on the receiving end of. I felt that I was a nuisance, to be honest. I didn’t feel like I was trained appropriately in store and whenever my manager talked to me it was over something relatively small or trivial. And it was always negative. There was very little just social conversation between management and I. Anytime they bothered to speak with me it was over something they didn’t like that I was doing or it wasn’t doing well enough.” 

Thomson Alamino said after she sold one bike, her manager pointed out she had forgot to get a bit of information for the customer’s file.

“My manager didn’t even say, ‘Good job.’ He just said, ‘You forgot to do this.’ It was like I had forgotten to get their address. It was relatively small for their file,” Thomson Alamino said. “I had sold an expensive bike with a lot of add-ons, but the immediate focus was on what I hadn’t done properly.”

Thomson Alamino said she was constantly being brought into the managers’ office about her sales not being where they should be. She said she asked for more training, but that that consisted of having a manager take her around the showroom floor, while he quizzed her on product knowledge.

“I told him I had essentially no base knowledge of the products yet,” she said. “So, when I got an answer wrong, he’d simply respond ‘no,’ and pretty quickly moved on to the next question. I was made to feel kind of foolish for not knowing these things already. I really felt like I wasn’t set up for success at all.”

She said she was called into the office on Jan. 12, 2022, and was told her employment was being terminated.

“I said can I ask why? And he said, ‘You’re just not a good fit here,’” Thomson Alamino said.

Estabrook said she quickly felt like the workplace wasn’t welcoming to women. She said on her first day of work, she was the only female employee working that day.  

“There would have been at least 20 or more men in the workplace,” Estabrook recalled. “I had never really been in a situation like that … the gender imbalance was very stark.”  

Estabrook said that led her to feeling “disproportionately surveilled and disciplined” very early on. 

“I just felt like I was always being watched very closely. I would always have my work double checked by one of my managers. I might get pulled aside and have my behaviour corrected for things that seemed trivial to me. On some occasions I was even called to the office to be disciplined for things I perceived to be very minor.” 

Estabrook recalled being paged to the office where she was asked to find an error on a customer file that was filed out by the customer himself. The manager, Estabrook said, pointed out that a first letter in a street name hadn’t been capitalized.

“He said he didn’t want it to happen again,” Estabrook said. “Even though I had a valid excuse that it was written in Dutch, the customer wrote it himself, I didn’t want to second guess the customer. I felt really disrespected. He saw it as a reflection of my intelligence, or something, and felt the need to page me upstairs to the office and single me out for such a minor mistake that I didn’t feel needed to be addressed.” 

Estabrook said managers were constantly double checking her paperwork, even though she assured them it was correct. She also recalled “being harshly redirected by a manager for seeming distracted” when reading a product tag, even though there were no customers in the store who needed help.

Chirop noticed that male staff weren’t treated as critically as the few women who worked there. For example, she said male staff often socialized and chatted with each other while working on the sales floor.

“If I was caught doing that, I would be reprimanded immediately for it,” Chircop said. “They would do this constantly to the point where it started getting in my head a little bit. I never had a poor review at a workplace before and I worked in a quite a few retail environments. I would even go back to the other employees and ask, ‘Was I distracting you? Did I really take you away from your work?’ And everyone would say, ‘Absolutely not. You’re acting the same way any other male employee is.’ But for some reason, they’d see more do it more than everyone else.” 

Chircop also recalled when she greeted a customer who then went directly to a male employee for help. She said she was chastised for not assisting the customer.

“I had to then explain that the customer specifically chose not to speak to me and that it was out of my control,” Chircop said. “I was not going to berate the customer into telling me what they wanted.”

“What is ironic about this story is that the sales floor staff had discussed at a morning huddle previously that sometimes people come into the store that simply assume the women on staff don’t know as much as the men. This is a cycling culture issue in general. We talked about how we can support one another when customers like this come in. It’s disappointing that this was acknowledged at a meeting with the manager present and yet I was still chastised for not helping the said customer when this exact issue arose.”

Gender gap in staff

Thomson Alamino’s time at Cyclesmith overlapped with Chircop’s employment at the shop. She said when she was started, Chircop was the only other female employee on the sales floor, while another female staff member worked in the service department. 

“[Chircop] immediately saw me and was excited there was another woman there,” Thomson Alamino said. “I did witness her being more closely watched. I can only speak for myself, but it felt like every moment of my day had to be accounted for. I did everything I could to be as busy as possible. Yet, my male coworkers were able to have conversations with one another and socialize. That’s not to say they weren’t hard workers, but it really felt like they were able to have more freedom in the way they want about their work day.”

Thomson Alamino said she saw Chircop be reprimanded for talking with a coworker in the basement where the stock was stored.

“She was just briefly chatting with someone. I think she was saying good morning. I don’t even think her shift had started yet. It was a bit strange to me they were getting upset with her over that,” Thomson Alaminos said.

Estabrook never worked with Chircop or Alamino, but said she recalled “rumblings” in the workplace that there had been incidents in the past of women who were fired for reasons other staff didn’t see as valid. 

“There was certainly an awareness, generally, among the employees working there that there was an issue,” Estabrook said. “I heard these people’s names thrown around by other staff members. People hadn’t forgotten stories of their coworkers who had been fired for reasons that seemed unjust to others.” 

When the Examiner asked if female employees were subject to more critical treatment by these two managers, Feenstra said, “Absolutely not.”

“We have a standard that was set and we have expectations that we set. No matter who you are, there’s an expectation and if you don’t reach that expectation, we need to correct,” Feenstra said. “So, we need to give tools that if they’re struggling doing this, what can we do to help you out to reach the expectations we have. That’s what businesses are supposed to do. If not, it would be a free-for-all. We do need to set expectations right in the beginning so staff know what’s expected from them. There’s lots of feedback between managers and employees and that’s part of what’s expected here.”

Feenstra continued:

“Things like capitalization of letters or proper spelling of names, those are all things that make us look more professional. So, if we were to send out an email, letter, or whatever it happens to be, if your postal code is all lower caps, and then one upper cap, and a lower cap, it doesn’t look good. Same thing if you’re spelling your first name or your last name wrong or your address. Those are all expectations we have. The comments they were asked to spell someone’s name properly or use proper pronunciation or the proper letters, that’s just an expectation we have. That’s not male, female, or anything. It’s literally an expectation we have.” 

As for the male-dominated staff environment, in the statement, Feenstra said Cyclesmith, is working to be more diverse and inclusive, adding “our company’s market does skew disproportionately to males, as does the cycling industry as a whole.”

He said two new female employees started at the store this week. Both started the interviewing process weeks ago, prior to the publication of the article in Rank and File.

In our interview, Feenstra said staff already took part in diversity training from Simply Good Form, and that will continue.

“For us, it was never a one and done,” Feenstra said. “We had already been talking with Cynthia [Sweeney] at a chamber meeting months prior saying we’d like to do a refresher.” 

Effects on mental health

All three women said working at Cyclesmith took a toll on their mental health.

“I was riddled with anxiety working there,” Estabrook said. “I felt the need to really hustle to impress them. I don’t think I ever worked as hard to try to please an employer and fit the mold of exactly what they wanted me to be. I put on an act for them every day and try to fit their perfect model of a Cyclesmith employee. I was really afraid every day going into work, of being pulled aside, being criticized. Any tiny mistake I made, I felt like I was criticized for it, even though I was new and I was learning, and I was very upfront with them that I was there to learn.” 

Thomson Alamino said the job left her “unbelieveably stressed out all the time.”

“As someone who’s always been low income, it felt extremely important to me that I retain this position at all costs to the point that I ended up researching bikes in my spare time when I was not on the clock because I needed to so badly to succeed and show them I could do it,” she said.

“I really wanted to make sure I was beyond reproach. I did feel like I was being watched more closely than anyone else. I put a lot of effort and energy into being the best employee I could possibly be. I real feel strongly any of my coworkers could testify to the fact I was a very good employee.”

Chircop said she often felt “worthless” and that she had a target on her back.

“It wasn’t a secret to management that that was how I felt,” she said. “It was really in my head. I really feel like they were watching me more closely. They’re picking apart everything I do. They’re insulting my work ethic. It wasn’t until they said it to my face that I thought, ‘Wow, this really isn’t a safe environment for me.’” 

‘It’s a work in progress’

All three women connected after they left their employment at Cyclesmith. They said they spoke with the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre, as well other former employees, to learn more about what they could do.

As for an outcome on what they’d like to see happen, Estrabrook said she’d like to see positive response from Feenstra and management.

“Whether that looks like some gender sensitive training and whether they review the structure of their business and consider having requirements for women and people of other identities who are employed there, especially in leadership positions,” she said. We think those steps would go a long way to making it a safer and more inclusive place for other people to work.” 

Feenstra said after the Rank and File article was published, he and management organized an open forum, all-staff meeting.

“It was fantastic. They were all upset, but they also had some great points,” he said. “All the staff are kind of outraged and it’s not the work environment they know of. But there are also things we can always improve on, and not just for female staff, but for all staff, male, non-binary, and female.” 

Feenstra said they will offer group sessions, surveys, management training, goal setting, benchmarks, and then will follow up with staff.

“It’s a work in progress. It’s not a check the box and walk away. It’s something we will be constantly working on. We will have the second engagement with Simply Good Form to make sure we are an inclusive business, both for our staff and for our customers.” 

Thomson Alamino said the reason she applied for the job was because she thought of Cyclesmith as a progressive, diverse employer.

“As a queer woman, that was very important to me. When I showed up there and recognized there were very few women employed and only one person of colour on a team of over 30 individuals, I was confused by what they had said about their values, it didn’t really add up to me. What this speaks to is the problems are a lot bigger than the experiences shared by Hannah, Antonia, and myself. It really speaks to the environment they created.” 

Meanwhile, Chircop recommends any workers who feel they aren’t being treated fairly or who believe there are issues in their workplaces, to reach out to the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre.

“If people to know if they’re going to work at Cyclesmith, I want them to know what kind of environment they’re getting into,” Chircop said. “There’s no reason anyone should be made to feel this way during their course of employment. Just because you’re being paid a living wage doesn’t give an employer the right to exploit you or make you feel lesser than in any kind of way. I think that defeats the point of giving a living wage.” 

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

Join the Conversation


Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.
  1. A lot of implications of what other staff said or felt , means nothing .Boss man is paying big bucks for staff and feels he deserves the best he can get . Training modules are designed to make more and better sales .Mistakes on paper work make the company look bad . I just think these folks didn’t cut it and they were let go.

  2. I’ve been treated like crap by Cyclesmith on two out of three interactions with the store. The only good interaction I had was when I was dropping more than 1000 dollars on a bike, over a decade ago. The last two times I brought the same bike back for service, they were absolute assholes. I am a straight presenting white man.

  3. I have been cycling in Halifax for decades and I remember having witnessed this treatment of female employees as far back as the 1990s when the shop was on Quinpool Rd. It is definitely part of their corporate culture and is visible to the casual observer. As a female customer, the condescension was breathtaking to the point of my avoiding shopping there unless I was absolutely desperate for a part or service. The assertion that the cycling industry is dominated by men is true, but upholding the status quo is just perpetuating the problem. I’m so glad these women are speaking out. Bravo!

  4. Feenstra keeps harping on the fact that Rank and File didn’t reach out to him for comment, yet every article that I’ve seen covering Cyclesmith’s living wage policy, including the one by the Examiner, let him attest to the supposed satisfaction of his employees without consulting them. A business is more than what the owner has to say about it.