Cycling and camping alone, I am confronted regularly with our gendered world. Not just because people are surprised, or impressed, when they see me struggling up a hill or mountain on my laden bike. Not just because people often seem uncomfortable with the fact that, after cycling for six hours, I don’t care in the slightest if I’m dirty or unkempt – I just want to make piles of food to fill my belly. Not just because those piles of food will sometimes provoke incredulous questions: “You’re eating all of that? By yourself?” Not even just because sometimes men older than I am (though this happens less often these days) tell me “I’d never let a daughter of mine do that…..”
In all of these cycling experiences, my gender is, I believe, relevant. But it’s not the constant, the only question I’ve been asked in every country I’ve cycle-toured, by all genders, all ages, and many races.
“But do you feel safe, travelling alone? Aren’t you scared, of, you know, being alone?”
My take on these queries is not that they are wondering if my precarious sanity will survive so much meditative time, because when I reply time alone in beautiful parts of the world is what I crave, the question becomes more specific.
What is really being asked here – and often becomes explicit – is “aren’t you worried you’ll be raped?”
I don’t answer this with telling one kind of truth – sexual violence statistics – that of course I’m more likely to be raped by a man I know. That I’m more likely to be raped in my home or his, than in my tent in a national park by a lake somewhere.
I tell another kind of truth.
Yes, on a handful of occasions in twenty years of solo cycling trips I’ve felt scared, really scared. Sometimes I’ve been alone and literally no one knew where I was and I allowed the fear many (maybe most) women live with around sexual violence to flourish. Once, camping alone by a river in England, that was because two men were outside my tent discussing coming in. I pretended I was with someone: “David, David, wake up, there’s someone outside the tent!”
They ran away.
But even if I have been scared those handful of times – and I’m not diminishing those fears, they were real and debilitating – I don’t want to stop doing something I love so much. I don’t want to constrain my life, to make it smaller, because of sexual violence or the fear of sexual violence.
So I keep cycling, alone and in beautiful places. Every cycling trip I make, I come home refreshed and rejuvenated, my world a little larger. When I meet other women cyclists, we talk about hills and campsites, the sea and our bikes. We don’t talk about mistressing our fears.
When I talk to other women, many, too many to count, tell me they are going to travel alone one day. Fathers tell me they want their daughters to be able to see the world solo. We are talking about imagining a world without sexual violence – it’s far from all we need, but it’s part of the picture.