These are five words I hear far too rarely. But it’s not that no one ever offers to help me. Oh no. (See the rest of this blog for ample evidence to the contrary.) Rather, quite a lot of the ‘help’ I receive is actually unrequired, unrequested, and sometimes downright unwelcome.
Before you start thinking I’m an ungrateful hussy, let me issue the general disclaimer that of course, without the very welcome assistance of hundreds of friends and strangers, this project would never have got off the ground, and I’d never have made it as far as Lahore.
But not all help is helpful. Back when I was fixing punctures by the side of the road in London, by far the most difficult part of the operation would be fending off the swarms of men who’d descend like mosquitoes in the hope of rescuing a damsel in distress. Some of them would even ignore me when I said ‘thanks, but I know what I’m doing’, and stand around offering encouragement and unnecessary advice (‘That’s it… Now make sure it’s nice and tight… Good. Now pump it up…’), while I ignored them back and got on with it.
And it’s been similar since I’ve been touring. Of course, it may not be because I’m a woman. Maybe I just have a stupid face, or exude an air of incompetence. But given then gender profile of my would-be rescuers, I cannot help but conclude that it has something to do with my ovaries.
After all, apart from the whole being-a-girl thing, I think I come across as being pretty capable. I ride a heavily laden bike, on my own, through the Turkish winter and the Iranian mountains. When I repair it, I open a bag full of impressive-looking tools and gadgets. I appear to know how to use them. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty.
Yet as soon as I climb off the bike, someone appears and tries to take it from me, as if a delicate flower like me couldn’t possibly wheel it round the corner on her own, even if she has ridden it all the way from Wales. When Ben and Johannes and I were following our host’s car through the streets of Zanjan, all of us equally exhausted after a long day in the saddle, I was the only one who was offered a lift. When I take the bike apart to clean or fix it, any man in the vicinity will instantly be drawn to help, even if he doesn’t know the first thing about bikes, meaning that, in addition to the task at hand, I have to supervise him, answer his questions, fend off his erroneous advice, work around him, and constantly try to stop him from messing things up even more. In most cases these men seem comically unable to comprehend that I actually know what I’m doing – let alone that I know more than they do.
And if the man in question DOES know something about bikes, it gets even worse. It’s customary that when two cyclists meet for the first time they will minutely inspect each other’s bikes, almost before they exchange names. Tom Kevill Davies hilariously and aptly compares this to dogs sniffing each other’s bottoms. The ensuing conversation (‘so you went for XTR rather than XT – interesting choice’; ‘aren’t you worried that you won’t be able to get spare chains for a nine-speed cassette?’; ‘ah yes, you can’t go wrong with a Chris King headset – unless you went for the pre-2011 model of course’) can go on for hours (sometimes even days, if you end up riding together), and is frequently tinged with competition and oneupmanship. If you’re a girl, it will be assumed that you don’t know the first thing about any of it, even if you explain that you designed and built the bike yourself.
One riding companion gave me a running tutorial as he fixed a puncture, as if I had never seen such a thing done before. Another volunteered to help me adjust my v-brakes, and then turned out to know even less about them than I did. And male cyclists the world over have, without being asked, given me advice on things I already know, repeatedly questioned my knowledge and decisions, and sometimes even taken matters into their own hands and made adjustments to my bike without asking me first.
On occasion, people trying to help me will actually make matters worse – like the man who came up behind me in an Iranian petrol station, when I was lifting a heavy canister of water to refill my bottles, grabbed the canister from me without any warning, and only succeeded in spilling water all over my gloves. (Try riding at sub-zero temperatures with soaking wet gloves. It ain’t fun.) Or the man who broke one of my panniers as he ‘helped’ me to lift my bike over a kerb. (Thanks mate. Now I have to spend time and money sourcing a new anchor hook.)
‘Chivalry is dead – women killed it!’ responded a fellow traveller in Yazd, after listening to me rant about this for a few minutes. And I do sometimes feel a little guilty for complaining, when these men are just trying to help, and clearly have their hearts in the right place. So I’m always polite, and thank them, and try not to show them how irritated I sometimes am.
But then again… I find a lot of this unsolicited help annoying, insulting, patronizing, and downright UNhelpful. And by constantly suppressing my annoyance, in order to avoid upsetting people, I’m not only perpetuating the status quo, and letting them think it’s OK, but also prioritising their feelings over my own. (After all, why shouldn’t I, since I’m only a woman, put up with all this inconvenience, swallow the insults, and quietly put right the damage they’ve done to my bike and mood once their backs are turned, because after all, they meant well, and it wouldn’t do to hurt their feelings?)
Maybe, if chivalry is this annoying, it should be allowed to die off.
Or maybe chivalry is actually something quite different. After all I’ve been extremely grateful for some of the help I’ve received over the last few months, from people like Raphael, who taught me how to dismantle and regrease my hubs in Goreme last December, and the woman who devoted several days of her life to instructing me in the art of wheelbuilding last summer. It’s wonderful to be offered help when you actually need it.
According to Sir Sidney Waterloo,
The gentleman is he who feels himself at ease in the presence of everyone and everything, and who makes everyone and everything feel at ease in his presence.
And might I suggest, oh aspiring gentlemen, that to put people at their ease, you need to anticipate their needs and preferences. Not everyone’s will be the same. Indeed there are some women who set out to cycle round the world without knowing how to fix a puncture. (I cite the late great Anne Mustoe, and Astrid Domingo Molyneux, who, when I met her at Explore in 2010, told me about getting her first puncture in Turkey – and having to sit down in a bus shelter and get the manual out.) I’m sure they’d be extremely grateful if you swooped down in your shining armour. But don’t assume that someone knows less than you about bikes, just because she’s a woman.
I have been guilty of gender-based assumptions myself. One morning in London, I noticed a man in the corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, wearing a fluorescent yellow jacket and standing next to an upturned bicycle. I didn’t have any packages in my bag at the time, so could have offered to help, but he looked like the kind of person who knew what he was doing, so I carried on towards the coffee shop. Ten minutes later I walked past again, and he was still there.
“Do you need any help?” I asked.
His face dissolved into relief.
“Oh yes please!” he said. “I am totally blagging it.”
I looked more closely. He had a puncture and, having somehow managed to get his front wheel off, was attempting to wrest the tyre from the rim using a penknife. On the ground beside the bike was a brand new puncture repair kit, which I correctly guessed he’d just bought from the CycleSurgery on Procter Street.
I didn’t know all that much about bike mechanics at the time, but I knew how to fix a puncture, and he was pathetically grateful to me for teaching him. And I couldn’t help but wonder whether I’d have come to his assistance more swiftly if he were female, and realise that assuming a man knows everything about bikes is just as bad as assuming a woman knows nothing.
Of course, some women, just as some men, will be all too grateful for your help. But how is one to tell the difference between an Anne Mustoe, who wants you to fix her puncture, and an Emily Chappell, who would really rather you left her alone? It’s very easy. You ask her.
Do you need any help?
If she does, then well done you, you’re her new hero. If she doesn’t, then you’re probably just a nuisance.