Where are all the women?

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of lunching with Rob Lilwall (famous for Cycling Home From Siberia) and his wife Christine. (In true Chappell style, I forgot to take photos.) The company was scintillating and the dim sum delectable, but I came away feeling slightly uneasy.

Neither Rob nor Christine had ever met a woman doing what I’m doing, and both were pleased that they now had an example to hold up whenever someone asks whether a woman could do what Rob did a few years ago. Apparently women often email Rob, or come up to him after his talks, and want to know not whether it would be more difficult for them, or how the challenges would vary, but simply whether it’s possible.

At first I just laughed, because it seemed absurd. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, travelling by bike is equally difficult for women and men, and most of the time their experiences will be very similar. Look how far I’ve come. Of course it’s possible.

But later that afternoon, I found that this was still knocking around in my head. It troubles me that the women who’ve contacted Rob are clearly interested in trying something like this themselves, but genuinely believe it might not be possible.

Which part strikes them as impossible? Do they think they lack the physical strength? Are they afraid of sexual harrassment? Do they assume that women are legally forbidden to travel alone outside Europe, America or Thailand? Or are they labouring under the delusion that men are blessed with some sort of magical capability that means they can fix bikes and read maps and cope without washing for days on end, and women just can’t?

But of course, until two years ago, I didn’t think I could do it either. I’m not sure how much this had to do with my gender, and how much of it was just my general assumption of my own incompetence, or even whether the two can be extricated. But I know it had a lot to do with not having the right role models, because as soon as I discovered people like Dervla Murphy, Anne Mustoe and Alastair Humphreys, it began to dawn on me that this was what I’d wanted to do all along – and when I began to meet people who had cycled to India, or China, or round the world, I also realized that they weren’t lofty and invincible heroes, but very ordinary human beings, with all the same faults and failings and fears that were currently holding me back.

I’ve been very reluctant to set myself up as any sort of example or role model. It would be too attention-grabbing, too self-absorbed, too immodest. I’ve even gone to some lengths to keep this adventure looking homegrown, amateur and low-key, worried that people would start muttering ‘who does she think she is?’ as soon as my back was turned. I’m now revising this position. There is clearly a desperate need for more women to be doing things like this, more publicly, so that everyone else can see that it is possible, that it is in fact almost normal and reasonably common, and that there are plenty of people to turn to if you’re in need of advice, support, or a bit of inspiration.

I’ve only been on the road a year, and I already receive a lot of emails from women, either asking me specific questions about touring, or thanking me for showing them that it can be done. And Rob’s remarks identified a whole crowd of women who don’t even know people like me exist. This needs to change, and I’m already bursting with ideas for how to change it.

For my first project, I’m going to publish a Q&A post (like this one and this one and this one), specifically addressing women’s concerns and queries about cycle touring. If it’s successful, I’ll make it a permanent page on this website. I already have a few questions lined up (from emails people have sent me), but I want a lot more. Please get in touch (by commenting on this post or using the form on the Contact page), and please circulate this to anyone, male or female, who you think might be interested. Nothing is off-limits (no matter how icky, how stupid, how general or how specific), and you don’t have to be female (or indeed a cyclist) to ask a question (though, in the unlikely event of my being short of space, I’llĀ  give priority to questions from women).

And I might even draft in some of the (numerous) other women on wheels to help me answer them!

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