Posted in people Q&A restless spinster

Where are all the women?

Where are all the women? Posted on August 22, 201219 Comments

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’ll  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!


  1. ‘who does she think she is?’ Who the hell would think that? We all back here in London think you are awesome and an inspiration. Ignore the negative thoughts and feed off the positives I’m sure you get every day.

  2. Hi Emily. This is brilliant – I will direct future questions in your direction and to your Q & A post!
    Hope the rest of the ride goes well, was great meeting you.

  3. Hi, are women more sociable, ie like to achieve together, rather than do it alone? I admit many of us are limited by lack of role models, the day I realised that there were women dentists I was over 21 years old, until that day I had never imagined that there could be women dentists, or that I could have myself been a dentist. This despite growing up in the “girls can do anything” generation in New Zealand in the 1980s, and going into a fairly male-dominated profession. For me the biggest thing would be security issues, and yes, men need to watch out for these too, bullets in Tajikistan will not be gender-identifying. But there are definitely cultures/political-religious regimes where a woman alone is a total anomaly, and it pays to do your research, just as it does for men.

  4. Hi Emily,

    I want to say “hoorah” to you for promoting women doing big journeys – though not a cyclist I myself am planning to lead a team (5 guys and myself) skiing across Antarctica in 2014. Journeys like ours are difficult and challenging but they are definitely POSSIBLE.
    Keep up the good work – I too will spread the word. 🙂
    Jo Davies

  5. Yes! Please do a FAQ on this! You’ve touched upon clothing and gear a few times but I’d love to know more about what you’d recommend on your lower half, padded shorts or not, etc?

    In a related aside: a year ago I took on a new job that is a hilly-ish 17miles away and every single person (fellow cyclists and loved ones included) told me that 34miles was physically impossible for me to commute regularly by bicycle. Which of course was nonsense. Still doing it. I just can’t really understand why they thought it was so impossible? Hmm!

    Cheers 🙂

    1. Oh, this reminds me of a wonderful wonderful 34-mile commute I had a few years ago – just for one summer. I was a bit daunted by it at first, but by the end was rattling it off in under two hours, and competing with myself to get my average speed up a bit more every day. It was the fitness from that that carried me over into couriering, a couple of months later.

      Congratulations – you must be extremely fit!

  6. Emily, I absolutely love this post, this idea, and share this feeling. I have toured around in various parts of the world though always with my boyfriend, but I absolutely have the same feeling you do that this should be shown to more woman, to show them that there is only one thing preventing women from cycling the world and it’s in our heads. I’d love to translate (to spanish) and publish this post and the Q&A you are going to write to our blog to help spread the word. Tell if I can help with anything else. Cheers!

    1. Hi Alicia – I’d be delighted for you to translate and circulate this post and any that follow. Please do let me read it first though. (I can understand Spanish, though not well enough to do the translation myself, alas.) I’ve just had a quick look at your website, and it’s superb. I will spend some quality time with it next time I’m procrastinating. 😉

  7. Hi Emily,

    A Q&A is a great idea and I would love to read it! Dervla Murphy & Josie Dew are two of my favourite travel writers, both women showing it can be done, as are you. I have a question – will email it.

    Thanks and look forward to reading more about your trip,

  8. How do you get up in the morning and carry on when you’re tired or it’s really hot or really cold? How do you deal with the monotony of parts of the road?

  9. Chappers, I am looking forward to this. As you know I am a man that travels/lives in developing countries – and I really don’t know what to say when female friends ask about travel.

    My problem is that of the risks that travel entail. The risks I take are various – perhaps a road accident is the most likely, but the largest worry is often getting robbed. I’ve more or less come to terms with the idea that the belongings in my pocket are not mine alone, and so I secure things by keeping them in a money belt.

    But I don’t know how to think about the risks that women face – I’m not sure here how much the category of “sexual harassment” because in fact we are talking about a whole range of things from unwelcome attention to rape. And, yes, as a man I am also at risk of these things, but the risk feels small enough for me not to worry; and its a risk men can more easily control, perhaps.

    Long story short – I also feel pretty nervous about women travelling. And some of my female friends’ experiences confirm some of the discomforts women face travelling through male spaces (dodgy bus stations, for instance).

    Another point I have learned about travelling from both male and female friends is that my good experiences don’t necessarily generalise. The welcomes and help I have received are all based on a combination of my circumstances (personality, age, race, gender, disability, money, mode of travel) and the places I’ve been to where these things have been welcome/tolerated.

    Looking forward to reading you!

  10. I would definitely be very interested in reading this… I’ve lived in Tokyo for three years yet barely seen anything outside the vast concrete and neon sprawl, partly because domestic travel in Japan is just so darn expensive. I got into cycling while out here as a way to escape miserably crowded commuter trains, and soon discovered that a 15km commute is not a long distance (or no-where near as long as it seemed when I used to disappear underground and re-emerge somewhere else), and eventually started doing longer rides for fun.

    I would LOVE to at least do some touring elsewhere in Japan before I leave in a couple of years time (around the world may be a bit ambitious for me yet!), but I feel crippled by lack of confidence, and ridiculous though it may be I still feel very self conscious being a foreign girl on a road bike in and amongst the traffic (as opposed to almost all other women out here who stick to the near-ubiquitous upright basket bikes ridden on pavements for shopping and child-ferrying).

    My primary concerns for touring I guess are the exposure of sleeping alone in a tent at night, the potential (?) of somehow getting stranded without food/water to keep me going, incompetence in navigation/mechanical repair, and a million tiny worries that altogether feel quite threatening. It feels almost embarrassing to admit to these when I speak the language, know the customs, have an iPhone with GPS and plenty of people in the country I can call, and knowledge that Japan is a developed country with a generally low crime rate and that also has one of the highest vending machine frequencies in the world. I’m far more likely to get sexually harassed in a busy train or bar in Tokyo than I am out on my own in the countryside, and yet the thought of the latter is somehow far more intimidating. I am in serious amazement of how you cope going through countries where perhaps none of the above apply. Clearly much of it is a psychological battle, and I can’t really tell if the problem for me is my personality, my unintentional perceptions of vulnerability because of my gender, or too much submission to a culture in which sticking out generally isn’t desirable. Perhaps it’s a little bit of all three.

    In any case, I very much admire your guttsiness and completely agree on the need for some more female role models. I very much enjoyed your post on ‘the loneliness of the long distance’ because it accounted for many of the things I think I would feel and fear on even a short 1 month tour – and acknowledged them as real but surpassable mental challenges. I think it would be easy to perceive you as simply being ‘more brave’ than the average woman (or I should really say person), and perhaps you are, but your free admission to feeling lonely or scared now and again gives the more timid souls such as myself hope that with the right sort of determination those feelings don’t need to be barriers to action. Ironically enough, I sometimes have those feelings anyway just by being such a long way from home in such a rediculously huge (and by London standards) quite mono-cultural city.

  11. Hey Emily, just shared as drink with your old man outside the gates of the Shrewsbury Folk Festival. The whole town is full of bearded geezers in open-toed sandals, leather hast and tied-dyed T shirts (like your old man). Morris dancers are jingle jangling through town and drumming bands shaking the castle. I hope it’s quieter where you are.

    I am flying back to Nanjing Tuesday and going down to Guilin 5th Sept on expedition. Don’t forget to factor that in to your trip. It will be unforgettable.

  12. back in 2010, i cycled from bangkok to italy (via china, pakistan, iran). i got a lot of press attention in my country because i was, guess what, a woman. go figure. the weaker sex. frustrating. love your blog, glad i stumbled across it. keep riding and become a super female bike touring star so that other girls go out there too! i’ll be one of your staunchest supporters, we need more articulated girls like you. good luck.

    1. I think you’ve put your finger on what’s been bothering me about the press attention I get. But I’ve realized in the past week that people are interested in my journey not (only) because women are traditionally considered the weaker sex, but because it’s very very rare to find a woman doing this. And if we can succeed in getting more women on the road, then people will stop being so surprised, and will recognize our achievements for what they are, rather than just being amazed that a woman could achieve them.

      Your trip sounds fabulous, by the way. Do you have a website?

  13. I think there are probably several reasons why fewer women feel that they can set off on a major adventure like yours. None of them to do with being “weaker” than men.

    There’s the question of physical safety, undoubtedly… in an unfamiliar environment where one doesn’t speak the local language and social customs are in one way or another different, I’d certainly be pretty cautious of being a lone foreigner. I don’t think, for myself, that that’s a “being a woman” thing, I doubt I’d be at more risk than (say) my brother, tho’ I suspect that it may not only be in the UK that the statistics for crimes committed against men and women are different.

    I’d also be put off by what might happen if I wore the wrong thing and upset the authorities (official or locally self-appointed) which I would naively assume I’d be more likely to do as a lone woman (and again, one unfamiliar with the language and customs, however much I might have done my research into local mores).

    But most of all, actually.. I’m nearly 30. I’m not sure if it would be different if I weren’t in a relationship, but I certainly wouldn’t set off on a round-the-world cycling/rollerskating/whatever tour now, because if I want to have kids at all it needs to be in that timeframe. And once I’ve had kids… well, I reckon I’d be 55-60 before it was an option again. I don’t think guys experience anything like that sort of time pressure. It’s in many ways ridiculous but there it is. And I’m afraid I felt the same at 25 (why, you ask, am I then still not sprogged up? Well, y’know.. life…)

    Actually, it’s the same for other things, I think… women do, or don’t, pass up opportunities for career advancement because they want to have kids, and want them before they’re 35 (or 30, or whatever). I studied chemistry, but would never have stuck it out as a research chemist because whilst I was quite happy to trust the safety precautions (and my own and my colleagues competenc in sticking to them) for myself… well, for a foetus? Not so much. And what with pregnancy and breastfeeding, and wanting at least two kids, that’d be at least a 3 year career gap.

    1. Hey Emily! Great idea with the Q&A.

      You don’t have to answer this if you are not comfortable to, but what kind of budget per day did you set yourself? And how did you go about setting it?

      I think for most people esp women the big thing is finding your independence. We think of independence in the west as living away from your parents and being able to support yourself financially. But in so many other ways we are still not very independant: we are taught even as grown women to ‘not take risks’, like talking to strangers or going to unfamiliar places, if something needs doing get a professional to do it for you, there is this fear that if you break these rules then you will bring unfortunate consequences on yourself and have noone to blame but you.

      So we dont think about going out somewhere different and relying on public transport and other peoples directions when we get there, trying to find food and accommodation on the fly, even for short trips. It is not that we dont think we could, it just doesnt occur to us to try.

      And breaking out of it is baby steps: realising you can cycle 50km, then 100km, thenthat you can fix punctures or find bike shops if you need to, then that you can ride out somewhere from a station and stay at a youth hostel, and then that you can carry a tent and some clothes, and then that you can do it for a few weeks somewhere not everyone speaks english… I have got this far, and the main reason that I would probably not consider a proper trip like Emily’s just now is a bit like Rosy, I think I would like a more settled life for the next 25 years. (but then it’s all on :))

      Generally, everything works out fine. Especially abroad people know you are not from there, you are a bit of a curiosity, and they look after you a bit especially when you are on your own (speaking from off-bike travel experience). As for getting into trouble by offending people accidently, if you are really doing the wrong thing, someone will let you know pretty quickly and as long as you have a sense of humour about it it shouldnt be too upsetting for anyone. It shouldn’t come to getting locked up or shot.

      I think people behave a bit how you expect them to as well. So if you are scared of everyone, nice people will not want to stress you out and will leave you alone, so you will only meet the kind of people who will make you feel even more uncomfortable.

      About a year before I met my partner I started to realise that I might like touring, and I tested the water and did a few short 2-4 day tours, a couple on my own and one with a female friend who was up for something different. I would have gone on to do longer ones on my own as I had nothing but good experiences, but as it was I met my partner and now we go on longer ones together, which is nice too.

      We do talk about going away for months when we are older, although we may go a little slower then than we would now.. And we met some people touring with their baby on our last holiday though, so while a proper long trip might be a bit more challenging, you can still go for a couple of weeks. Although given the right financial circumstances and the right baby I think it could work, and it would be cheaper than a lot of other holidays you could take.. (we are early 30s, no babies yet…)

      All the best!

  14. Emily this is such a spot on post, and a joy to read. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I really hope we can meet up when you get here in Korea!

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