A couple of weeks ago, keen cyclist and occasional writer Andrew Stephen contacted me and offered to write a guest blog post for Women Who Cycle. I jumped at the opportunity to bring you another perspective on women’s cycling. Here’s Andrew’s thought provoking interview of some adventurous young female cyclists………..
A few years back two women quit their jobs, left Minnesota and their families, and took off on the bike tour of a lifetime from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco, CA (about 650 miles or 1,046 km). We spoke to them about struggling to shed the myths of female safety on the road, overcoming heartbreak and addiction, assuming new moral codes – the reality of touring for young women in search of the unknown.
Tell us about your trip prior to leaving. How did being a woman impact your decision to go on the bike tour?
I think before the trip I got fed a bunch of lines about how Laura and me wouldn’t be safe because we were ladies and were therefore subject to more danger. I don’t necessarily disagree that women are targeted way more in vicious ways (particularly sexually violent ways) but once we started cycling we found that being a lady actually helped the cause more. We were perceived as more vulnerable and therefore less likely to shank you if you were to say, give us a lift down the road or open your home to us.
That’s an interesting point. What about your folks? How did they respond when you told them about the tour?
My mom was terrified for me. I mean she lost sleep over it, but she loses sleep when I drive in a car or don’t go the doctor for weird-shaped moles. My mom is über protective of me and my older brother. I guess she was more scared for me as a person and less to do with my gender. It was more so to do with my track record of being a giant f*** up for some years prior to this. They were wary about the effect the trip would have on my addiction. Keep in mind I was also only 2 years sober at that point, which is pretty fresh for venturing away from one’s safety net. I’ve always been a more masculine female and have benefited from masculine privilege in that sense.
So do you think people were more afraid of you being vulnerable to attack or relapsing?
Definitely relapsing – I wasn’t what you would call consistent with life plans. So when I said, “Yeah in a few months I’m gonna go bike down the west coast,” I think some people were like “Yeah…ok…we’ll see.” But I was concerned about being hurt or attacked, to be honest. We got a giant bowie knife and mace for bears and/or human predators, which I think is illegal for human use but totally worth it. I bought into the hype for a long time that people were out to get each other and would murder me in a ditch, but I think it was less informed by my gender and more so by how sheltered my family is and how wrapped up in the fear hype that encapsulates this nation.
You mentioned earlier being heartbroken prior to the tour?
I was in this really messed up emotional place because I had just been dumped and heart broken. So this was my escape…our chance to be free.
Sounds like you were in a fragile place to experience such unbounded freedom. How did that play out on tour?
It was like the arms of destiny just hugged us REAL tight and the path was just clear: people we JUST met bringing us in for the night feeding us, letting us sleep in their amazing homes, asking NOTHING in return, just doing it because it brought them a little taste of freedom that they could also have. I mean experiencing genuine excitement and encouragement from strangers – there is nothing like that. It just affirms that you’re doing it all right. For the first time in my life I was in the moment…not before, not ahead, but IN THAT moment exactly. Then we met Tamara, this spunky Canadian that really helped our dynamic. 3 is the magic number I think. She brought this level of calm and zen that really rubbed off on me…I think on Laura too. She was 19 at the time and decided to just ride her bike alone down the coast of a country she barely knew.
Wow. Spunky for sure. Here’s a question along those lines: If you had a daughter in a similar position as you, how would you respond with her doing a similar trip?
I would encourage it…but I would be so scared. I think that’s how my mom felt too. She left for Colorado alone under similar pretenses as me back in the 70’s. Her fiancé broke it off weeks prior and she just had to leave. So she knew how important it all was to go off and prove something, that you can make it and survive and thrive. I remember her saying “I will lose sleep, but go find your joy, wherever it might be.” Ultimately you sacrifice your own needs and desires and I think my mom does that better than a lot of parents…almost to her own demise.
How do you think your tour would have been different had you and Laura been men?
We could have peed with much more ease…but other than that I don’t think much, assuming we were socialised in the same way and were the same people on the inside. We might have gotten picked up for rides less and been less trusted by strangers. We had some pals we met, Vincent and Joey, that expressed less warmth from people and it was because they were dudes, at least they asserted. I am certain being women helped us getting picked up when hitchhiking, especially when Tamara came on board with her long blonde hair and people magnetism.
Tell me about your gear. I’ve been looking at women’s bikes for my girlfriend on our next tour.
I had a Trek 7600 multitrack hybird with Cannondale Cordura front and back panniers with a Jaand handbar bag. I got the whole thing bags and all on Craigslist here in Minneapolis for $250 – insane deal. I never fell in love with it but it was reliable, not one issue the whole tour.
How has the tour impacted you in the aftermath? What did you learn?
It’s always work…especially in such close quarters. I mean essentially you are each other’s home and that’s a huge thing to take on. And sometimes your home isn’t as secure as you’d like, but you have to just keep patchin’ things and weathering what comes and Laura was ultimately someone I deep down knew I could count on even if we were not in the same place. That tour brought us to this place that just transcends any bullshit that may come. Like we did that and we have that and that’s ours…just ours. It was hard and we didn’t anticipate everything (or anything) but we did it and we took care of each other and ourselves in ways we never had to before. Like when Laura and I decided to split up in San Francisco. It felt like “Man we are such failures,” but it was what we both needed to maintain the love. For myself, before the tour I had played it relatively safe and was close to everything I knew and loved and could rely on to save me when I f***ed up for too long. I was terrified, but Laura was a rock. No fears, just hope. In the end I proved to everyone but mostly to myself that I could do this and be successful and not die or need bailing out, and I did.
Andrew Stephen is a freelance writer, crazed cyclist, tree hugger and whitewater river guide based in California’s resplendent northern wild. He bike tours through Europe on occasion and is currently living in Berlin, Germany. Andrew is with bikesnbits.