Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Reality of Riding as a Solo Female Tour Cyclist

To others, I know I look strange, but this is my normal daily gig, loaded bike and all!
When I first set out to do this trip, I really didn’t think I would do it on my own.  I had the idea in my head, but I thought that someone would sign-up with me.  But as I’ve said in a previous post, people are reluctant to take an entire year off from work, and those who do probably wouldn’t spend it traveling around the world on bike.  As crunch time approached and I needed to make a decision about the upcoming school year, I bit the bullet and decided to do my trip, on my own.  My friends in Barcelona supported me 100% and were incredibly encouraging.  My family took a bit longer to come around, but eventually were able to handle the idea.

When I explain my trip, previous to departing and currently, the most frequently asked questions is, alone?  The one word isn’t really even a question, it is more of a statement in a tone of voice that makes me sound like a crazy, foolish, or even a weird person.  For some reason, we have this idea in our minds that women can’t and shouldn’t travel on their own.  Safety is usually the number one argument against solo female travelers. However, I would have to argue that traveling alone on bike as a young lady is surprisingly safer than people think, although the extra attention can get a bit old.  Perhaps this is a bias opinion as I’ve never met another solo female cyclist on or off the road, You be the judge after reading what it is like to be a female cyclist out on the road alone.

In Turkey, I try to be a bit more discrete drying my clean underwear on my front pannier

Bike travelers all around the world, but still, it is a sight that shocks a lot of people--- a person traveling with what looks to be a dreadfully heavy bike, fully loaded with bags attached all over the frame it is hard to see the actual bike that is underneath all the bags.  They might look awfully dusty, parched, grimy, or exhausted, but they usually have a smile on their face if you make eye contact.  Usually, tour cyclists come in pairs, and if not, they are men, that is normal.  But add a blonde curly pony tail to the above image, and a pair of clean underwear always hanging off her front pannier, and it turns into an incredibly unique, “once-in-a lifetime” event alongside the road.  Or at least that is how I feel as a solo female cyclist as I get stared down on my bike.  I can pretty much guarantee that I am bound to turn heads as I cycle pass a group of people along the side of the road, or even an individual strolling along.  With 99% of the cars that pass me from behind, someone always turns their head inside to get a double take of the sight they just saw on the road.  With cars that pass me head on, the same thing happens, but usually there is a honk or a holler to accompany. 

I get a lot of honks, as I’m sure most cyclists do on the side of the road.  Honks come in all different shapes and sizes, but the honks that I’m sure the men don’t get are the ones I’ve started to receive most recently in Turkey, which basically mean “I’m honking because I’m horny”.  I just have to laugh because I think in my mind, what do these men think I’m going to do stop pedaling and strike up a conversation on the road,..a from a few honks?  I’m no good at flirting myself, but a honk just doesn’t cut it for me!  I don’t let their gestures bother me, I usually laugh to myself and with a big smile on my face, I wave back, hoping they won’t forget the sight they just saw, a women traveling on her own.

Other men have been a bit more creative let’s just say with their intentions to “pick up” me up literally.  Yesterday I passed a car alongside the road, a small white VW gulf, or something similar.  It stuck out in my mind because the doors were open and the man was looking around inside for something.  He off on the right shoulder and so I had to go out in the lane of traffic to pass him.  I didn’t think much of him stopping.  However, 2 kilometers down the road he stopped again and was doing the same thing, car in the shoulder, doors open, including the trunk, and this time he was looking at me.  Okay, he’s a little obnoxious, but harmless.  Well, 5 kilometers further down the road, he had stopped again.  I could see him off in the distance, and so I decided to give him a bit of attention, hoping that would be enough to send him on his way.  Again all the doors were open and as I approached he gestured with his hand to come over to his car.  He was a younger man, probably my age or so, dressed in jeans and a collared shirt.  In pretty good English, he asked me where I had come from and where I was going.  What a coincidence, he was going to the same place.  We chatted a bit about my trip, my job, and his children. Eventually, as I suspected, he asked me if I wanted a ride because I looked tired.  Again, I laughed to myself and told him I was happy pedaling.  His last bit of advice before I started pedaling ironically was to be careful because Turkish men are horny!  Being the innocent, good-natured young lady that I am, I gave him a little business card for The Loong Way Home so he could feel special, said good-bye, and once again set off on my ride.  He passed me slowly, waving, and kept on driving.  Was I scared, no! Did he look creepy? No! I just wanted to pedal in peace and not be bothered.  I’m not the type of person to have small talk on a freeway, unless it’s another tour cyclist. 

Just as I sighed in relief that I had rid myself of him, his car was pulled over, for the fourth time, 5 kilometers down the road.  There he was on the side of the road standing behind the doors that were all open again!  This time, I was a little more direct as I passed him.  I smiled, and gave a short wave and carried on.  He smiled back and that was about it.  I started to wonder why the open doors?  Why was he still following me and stopping?  No, I wasn’t worried, or scared, but rather confused and suspicious.  I couldn’t believe he actually thought I was going to pull over and say, “Yeah, can I go with you in your car, I’m tired of riding my bike!”  Well, on the fifth time he stopped, I looked at him long enough to figure out to realized why he pulled over and got out of his car every 5 kilometers and opened all the doors.  When he warned me about Turkish men being horny, he really needed to include himself.  I won’t go into detail here, but you can use your imagination.

Would you believe me if I told you the same thing happened with a truck driver about 10 kilometers further on down the road?  With this driver, he only stopped twice, both times trying to “fix” something on the back of his truck, and when he finally passed me the third time his honking sounded like a full on orchestra! As you can see, it goes both ways out here on the road.  The people I encounter easily entertain me, and I guess I also give them plenty of entertainment!

That’s not all the entertainment I get riding on the main highway.  When there are no towns around, the only places to stop for food and to use the bathroom is a gas station or a truck stop.  Now there is a sight to see,….a solo female cyclist pulling up to a gas station/truck stop in Turkey!  Women are such a rarity at these places that there is actually toilet paper in the women’s bathroom, which is a luxury!  A lot of heads turn as I ride up, followed by snickering, stares, and more stares.  However, I’ve learned that if you smile back or break the ice with a few words like Barcelona, Istanbul, and some hand gestures showing them your arm muscles, or patting your legs, they usually laugh and turn out to be quite friendly and harmless!

A melon stand at just the right time and place

When I am riding on the small back roads, I have a more intimate experience with the locals.  Both yesterday and today I found myself with pretty low blood sugar and needed a little boost.  However, there weren’t any towns around for miles, and my emergency food just wasn’t going to cut it.  Yesterday I happened to ride upon a local fruit stand selling melons and gourds.  The latter didn’t interest me, but the melons sounded delicious.  I stopped, ready to buy one, and before I could even ask, the man had pulled out a chair for me, gave me ice cold water and started cutting melon slices.  When I finished my little snack and asked to buy one, he would have nothing of it and gave me an entire bag.  Melons, are not light you light, even the small ones, but I couldn’t be rude, so off I rode with an extra 2 or 3 kilos!  

Olive pickers come ot the rescue 4 kilometers from Zeytinbagi, Turkey

Today, I completely bonked with a town only 4 kilometers away, but I just could pedal anymore.  I was going to stop to indulge in some of my dried fruit but what I really needed was a Coke.   I saw a family by the side of the road picking olives and I stopped to ask them if the following town had a restaurant.  They must have seen the thirst in my eyes, and read my mind.  They invited me to their house for a drink, Cola Coke (backwards in Turkey) no less!

Hotels, especially in Turkey are incredibly accommodating to solo female cyclists.  In fact, to tell you the truth, I don’t think women go to hotels in Turkey without being accompanied by a man.  So I felt like a guest of honor or a famous person from the moment I entered (and let me tell you, I’m not going to the three and four star hotels)!  The staff, needless to say men, who are working the door and reception, come right over and take my panniers for me and even lift my bike up the stairs or wheel it into the reception, after allowing me to pass through the doorway first, of course. Lots of times they will even escort me to a restaurant or two and introduce me to their friend so I get VIP service.  My first night in Turkey, the man at the reception kept bringing me cups of tea as I sat in the lobby working on my computer.  He eventually started getting a bit concerned I was staying awake so late and suggested I get some sleep.  He was quite a gentleman and sincere.  I was pretty sure the hotel was empty, as I hadn’t seen many people in the halls or the reception.  Yet the next morning, to my surprise, when I went to the lobby for breakfast, it was filled with men eating, reading the paper, and watching TV.  They all greeted me in my bike outfit, with a big smile saying “Mademoiselle”.  For some odd reason, they all seemed to know who I was. The only solo female client they’ve probably ever had just happens to be riding a bike from Barcelona.  This is a sight they will probably never see again in their lives.

I've camped in the wild once, although I've made good attempts two other times, the locals just don't let me!

If I’m not at a hotel or an official campsite, well, you know what happens when I try to free camp as a solo female cyclist.  I look for places that aren’t too remote and I politely ask if there is a camping close by or a place I can pitch my tent.  So far, 2 out of 3 attempts have failed and I end up staying with a local family! I think the family is more worried for me than I am of myself. 

I’ve gotten used to this solo traveling.  Five years ago, coming out of a long term relationship with a guy who didn’t share a lot of my interests, I was eager to start doing the activities I had longed to do while with him.  I wanted to hike, travel to the mountains, bike, and nobody was going to stop me!  I have plenty of wonderful girlfriends, but sometimes I can scare them because they think I’m so extreme with my passion for sports.  But to tell you the truth, I just have an incredible amount of energy and so when other people are tired and ready to call it a day, I’ve just warmed up and I’m feeling strong! 

I’m not going to wait around for a guy to come and ask me to go and cycle the world. I mean really, how likely is that? I know many of you have tried setting me up with sporty friends or yours and ultra athletes, all with good intentions, but that has yet to work.  You worry about me being out on the road by myself, I know.  As you can see, there are all sorts of different reactions and interactions among those who encounter me on the road.  Sometimes the stares, honks, and attempted flirting can get old but at the end of the day, I must say, I am grateful for the respect people have when they take the time to interact with me. Most of the time, their curiosity and interest results in sincere gestures and they go out of their way to make sure I am well taken care of. Their acts of kindness make me feel safe, comfortable, and accompanied, even though I am out here on my own. 

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