The alarm rang and I rolled out of bed still half-asleep. I had a train to catch to Oxford for the Women & Bicycles Festival organised by Broken Spoke Bike Co-op and The Adventure Syndicate. I went through the motion of my morning routine and still dozing hopped on my folding bike to the train station. The train whizzed away and I slowly awoke, wondering what the week-end would bring. I didn’t really know what to expect. I was already cycling and doing things people thought of as crazy, so I thought the week-end wouldn’t bring me too much. But I would meet new people, like-minded people and that was why I had booked a place.
Before I knew it I was in Oxford, following Google Maps to the events venue. I parked my bike and entered.
‘Hi,’ I waved tentatively to the first person in sight. ‘I’m Allysse, one of the workshare.’
The woman who I was talking to went in a frenzy of paper checking and looking around for the volunteer organiser who was not around yet. But just as we were trying to figure out what to do with me, she waltzed in the door, bike in hand.
We briefly introduced ourselves and she went away to tidy her bike. I was left standing there, a still figure in the constant flow of woman trying to get all the last minute details ready for launch. It was awkward being there, knowing no one and having nothing to do. But soon the one person I knew came back and my hands were put to work until there was nothing else I could do. So I went to the lounge for a much needed coffee. There were a few people on sofas and chair. I spotted another lonely figure and went to introduce myself.
And that was it. The conversation had began. Bikes were mentioned but soon we drifted to other topics. We didn’t have to explain to one another why we choose to commute by bike, even when it rained.
As the clock ticked, we made out way to the lower hall where the first panel was taking place. We settled in plastic chairs and I began to feel myself shaking slightly. All around me, I was spotting my cycle heroes, but most of all there were just women everywhere. I was overwhelmed by the sea of unknown faces that all owned a bike of some sort. I have spent a lot of my life in female dominated world but when it comes to bicycle, I have always been the only one. This was not the case here and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was thankful, I was afraid, I was outraged, I was angry, I was joyful, I was in heaven. But I didn’t have much time to think about it. The first panel was starting. Alex Feechan, Cheryl Reid, Jools Walker, and Sarah Connolly took to the stage for a discussion about making space for women in cycling. They talked about fear, anger, discrimination, sexism, racism, and their own stories of feeling stupid in bike shops, awkward in male cycling clothes, and how they decided to do something about it. And in that moment, I realised how much I had normalised being a lonely woman cyclist and suppressed a craving women cyclists friends near me.
By the end of the panel I was still shaking and wondered if I would be for the entirety of the week-end. That seemed ridiculous but I couldn’t figure out how to stop my limbs from vibrating. I walked back to the lounge for tea and cake and introduced myself to another woman. We began chatting about touring and well, bikes. We were soon called away. The second panel was about to begin. This time Lee Craigie, Kimberley Tew, Laura Moss, and Naomi Mahendran stepped up tell us about how the bicycle had brought them places. This was not about how far you can travel on two unmotorised wheels, but how this vehicle has widened their world socially, educationally, professionally and emotionally. It became evident that for all those women, cycling was a therapy of sorts. No one was able to articulate it simply, but we all understood that when things go wrong, a bike ride is always a piece of solace.
Lunch was consumed to the delight of all taste buds (food really was one of the most amazing part of the festival). Conversations flowed and were only brought to a close by the bike bell reminding us of the time. There were workshops to attend. I joined the Yoga class with Polly Clark. More than yoga exercises, she took the time to listen to what we expected from the class, what aches and pains we experienced and based on this discussion targetted the exercises so we could all benefit from them and know what would help us best.
This was followed by more tea and cake (yes a lot of cake was consumed that week-end) before we all regrouped in the Lower Hall to listen to Rickie Cotter. As we listened and laughed to her journeys of endurance, discovery, pain, and fun, cogs turned into my head bringing forward ideas that had been floating at the back of it for months.
Dinner was served, the bar opened, music was played, and I got chatting with more women. Bicycles were our links but we soon tired of the subject. We were more than racers, tourers, commuters, couriers, cyclists. We were human beings.
Tired and happy I eventually retreated to the quiet home of my host where we spent more time talking, sharing our stories, building friendships.
The following day I didn’t linger long in bed. I had to be back at the venue by 9am to help out in the kitchen. I had selected a work-share ticket which meant I was dedicating some of time to make sure everything would run smoothly. I arrived in the kitchen and following brief introductions, I was put to work. We had two hours to prepare brunch for more than a hundred people. So I cracked eggs, washed dirty trays, checked on bread, peeled a mountain of carrots, and chopped them off in batons. Meanwhile, the other women were enjoying workshops and bike rides. Finally the clock struck eleven and we were ready. I stood behind a huge pot of cabbage, standing on tip toes to drop an allocated portion per plate. Everybody was chatting and smiling, the ladies coming back from rides ready for an intake of food and the warmth of the venue.
The following panel focused on cycling as a family. Having little interest in the subject for myself I retreated to the lounge. A few people were relaxing on the sofa and around the tables. I sat on one of the chairs and relaxed. My gaze unfocused and I lost myself in thoughts. Why do you think we need a Women & Bicycles festival? This was one of the question on the wall of the lounge, a question I had asked myself a lot and hadn’t known the answer to before coming. People were talking of inspiration, of not enough women on the roads, of male dominated culture… but for me, it was about finding your tribe. Much like I had found a tribe when I attended the Cycle Touring Festival and the HearSay Festival, here was another one. I had become less lonely. The faces I had seen online and the occasional women I had passed on the roads now had names and voices. They were real.
The panel finished and a flow of people walked in to refuel and chat before the final hours of the week-end. We were to assist to the launch of the North Coast 500 film, shot back in May 2016 when the Adventure Syndicate rode 518 miles of Scotland’s North Coast 500 route in 36 hours. We followed those riders from preparation to completion, living their fears, sharing their laughs, and cheering them on as they reached the finish line. Faces merged, all female, all on bikes. It was not the story of a superhero, it was a community, a group much like the one in the room that had set out on a ride they weren’t sure they could achieve, but did.
The room slowly dispersed, everyone present riding a wave of elation and happiness. I found myself next to a woman I hadn’t spoken to before. So I introduced myself and soon I was telling her about my dreams of Audax (cycling long-distances within a set time limit) and long-distances. But there was a problem. I don’t have the right bike or kit for it. That had been the one excuse holding me back, the one sentence I had repeated to myself over and over again. But hearing it now seemed ridiculous. So I promised myself to stop moaning and get on my touring bike for an Audax soon. After all, I did start touring on a Brompton in Devon. That was not adequate but that was a lot of fun. The week-end could have ended there but the woman turned out to be Ellie from Bicycle Explorers who had raced several times on the Transcontinental. From Belgium to Turkey (now Greece), you ride to arrive there first. I had first heard of the race a couple of years ago and since I’ve had a strange obsession with it. Without trying, the name kept popping up in my feeds and I kept reading posts and stories of the race. And so with Ellie telling me she only had two weeks preparation the first time she entered the race, I began to think I could possibly ride it to. And just at that moment, one of the festival organisers arrived with a microphone for an interview for an upcoming e-zine. And I, stupidly, still elated from the North Coast 500 film, said, ‘I will sign-up for the Transcontinental.’ And ever since I have basked in a sea of fears and doubt. But I’ve said it now. The cat is out of the bag and I don’t know how to put it back there. 2018 might not happen. I do after all have plans for that year and probably won’t have enough leave from work for everything. But there is 2019 and with calendars on computer I can add a date that far in the future. So I have.