Walking into the workshop at The Bristol Bike Project is a sensory experience. You hear the clinking of metal on metal, and the grinding of ratchet spanners. You smell the grease, the oil, and the rubber. You feel the grime of these things on your skin, and it’s a welcoming sensation.
Because if you’re walking into the workshop at The Bristol Bike Project, it’s likely that you enjoy this kind of thing. You want to get your hands dirty, play with some tools, and make a real connection with your bike.
But wanting it isn’t enough. You have to walk through the door, and for many women, this part isn’t so easy. Walking into a workshop can be intimidating for some women, because it is still a very male world.
Even in 2017, girls are not encouraged to learn mechanical skills, and there’s still an assumption among many people that they are less capable in this area. Many women don’t have the confidence to get stuck into the maintenance side of cycling, believing it to still be a bit of a boys’ club, and instead rely on bike shops or male friends to keep their bikes ticking over.
So as a woman in the workshop, it’s difficult to put your hand up and ask for help. You don’t want to be that girl who doesn’t know anything, and you may not want to rely on a man to help you.
But we’re changing that, one Monday at a time. Monday night is Women’s Night.
Because it’s important for women to learn these skills, and gain the confidence to enter the workshop. It helps them to become more independent cyclists, able to make necessary repairs while out on the road.
Many women who start this way really get a taste for it, and may even go on to become a bike mechanic themselves. Having female mechanics in bike shops is hugely encouraging for female customers, and could even result in those women walking through our doors on a Monday night.
So when you walk into the workshop at The Bristol Bike Project on a Monday night, you still get that same sensory experience: the grease, the oil, the grime and the grinding. But there’s one big difference: it is filled only with women. Monday nights are about providing a space for women to come and develop their skills and build their confidence, without concern over judgement or being overlooked for their male counterparts.
It’s just like the Thursday night Bike Kitchen: all the workshop’s tools are there for you to use, there’s a coordinator to run the session, and usually volunteers on hand to help you if you get stuck. But the onus is on you to get your hands dirty, and work on your bike yourself. There are no silly questions, and there’s no preconception about your capabilities.
It’s just you, your bike, some inspiring women, and the workshop.
The event comprises of 8 short films that delve into communities using bikes for social justice, and a discussion of the boundaries which undermine them.
On Tuesday 5th September, Joe and Elly came to Bristol and presented Groundswell to a packed-out workshop at The Bristol Bike Project. The night was organised by Lucy Greaves, a mechanic at the Project, and a wonderful wordsmith in her own right.
The night was hugely insightful, providing a glimpse into other cycling communities.
On the one hand we laughed with Peatonito, a Mexico City vigilante, facing the traffic head on and using guerrilla tactics to make public spaces safe for cyclists and pedestrians alike. All while wearing a custom-made lucha libre costume. We loved him.
On the other hand, we shook our heads in dismay and gasped at the treatment of a single mother, who has been pulled over, ticketed, and arrested more than once, just for riding her bike to work.
Other films tackled subjects like race, poverty, gender, and social isolation. I won’t talk about them in depth, you should just watch them for yourself. What I will say, is that it was hugely thought-provoking to glimpse into other worlds. Where for some, bikes are a form of social justice, and for others, they’re simply a way to get out into the world and meet other people. For one man in particular, bicycling quite literally saved his life.
But it wasn’t just about how people are making it happen. Some of the grassroots initiatives that we saw and talked about, didn’t quite achieve their goals. The reasons why they failed were also discussed.
Joe and Elly argue that in order for a city to be able to build a thriving cycling community, they need three things:
Political proponents – local politicians who support cycling infrastructure, and ideally use it.
Boardroom advocates – the important folk who schmooze with various influencers and acquire vital funding.
Street-level activists – those of us who ride our bikes every day, showing that there is a demand for safe cycling infrastructure, and lobbying our governing bodies for change.
This made me question whether Bristol has what it takes to become a better cycling city. Supposedly it’s one of the best cities in the UK for cycling, and in many ways I can see why. We have plenty of bike lanes, both on- and off-road, shared use paths, space for bike parking, and a wealth of beautiful Sustrans/National Cycle Network routes at our disposal.
However, while these things make it possible to cycle around Bristol, many of them were clearly not well thought through. Many bike lanes are nothing but crumbling red paint on the left side of the road. Plenty of them suddenly end, and become car parking spaces. The road surfaces can be awful in certain parts of the city.
And yet, we are the home of Sustrans. For four years, George Ferguson was our mayor. Every day, scores of people commute to work by bike. Yet, I just don’t know if I can see things improving for us.
Of course, watching these films did make me realise that we have it better than many cities, and I recognise that we’re very lucky in that respect. But it made me question, if even a city like Bristol hasn’t managed to get it right yet, then what hope do others have?
Go watch the films, and tell me what you think. There were so many thought-provoking themes that came up that night, I’ll be exploring some of them further in future posts. Stay tuned for that.
This weekend I set out to ride my first 100 miles, and ended up doing my first 200k.
How did this happen? I guess I have peer pressure to thank. And Lucy (of Brain Cranks), who added an extra 25-mile loop onto my route and convinced me to ride it.
It was partly down to wanting to achieve something even greater, partly not wanting to ride home alone with a dead Garmin, and partly wanting to beat Adam’s record. All three goals were achieved.
Saturday morning was grey, gloomy and wet. I overslept. I couldn’t eat my porridge because I was nervous. I had to take a detour on the way, to get snacks. The morning got off to a stressful start, and I spent a lot of it worrying that no one would turn up for the ride, and that it would be a complete and total failure.
In all honesty I was torn, in terms of what I actually wanted to happen. Half of me wanted a huge group of women to turn up, so I could boast that my first time leading a ride was a huge success, and really impress the badass women of The Adventure Syndicate. The other half of me wanted it to be a small group of familiar faces, so there was less pressure on me as a ride leader.
To my relief, the latter happened, and it was still a huge success.
I think, had a large group of strangers turned up, particularly confident roadies expecting to bomb through the Welsh hills at lightning speed, I might have crumbled under the pressure and turned back. As it happens I was joined by Lucy and Ania, and the three of us embarked upon our drizzly adventure together.
We started outside Roll for the Soul at 8am, and took an indirect route to the bridge via Westbury-on-Trym and through Hallen and Awkley. I used to commute part of this route, back when I was very new to riding, and had to get off and walk up most of the hills. It was my first time returning to the area as a more seasoned cyclist, and a small victory to climb the hills without even considering the need to walk.
As we made our way through quiet country roads, we settled into a comfortable but decent pace, and chatted about our various achievements on the bikes.
We neared the bridge, and made our first windy journey across the River Severn, into South Wales. This was my first experience of cycling across the Severn Bridge, and I was relieved to see that the cycle paths were completely segregated from the road traffic. It was quite a surreal experience, feeling the rush of wind and the vibrations of the other vehicles reverberating through the bike. It was also awesomely atmospheric, with the low hanging cloud caressing the surface of the water.
Once across the bridge, we made our way through Bulwark and into Chepstow, where we found ourselves on the same route I’d ridden last weekend through the Wye Valley. We climbed the first part of the A466 and descended into Tintern, catching another glimpse of the stunning abbey as we flew by. At this point we were more than ready for our first coffee stop, and promptly pulled into The Filling Station for some well-needed coffee and biscuits.
Topped up with caffeine and sugar, we continued up the Wye Valley, which remained familiar as far as Redbrook, before turning off towards Monmouth.
Weirdly, both times I’d ridden this section between Tintern and Redbrook, I found myself struggling to maintain a decent cadence. The road appears to be pretty flat, and in some parts there even seems to be a slight downhill, and yet my legs burn and my pedalling is slow. I wasn’t the only one to experience this, either. I wonder if there’s an explanation; it shouldn’t be that hard to ride along a flat road!
On top of that, we had a lot of climbing to do, and I found myself really starting to question my physical capabilities. Would I make it through the rest of the ride? We weren’t even halfway through yet, and I was faltering.
It definitely felt like a longer 25 miles than the previous section. But for every climb there must be a descent, and despite my previous distaste for the downhill, I relished every opportunity stop pedalling and plummet down into the valleys.
We followed some really pretty country roads and eventually rolled into Usk, where we stopped at Sprokwobbles for a hearty lunch of jacket potatoes, well-needed coffee, and some light yoga stretching in the garden.
While we rested, I decided to check the elevation profile on the Garmin to see how we were doing in terms of the big climbs. I saw that the biggest was about to present itself, and started to feel a bit nervous. There was much self-deprecation and talk of walking up and meeting Lucy and Ania at the top.
Nevertheless we rolled on, and the climb turned out to be a really good one! Following the B4235 towards Shirenewton, it was a very long but gradual climb. One thing that upset me a little, is that when you look at the road on Google Streetview, it used to be flanked by woodland on both sides. When we rode there last weekend, there has been a lot of tree felling, and the left side of the road is more open. It always saddens me to see trees being cut down, and it’s a great shame for that to be happening, however if I look on the bright side, it did afford us the most spectacular view of Wales’ rolling hills.
Another rewarded for reaching the top, was the presence of an Alpaca farm! We enjoyed a quick rest, some water, and looking at their cute, fuzzy heads. We then climbed a tiny bit more and descended back into Chepstow for the second round of the Severn Bridge.
By this time of day (around 3:30pm) it was even windier than before, and we experienced some pretty scary side winds. I remember at one point my whole bike shifted to the left, like some enormous force was effortlessly moving me aside.
From there we took an indirect route to Thornbury, via Elberton and Littleton-upon-Severn, and stopped for coffee and cake (or in Lucy’s case, an entire cucumber).
It was at this point that Lucy had intended to leave us, to go and do an extra long loop and make her ride a 200k.
I was in a lot of pain with my back, super tired, and feeling good about the fact that there were only 25 miles left to go. The thought of my bed was beckoning me, and I told myself this last leg would be gentle, easy, and relatively quick.
Then Ania decided she wanted to join Lucy on the extra long loop, and my Garmin signalled to me that it was on its last legs. The thought of cycling home alone without directions was a little frightening, and throughout the day I’d kept myself open to the idea of extending the ride, just in case I felt capable. I didn’t feel all that capable, but with the ibuprofen clearing the pain in my lower back, and Lucy and Ania grinning encouragingly at me across the table, I couldn’t help but agree!
So I put the Garmin away, Lucy took over as the navigator, and we set off on our final 50 miles.
Departing Thornbury the way we came, we continued north through Oldbury-on-Severn, Shepperdine and into Berkeley, where I remember visiting the castle a couple of years ago. It’s a really cute and quaint town, and its castle is noted as the place where King Edward II was imprisoned and murdered. A good day out that I recommend!
At around 7pm, the sun finally decided to grace us with its presence. In the golden light we looped round, returning south through North Nibley, Wotton-under-Edge, and Kingswood. This was a bit of a tease, as I live in a part of Bristol called Kingswood, but alas, not this one. Next was a fairly sharp climb into Hawkesbury Upton, before descending through Petty France, Little Badminton and Acton Turville. At this point the roads became familiar, as I had ridden them out on my last trip to Oxford.
On the final strait to Bristol, we descended through Hinton and Pucklechurch. It was coming up to 9pm, the sun had once again departed and been replaced with low hanging grey clouds. The air around us became heavy and wet, and in the gloom we joined the Bristol-Bath railway path and rolled into Fishponds where we rewarded ourselves with junk food and alcohol. The perfect end to the perfect day.
Epilogue: a reflection on The Adventure Syndicate’s tagline
I mentioned before that I planned this ride as part of a collaboration between The Adventure Syndicate and Cycling UK, to celebrate the Women’s Festival of Cycling. I agreed to it when I saw Emily Chappell tweeting about their plans, and in a moment of fandom, decided I wanted to join in.
The moment I saw that it was a 100-mile ride within the space of 2 weeks, my stomach turned, but I was determined to make it happen. I’d said yes to someone I idolise, and I had to deliver the goods.
As I put the route together and registered the ride, I was partly sure that I’d end up backing out of it somehow. I’d plan the route and hand it over to someone more capable of riding it, because I certainly didn’t feel able to.
But when it came down to it, I wanted to do it. I wanted to be part of something big, and I felt that with a group of amazing women around me, I would be carried along by their support. That is exactly what happened. It was a small group, but it was an amazing group nonetheless.
The Adventure Syndicate’s mission is:
“to increase levels of self-belief and confidence in others […] and we passionately believe we are all capable of so much more than we think we are.”
I have never felt this to be as true as I did on Saturday night, shoving a battered sausage into my face and telling myself over and over again, “I just rode 200k. I just rode 200k.”
If you’re a woman; if you love riding your bike; if you compare yourself to the elites and constantly feel like an impostor; if you want to achieve more but feel unable to; go and read all about The Adventure Syndicate. Attend one of their talks. Sign up to a ride with them. Follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
I cannot believe that this time last year I was just commuting on my bike, with the occasional 15-mile pootle to Bath that wore me out. If I am capable of this, then so are you. We all are.
I’ve been a bit quiet lately for various reasons, but namely because I’ve allowed the run-up to the General Election to completely take over my thoughts.
I’ve spent so many hours scouring information online, campaigning on behalf of my chosen political party, and occasionally wallowing in a pit of despair when things seemed hopeless.
This morning we woke up to a hung parliament, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who breathed a sigh of relief. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get political on you (that’s why I’ve stayed quiet), but this moment of limbo has allowed me some headspace to think about other things.
Social media has proven to be both damaging and enlightening, these past few weeks. I’ve become increasingly aware that the more time I spend on Facebook, the more angry and disillusioned with the world I become. The same can go for Twitter, though there are still a lot of things that keep me going back there.
Instagram is proving to be my favourite channel these days. It fills my time with photographs of beautiful bikes, cycling kit, and incredible views that make me want to burst out of my front door, clip in, and go.
So in these uncertain times, let me leave you with some suggestions of accounts to follow, so you can feel as inspired as I do.
Amelie is working her way around the world, sometimes on the bike, and sometimes off. She picks up work as a freelance yoga teacher, photographer and graphic designer, as well as taking part in various work exchanges (where you work a certain amount of hours a day in exchange for accommodation and/or food). Her Instagram account is full of gorgeous photos from her travels, and provides me with so much inspiration for my own round-the-world tour one day.
I simply had to include The Adventure Syndicate. I’ve talked about them many times before, and you should know who they are. If not, go check out their Instagram account. It gives a fascinating insight into their many adventures, following all the Syndicaters in their own individual journeys as well as the group as a whole.
Remember that mountain biking weekend I don’t stop banging on about? This is who I went with. Despite coming away a little bit broken, I regret nothing, and I’m itching to go back and try again. Polly posts lots of photos from her rural Wales adventures, sometimes with her family, sometimes solo, and sometimes with the groups she leads. The scenery is always stunning, and it’s really lovely to see her children getting started on their MTB adventures already.
I’m so glad Adam told me about this account. Jasmine Reese is travelling around the world on a bike, with her violin and her dog in tow. Expect inspirational quotes, violin recitals, stories of the kindness of strangers who have offered their hospitality, and of course, photos of her adorable doggo.
Marijn de Vries, now retired from professional racing, is cycling around the world and sharing the most stunning photographs through her Instagram account. The scenery, the selfies… the cycling kit! Just gorgeous photos that will make you want to follow in her footsteps and experience the breathtaking views for yourself.
The SheWolves are a San Diego women’s cycling crew, and they look like they have a lot of fun. As someone who is currently part of an effort to create a badass girl gang within Bristol’s cycling community, I love seeing photos of their antics and feeling inspired to create a similar vibe in my own city. If ever there were a girl gang I’d go to great lengths to be part of, this would be it.
Speaking of girl gangs…
We held another Women and Bikes social at Roll for the Soul last night. It was a much smaller group this time, which afforded us the opportunity to get a conversation going about what we should do next.
I will be organising the first outing in the near future, and posting a poll in the Women Cyclists of Bristol Facebook group, to gauge what people want in terms of distance, pace, scenery and type of adventure. I’m totally up for camping. Just saying.
Keep your eyes peeled in the group, join it if you’re not in there already, and come ride with us soon.
These aren’t their only accomplishments by a long way, but you don’t need me to tell you who they are. If you’re reading my blog then you either already know of them, or you’re going to click on their names to find out. And if neither of those is true, no one will know and no one will judge.
The talk was aimed at women who want to start riding long-distance, whether it’s for racing, touring, off-roading or anything in between. They came armed with shed-loads of advice, and I’m going to share some of it here, because all women who want to ride should, and as Emily reiterated last night – you are capable of so much more than you think you are.
Preparing the mind
The first subject we got into was mentally preparing yourself for the ride. It’s true that while there will be a great stress on your body, half of it is in your head. One of the things mentioned during Sunday’s panel discussion was that when you go into a long ride with a particular distance in mind, you know where your end point will be, and you’ll make it to that point if it kills you. And even if at mile 500 you feel like you’re literally going to fall off your bike and die, if you’d set out to do 510 miles instead, you’d still make that extra 10 miles, because it was all part of the plan. The key is to know how far you’re going and be prepared to make it to the end. Because you will make it.
Finding your time of day
Training your body will help with the mental preparation. If you’re planning a week-long race, you’ll be riding all day and all night with a few hours of sleep in between. Emily made an excellent point that most (if not all) people have certain times of the day that work better for them, and certain times that are worse. As part of her training, she did several rides from London to Manchester, starting at different times of day (and night). She found that no matter which point the night section fell, whether it was right at the beginning or end, she always flagged at around the same time.
Once you get to know which times of day are your strongest, and which are your weakest, you can prepare for them. If you’re a morning person, like Rickie, you can put measures in place to get you through the night – like snacking on your favourite treats every few miles – and get yourself up a hill to be rewarded with glorious views at dawn. If you’re like Emily and peak in the middle of the night, you’ll need more motivation to get you through the hardest parts of the day. Plan to stop at a café and have coffee and cake when you’re really struggling. 15 minutes of rest and some caffeine and sugar in your system, and you can plough through the next stage until you feel your strength returning. It’s all about breaking it down into manageable segments, knowing when you’ll struggle, and pre-empting it.
Fighting the fear
Lee made a fantastic point about the difference between fear and anxiety. A woman in the audience asked about how to prepare for the fear she might experience when cycling alone through a strange place at night – perhaps a country where there are packs of street dogs roaming, or if there are shady characters about. Lee pointed out that ‘fear’ is what you feel when something happens to you, and by that point you’re in fight-or-flight mode and you can’t pre-empt that. It’s anxiety that can stop you from setting out in the first place, and that’s what you need to address. If you know the sorts of things you’re afraid of, you can prepare yourself for them, and be ready. You can buy dog dazers which create a kind of forcefield around you and keep street dogs at a distance. And as Rickie pointed out, the likelihood of encountering a dangerous character is actually very low. If anything, by being in a field alone with a bike and a bivvy bag, you’re the strange character who probably shouldn’t be there, and you’re probably more intimidating just by being in an unexpected place at an unexpected hour.
Feeding the body
It seems that Emily cannot stress it enough: EAT.
Eat, eat, eat, and eat.
Throw your recommended daily calories out the window and eat whenever you’re hungry, because your body will be burning ridiculous amounts of calories all the time, and you need to keep your energy up.
When you’re not hungry
I asked about forcing yourself to eat when you’re not hungry, because I struggle with this. On Saturday I cycled a very long way between eating, and despite telling myself I was going to eat the shit out of everything, when I arrived my stomach didn’t want to cooperate. Rickie explained that when you’re cycling for a long duration, you’re placing so much stress on your body, and it’s concentrating so much on keeping your legs spinning, that it has less energy to digest, and so when you try to eat a big meal at the end, it can’t cope. It’s better keep snacking little and often as you go, to keep your digestive system active.
Keep the food up front
Emily recommends having a handlebar bag, which makes snacking whilst riding a lot easier. She has several compartments where she stores a variety of things (I believe at one point she was living on peanuts, chorizo, emmentale and Haribo). The point is they’re accessible, and you can keep munching little and often.
Think about your food groups
Lee finds that eating high amounts of fat and protein works best for her, as they provide slow releasing energy and it can encourage your body to burn energy from your fat stores rather than from carbohydrates. But she still eats carbohydrates as well; she just increases her intake of the other two groups. This followed a question about ketosis. It works for some, and not for others.
You cannot drink enough water. Emily tries to down two litres at a time to keep herself hydrated for the next couple of hours. Lee does the same the day before a race – drink, drink and drink. Rickie recommends carrying no more than 2 litres of water on the bike to save weight (1l = 1kg), but you can store anywhere up to 9 litres if you wanted to.
Another important note from Rickie – use your urine to track your hydration levels. It doesn’t sound glamorous, but you can tell by the colour if you’re dehydrated. If it’s dark and pungent, you need to drink more. Aim for the colour of champagne.
If you’re drinking citrus juices like orange, add a pinch of salt to them. Citrus alone can cause cramping, and the salt counteracts this.
Order two of everything – whatever you think you want to eat, order or buy double the amount. Even if you can’t physically eat it all straightaway, 30 minutes down the road you’ll be hungry again.
Look for Lidl (or Aldi) – they’re all over Europe and they always have the same stock and layout. Especially if you’re racing, you can run in and very quickly find all the things you need without wasting much time.
Carry a polyester backpack that folds down to miniature size. If at the end of a long day you need to go and stock up on food, you can just pull it out, fill it, and ride to your camp with full supplies.
Packing the bike
If you’re racing
Pack light. That’s a given, but if you’ve got the budget you can invest in some really handy equipment that packs down ridiculously small.
The best thing to do is to prioritise and pack only what you need. Lee makes a point of only packing items that can serve a dual purpose (which led to a hilarious discussion of doubling up a chamois as a sponge).
When you’re touring you can add panniers to your bike and afford to take a bit more with you. If you choose to, that is. After my experience of cycling with an overloaded rear rack at the weekend, I never want to look at another pannier again.
One of the things all three of them stressed was to really plan how you’re going to pack, and always keep certain things in the same place so you always know where they are. Don’t pack your waterproofs in the bottom of your saddle pack, because everything will get wet as you trawl through it trying to find it in a downpour.
Keep anything you’ll want regular access to at the front or on the top tube. Food should be at your handlebars so you can eat while you go. You may choose to keep a water bottle here as well, instead of in a bottle cage on your frame. That’s a personal choice.
Consider taking a small stove, which can cook enough food for one. Lee always keeps an emergency pack of cous cous and a vegetable bouillon cube in her bag for a quick, easy and last minute meal.
Try to get a bag with an external drawstring at your rear, so that you can wash your padded shorts as you go and ride with them fluttering and drying in the wind behind you. Pro tip for this: don’t turn them inside out, otherwise the chamois can get coated in dust, which makes for an uncomfortable ride later down the line.
Also consider carrying some hand sanitizer with you. Rickie made a fantastically gross point of how important personal hygiene is when being out on the road for long periods of time. She once left her bike in a shed for a few days following a long-distance ride, and came back to find mould had grown on the handlebars from the sweat and germs that had accumulated there. Think about how much time you spend with your hands on your bars, and how often you use them to touch your face, your eyes, your mouth, your lady bits, your food, and everything else. Keep them clean and prevent illness and infection.
On a similar note, if you’re riding through countries with questionable water sources and particularly if you’re off-road, carry some iodine tablets or miniature filters. Even when you’re out in the beautiful countryside and the river water runs clear, you don’t know what’s upstream – a cattle farm, a factory… don’t risk it. Illness can set you back for days.
Finding your way
Emily demonstrated brilliantly how she’s the last person to listen to on this subject, seeing as when she completed the Transcontinental in 2016 she was the only rider to visit Albania.
As far as technology is concerned, Garmin comes highly recommended. There was a discussion about the many complaints people make about them, and Rickie acknowledged that they’re by no means perfect just yet, but she stressed that right now in this market, they’re the best tech available for cyclists. One day that may change, but right now at this moment if you’re investing in something, invest in a Garmin. They use different satellites to other devices and are the most advanced gadget available right now.
In terms of powering them, there was a debate over dynamos and batteries. Batteries are a simpler method, but more wasteful. If you’re travelling for 5 days or less, then they’re not a terrible option, but anymore than that and you’re better off looking into a dynamo or a cache battery.
I agreed with Lee when she said there’s just nothing better than a paper map. Especially on a long ride, going through multiple countries, she said it’s so nice to finish one map and move onto the next. What a perfect excuse to stop off at a café, have a coffee and cake, spread the map out over the table and get the next part of your route planned.
While we’re on this subject, a question came up about whether it was better to plan the whole route or make it up as you go.
When you’re racing – plan everything. Plan it twice. Double and triple check each part of it, and cross-reference it against other maps to make sure you know of every single hill you’ll encounter.
If you’re touring, you don’t need to plan everything. If you know of a particular road/route that you’d like to take then by all means, figure out how to reach it, but allow for some deviation. Let yourself get lost, and enjoy the experience of exploration and adventure. That’s what it’s all about, after all.
So I already told you I cycled from Bristol to Oxford on Saturday. I partly did it for fun but mainly did it because I was attending the Women and Bicycles festival, hosted by The Broken Spoke Bike Co-op. Now I’ve regaled you with my cycling story, it’s time to tell you what the festival was about.
Obviously, as I was cycling on Saturday, I only actually attended on Sunday. I was gutted to miss Saturday’s activities (panel discussions about making space for women in cycling and going places by bike, a key note by Rickie Cotter, and workshops including yoga, the science of saddlesore, fixing a flat and preparing for a long-distance bike journey). However, I don’t regret my decision to ride up on Saturday, because it was the only day when the weather was glorious, and if I’d attempted to ride there on the shitstorm that was Friday, I would have been put off riding long distances for life.
But I’ll tell you all about Sunday – or at least my experience of it.
Café Over Share
Sadly the day didn’t get off to a great start before we arrived, so we were late and grumpy. We were signed up for a yoga class, which we missed, and were late to the first workshop, which was called a Café Over Share. The idea was great – the room was filled with chairs split off into circular groups, and each circle had a selection of signs on the floor with different topics of conversation. They ranged from diarrhoea, to menstruation, to wild animal chases, to wild camping. The idea was you could join a group and have a conversation about topics that not everyone would normally be comfortable talking about.
Unfortunately because we were late, all the groups were fully immersed in their conversations and we found it very difficult to join in. Most of them were full, and only two had space. The first was labelled as ‘cycle training questions’, which wasn’t very relevant for us. The second had a variety of signs in front of it, but it turned out that the three women sitting there were actually conducting an interview and just using the space, and we were completely ignored when we joined them.
So yeah, honestly, the day didn’t start well. We felt a bit excluded, and didn’t really know what to do with ourselves. We wandered off to get a coffee and a slice of cake from a local café, and re-joined the festival after the session had wrapped up. It improved from there.
Panel Discussion: Cycling as a Family
This isn’t a relevant subject for us, but I was curious to hear what the panellists had to say, and Adam is really interested in all cycling developments, particularly when it comes to adjusting bikes to suit a specific need. It turned out to be a really thought-provoking and hilariously entertaining discussion. The panellists consisted of Josie Dew, Maryam Amatullah, Carolyn Roberts and Isla Rowntree.
Josie has cycled all over the world, covering a lot of ground with her children in tow, and has some very interesting approaches, including bungee cording them down, and riding a 4-bike tandem whilst towing a trailer. The school runs sound hugely entertaining. She also told some brilliant stories about how she tackles dangerous drivers, by telling her children to act irrationally and wave branches in order to prompt drivers to give them more space when passing.
Despite not having children or being remotely interested in them, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed listening to Isla Rowntree comparing balance bikes to stabilisers. To paraphrase, with stabilisers the child actually learns to ride a tricycle, and depends on turning the handlebars to steer. When the stabilisers are removed, they have to un-learn everything and learn to balance from scratch. Balance bikes, on the other hand, help young children get used to using their body weight to steer their bike, and when it comes to progressing to a ‘real’ bike, all they need to do is learn to pedal.
Having learned to ride a bike with stabilisers (as most people did), I reflected on this and realised that I had been riding my Ridgeback hybrid for three years, depending mostly on turning the handlebars to steer. Adapting to Regina and the forward-leaning position, I’m re-learning to ride, and learning to lean with my body to steer, in a way I never have before.
The Adventure Syndicate: North Coast 500
The pièce de résistance was the premiere of a film by The Adventure Syndicate, telling the story of their seven-woman team cycling the North Coast 500 in 36 hours. To say it was inspiring would be a huge understatement. I actually cried a few times. It was just so empowering to hear Lee Craigie and Emily Chappell talk about their ultimate goal: to get at least one rider around the full 518 miles in 36 hours, and how they worked together as a team to make that happen. They knew that individually they could all have made it, but that wasn’t the point of the ride. It embodied The Adventure Syndicate’s commitment to encourage and enable women ‘to identify their ambitions, overcome the obstacles that stand in their way, and make the most of their talent and potential.’
Watching the film made me want to ride the NC500 one day, though it’s a long way off. In the meantime I’ve signed up to their Yorkshire Dales Riding Weekend, which I’m super excited about.
The final part of the day I want to mention was also the highlight. I got to chat to Emily Chappell (who I was quietly fangirling over in the corner all afternoon) and got a lovely autograph in my copy of her book, What Goes Around: A London Cycle Courier’s Story.
I’m going to continue fangirling over her tonight in fact, as she and Lee Craigie are going to be at Roll For The Soul in Bristol from 7pm to talk about long-distance rides. You can grab your ticket here.
No doubt you’ll probably be hearing from me again tomorrow. This week has been a great bike-filled one so far!
It’s time to try a longer ride. I commute 10 miles a day, and cycle around Bristol whenever I’m out and about in the evenings and weekends. On average I clock around 55-60 miles a week, which isn’t very much.
Clocking the miles
I’ve tended to limit longer rides to Bath (14 miles) or The Jolly Sailor in Saltford for chips by the river (20 miles return). Last year we cycled from Exeter to Plymouth via Dartmoor, which totalled around 69.5 miles over three days, and the longest ride I’ve ever done in a day was a round trip to Clevedon, which clocked me at 42 miles.
Now I want to start riding for longer. I’ve not had a lot of experience but I’ve certainly got the bug. We keep talking about different UK cities that we’d like to cycle to and explore, and now it’s time to make it happen.
So this weekend I’m setting off on my longest trip yet. We’re leaving at the crack of dawn to ride from Bristol to Oxford, which is around 70 miles, and it’s all in an effort to attend the Women & Bicycles festival, hosted by Broken Spoke Bike Co-op.
It’s always about women
Yes, my #WomanCrushWednesdays have all been leading up to International Women’s Day on 5th March, and BSBC have decided to mark the occasion with a weekend-long festival celebrating women who ride. The weekend will comprise panel discussions, group rides and workshops, and I’m super duper excited!
If you’re around on the Sunday, let me know so we can say hi.
Doing the prep
I haven’t exactly been clocking up miles in order to prepare for the ride, but I’m doing my best to make it as painless and enjoyable as possible.
I’ve rebuilt Regina!*
So, I went back on my plans to paint her blue. Yes, I’m still perving over every blue bike I see in the street, and I’m still a Hawkeye when it comes to spotting the exact shade of blue I wanted. But the fact of the matter was, I didn’t have time to cycle around visiting all the powder-coating places I’d spoken to, who all happen to be closed at the weekends. My desire to ride her won me over, so I’ve embraced the orange, she’s back in one piece and I’ve been taking her out on the roads so we can get to know each other.
When I bought Regina second hand, she came with a male-specific racing saddle, so when I rebuilt her, I swapped it for my trusty Ridgeback saddle. I’ve since discovered that while this saddle was perfectly comfy in an upright position, for a more forward-leaning position it is REALLY uncomfortable. That’s why I’m in the process of hunting down (and test riding) a woman-specific saddle with a cut-out section. It’s all about keeping the lady bits happy.
Cushion for the pushin’
I’ve bought some padded leggings. They’re not fancy and they’re not expensive. In fact they’re cheapo ones from Sports Direct, but it’s my first time trying them and I wanted to have a practice run. Not that Oxford is a practice run. I may regret this decision later.
I love how light Regina is, but I don’t love riding her with a heavy backpack. I already feel like my body’s been folded in half as I acclimatise to the forward-leaning position, and adding a heavy load to my back is the last thing I need. So this week I’m investing in a rear rack, some mudguards and, of course, a bottle cage. She’ll be touring ready in no time.
*I feel like I should clarify something here. I had every intention of blogging about the rebuilding experience (hashtag ProjectRegina), however things didn’t quite go to plan. The original idea was for me to build her, with my boyfriend’s supervision and guidance where needed. Unfortunately because he’s well known as a knowledgeable volunteer, his time was taken up with helping a lot of other people, and I got stuck more than I thought I would, meaning I spent a lot of time waiting around. By the time we were actually able to make progress, it was 11pm and we were tired, so in the end he quickly threw her together for me. I was upset to not actually build her myself, and as a result I don’t feel like I know her as well as I could, but I’m also grateful to have a boyfriend who knows this stuff, and who is there to help me out in such a hurry, to make sure I’m not stuck walking home at midnight with a half-built bike. In time, I’ll get to know her better.
It’s week 3 of Femme February where I’m chatting to other women in Bristol’s bike community, to explore our place in the workshop and the industry.
I met Erin whilst volunteering at The Bristol Bike Project. One evening we were paired together to work on a bike, and while she’s more experienced than me, we’ve got a good way of working where we discover and learn things together. You may remember me mentioning her here.
Do you remember learning to ride a bike?
Not exactly. I know that my dad taught me when I was about 5 or 6 years old, and there were definitely tears and tantrums!
Have you always ridden or did you take any breaks?
I’ve pretty much always ridden a bike, whether I was playing around with my brother or riding to and from school. I’ve always commuted on two wheels, to university and now to work. I bought my first road bike in the summer of 2009, and that was definitely a turning point in my cycling passion!
Tell me about bikes you’ve owned.
I used to ride a BMX, and then a Malvern Star (Aussie brand) urban bike through school and university. That one was known as ‘the Beast’. Sadly it was stolen and replaced, and then stolen, found, and stolen again. Now I have a Giant TCR C2 road bike which I used to use it for racing, and it was known as ‘the Rocket’. Now it’s my commuter, and known simply as ‘My Precious’.
Where were your favourite spots to ride?
There was a pretty awesome track down the street, I vividly remember the ‘really steep’ start slope and being terrified the first time I went down it. Having an older brother means not getting away with wussing out. We’d also take the bikes to the local park, think Aussie bushland, dry and dusty with loads of rocks and gum trees and gullies.
When did you first become interested in fixing bikes?
It was while I was at university, when I relied on the Beast for commuting, and was too cheap to go to a bike store for repairs. And my personality is such that I like knowing how things work and being able to take care of myself, which includes knowing how to fix my most important mode of transport!
Did anyone teach you?
Many people have shown me bits and pieces of bike maintenance. Dad showed me the basics and then friends with bikes and the odd helpful person at a bike shop. I also learnt a fair bit from the internet. It’s all trial and error – I got more tips when I joined the uni cycling club. I’ve by far learnt the most from volunteering at the Bristol Bike Project though.
Can you tell me about your experience of volunteering at The Bristol Bike Project?
It’s been great so far. I’ve met a bunch of friendly fellow-bike-lovers and learnt a lot about fixing bikes. As an immigrant/expat/foreigner, volunteering at the BBP has helped me feel part of the Bristol community.
What was the first break-through you had?
Understanding how the limit screws work! That was a pretty exciting day.
Have you ever felt like people were surprised when you told them you tinker with bikes? How dopeople generally react?
People who don’t know me are usually a bit surprised, though they always react positively. Reactions vary from ‘that’s cool’ and ‘what a great thing to do’ to ‘I’d be good at that’ and ‘do you want me to show you how to fix bikes’. Yes, the latter two are from blokes. *eye roll*.
Do you feel there’s any discrepancy between the way men and women are perceived or treated in the workshop?
Hmmm, yes and no. I think the workshop coordinators at The Bristol Bike Project are very good at treating women equally and not making gender-based assumptions of a lack of knowledge. The other volunteers are a bit hit and miss. If I’m introduced as someone with experience to a male, newbie volunteer then they tend to listen to what I say and are happy learning from me. If it’s someone on a similar level to me, then I sometimes don’t get listened to. There have been a few times when I’ve said ‘I think it’s the limit screw’ and they’ve ignored it or continued with cable tightening to then get a coordinator’s help and, hey! It was the limit screw. I could be pushier about it, but I hate confrontation.
What advice would you give to a new female volunteer at the Bike Project, in terms of asserting herself?
Good question. My technique is to keep asking questions and be persistent in suggesting what you think needs to be tried.
At what point did you learn to trust your own judgement and assert yourself?
I’m not sure I’ve reached that point! I am getting better and each time I discover (usually by workshop coordinator intervention) that I was on the right track, it builds my confidence. Regular practice is key.
Do you feel Bristol has much of a community for women cyclists?
Yes, somewhat, and I think it’s grown over the 5 years I’ve been here. There’s definitely been a global increase in women cycling communities since I got into road cycling in 2009. My focus is road cycling, so I’ve noticed the difference in the number of women with Strava segments over the years. Although, on the road I’d say 90% of fellow cyclists that I pass are blokes. No idea when the women are out!
What could there be more of/less of?
For women cyclists in the Bristol community? Ummm, I don’t really know. It’d be good if bike shops increased their stock of women’s kit and accessories. More options than pink and purple would be nice.
Do you also build bikes?
Other than at the BBP when we end up building a bike because all the components end up getting binned? No, not yet. It’s been my intention for a couple of years, but I haven’t found the time or frame.
What would you like to build?
For my dream bike I’d like to build an urban road bike. I’m not bothered about the brand as long as it’s a quality frame. It should have drop bars and a svelte, cherry red frame with shiny aluminium pannier rack and a gorgeous tan leather pannier. I’m moving back to Melbourne this year, which is flat, so I can make it a single speed! Easier build and maintenance. I’d also like to build a mountain bike, but that’s just because I want one and am too cheap to splash the cash on a new one. So I need to get some experience with shock absorbers…
It’s the second instalment of my Femme February theme, where I’m talking to Bristol bikey ladies about the industry and local community.
This week I’m chatting to Hattie Pullen, who I met last year during a maintenance course at The Bristol Bike Project. She was working at the stand next to me, and over lunchtime we got chatting about the Project, and I managed to persuade her to come along for Volunteers’ Night.
How old were you when you learned to ride a bike?
I don’t remember the exact age I learnt to ride a bike but it must have been around 4 or 5. I have a very clear memory of the first time I rode without stabilisers, as I remember finding a hedgehog on the side of the road and taking him into the garden and giving him cat food!
Who taught you?
My mum and dad, I’m not sure who had the most input, that part isn’t very clear.
Do you remember how you learned?
I started off like most kids did in my day, with stabilisers. This then progressed to a parent running behind with one hand on the saddle and one on the handle bars, until they felt confident to let go. I was very fortunate to grow up in the countryside of Lincolnshire, and the tiny village where my parents still live has very little road traffic so we had quite a lot of freedom to learn on the road. Lincolnshire is very flat and I remember thinking that the small slope from my parents’ house to the bottom of the road was super steep.
What’s your ‘cycling story’?
Growing up I always had a bike at home. I wouldn’t use it as transport to get to places, but I would often go on a Sunday afternoon bike ride with my mum.
I didn’t take the bike to Plymouth University; the city’s small enough to walk everywhere. I moved to Whistler in Canada straight after uni and ended up staying for nearly 3 years: skiing in the winter and enjoying the lakes and mountains in the summer. Whistler has a massive downhill mountain bike scene, so I had a couple of goes in the bike park but I was too scared. I stuck to the cross country trails, but never bought a cross country bike. I just borrowed from friends; a friend of mine used to work in a bike rental shop so we could always use the bikes for free!
I had a pink Raleigh for getting around on. A cheap ride-around-town bike was always difficult to get in Whistler, so I treasured her. There was a rack on the back which I used to give my friends backies on, especially after a few beers at the lake. Always great fun!
After Whistler, I moved to Bristol where I’ve been for the last 5 years. I bought a bike within the first 6 months, but it’s a lot hillier here than Lincolnshire! Until last year I would never have called myself a cyclist, I was just someone who rode bikes to get around and occasionally for fun. I don’t think I’d ridden more than 20 miles in one go until last year.
One of my goals for 2016 was to raise money for charity. My mum had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease so thought Parkinson’s UK was a good start. I looked on the website for fundraising events and a London to Paris cycle caught my eye, so without further thought I signed myself up. I had no idea what I was doing, and just thought I’d give it a go. I told my friend Lis who already had all the gear, and she volunteered to join me, so I now had a training partner! We completed the ride in September 2016 over 4 days and it was amazing. Such an inspiring group of people and I managed to raise about £3,000. I was hooked after this.
What types of bikes have you owned?
When I moved to Bristol I purchased a beautiful looking blue vintage Peugeot with a split top tube. She was only a 4 speed but I absolutely loved her, though she just wasn’t that practical for the hills of Bristol.
I replaced her with a Trek hybrid, which I bought on my boyfriend Will’s Cycle to Work scheme. I still have her now and she’s my trusty steed, but not a looker! Will’s into downhill mountain biking, and he bought a second hand Orange Hitman that I could ride on cross country trails and he could use on the pump track.
For my London to Paris cycle I purchased my first road bike. I bought it off a lady in Clevedon who had ridden it maybe once or twice, for half the price she paid for it. It still had the factory grease on the chain!
I turned 30 in January this year and bought myself a new bike (Genesis Croix De Fer) to start my new decade. I only picked her up on Saturday but I’m in love already. I’m really excited to have some adventures with her. I’m hoping to cycle the North Coast 500 in September this year.
When did you first become interested in fixing bikes?
I really want to do some more cycle touring, and thought I had better learn how to fix my bike so when I’m on the road I wouldn’t be stuck in the middle of nowhere. I’ve always relied on Will when anything has gone wrong with my bike before.
Did anyone teach you?
I went on a maintenance course at the Bristol Bike Project in November last year to learn the basics. Other than changing a tube I literally had no idea about anything.
Have you ever felt like people were surprised when you told them you tinker with bikes? Howdo people generally react?
I have to say it’s not really something I’ve brought up much in conversation. Those who I have spoken to though tend to be close friends who have watched my passion for bikes and cycling develop, so they’re not really surprised when I say I’m learning to fix bikes.
Can you tell me about your experience of volunteering at The Bike Project?
I have to admit I’ve only made it 4 times since I did my maintenance course. Everyone is super friendly and welcoming. There are definitely more men than women, and it would be great to get a few more women involved.
I’m not afraid to ask for help though, as like you, I forget everything between sessions. I need to ask otherwise I wouldn’t get anywhere. It can be difficult though when everyone is doing their thing and involved with the bike they’re fixing.
I haven’t been often enough to work out who is a good person to work with yet, but hoping to become more of a regular face, especially now it’s two nights a week. I think maybe I need to buy a maintenance book and take it with me, then I can be a bit more independent and not ask for help every 5 seconds. It’s a great place to learn and for such a great cause. I’m hoping someday soon what I’m learning might stick!
This February for me is all about the femme, and I wanted to dedicate a month to celebrating women in the bike industry, with a particular focus on Bristol’s cycling community.
So without further ado I’m going to kick off with the first in a series of interviews I have lined up for the month.
Lucy Greaves is a trainee Bike Mechanic and volunteer at The Bristol Bike Project, who I met (along with her Croix de Fer, Toby) on a social ride to Dundry Hill. She very kindly agreed to tell me her life story and share some really interesting insights from the perspective of a woman in the workshop.
Name: Lucy Greaves
Profession: Bike mechanic / Translator / Cycle Instructor / soon-to-be Barista at Roll for the Soul
Tell me about when you first learned to ride a bike.
I don’t actually remember, but I must have been around 5 when my dad taught me. I’ve got vivid memories of riding along the front lawn at my mum and dad’s house, which was quite long and flat. Beyond that I’m not sure, it’s just that one image.
Have you always ridden or did you take any breaks?
I’ve ridden fairly consistently. My mum and dad are keen cyclists, so we spent a lot of time cycling together as a family: I used to ride on the back of the tandem with my dad! As a teenager I stopped riding so much, but then in Sixth Form I had a couple of jobs that I needed to get to so I started to cycle for convenience, and that’s when I got excited about riding again.
What types of bikes have you ridden?
I’ve mostly ridden road bikes, though I’ve done a bit of mountain biking. My parents live on the north Wales border where there are some good trails, it would’ve been rude not to!
I recently bought a Croix de Fer for touring, in time for a 5-week ride around the UK last summer.
Can you tell me more about that ride?
I covered about 1,250 miles, starting and ending in Bristol. I rode to Brighton, then up towards Edinburgh, on to Glasgow and back down again. I didn’t train for it, and it was hard work to start with but I soon got into it and loved it. It was at a time when I really needed some headspace.
Are you planning another long ride soon?
I’m actually planning to ride the west and north coast of Scotland in late spring with my girlfriend, for a couple of weeks. We’ll be covering a large chunk of the North Coast 500 route.
Do you name your bikes?
Yes! My Croix de Fer is a girl called Toby, then I have a gorgeous steel framed beast I inherited from my dad called Reg – he’s my town bike. And then I also have a road bike inherited from my dad, but it’s too early in our relationship for a name.
When did you first become interested in fixing bikes?
I’ve been able to do bits and bobs since I was a teenager – my dad showed me the basics. I’ve always known that it was a skill set I wanted to develop. I did a maintenance course at The Bristol Bike Project a couple of years ago and then started volunteering with them last year. It was around the time that my other volunteering had slowed down; I knew I wanted to volunteer still, and I was becoming increasingly bike nerdy, so it made sense.
When did you decide you wanted to be a bike mechanic?
It all happened around the same time. I was becoming frustrated with my translation work, and started to feel like that career wasn’t working for me. At the same time I was volunteering and enjoying the bike stuff, and while out on that summer ride I realised that I wanted to be doing something different. I guess I was hoping for an epiphany, and it came in the form of ‘more bikes’!
The next step after that was continuing with the volunteering, until I eventually saw the Bike Project advertising for a mechanic. I’m proud to say I got the first job I applied for, and feel really jammy for it. I wasn’t super experienced, so they took me on as a trainee: I’m training and working with them one day a week for the time being. I’d definitely like to do more.
So how’s it going so far?
Well, last Tuesday we got a donated bike out and stripped it down, and then started building it back up from scratch. That’s the first time I’d done that, and I got to discover some tools I hadn’t used before, like the headset press which is a lot of fun! Also the crown race remover – a massive tool for such a tiny piece.
What was the first break-through you had?
I wouldn’t really say I’ve had any one breakthrough moment. Over the last few weeks I’ve started volunteering at their Women’s Night, helping other women fix their bikes. I’ve been able to show people what to do, which has made me realise I’m not totally clueless. When I’m in the shop with the boys I sometimes feel a bit of a numpty, but in this different context I feel more like I know what I’m doing.
Do you feel there’s a gender divide?
Not necessarily, it’s just that when I’m in the shop I’m working amongst more experienced people, whereas in the workshop I’m helping women who are less experienced and looking to me for guidance.
I wonder whether might be easier to fit in with the boys as a queer woman, though. I mentioned wanting to build a bike trailer, and Pi suggested teaching me to weld. Soon I’ll be ticking off all the lesbian stereotypes!
What were the biggest challenges you faced as a new mechanic?
Feeling like I don’t know enough! I like being good at things, and I’m still learning so much. It’s challenging to admit to not knowing how to do things. Even mentioning that I’d only just discovered those tools before – that’s going to be in the public domain now! I’ve definitely got a good dose of imposter syndrome.
But I’m having a really great time there and I love going to work. If anything it’s made my fairly shit translation job feel even worse – when I’m doing it I think to myself, I could be fixing bikes! I only do it a couple of days a week but I’m not as motivated on those days.
Do you feel that it’s more challenging being a female mechanic?
No, not necessarily. The Bike Project is a fairly radical and unusual place, and I’ve experienced nothing but support. It can be different in the shop though. A couple of male customers have stared past me whilst looking for someone with a penis.
On the flipside, I was talking to one of the women who shares my office, and she said she’d be looking for a woman to help her in a bike shop. So it also works in my favour, and there’s quite an equal weighting of male and female customers.
What’s the best thing about being a female bike mechanic?
I enjoy doing something unstereotypically female and smashing gender boundaries. I also love volunteering at the Women’s Night and empowering other women to fix their bikes. It’s a really supportive atmosphere; there are women who know more than others, but there’s a general sense that if we aren’t sure, we’ll look it up and learn together. It’s a process of discovery.
Even if the guys aren’t doing anything to make you feel inferior, it’s easy to belittle yourself because you’re afraid of not knowing. Having that safe space to explore together is really powerful.