About a month ago, a meeting was called. El gathered a bunch of women cyclists together in the upstairs area of Roll for the Soul, to discuss the lack of community among the women cyclists of Bristol.
We agreed that there are plenty of women cycling in Bristol now, and it was time to create a feeling of cohesion among us. We all brought forth ideas, from putting together women-only day rides, to weekend camping adventures, and drinks socials.
We held our first social on 11th May, and I’m really pleased to say that it was a big success! There was a great turn-out, taking over the downstairs area of RftS, where women mingled, drank beer, ate awesome veggie food and got to know their fellow lady riders.
We paused the chatter to have a group-wide discussion, which gave people the platform to promote their own events and groups, and show everyone what’s already available to get involved in. I’ll list these here.
They’re not all women-only, so lads, you’re allowed to join in too (unless we say otherwise):
Food Cycle collect waste food from local businesses by bike, and distribute it to various charities and local ‘skipchens’ for use.
They also cook and serve their own community meals across the UK.
If you have time during the week (or on a Saturday morning), they’re always looking for volunteers to cycle around the city with a trailer and collect food that’s been pre-agreed with the businesses involved.
It’s a lovely way to cycle around the city and give something back to the community.
Women Cyclists of Bristol – Closed group for women cyclists, to discuss anything we wouldn’t talk about in a mixed group (from street harassment to periods). They also have their own Twitter account and email address, where you can get in touch if you need advice or want to share something with other women cyclists in the city.
Bristol Biking Bitches – This group is full of women who love to get out on their bikes as much as possible, and frequently post in the group to invite others along for the ride. Full of roadies and MTBers, they’re a great group to be part of if you want to go riding with some company.
I wasn’t taking notes on the night, so naturally I’ve probably forgotten a few things. If there’s anything I should add to this, please let me know.
The next social will be at Roll for the Soul at 7pm, on Thursday 8th June. Hope to see you there!
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!