Before I finally worked up the courage to start cycling, I spent a lot of time thinking about what parts of my life might have already prepared me for getting on the road.
Driving was the obvious one. I’d never enjoyed it. An anxious daughter of anxious parents, learning to drive was a hellish experience for all of us — leaving countless tears shed and an inherent belief that I was a dangerous driver. Despite it all, I finally got my license at 18 not by choice but by necessity. My boyfriend at the time had his license suspended after being caught speeding, so it was up to me to take on the role of chauffeur. I kept it up for the length of his six month suspension and haven’t driven since.
In the end, the thing that actually best prepared me for being a cyclist on the road was something I had much more experience with and enjoyed significantly more than driving. It’s also something I never anticipated.
As a woman, I’m used to being made to feel like I don’t belong. From sporting teams to social gatherings to classrooms and meeting rooms — I’ve had plenty of encounters with people (usually men) who feel like they’re more entitled to the space than I am. Sometimes they make that feeling explicit — through purposeful exclusion or bullying. Other times, it stays hidden below the surface — disguised by catcalls, wandering eyes or a lack of respect for personal space. Most women I know have experienced it and can sense it the moment they walk into a room. It’s familiar. But despite this familiarity, I didn’t expect to find it on the road.
But find it I did. It wasn’t long into my cycling journey that the familiar feeling crept over me. I’d cycled a handful of times around the quiet streets of my low traffic neighbourhood, only ever passing a car or two. But, my confidence building, I felt like it was time to travel a little further afield. My friends and I would cycle to Crystal Palace to meet the dinosaurs — something I’d looked forward to ever since moving to South London. We’d barely been cycling for ten minutes when that familiar sense of dread washed over me. A man driving his car behind me had pulled in too close and was sat right on my tail. Every now and then he’d rev his engine reminding me that he was right behind me. It was aggressive. It was intimidating. It was familiar. It was bullshit.
Immediately I was reminded of all of the times when entitled men had tried to intimidate me out of a space where they felt I didn’t belong. I was reminded of the colleagues who had spoken over me in meeting rooms, the school peers who had mansplained simple concepts (incorrectly), the tennis players who wouldn’t let me practice with them even though I’d won more games. And intuitively, I did what I always did in those situations. I took my space and I defended it ferociously.
Instead of timidly moving closer to the kerb and risking my own safety, I took the lane. I kept cycling, joyously and calmly, stubborn in the belief that no one was going to make me feel like I didn’t belong there. Moments later, a gap in oncoming traffic opened up and the impatient and intimidating driver was able to overtake me safely. Everything was fine.
After that day, I started noticing all of the parallels between being a cyclist and being a woman. I read stories of drivers who had collided with cyclists and saw the media and public commentary asking what the cyclist had been doing, had they been wearing a helmet, had they been wearing hi-vis? And in those stories I saw the victim blaming that was all too familiar from stories of sexual assault, where women were the ones questioned on why they had been out and what they had been wearing. The driver, like the assaulter, it seemed, was never the one at fault.
I never expected that my experiences as a woman would be the thing that best prepared me for my life as a cyclist. But it has. The lessons I’ve learnt about taking up space, about not being made to feel like I don’t belong, about recognising that when others put me in danger it is their fault and not mine — have all helped me be a more confident, assertive and happy cyclist on the roads. And just like how I’ll never apologise for my womanhood or my femininity, I won’t be made to feel sorry for being a cyclist. I am just as important as any man, just as I am as important as any driver. And I’m not sorry about it.