Cycling as a woman
One of the panel sessions at the recent Cycle Touring Festival was entitled ‘Cycling as a Woman’. I was asked to sit on the panel alongside touring aficionados Emily Chappell and Helen Pike. We covered many issues in the discussion that I thought would be useful to revisit here, especially as I often receive emails from women wondering about the practicalities of their cycle tour, or from worried parents wanting reassurance that their daughters won’t be subjected to sexual harassment.
(Short answer to that final point – I get more sexual harassment from van drivers in London than I do on a tour)
- How to I keep my hair clean/tidy?
My unhelpful answer to this at the time was a smug, “Well, I don’t wash my hair,” so here is a much more useful and detailed response!
I used to wash my hair regularly, even daily on my cycle around Britain (easy when I was using someone else’s shower…). A year later I toured with Otesha around the South West of England. We camped and stayed on farms and in people’s back gardens – our shower was usually a solar shower (a rubber blister pack of water that you leave sitting in the sun until it warms up then dangle from a tree), or we’d beg our way into the local leisure centre. I really struggled in the first days and weeks – I’d never been without running water before, and I felt dirty and itchy and uncomfortable. This is one of the reasons I am such a reluctant camper! I’d heard the rumours that hair starts to clean itself if you leave it long enough, and not having access to reliable cleaning facilities, together with all that I was learning through Otesha about the environmental impact of using too much water, I decided to try and be more natural with my body. I trained my hair gradually, going from washing it every two days to every three, to four, five, six etc. This was four years ago and now I wash my hair roughly once a month, or whenever I remember. It doesn’t itch or flake (I used to have terrible dandruff, which has now gone), it doesn’t smell, and it looks fine. And, when I go on tour, it makes life so much more simple!
Of course, that was a sustained and concerted effort, but one I would definitely recommend as a long-term solution.
As a short-term solution, use a Buff or bandana to cover those greasy locks – Buffs are amazing at tidying everything away and come in a range of colours and designs. Dry shampoo is a great way of freshening you up. Try and get used to not washing your hair quite so often in advance of your tour, if you can. Or you can always shave your head…
2. How do I keep myself clean and tidy?
Two separate changes of clothes, one for cycling and one for when you’ve finished cycling, are great for keeping the sweaty smell at bay. Once you’ve parked up at your destination, off come the cycling clothes and on go the clean ones. I always have some sort of wash before you go to bed – even if it is just a baby-wipe shower. There’s nothing worse than climbing into your sleeping bag with filthy feet and sticky arms from all the suncream you’ve inevitably been slathering yourself in. Any source of water will do; on one particularly hot day on the Otesha tour we arrived at our farm destination with no shower facilities, so I sponged myself down using the water in the butt that the sheep drank from! I felt amazing afterwards.
3. Dealing with your period
I use Mooncup – a reusable menstrual cup. The benefits of Mooncup are on their website here, and I find it fantastic for touring – it packs lighter than a box of tampons, and there is no waste. If you insert it properly, you shouldn’t feel anything while sitting on the saddle. If you’ve never used one, I recommend getting one now. I swear by them and would never use any other form of sanitary ware. The difficulty is finding places to empty and clean it. Public toilets are fine – I often wait in my cubicle until I can hear the sinks are free, then come out, rinse, go back in and insert. If you don’t have access to proper toilet facilities, empty it in the bush – it’s organic matter so there’s no problem in doing this – then give the cup a rinse with your water bottle.
4. Personal security and sexual harassment
None of us had ever experienced any issues with personal security and sexual harassment. In fact, we found it to be the opposite – people the world over will offer help to a solo female, whereas the solo male will be left to fend for himself. A solo male will often also be a target for thugs, which tends not to happen to a female. It was very telling that Kevin from the ‘Cycling as a Man’ session told a story about having to use his wood-chopping hatchet to defend himself against would-be thieves. Dervla Murphey only ever used her pistol once, and that was on a bear.
Emily remarked afterwards that it had been lovely that the session focussed much more on the practicalities of cycling as a woman, rather than focussing on the ‘can I do it?’ mentality. It was much more popular than the Cycling as a Man session!
If there are other questions about cycling as a woman, please do email me or leave a comment below, and I’ll add them to the article.