Tom Robertson

Why Don't More Women Bike Tour?

Jun 13, 2019

On my first bike tour, I pedaled eight hundred miles before encountering another female traveling by herself. By contrast, I met three men riding solo in the first few days.

As a young woman cycling alone across the country, I heard things like “You’re out here alone?” and “Aren’t you afraid?” on a daily basis.

Plenty of women pedal across the country every year, but it’s rare to see them alone. Women tend to cycle with their partners, their best friends, or with guided tour groups. It’s a rational decision: we’re taught to employ the “buddy system” from an early age, and there’s safety in numbers.

Studies have shown that female humans are more averse to taking risks than males. It’s a generalization, but it translates to the open road. In a frequently-cited article by the Scientific American, “How to Get More Bicyclists on the Road” (2009), women were called “the indicator species” of cycling. In other words, if you want to measure how bike-friendly a town or nation really is, just look at what percentage of the riders are female. In the USA, the number of cyclists who identify as female has risen since that article was published. But in our car-centric nation, cycling is still widely regarded as a dangerous, risky activity that’s better suited for warrior-types, aka men. 

When I’m riding my bike, I’m at the mercy of the elements, the traffic, and my fellow humans.

Bicycling isn’t more dangerous than driving, though. Vehicle crashes and other traffic accidents occur with alarming regularity. If a road cyclist is wearing high-vis clothing, obeys traffic laws, and rides in well-lit areas, their risk level isn’t greater than being inside a car. 

The difference is that one forces us to be exposed.

Many women already feel unsafe in the world. The average female isn’t looking for ways to increase her public exposure or her inherent vulnerability. At least in our cars we can lock the doors, lean back against the upholstery, and feel protected inside our own metal bubble. On a bike, there's nowhere to hide. If some creep starts harassing us while we’re cycling, we can't just roll up the windows and drive away. 

Florian Pruller zebras on a bike tour
Traveling by bike forces you to be a part of the world you're traveling through.
Florian Pruller

But the rewards for bicycle touring are vast. As Ashtyn, a young woman who rode her bicycle across the country last summer, puts it, “It’s a pretty crazy feeling knowing there isn’t someone you can just call to come pick you up or take care of you — it’s also very freeing.” For many women, solo travel is the first time they’ve experienced this level of self-reliance. 

The funny part is, with that independence comes a new kind of dependency. In my opinion, we can never truly bike tour alone. At least, I haven’t been able to. In the thousands of miles that I’ve ridden over the last seven years, the reason I’m still alive today is because of the kindness, caution, and compassion of human beings. Even while alone on the road, I find myself part of a larger community. Sometimes I need help. And sometimes, I offer it to others. 

Cycling keeps me humble. When I’m riding my bike, I’m at the mercy of the elements, the traffic, and my fellow humans. That's honestly why I love cycling: it feels real. There's wind on my skin, sun in my eyes, or rain splashing on my shoes, and the sound of the world in my ears. To me, a car can feel like a sensory deprivation chamber. I get sleepy in vehicles. On my bike, I feel more alive.

For this very reason, some women have chosen to see the world by bicycle. 

My advice to women who want to ride more: ride with your friends. Group rides will help you develop skills and confidence until you’re ready to ride on your own. It can be a scary world out there, but it's also a fun one: full of mud puddles and rainbows and sights to see. Take it slow. Enjoy your surroundings. And most importantly, ride your bike. You’re the indicator species: a beacon of hope. A sign that things are getting better. 

Rachel Rosenbaum on her first day bike touring Northern Tier Route
Starting their first day of the Northern Tier Route, together.
Rachel Rosenbaum

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Dale Rabideau June 30, 2019, 4:50 PM

I've mtb'ed for years and then took a two day class on mtb'ing (RandROutside) and learned a lot. Likewise, I've rode BRAN (Bike Ride Across Nebraska) and local group rides, yet after years on the road, I took a class on commuting (Cycling Savvy) and learned a lot. Thus, I would encourage some professional training to sharpen one's skills and get more confidence.

Alenka Vrecek June 29, 2019, 12:57 PM

Thanks to articles like yours Olivia, women solo riders are on the rise!

We need to inspire more female riders to connect and ride. Bike riding provides a new outlook on life, increases confidence, improves health and erases borders.

Christina Howes June 28, 2019, 5:31 AM

I'm 56 and about to do my first solo bike tour. I crossed the Pyrenees from coast to coast with my husband years ago, 1000 kms and many famous mountain passes, and since then I haven't done any touring. I had a kid, too much work and other hobbies (rock climbing) that distracted me. After a foot injury I am no longer able to climb and so, what better opportunity to get back into something that I really love as well? So, here goes! People wonder why I don't want company, how I can go it alone in a so called dangerous world.. well, I'm in Europe, my tour is in the North of Spain.. yes yes, of course there are dangers, but there are dangers everywhere, and this isn't the most periIious place in the world! I mountain bike alone all the time, as the guys don't seem to want to go with me (maybe they think they'll have to go slow.. but boy..they don't know me!! I don't need them anyway), and I can't find any women who are adventurous enough. If I wait for someone to come along with me on my tour, (my husband has a knee injury and can't cycle anymore), I'll wait forever! So in a few weeks, I'll be out there on the road crossing the borders between Spain and France and enjoying my life. Can't wait!

David Blair June 27, 2019, 3:56 PM

As a Warmshowers host I have had the pleasure of having several women stay at my "cabin" in the woods and have enjoyed their stories on why they are riding. Recently , couple of months ago, Susan Rose from Flagstaff AZ stayed there. I have followed her journey and she has been an inspiration. She is in her 60s.

Linda Gryczan June 26, 2019, 4:10 PM

Why don't more women ride? Because the world is not safe for women. I am fortunate to have grown up in a family that encouraged me to go out in the world. My first family supported tour was at age 15. At 17 I rode with a friend from Denver to Montana. I've mostly ridden with others because I'm an extrovert who doesn't do much of anything without a dozen friends. Now at 65, when it takes more training to achieve a lesser level of fitness, I am at last touring the Great Divide alone. I have the maturity for long days of meditation in the saddle. I enjoy the freedom of riding at my own pace. Except for two arms length encounters with bears, I feel absolutely safe in the woods. I have found cycling companions on the route. I leapfrog my way down the Route with other tourists, loving the feeling of getting up in the morning, not knowing where I will sleep that night, or who I will meet.

To get more women riding, we need to stop treating little girls as cute and delicate princesses. We have to train boys and men to consider females atheir tequals. When we create a world safe for women, more women will ride.

Until then, get out and ride. It's safer than you think.

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