By Ali Burke
Growing up, I never thought of myself as athletic, or even strong. In fact, I felt I was rather scrawny and that my physical abilities were not quite up to par. I turned up my nose at sports teams, gym class, even a friendly game of frisbee… But I always rode my bicycle.
Who could possibly have imagined that 20-some years later I would be over 15,000 km into a transcontinental bike tour that will take me from the Arctic Ocean to the tip of South America, over the course of two years? On this journey I have pedalled through snow-covered mountains in the Yukon, cacti-filled deserts in Mexico, and over high altitude passes in the Andes. For me, cycling has always been about freedom and independence—and the fitness that follows, well that’s just the icing on the cake.
The bicycle as an empowering force for women has a rich and important history. In fact, Susan B. Anthony, a key organizer of the women’s rights movement, wrote in 1896 “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” It seems almost shocking that something so ordinary could have had such a huge impact on the lives of women in the late 1800s and early 1900s—but when women started to ride bicycles it shocked the world.
At this time women were fighting for basic rights, among them the right to vote, freedom of movement and the freedom to choose unrestrictive clothing. These issues were addressed head on when women began riding bicycles. Women’s ability to move around had traditionally been constrained by the need for a chauffeur or chaperone, but on a bicycle women could be independent and explore the world around them in an entirely new way. As women began to cycle more, they discovered that corsets and heavy petticoats were very impractical for cycling—thus appeared bloomers and more comfortable clothing. These changes didn’t come without controversy and push-back. Men’s groups and much of the media protested these changes stating, “It is not a proper thing for ladies to ride the bicycle.”
It’s hard to believe that at one time cycling was seen as a privilege for women, as opposed to a right. But when on tour I’m reminded of this quite often. In much of the world it’s still considered “unlady-like” to ride a bike. The notion that I, a woman, have pedalled through three continents over the course of ten months is often met with shock and disbelief. Sometimes, it’s downright uncomfortable to be riding on my bike. In more populated areas of Central America, I could not ride very far without catcalls coming from every direction.
However, there is something about pushing myself and 100-odd pounds of gear up those hills that makes these catcalls seem inconsequential. I’ve come this distance, pedalling almost everyday with nothing but my own strength—and I can’t think of anything more empowering. The challenges that I face on this trip make the rewards incredibly rich. The vista at the top of a mountain pass, the family that takes you in after a difficult day, or even the joy of a simple hot meal—all of these things make every drop of sweat worth it.
Among the greatest rewards of touring by bicycle are the people we meet, the stories we hear, and the opportunity to share our story. It’s in these, often unexpected, encounters that we’re able to normalize the idea that a woman can explore the world by bicycle, and hopefully inspire other women and girls to get out on their bikes.
For me this trip is a daily reminder that cycling is not only a means to exercise the body, it is also a means to exercise our rights as women.
Ali Burke is an adventure cyclist, and a recovering social worker. She and her partner are currently on a two-year cycling expedition from Anchorage, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. You can read more about their journey at www.cyclingtheamericas.com.
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