Friday, October 4, 2013

Single Cycling Female or Riding Alone

Recently I was asked, "On your rides, do you ever get nervous being alone as a female?" The question caught me just a bit off guard, as I hadn't given it much thought. Fortunately, it was asked in written form, so the blank stare that came across my face wasn't visible. There have been numerous posts through which I've mentioned I almost exclusively ride alone, so the inquiry really shouldn't have been as difficult as it was to answer in the moment. I struggled for an answer at the time, but I feel better prepared (at least somewhat) to answer the question now.  I believe part of what threw me off was my own lack of clarity as to whether the question revolved around concerns about breakdowns on the side of the road and my inability to resolve whatever issues might arise (I've also written thoroughly about my mechanical ineptitude), or if it was in regard to my personal well-being as a solitary cyclist, who happens to also be female. Since it was a brief question and I didn't ask for follow-up or additional information, I think it's easier to address both concerns, as I believe they are both valid possibilities.

The reality is I had to take a step back to question myself as to whether or not there'd been a point in my cycling life that I had concerns about riding alone. The answer quickly discovered was, "Yes!" and in that moment I felt ridiculous for ever having thought otherwise. Of course there are times when I have felt unsafe or nervous about riding alone. I think most people have had some sort of experience that has shaken them a bit, or perhaps completely rocked their confidence while cycling, but hopefully it doesn't keep the individual from getting back on the road.

I decided to break my thoughts down into two sub-topics: possible breakdowns and riding alone. If you have ideas/suggestions on the matter or your own experiences to share, I would encourage you to leave comments as I certainly won't be able to discuss every possible scenario in one post. Instead, I thought I would give more of my personal, overall view of cycling by myself.

Possible Breakdowns
Try as I might, there is something that doesn't quite work in my noggin' when it comes to fixing mechanical issues. I use the term "mechanical" here in a loose fashion because I am really referring to anything other than the most basic use of a screwdriver or hammer. It's not that I don't fully understand how to do something; the problem comes, however, when I have to actually engage in fixing the problem. One of my first recollections when Sam and I were dating was telling him how proud I was of myself for putting my newly-purchased bookshelf together (it was one of those ply-board type of objects with only three shelves). When he saw the shelf for the first time, I'm sure he thought I was playing the helpless-girl card as he didn't seem impressed, but he soon discovered my skill with putting things together or fixing things is almost non-existent.

When I began cycling and knew I'd be doing so alone, I thought it was important that I be able to fix minor issues (such as a flat tire, or putting a slipped chain back on), especially following my first flat after which I had to call for a ride. I would watch Sam take items on the bike apart and then watch as he put them back together. I viewed online videos and read tutorials. I felt ridiculous having to go through all of this just to be able to patch a flat tire. It really isn't that difficult, or at least it shouldn't be. It's truly not the patching itself that's the problem, but all that surrounds it. I even had Sam let me fix a tube at home while he watched. All went just fine, so I suddenly felt empowered to do this on my own.

The reality is that it is different changing or patching a tube on the side of the road. There's potentially a lot of traffic and there may not be a safe place to pull over. Not to mention (at least if you are me) the panic suddenly felt when I realize I'm going to have to do this alone. Honestly, sometimes it just makes more sense to carry a spare tube and worry about patching a flat later at home if I want to reuse the tube. Do I follow this advice? Rarely... but if you don't want to make your life difficult, it could be a good rule to follow. I do try to have tires on my bike that are 1) not worn past their life expectancy, which can create a higher probability of getting a flat, and 2) offer a higher level of puncture resistance from the get go so as to avoid problems at all.
The last flat I experienced wasn't too long ago after I ran through a patch of glass on some cheap tires, but fortunately, I wasn't riding by myself. While I should've used this as a time to practice in a real-life situation, I was grateful not to deal with it alone.
Since tires (in my experience) seem to be the most likely cause of a roadside breakdown, being able to repair or change these is important, so I like to remind myself to practice once in awhile so I don't have that panicked feeling when it does happen. The more I ride, I also consider getting CO2 cartridges so I don't have to deal with the often difficult to use (or, perhaps more accurately, the more exhausting to use) mini-pump carried in my saddle bag.

I have experienced other roadside issues, too. On one ride, my chain broke. It wasn't as simple as just getting it back on the crank because one of the links was physically broken (and sadly, not the master link). Even though I was on a group ride, I was at the rear of the pack when this happened and I was left stranded until someone realized I was missing. I've had a wheel hub seize while I was riding alone, which prevented the rear wheel from moving at all, and I've experienced shifting issues to the point that I was riding single speed for a good distance. The bottom line is that the more I ride, the more things seem to happen, so keeping the bike well tuned is always a good idea. My motto has been to be prepared, but not to fixate on all of the possible roadside hiccups.

As far as breakdowns go, I have had my moments of nervousness or fear about what could happen, but I have made it my mission to attempt to learn as much as I can, have the tools on hand that I need for more common malfunctions, and carry a phone on me at all times in case of need for a last resort call for assistance.

Riding Alone
Addressing the question of riding alone as a female is more difficult for me, in some respects. On one hand, I think nothing of jumping on my bike and heading out for a long ride alone, but on the other, there have been moments in the past when I'd have preferred to have someone along for the ride. I am not one to live a life full of paranoia and fear of possible mishaps, but at the same time, I think it's important not to put myself in bad situations either.

If I'm completely truthful, my first line of defense is often my intuition. It's not a strength for everyone I am aware, and I have my own moments of not paying attention to it, but if that little voice inside is whispering (or yelling) about something I'm doing or a place I'm headed, I have tried my best to actually heed its warning (and frankly, it's saved me on more than one occasion). I have been extremely fortunate when riding alone and have not encountered too many odd situations with other people.

In fact, one of the great joys of riding for me is getting to share that love with others who are doing the same. They have an appreciation and/or can often relate to what the other is saying.
"Did you see that driver back there?!"
"Yes! She nearly ran me into the ditch because she was looking on the floor of her car for something."
"At least it's a beautiful day to be outside."
"It sure is. Glad to be on a bike."
"Enjoy your day!"
"You too!"
Although the conversation above is fairly innocuous, I've had some interesting, fun and sometimes bizarre conversations with strangers while riding. They tend to be short because usually the other person is passing me, but every once in awhile it's nice to hear another cyclists' ideas or perspective on life, riding a bike, the local scene, and so on.
*Image found here
Another aspect to point out is that I don't live in a city. Well, I live in a city, but I don't live in a city. Meaning, the population in this area is low compared to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or even the Denver metro area. The entire county population is estimated at just under 300,000, and the surrounding counties are not high in number either. It doesn't mean that crazy things don't take place or that we don't have our share of crime, but the reality is that with fewer people, the instances that arise tend to also be lower when compared to large cities.

For some people, urban versus suburban or even rural could make a difference with perception of personal safety. Having lived in the Los Angeles area for several years and frequently walked the streets by myself, I can say that even there I didn't feel in danger or unsafe. I was often more aware of what was taking place around me, but I didn't let it keep me from the activities I wanted to do. For some, living in this area would have been an absolute nightmare, but I think knowing and being comfortable with our own strengths and weaknesses can help avoid sticky situations as well.

There are also some women who carry pepper spray (or some facsimile thereof) with them when they ride alone. I haven't felt the need to do so, but I think if it makes a person feel better able to handle a situation, there is nothing wrong with being prepared for a potential incident that we hope never actually happens (I would recommend that if opting for this choice, be sure to know how to use the spray). I have lived in areas that I chose to carry pepper spray with me after dark, so I really do believe it is a personal decision. Keeping local police/emergency numbers programmed into a cell phone can't be a bad idea either.

In reality, every individual has to decide what is right for her (or him). For me, I have spent a great portion of my life engaged in solitary activities, so to take that alone time away would create a void and probably destroy a big piece of me. While I do like to ride with other people, I appreciate the ability to tackle a ride on my own, to get lost in my thoughts, or to work through problems. Do I get nervous on occasion being out alone? Sure, but the benefits far outweigh any possible down side.

10 comments:

  1. Most of my rides alone have been around town, but a ride like the one pictured above appeals to me on a visceral level. Maybe one day my body will catch up with my heart.

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    1. :O) It is pretty, isn't it? It reminds me of what it looks like here, so it seemed like a good match.

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  2. I would absolutely worry more about riding alone in the countryside than the city. I don't ever feel unsafe riding late at night in Nashville, but I would worry about having to change a tire on my own on a long rural ride.

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    1. Agreed. In many respects, a city ride could feel safer than a rural ride (especially late in the evening).

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  3. I helped my partner practice fixing flats. So she could, if she had to. But I ask her to call me if she encounters a flat on a solo ride. I figure why should she get stressed out when she doesn't need to? I've probably fixed 50 flats over the years and my buddies and I were taking our bikes apart and putting them back together at age 7 or 8 - so fixing problems with bikes is an easier task for me. And believe me, there are plenty of things she can do better than me! So it evens out in the end.

    We usually ride with spare tubes. Often times patches are dried out or noneffective after spending time in the bike bag. We keep patches on hand for when the spare gets punctured - which has happened a couple times. Plus, if you are using compressed air in lieu of a pump, it would be no fun finding out a patch did not seal properly.

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    1. I think spare tubes are ideal. We recently went through a bout with an entire package of "bad" patches. I believe it was more likely that they were old and couldn't hold anymore. Unfortunately, neither had a spare tube when the flat occurred, so I ended up riding alone the (short distance, fortunately) rest of the way home to get what we needed. I think it was a great reminder though (especially for me, who is generally on my own) to carry what I need instead of expecting that it will always be fine.

      Practice makes perfect (or at least it seems to help), so I think getting to do so only helps when the time comes to repair a flat. It's nice that you're available to help your partner if she has a solo breakdown. I have discovered that there are times when it just isn't feasible (for example, if the rescue party is out of town) to depend on someone else to come to my aid. Plus, I know I just feel better having the confidence/ability to do it on my own. I think the worst part, as mentioned in the post, is having to use the mini pump to get up to a reasonable air pressure to get home... especially with higher pressure tires.

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  4. I can't speak to being a female and riding alone, but I do ride alone more than with others and rarely scale back my big schemes based on that fact. Its less true of late, but historically I've been pretty much a solo recreationalist. There have been times--spread out over the years and mostly random--when I'd suddenly be aware of where I was and the fact that I was all alone. I will say that being on a bike and discovering yourself miles from nowhere and thinking of all that CAN go wrong will simultaneously do two things: 1) it will make you feel insanely vulnerable regardless of your experience level and 2) it will deepen whatever feelings of empowerment and self-reliance you already have. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing if you've progressed to a point where you've accumulated the right kind of knowledge and experience.

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    1. "I will say that being on a bike and discovering yourself miles from nowhere and thinking of all that CAN go wrong will simultaneously do two things: 1) it will make you feel insanely vulnerable regardless of your experience level and 2) it will deepen whatever feelings of empowerment and self-reliance you already have." Couldn't have said it better! :O)

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  5. So I decided to go it alone and around 20 miles in, a hummer pulls up close to me, honks it horn, and the guy in the passenger side yells "smack" and proceeds to act like he is smacking me. Arrrgh!

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    1. I seem to run into these "types" of individuals (generally young males) here. I wonder if it's just a breeding ground for them (the high altitude)? Not sure. Honestly, I probably would've laughed if it had been me because it's just become so ridiculous with some of these run-ins. I guess I think they're just trying to see what they can get away with or what kind of reaction they'll get out of me. Hopefully, it wasn't too bad for you in this case... I know it gets old - and quick!

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