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“Freedom to Ride”?

Appealing to the “freedom to ride” is increasingly popular in the discourse of cyclists and for some cycle campaigners has gained status as a rallying ‘call to arms’*.  But it’s a call that I have struggled to resonate with my personal experience or my increasing activity in promoting access and participation in cycling.  In fact, I have felt downright uncomfortable with this appeal to an intensely political slogan, it’s only cycling after all!

Firstly, I have somehow associated the phrase with the fixed-wheel cycling culture of hipsters; an association with a subculture largely known for its style and fashion above all else; this populist image of the hipster subculture presents pretty much the antithesis to my main reason for feeling uncomfortable; “freedom to ride” is unavoidably imbued with heavyweight and significant antecedents within the civil rights movement of 1960s America.

Freedom Riders risked their lives, suffering violent attacks to take brave and world-changing direct action challenging the illegal racial segregation and discrimination in the southern states of America.  Can the right to cycle really figure anywhere on the same spectrum as this as a political act?  Can the ‘cycle movement’ (whatever that may be) really adopt and gain power from a maxim so imbued with such political heritage?  I haven’t answered this question for myself entirely but I have in completing my first, largely solo cycling tour understood more about what “freedom to ride” means for me, my own privileges as a woman cyclist and how these experiences inform the work and activism I do to encourage cycling.

Meandering the roads, admiring the views and stopping frequently for cake while cycling the 750 miles from Otley in Yorkshire to Orkney is not a feat on the scale of a pedalled circumnavigation of the globe.  But for a first-time tourer it’s a fair challenge in physical and mental terms, not to mention the navigational!  Three weeks of pedalling provided plenty of time for ruminating on “why?”, as did the frequent posing of the question from others, most often accompanied by asking which charity I was ‘doing it for’?  (none, by the way).

“Why not?” and “just for fun” tripped fairly easily off the tongue to start with.  This strategy of providing enough of an answer to make clear it was a personal undertaking but skirting deeper discussion failed eventually to stand-up to the miles of mulling it over in self-scrutiny (nb: I am not deluded enough to think that the average passer-by or ferry passenger was really interested in a ‘deep and meaningful’!).

So inevitably, as I pedalled on (and on, and on….) I gained greater insight on not only what was important to me in this endeavour but how my own experiences and privileges inform the causes and work I feel passionate about.  So, “because I can” became a more appropriate and important response to the question of “why?” as my understanding of the privileges that make up my “freedom to ride” became articulated:

  • I am physically capable: I have good health, high levels of fitness and no disabilities that affect my ability to ride a bike.
  • I am technically competent: my dad bought me a bike and had the patience and skills to teach me to ride it.  Over recent years I have been helped by many others to improve my riding skills.
  • I am emotionally resilient and have good mental health: this trip was important for self-esteem and being alone.  But I had enough ambition to set off in the first place, I knew I was ultimately resilient enough and had the support in place to manage my own anxieties and fears (I could always phone my dad to come pick me up…..!)
  • I am financially able and independent: I can afford to buy and maintain my bicycle, afford the costs of accommodation etc and take the time out of paid employment to make the trip.
  • It is legally and culturally acceptable: I live, and toured in, a country where it is accepted that I, as a woman, ride a bike and travel on my own.  While some of my family may have looked mildly concerned, it is okay for me to check in to hostels, drink in pubs and eat in restaurants on my own.  Within the informed boundaries I set (cycling only in the daytime, made arrangements to check in with friends, etc.) I felt safe for the entirety of the journey – not to say there weren’t a few panicky moments but more because of my anxieties rather than actual danger.  In fact, I received less hassle as a woman and as a cyclist than I expected.  My independence and right to do this is not questionable.

All of this resulted in me feeling a level of freedom and liberation that I have not experienced in a long time, if ever.  This is truly what a bicycle and cycling can give you.  Benefits.  But only if you have the freedom to get started in the first place.  And for so many people, and for so many girls and women specifically across the world this is not the case, they do not have the “freedom to ride”.  Again, I am reminded that there is very little in life that is truly just about the individual and that “the personal is political”.  So the phrase has gathered new meaning for me and will continue to inform my values and the work I do to make this freedom a reality for more girls and women – locally in Bristol and internationally.

* Google tells me it is also fairly popular amongst bikers, particularly Harley Davidson riders, and snowboarders..

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