Woman Alone
by Ruth Jarvis

The lasso whirled round. My God, I thought, he's actually going to do it. I scanned his taciturn face for any sign of a smile, but it might as well have been chiselled out of the baked earth that extended for empty miles around us. My stomach solidified with nerves as the rope sailed through the air and dropped towards my handlebars. I was about to be captured by a cowboy.

Fear of this kind of scenario is one of the greatest disincentives for women travelling alone. "Weren't you scared?" friends say. Well, yes, bloody terrified, I reply, and they look at me disbelievingly: "You're so brave..."

No, I'm not. Nor are most women travellers. Nor would we want to be. Fear keeps you on your toes, stops you taking too many risks, makes you sensitive to the undercurrents. The secret is not to let it dominate you. Anyone, anywhere can encounter aggression and abuse, no more in the Chilean hinterland than on the way back from the shops on a wet Saturday.

The rope flashed ahead of me, then with glorious precision settled over a fence post to my right, so silently that the bird perched there didn't ruffle a feather. It barred the road ahead; I came to a stop. The cowboy trotted towards me and finally cracked the biggest smile this side of Esther Rantzen. "Coffee?" he said, patted the rear end of the blanket that served him as a saddle and pointed towards a shack on the hillside where a young boy was twiddling a coat hangar of a TV aerial. I went over for Nescafé in a mug, eggs and cheese, and an intensive elementary lasso workout.

This, of course, is the beauty of travelling by bike. You're moving fast enough to feel you're getting somewhere, but you're at ground level. People level. The bike becomes your social passport and conversation-starter. Where a man can more easily go into a bar and talk about football, a woman can prop it up outside a shop and come out to find the local children zeroing the clock, fiddling with the gears and, if you're lucky, inviting you back to have a go on theirs (while they, of course, take yours on a little test run...).

Divorced from the tyranny of bus routes and schedules, you're free to travel where you feel comfortable, to move on quickly, to get away from the cities into the back country where, as a rule, people are more friendly, and the terrain more challenging. A side benefit for a woman alone is that you can go at your own pace. It's a bit of a generalisation, but men like to move forever forward, a hundred miles a day and never mind the scenery. We like to feel free to ramble, to take days off, to forget about the destination and enjoy the journey in its own right. When we do want to push on, to get into the sheer physicality, it's great to set your own pace, achieve your own distance targets, listen to the demands of your own body rather than reach the top of a hill and have to strain after a male partner already cresting the next one.

Being alone can take its toll. On one trip along the Galician coast in Spain, I was frustrated to the point of tears at the end of each day when I had a choice of being the focal point of attention in the male-dominated bars or retiring to my tent early without having spoken more than a 'thank you' all day. I'd chosen to eschew the crowds in favour of local colour, but if I'd been honest I'd have acknowledged my need for company and followed the popular pilgrims' path to Santiago instead.

Cycling can be a solitary experience, but unwinding afterwards doesn't have to be. If you're planning a first trip alone, choose a well-travelled route where you'll be sure to meet plenty of other cyclists. Try it on home ground before venturing to anywhere you don't speak the language. It's worth the preparation -- solo travel is the ultimate in women's liberation.

© Ruth Jarvis
Cycling & Mountain Biking Today, September 1995

Ruth is a lost author who's been found.