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Touring into trouble
JOSIE DEW is a keen cycle tourist. Here she explains how she deals with the kind of harassment and problems experienced by many women cyclists
Sometimes being a girl on a bicycle can cause problems; the first of which is men. From my observations there seems to be an alarming number of men who would obviously prefer to have been born a bicycle saddle. 'Lucky saddle!' (and worse) are cries with which female pedallers are all too familiar.
Groups of workmen are the main culprits, although once a taxi driver leant out of his window and patted me on the posterior as he drove past. Although fairly rare for Britain, bottom-patting (in my experience) appears to be all the rage in Mediterranean countries. I think this has something to do with the fact that the majority of the hot-blooded population rides around on mopeds. This type of transport gives easy access and adjustment of speed to take advantage of the unsuspecting lone female cyclist. Here I emphasise the word 'lone' as my rump has always been left well alone when cycling accompanied by a man.
I never cease to be amazed at the number of flashers I've come across on my travels: men who obviously glean considerable satisfaction at the mere prospect of dropping their trousers. I was 16 when such an event first happened to me. I was cycling alone in the Lake District, and I saw the man from a distance walking away from me along the road. When I drew level he turned round and, with a manic grin, exposed all. I got such a fright that I shot up the hill as if I had a turbo-booster attached.
Apart from this and one other incident all my experiences have occurred abroad. The usual tactic is for men to overtake me in their cars and to crawl along suspiciously just in front of me, casting an unnerving ogle in their rear view mirrors.
If I stop, they stop. If I turn round and cycle back the way I came, they turn round and follow me. Others will drive well ahead, stop the car and pretend to get out for a pee. As I pedal past they shout obscenities and give me a full frontal.
And it's not just a certain breed of man either. I've been a victim of the unwanted attentions of workmen, teenagers and, last year in Switzerland, a business man driving a BMW.
But how to deal with it? Do you shout back? Do you throw stones? Do you try to ignore it and pretend you don't care? Or do you inform the police? I've tried all these and don't know which one I'd recommend. This is because every situation has been so different despite the men all having similar intentions.
Once, cycling in France, I was followed by a tenacious van driver who finally stopped up the road and got on with the sordid business he had in mind. I was determined to show I couldn't care less so as I approached I broke into a chirpy whistle, breaking off only to greet my French flasher with a merry "Bonjour, Monsieur!" as I passed. My casual air seemed to do the trick because moments later he roared by in a cloud of fumes and gave me, at least, no further trouble.
Another time, in Austria, I'd had one of those days when nothing goes right. I'd burnt my porridge, lost a sock, had a head-on collision with an escaped sheep, heard a fat Fraulein scream at me for leaning my bike against her campsite office wall (she said I'd damage it), and I'd cycled into a headwind all day in torrential, freezing, rain. So when a lorry driver jumped out of his cab looking ready for action, it really was the last straw. Exasperated I headed straight for him, wielding my bicycle pump intending, to deliver a solid blow. Before he could gather his senses (or his underpants) I had disappeared off down the road.
Once in Spain, I was camping in a farmer's field with my friend. It was dark and quite late. With transistor pinned to ear I was feeling pretty pleased, as I'd managed to tune into Radio Gibraltar. Suddenly and violently, Mel elbowed me in the side. "Ow!", I said. "What's the matter with you?"
"Sssshhh!", sssshhhed Mel, "something just brushed past the tent."
I gulped hard and momentarily stopped breathing. We lay rigid, waiting, ears straining into the silence. Nothing happened. I was beginning to think Mel had imagined it when suddenly we heard voices and saw flashes of torchlight on the tent shell. Again I gulped - only louder. I looked at Mel who, from what I could make out, had died of fright. "We've got to do something!" I whispered urgently.
The 'senores' outside started shouting. We didn't want to shout back for fear of identifying our sex. For all they knew we could be male. Tension in the tent was increasing and Mel had resumed lying corpse-like, obviously preferring to play dead. I had adopted a dog-pose and was ready to spring into action.
Time was running out. When I detected at least three men's voices I thought, 'We must take preventative measures', and stirred Mel into action.
In the dark we hastily collected a supply of potential weapons: Swiss Army knife, bicycle pump, whistle. It was a meagre collection which did little to boost confidence.
It's on occasions like this that you realise how vulnerable you are when camping. There are no windows, no sturdy walls and no emergency exit. Zipped up in a mesh of rip-stop nylon you are all ears but no eyes. You are also open to attack.
What is needed is a periscope and an underground bunker. An armed guard or two wouldn't come amiss either. It's times like these you wish you were safely tucked up in your own bed instead of lying miles from home in a wheat field surrounded by potential pants-droppers.
One such specimen stealthily crept up and unzipped part of the outer tent. But we were ready. I switched on my bike light blinding our intruder and then went into war cry mode while wielding ye trusty bicycle pump. Meanwhile Mel flicked open the knife and blew enthusiastically on the whistle.
Such a fracas was obviously not what the boys outside had bargained for. Fumbling with fright to pull up their trousers they stumbled over each other in their haste to scarper. It did the trick - we had no further trouble that night.
In a foreign country, reporting such dubious and kinky characters to the police is not a simple affair. In fact, because of the time spent fumbling with language difficulties, lack of evidence, identification etc, it is a positive headache. Not a lot can be done as, basically, it's your word against his.
In a high street bank robbery witnesses can be amazingly thin on the ground, but with cases of indecent exposure they are virtually non-existent. Of course, the man will claim he was only having a pee, and how are you supposed to prove otherwise?
In Britain I wouldn't hesitate to go to the police, but apart from the first 'showing' in the Lake District (when I was too terrified to do anything other than hightail it over the horizon) I've never had a repeat performance in this country.
Until a few months ago that is.
I was cycling along a narrow country lane near the South Downs. A beige Vauxhall Cavalier approached and then pulled over to park at the entrance of a field. I thought nothing of it and carried on past. Just up the road the same car passed me. Again I wasn't at all suspicious and carried on cycling, but as I turned the corner at the top of the hill I saw it again - parked just off the road. This time my heart started pounding; the signs were all too familiar. As I drew level a curly-haired man stepped out of the car revealing all.
Any tinges of fear I may have had immediately vanished. Suddenly I was overcome by a feeling of angered frustration. What a cheek! I thought. What right has this man got to mar my ride and threaten me in such a disgusting and domineering way? He's not going to get away with this one!
I executed an about turn, stopping in the road a short distance from his car. Out came pad and pencil and feeling like PC Plod I took his number. Never have I seen a pair of boxer shorts pulled up so fast! But there was no time to sit and gawp - the man threw himself into his car and accelerated towards me with such velocity that I only just had time to drag myself out of the way.
'Ha!' I thought, 'I've got 'im.' But such was my haste I must have taken down the number wrongly. The vehicle could not be traced.
Some may think that to elicit such responses I must wear provocative clothing while bicycling. When it's hot and sunny I wear cycling shorts and T-shirts and never (like some female pedallers) bikini tops and skimpy bottoms.
I used to think that the less you wore the more harassment you'd receive, but now I'm not so sure. A few months ago I was cycling in Ireland through snow, gales and blizzards. I was wrapped up in multiple layers of T-shirts, jumpers, longjohns, woolly-winter-warmers and five pairs of socks. I also had a Gore-Tex jacket and trousers, and plastic bags round my feet - not exactly passion instilling material.
But despite this I was still subjected to the usual obscene gesture. I was amazed - I mean I have heard about the eroticism of leather and rubber, but Gore-Tex? It really was a new one on me.
The other problem with being a bicycle-bound female is the question of relieving yourself out in the open: privacy being an essential item on the agenda. We all know that for men it's easy - a quick turn of the back and the deed is done. In fact some have got it down to such a fine art that they don't even have to dismount, as proven by riders of the Tour de France. (Woe betide those who find themselves downwind.)
Of course, if you find a deserted wood or field then all well and good - you can get on with your business quickly and quietly. But from my experience, just when you thought you were safe someone will, more often than not, appear on the scene.
I was caught in just such a situation so often that I thought I was just plain unlucky. But recently I was much consoled when reading about Dervla Murphy's exploits in her excellent autobiography 'A Place Apart':
'Most gates had been improvised from old bedsteads, tar barrels and/or bundles of thorn. I surmounted one bedstead to attend to my morning duty, leaving Roz (her bike) in the ditch and paying no attention to an approaching vehicle. But it stopped beside Roz with a squeal of brakes and three young soldiers clutching rifles came over the gate so quickly that it collapsed. As my activities were at a crucial stage I could do nothing but squat on, causing the Irish Army to retreat in such confusion that one youth tripped over his rifle.'
The first time I had to 'perform' in front of a crowd was in Tunisia. My boyfriend and I had been invited to spend the night with a large Arabic family in their mud huts. After we had all finished eating a spicy bean stew out of a big communal bowl I asked, "Ou est la toilette?" The numerous offspring were eager to show me and led me behind a hut to a malodorous expanse of ground. The only problem was that they insisted on watching.
I tried in vain to encourage them to leave me alone. So, nervous as I was, I decided just to get on with it. Evidently though, I was suffering from a bashful bladder because try as I might, nothing happened! Embarrassing as it was I called the mission off as abortive, while pretending to my audience that the whole operation had run according to plan. This apparently bewildered my onlookers yet further: 'How' I could see them thinking, 'can White-Woman go to the toilet and not produce anything!'
Privacy is an unknown word in India, as Indians seem to possess the ability to materialise from thin air. If you think you've got one of those rare moments when there's not a soul in sight then just take up a squatting position and 100,000 faces appear from nowhere. It's truly amazing.
But in such countries you soon get used to peeing in public. My only recommendation (if you wear shorts or trousers) is to wrap a piece of material around your nether region - this will reduce the embarrassment of exposing a cheek or two.
When I cycled to Morocco with Melanie we devised several methods for toileting in the open, one of which was camouflage. Instead of squatting behind a bush we would literally get into it. Although this method produced scratches and meant we got bits of shrubbery in sensitive areas, the results were indeed remarkable. Mel would tell me not to look as she plunged into nearby foliage and then whistle to see if I could detect her whereabouts. I never did. Nor she mine.
While in Europe we always made the most of using the public conveniences in bars, shops and garages. But when touring in Africa we found that most squat toilets were so soiled that navigating a path amongst such filth was no easy task. In these unsanitary conditions potential diseases also lurk and because of this, we always made a habit of going while out in the wilds.
On one occasion when I did use a squalid toilet I suddenly heard an alarming noise from below. On investigation I discovered, much to my dismay, a frog down the bog which, I admit, could have been a toad in the hole. I was in no state to determine the species. I don't mind frogs or toads in their right places, but when they lie in ambush down a toilet I most certainly do. So I scarpered.
What do you do in a flat expanse of desert, when there are people around and not a single leaf or twig to hide behind? You dig a hole and half submerge yourself. The advantage of cycling with a companion is that you always have a look-out. However, Melanie, I was to discover, was not always to be trusted: On hearing the 'all clear' signal I would disappear round a wall only to be stumbled across by a passer-by. Melanie always found such scenarios particularly amusing.
Our best idea by far was the 'Port-a-loo' cape method. In fact it's the only thing I've ever found a cycling cape to be good for, and it needs no complicated instructions. It's quick, it's simple and it's practical. All you do is: 1 Don a cape; 2 Sit on your haunches and ... 3 Hey presto! an instant toilet tent that reveals nowt.
Brilliant though this invention was, I tried to emphasise to Mel the importance, in populated areas, of her positioning herself in such a fashion that what was being performed within was undetectable by the outside world. To distract unwanted attention I suggested (while the operation was underway) pretending to meddle with a bit of bike - bottom bracket, rear derailleur, whatever. But listen she wouldn't. Instead she chose to squat stuffed-turkey fashion beside the road. This obviously drew quizzical looks especially on hot, cloudless days when to be clad in cape was all the more puzzling.
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