"Where are your friends..... Where is your husband...?".

The experiences of a lone female tourist.

I handed in my notice at work, went home and booked a one way ticket to New Zealand. I extracted myself from a carefully constructed lifestyle, bought a new touring bike and left England in the New Year. In between other things, I cycled nearly 11000km over the next 11 months through New Zealand, Australia, South East Asia and India - alone and with minimal knowledge of cycle maintenance and even less knowledge of my abilities and limitations.

Why cycle alone many people asked? Especially as a woman in an age where we are increasingly led to believe it is not safe to go outside your frontdoor? My first reaction to this question was  - why not?  And then there were the reasoned arguments - the liberty to go and to stop when I wanted, cycle at the pace I liked, eat and sleep when and where I wanted and spend time with who I wished.

And I was countered with reasoned arguments, and a heap of prejudices, against solo touring. Wasn't it dreadfully unsafe to travel alone? How would I cope when ill, lonely or tired? What would it be like having no-one to share those special moments with? And who would I blame when things went wrong?

Due to a combination of single-mindedness and a belief that there would be a lot of other women out there doing it too, I was undaunted. And the freedom from worrying about the needs of other human beings and the fascination at getting to know my real strengths and weaknesses, more than outweighed the benefits of travelling with a partner or a group.

And not surprisingly, rather than succumbing to the endless list of predicted disasters - accidents, harassment, theft, even rape or murder, I was overwhelmed with genuine hospitality and friendship everywhere I went. That is not to say I did not have to deal with unwanted attention and dubious offers but no more so than when cycling in my home country, touring in Europe with a male partner or living and working in and around London.

But I was amazed by the scarcity of other women cyclists, and not just solo tourers, to share information and experience with. And although I continually met women with the ideas and the ambition, I was disheartened by the way so many expressed doubts about their mechanical skills or fitness levels and lacked the confidence to undertake even short trips, alone or otherwise.

Some of the most inspiring trips have been made by women - from the pioneering spirit of Dervla Murphy in the 1960's to the heroic efforts of Anne Mustoe's solo world tour in the 80's to the more recent exploits of Josie Dew. Between this level of adventure and those that travel with organised groups, I thought there would be other women cyclists finding a niche of their own, somewhere in the middle. Did I just not bump into anyone else? Do women not want to cycle? Or are women really beginning to believe that it is not safe to cycle at home or abroad for practical as well as personal reasons?

After the opening shot of  "Where are your friends or where is your husband?" I realised I was also being incessantly questioned about my physical strength and my bike maintenance knowledge. There really did seem to be a widespread belief that you had to be a potential Olympic athlete before you even got on a bike and you needed a degree in cycle technology before going further than the local shops. When I explained that I had neither of these qualifications and that they were completely unnecessary, I was met with looks of disbelief. I began to wonder where such a strong image of cyclists was coming from.

The newstand cycle magazines seem to exude a very traditional male image. In a recent publication the only noticeable images of women were a couple of small photos of professional women cyclists and a low key advertisement featuring a mother riding a town bike complete with shopping basket and child on trailer bike. Although both very welcome representations there did seem to be a huge gap in between these extremes of cycling women. Why are there so few images of women in this media? Do "ordinary" women cyclists not exist? Or do such pictures not sell copies?

The popular image of cyclists today does seem to create the impression that unless you are  incredibly fit, possess all the latest gear and are preferably male, you do not really belong on a bike. Which serves to reinforce what I heard whilst travelling. Is it this strong image that is helping to put women off? If so, how is the imbalance redressed without patronising and causing unnecessary segregation by gender? After all it's about cycling not sex.

There are certainly many other factors that intimidate both women and men when it comes to cycling. And this applies perhaps more to regular forms of cycling such as riding for pleasure, mountain biking and local domestic trips, rather than for touring.

We live in an age where much importance is attached to symbolism and where it is becoming increasingly necessarily to promote cycling for environmental and health reasons. The image of cyclists as portrayed by the mainstream media once again seems to be discouraging this, especially when it comes to women.  And tackling the belief that you can't cycle unless very fit or a bike mechanic is a very much neglected area. How do we go about changing this?