In this SheCycles post, I’d like to introduce you to Helen. Helen is a lifelong Londoner and lover of bikes, swimming and Liverpool FC, and here she talks about her experiences on two wheels.
Helen’s on Twitter as @Coshgirl, and you should definitely follow her.
In case you didn’t know, SheCycles is a series of blog posts in which you will meet a wide array of amazing women, all very different and each one awesome in her own way. Read all the SheCycles posts by clicking this link.
What does it mean to you, as a woman, to also be a cyclist, and how (if at all) do you feel it’s different from what men experience?
I’ve been riding bikes for around 50 years now, and cycling has always been my main form of transport. As a child, cycling gave me freedom and a way to escape – in more ways than one.
I never thought about the differences between how men and women are treated on the road until I was older. I had several run-ins with drivers verbally, and sometimes physically, threatening me when I was riding. As a small woman, I guess I’m an easy target.
Do you feel women are treated as equals in the world of cycling, and if not, what can be done about it?
No, I don’t think women are treated as equals whether cycling for sport or transport – even now. I saw a play about Beryl Burton a couple of years ago. If she’d been a man, she would’ve been a household name. Shamefully, I was probably in my 40s when I first came across her.
What got you into cycling?
My mum got me into cycling. Like her own mother, she never learned to drive, so was always bombing around town on her old shopper. She failed her driving test five times before finally giving up. Personally, I’m proud to come from a line of non-drivers!
To you, what’s the best thing about cycling?
The best thing about cycling is the simplicity of it, and how you feel at one with the machine. I also love the way it can take you places you might otherwise not have noticed. That, and the fresh air. I’ve never liked spending too much time indoors.
And the worst?
This is easy. The worst thing about cycling by far is cars. Living in London, they’re literally everywhere. When they’re parked, they take up half the street, leaving no room for people on bikes. And when they’re being driven you must constantly watch out for them. Any Mayor who proposes getting private cars out of the city gets my vote – are you listening candidates?
Tell us some of your cycling dreams and aspirations?
I dream that one day cycling will become an everyday activity, that’s safe and seen as something for everyone. I think for that to happen, we need huge changes – which will require a braver government than any I can imagine. I’m talking about putting in a nationwide network of safe cycle routes that take people where they want to go. We also must fundamentally change the way we view, and (over)use cars. We don’t just need newer cars, we need fewer cars.
As a woman, what can you do to make cycling more normal, and more inclusive? And what are the biggest obstacles in your way?
I’m in my 50s now and ride around with my kids in my everyday clothes. I want to show people you don’t have to fit the cyclist stereotype. The thing is to wear whatever you feel comfortable in. And don’t let people bully you. What they think really doesn’t matter.
Tell us about you – what motivates you, what scares you, and what makes you happy?
As an older parent of two young boys, I’m motivated by them. It’s amazing having the opportunity to help shape their lives – and hopefully bring them up the right way. It’s been brilliant seeing my son learn to cycle with a balance bike. He had pedals by three and can swim too. He’s only six. I like to think I’ve had a positive influence there…
What scares me is getting old and losing it physically, and mentally. I do all I can to stay fit and youthful – and to not be like my parents. By the time they were younger than I am (54) they had both nearly died because of their unhealthy lifestyles.
What was the biggest challenge or obstacle you’ve had to face?
For me, the biggest obstacle I’ve faced is overcoming an eating disorder as a teenager. It nearly ruined my life and did ruin my school days. Looking back, I’d gone through a lot of trauma and was badly bullied at school. It took a long time for those wounds to heal.
Is there an achievement or contribution that you are most proud of?
I’m proudest of achieving a first in my degree aged 25. When I returned to education at 22, I didn’t have any qualifications. I’d just spent three years working as a postie. People made a lot of assumptions about me because I was wearing a uniform. I wanted to prove them wrong.
What helped me turn my life around was travel. After quitting the post office, I spent three months going around Australia. In that time, I started eating, stopped smoking and decided to try for university. I think the trip paid off!
How did cycling change you?
I was given a road bike for Christmas in 1974, days after a family tragedy. We then moved from Hammersmith to Kingston and I discovered Richmond Park. I was out from dawn until dusk every chance I got. It helped me cope with what was probably the toughest time of my life.
How has your cycling impacted on your family life, and your life overall?
I guess I’ve been a lifelong cycling evangelist. I’ve encouraged all my partners and friends to get on their bikes too. I’m please to say I’ve had a pretty high success rate – including with my family. I can’t wait for my one year old to start cycling.
What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you?
This is a tough one. I’m going to give you two odd tales. The first was on a trip to Reykjavik. Just after I arrived, I went to the toilet in the coach station. Somebody had put clingfilm over the seat, and I didn’t notice. I’d only brought one pair of trousers with me too. I wasn’t amused at the time.
The second was on a bus in Leyton. I was off to an ‘album covers’ party and had come as Aladdin Sane. Anyway, this guy gets on, looks at me and says, “Is that the Polish flag?” I didn’t know what to say!
Where would you most like to go cycling?
I’d like to go back to the Netherlands and do a proper trip around the country. I went a few years ago, in October, and the weather was abysmal. Slightly ruined my enjoyment.
The main reason is the incredible cycling infrastructure. It would be blissful to be able to ride for a couple of weeks without having to worry about cars.
If you could change ONE thing about cycling, what would that be?
I’d like to change people’s attitudes towards cycling and cyclists in general. I’m sick of the negative media coverage and the way we’re treated as second class citizens. I’d also like to get rid of the culture of fear around cycling and the obsession with PPE. It’s not a dangerous activity.
What bike do you ride?
I ride a steel blue fixie from Racer Rosa. It’s beautiful, light and simple.
What made you choose that one?
It was hand built for someone else, but she didn’t want it. I got it at cost price, and it’s been my best ride ever.
If you have multiple bikes, which is your favourite, and why?
I have a Genesis equilibrium racing bike which I use on my trips to Scotland and other parts of the UK. I’ve also got a silver Charge plug single speed which has served me well. But I think I’ve already told you which is my favourite.
What advice would you offer to women who are thinking of starting to cycle, or are new cyclists?
My advice to women thinking of starting to cycle is to get some training if you’re lacking in confidence. I think all the London boroughs offer it for free. The other thing is to buddy up with someone, maybe join a women’s cycling group.
Is there anything else you would like to share with me?
Yes. Sadly, there is no secret to eternal youth but cycling and swimming will help. And it’s never too late to learn. Don’t let fear stand in your way.
Here’s a question you didn’t ask, but could have…
What has the last year taught you?
The last year has taught me that it’s ok to just be where you are now. I used to spend a lot of time thinking about where I could go next, or what I could do at the weekend. When you don’t have those choices, you just have to make the best of your current circumstances. As a result, I’ve built stronger connections with my neighbours and the local area. And that’s definitely a good thing. I’m itching to go somewhere else now though!