Women and the Way of the Pedal-empowered

Susan B. Anthony said bicycling “emancipates women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel”

Facing the Void
Facing the Void: Ellee Thalheimer stands before a high pass near Sampeyre, Italy after an ascent of several thousand feet. Feedloader (Clickability)

Four months ago, upon arriving in Sofia, Bulgaria to begin a two-month bicycle tour, I met a Ukrainian man named “Slav” at my hostel. Like me, he was an avid cyclist and chronic adventurer and had toured alone through much of Europe. He knew the regions, roads and mountains of Bulgaria like corners of his own backyard. He had pedaled, as well, the entire rim of the Mediterranean Sea, even requiring a tank escort as he skirted the shore of Algeria. Slav’s favorite thing to say about this North African nation was, “Algeria is not touristic. It’s terroristic.” He said so about once per hour.

Slav lived at the hostel. An environmental and social activist, he worked daily to promote bicycle travel in and around Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. He helped lead a critical mass bike ride every Thursday night through the streets of downtown, and each afternoon he led tourists on guided bike rides to the city’s chief attractions. In doing so, Slav pulled in a slight income and managed to sustain one of the most inspiring, freewheeling lifestyles I’ve encountered.

Funny thing was, this man happened to be a vehement opponent of, as he put it, “the emancipated woman.”

“Why must a woman pursue a career?” said Slav, who was 35 and had already been divorced twice. “A man is the hunter, and he provides for his family. A woman takes care of the house, cooks, cleans, watches children. It was that way for thousands of years. Why change now?”

“You ride a bike,” I pointed out. “Ancient hunters didn’t. Do you hunt?”

He admitted he did not. I posed him another question: “What if a woman wanted to go bike touring with you?” He frowned.

Long ago in America, biking did help bring about emancipation (sorry Slav). Civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony observed this in 1896 when she said that “(bicycling) has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.” And this year, two books came out in which the authors discuss the bicycle’s historical role in the empowerment of women: It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels by Robert Penn and Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy. (Since the cold, wet and wintry season of armchair adventuring is upon us, I’ll soon review these books in some detail.)

Today, more pedal-empowered women than ever are avid bikers. In Amsterdam, New York City, San Francisco, Rome and beyond, women zip soundlessly and nimbly through the streets. They take the lane, merge left to turn, assert their rights as commuters, flip on flashing lights for night riding and blissfully bypass one of society’s nastiest illnesses: the traffic jam. The most intrepid of these women sometimes pack luggage onto their bikes and tour the world. As they pedal, the bicycle charges them with strength, spirit and independence.

In Portland, the thriving bicycle culture teems with thousands of women—31 percent of the cycling populace by one recent count. Among them are two prominent writers and cyclists who are further pushing the bicycle revolution: Elly Blue, a journalist with Grist who has authored a remarkable online series exploring the social and economic value of bicycles, and Ellee Thalheimer, a yoga instructor and writer who has been laboring by pedal and pen to promote the thrilling and rewarding experience of bicycle touring.

Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance: Thalheimer fixes a flat with the composure of a yogi.

This, I decided, I had to hear more about, so recently I spoke by phone with Thalheimer, whose personal website even states, “Bike touring is one of my favorite things ever.”

I asked her why.

“There’s just something about putting all your bags on a bike and riding off and being open to experiencing whatever the road brings you that day,” she said. “It teaches you to be open to the world in a new kind of way.”

Thalheimer’s first bicycle tour was a north-to-south Pacific Coast run with her dad about a decade ago, immediately after college. She fell in love with the lifestyle, kicked into high gear and has since toured extensively—in South America, the Caribbean, Europe and the United States. One of her most rewarding journeys of all was her three-month solo ride throughout Italy in 2008, the research end of a book project for Lonely Planet. She loved the nation north to south, credits Italy as being the place “where I learned to really love food,” and remembers Sampeyre in the Alps as one of the most beautiful places she’s ever seen.

“I don’t usually cry when I see pretty things, but when I got to the top of that pass in Sampeyre, the view was just insane,” she said. “It was so beautiful I almost couldn’t believe it.”

She had to come down, though, and eventually go home, but Thalheimer is almost as thrilled by parts of Oregon. She especially loves Crater Lake and the surrounding country, she says, “but eastern Oregon has really captured my heart. The people are as friendly as they get, the land is beautiful, with mountains and some really hard climbs.” (Thalheimer is marked by a personality trait common to many cyclists: In her words, “I love feeling exhausted.”)

To extol the virtues of her home state as seen from a bicycle and to encourage others (“who might be on the fence about bike touring,” she says) to get on their own bikes and go, Thalheimer is now wrapping up a guidebook about cycle touring in Oregon, a project she’s been researching for years. The book is due out this spring. Asked whether she’s at all reluctant to tell the world about her favorite places, she said, “I love seeing other cyclists when I’m traveling. When two cycle tourists meet somewhere in the middle of nowhere, you immediately have something in common with that person, and you connect in a way that you never could in an urban area.  Anyway, if we ever had a glut of cycle tourists in remote areas, I think the world would be a better place.”

Millions of us agree. I do, and probably so does Slav, who sings the gospel of bicycle touring and building a bike-friendly society in Sofia. It’s a beautiful melody he croons—except the part where he envisions leaving women at the sink elbow deep in dishwater. No matter, because many women have already left him in the dust.


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