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Me, Myself and a Saddle Bag
Posted by Jon Hicken on
It began in an office in 2015. I was deeply unsatisfied, and uninspired by my work. My friend Anthony, who I shared a desk with, introduced me to the world of blogs and so I joined him in whiling away 9-5 immersed in the adventures of others. It was through these blogs that I was introduced to the concepts of bike touring, endurance bike racing, and bike couriering for the first time and my notion of “what could be” became expanded and ever more adventurous. This fuelled my dissatisfaction, but it also fuelled the impetus to grasp life.
I had felt cast adrift following a break-up, and all the manufactured comfort and security the relationship had brought was crumbling away. I felt I was waking up to life.
I soon quit my job and I began delivering coffee beans by cargo bike. It was during that summer that I bought my first Restrap saddle bag - cramming it full and testing the limits of what it could carry and what could be dangled from it, possibly overstepping the mark on occasion.
But I knew some dominoes needed to fall before I could live life in the way I wanted. I wanted independence and proficiency. These were the qualities I had seen across blogs, and seeing women succeeding made me believe that my aspirations were attainable. But I had acquired an armour of fearfulness - lacking in the community and skillset to take myself away, and feeling hemmed in by the M25 - so I was unsure about how to weave adventure into my adult life. I figured that the first thing to tackle was solo wild camping. There is so much scaremongering about it - about what is essentially such a simple and primal experience. I mean, the notion that women are sitting ducks for rape and murder suggests something pretty insidious about our society, and puts up such a huge barrier to what should be an empowering and grounding experience for many.
As a central Londoner, green space is hard to come by and not wholly recommended to sleep in. So I loaded the saddlebag and ventured a whole 8km from my door into Epping Forest and rolled out my bivvy right off an intersection of footpaths, about 20 metres from the main road. I was kept up by the thumping music of passing cars, and the fear of all manner of horrors that could be hidden in the trees. But waking at dawn the following morning, I was filled with the most extraordinary sense of achievement. I had DONE IT! I had broken the back of it, and for the first time the world felt like my oyster.
I began riding further, faster, and for longer. After multi-day trips around the UK I finally quit my job (again!), left my flat, and made my grand depart in November 2017 with everything I needed inside the saddle bag, with the sole intention of making it to Greece by Christmas. I got a boat and embarked onto what turned out to be a fairly miserable, lonely, and very cold, rushed bike ride to Serbia! I hadn’t yet grown into myself as an ‘adventurer’, and I still only had the stories of others by which to plan (and compare) against. I had a self-imposed and very meagre budget for food, and I was determined to stay clear of hotels. "If I was to tour I was to do it properly". And so I slogged through blizzards, freezing rain, and headwinds, drinking crushed-ice from my bidon. People I met along the way thought I was daft. Now I also think I was.
After returning to London 6 months later life took a more itinerant turn. Two more dominoes had fallen: I had connected with a community of like-minded women through The Adventure Syndicate who adventured alone (and together), and who seemed to share a similar set of values, and having proven my capabilities I was now able to think beyond the M25 and take myself away. My trusty saddle bag remained packed with sleeping bag, mat, and bivvy for overnight, weekend, and weeklong adventures around the UK and I spent summers slinging a hammock near and far.
Four years on this same saddle bag (with a few repaired parts) is perched on the top of a box full of bikepacking stuff, ready to be drawn out and strapped on at a moment’s notice. Despite a calendar of races, owing to Covid-19, I’ve stopped training. Currently, I’m riding purely for enjoyment and am enjoying the way not needing to ride fast feels. No GPS, no heart rate monitor, no goals except exploration. But I’m looking forward to my first race season next year.
I can’t undervalue the role of representation in my ‘becoming’, and moving in a direction that feels authentic. Bikes are central to this: they are tools of empowerment and freedom.
I may not have ridden across Europe during winter if I hadn’t seen myself reflected in the tales of others, or had opportunities to connect with them through events. Representation is at the fore right now with the limelight on the lack of ethnic diversity within cycling and the way that prevents access to the sport. This needs action to address, and collectively we need to do better! This has been central to my ambassadorship with Restrap: simply, promoting more diverse content. I am fallible and aspiring, and represent just a small slice of what is really a very diverse spectrum of cyclists.
Alice currently rides with The Adventure Syndicate, a group of likeminded adventurers who ride to promote equality and inclusivity in cycling.
Learn more about the Adventure Syndicate here: