What started as a casual attempt at cycling with my brother’s cycle that was lying idle at home has become one of the best decisions I’ve made in recent times. When I took up cycling in February of 2020, I did not anticipate how rewarding the experience would be. Since then, cycling has given me a way to channel my energy, boost my endorphins and helped me on my weight loss journey. Having experienced these benefits myself, I would like to look into what makes cycling a great initiative, while also addressing the challenges that stand in the way of women cyclists in particular.
My cycling journey
I took up cycling just prior to the first COVID lockdown. When I started my first ride I didn’t know what was in store. In order to understand the regular routes and precautions and to find a community I joined the We are Chennai Cycling Group on Facebook. After a few weeks, I started going on group rides with cyclists from Madipakkam whom I got to know through the group.
When subsequent lockdowns were imposed, it put brakes on my cycling journey. After a gap of nine months, I resumed cycling in December 2020. I was 80 kg when I decided to restart my cycling journey and it was very tough to forge ahead. I experienced doubts and instances of body shaming, but chose to persevere. The community I found through cycling was also important to be able to continue the practice. Since then, I have been able to achieve my goal weight and experience other benefits of cycling such as improved fitness and stamina, meeting like-minded people and exploring different parts of Chennai.
I use the cycle for commuting, social visits and for fitness. I usually ride along the Outer Ring Road up to Tiruvallur, Chengalpattu and around North and South Chennai. Some of the scenic routes in Chennai that I take include the Mani Mangalam stretch and Thiruporur stretch. During monsoon, I’ve visited lakes like Thaiyur, Kondangi, Nallur without fail. Speed rides and elevation training are usually done along ECR, ORR and Pallavaram Hill.
My mentor from the cycling group and fellow cyclist, Vidyasagar, always emphasises the importance of speed in endurance rides and elevation training. Climbing bridges is one of the toughest tasks but after riding with him, I started loving elevation rides more than riding on flat roads.
How can cycling benefit women?
Cycling has benefited me in multiple ways and helped changed my lifestyle too. Women cyclists are sure to feel its transformative effects with persistence. Some of the positive effects I’ve felt are
- Regulation of menstrual cycle and reduced menstrual cramps
- Improved survival skills from endurance rides
- Connections with new, like-minded people
- Savings on fuel expenses
- Improved mental health and productivity
- Improved executive skills
- Better sleep patterns
- Reduced stress
Cycling can be taken up by women of all age groups and it can be a catalyst to keep you socially active and connected, especially for older women who may experience isolation.
Roadblocks for women cyclists
The hindrance for women cyclists are both societal and infrastructure issues. In just under a year of cycling I’ve noticed that parents & spouses are reluctant to let women take up cycling. Sometimes extended families too impose restrictions on women. I’ve personally heard my relatives say things like, “What is she going to get out of this cycling activity? Instead, she could concentrate on cooking and other household work which will be appropriate for her future married life.”
I’ve brushed aside such comments and gained the support of my family to continue my cycling journey but this has been an issue that other women cyclists have experienced as well; in fact, it has prevented many from taking up or continuing cycling.
Apart from this, other experiences during my rides have shown me difficulties that women cyclists in particular endure. Most of it involves harassment from men. Many bikers have swerved very close to me or in front of me without prior indication so as to intimidate me. I’ve come across young men and boys who pass comments about me while I cycle. I’ve also been subject to continuous honking by motorists who do not make room for cyclists. However, things have never spiralled beyond control, as I mostly ride with a group.
How can the cycling experience for women be improved?
I feel that women cyclists must be respected. We should demand more consideration from motorists and our safety must not be disregarded. Cyclists have been victims of many avoidable accidents such as instances of being hit by drunk drivers.
More women will take up cycling and feel safe if there is better cycling infrastructure across the city. I have seen many routes with poor lighting that can be improved to make it more convenient not only for women cyclists, but all who ride on these stretches. For now cyclists have to stick to certain fixed routes as other streets do not have the necessary infrastructure.
The poor state of our roads also deters women cyclists and others from taking up cycling, for fear of accidents. Pothole-ridden roads can be dangerous for cyclists. The lack of dedicated cycling lanes despite many promises has been disheartening. These lanes could serve as a safe space for cyclists. If implemented well, many cyclists would use such lanes, boosting the demand and popularity for cycling in the city.
The lack of parking facilities is also a cause for concern. In the absence of dedicated spaces for parking, we have to look for any spots available in the vicinity of the route and not all may be safe for women. There is also a lack of accessible, clean public toilets in the city. On long rides, women feel the need for these basic facilities acutely, and the absence prevents many from taking to cycling.
My message to aspiring women cyclists
Women who wish to take up cycling are taking a huge step in taking charge of their health and well-being. The health benefits I have experienced in a short time has been eye-opening.
Do not hesitate to start your cycling journey even if you are the only woman or girl doing so in your area. When I joined WCCG Madipakam Chapter, I was the only girl riding with a group of boys. But on seeing me, a lot of girls begin to join the cycling group. You might inspire another woman in the future!
Do prioritise your safety at all times. While cycling is at a nascent stage in the city, I would advise young women and girls who take up cycling to avoid riding solo and do so in groups or with experienced riders. If you do ride solo, pick busy routes such as the GST road and ride in areas that are well-lit. Carrying pepper spray has helped soothe my fears on solo rides.
Women must be wary of areas that lack street lights and avoid them. Street dogs have also been an issue for me on the rides, but I have found that having a pack of biscuits with me to feed them has helped.
On a positive note…
I would like to share a positive experience to highlight that my cycling journey has had more ups than downs and encourage more women to join the tribe of Chennai cyclists.
While on a solo ride near Paranur, I experienced a flat tyre. I did not have the resources to fix it and my fellow cyclists suggested heading to Chengalpet to get it done. As I waited near the toll I was approached by a policeman who enquired about my issue. When I explained it, he helped look for a mini truck to take me and the cycle to the nearest shop to fix the puncture. He noted down the vehicle number for my safety.
The kind mini truck driver helped locate a shop that could fix my cycle and even refused to accept any money for the ride. The puncture was a serious issue but the mechanics managed to fix it soon and wished me well on the ride.
This experience of strangers going out of their way to help me infused positivity and hope that women cyclists are not always in danger or in harm’s way and that the situation for cyclists in the city is in fact improving.