“What riding a fairy-light strewn bike with 170 other cyclists taught me about taking up space”

During the 2020 lockdowns, bicycle sales surged by 60%. Now that we’re facing more Covid restrictions, you might be tempted to dust that bike off again. Worried about cycling in the dark? Take a leaf of out writer and cyclist Rachael Revesz’s book and join a group.

“This is the best cycling experience I’ve ever had in Edinburgh,” said the woman riding her bike next to me.

I had to agree. Eight months after moving back home to the cobblestoned Scottish capital, I found myself and 170 others, mostly women, exploring the roads around the castle, Royal Mile and Cowgate. Our bikes were covered in fairy lights and colourful decorations like Christmas trees. 

One woman rode a cargo bike, a drum ’n’ bass remix thumping from her sound system. People honked their car horns and filmed us on their phones. We waved and rang our bells; the traffic forced to slow down far behind us. 

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“What is this about?” a student called out to me as we stopped at a traffic light.

“Light Up The Night,” I said. “We want safer infrastructure so more women will cycle.”

Saying it out loud  reminded me why I was there on a freezing cold evening, with frost sparkling on the ground.

In Edinburgh, ours isn’t the only group that wants our councils and local authorities to make our roads safer. According to a National Travel Attitudes Survey, more than half of residents want off-road and segregated cycle paths, safer roads and well-maintained road surfaces. We don’t want to be directed down narrow canal paths, along roads with potholes or dimly lit back alleys. Like drivers, we want to get from A to B in the quickest and safest way possible.

Lockdown showed us that safe cycling is possible

We’ve already had a glimpse of what quieter roads could look like. During lockdown, when we were urged to avoid public transport, local authorities across the country from London to Glasgow brought in segregated cycle paths and schemes such as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods –closing off certain roads to vehicles to create quieter, cleaner and safer local streets.

It’s no coincidence, then, that during lockdown, bike sales went up by 60% between March and December 2020.

One of those new cyclists was Sarah Berry, the active travel campaigner and host of The New Road Rage podcast. As soon as her area of Lambeth announced an LTN, she thought it was now or never.

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“Cycling was always something I wanted to try but never thought I was capable of,” she says. “But I saw more and more people cycling who looked like me. Before, it had been rows of men in lycra rocking up to the office; it didn’t feel like a community I wanted to be a part of. 

“But then, my best friend was cycling in a long flowing skirt to meetings, and other friends of mine were cycling to the bakery and coming back 10 minutes later. The representation aspect was important for me.”

Take up as much space as you can in the road to stay safe against traffic.

Government stats show that less than half of women feel confident on a bike compared to 75% of men. It’s not surprising, then, that more men cycle than women across every age group. In fact, by the time the age bracket approaches 70+, the number of women cycling completely drops off a cliff.

Leanne Farner, director of A Wee Pedal in Edinburgh, spends a lot of time teaching women of all ages to fix their bikes and gain confidence on the road. She agrees that perceptions are important. “Many women who have rediscovered cycling feel pressured into buying the ‘right bike’ and wearing cycling specific clothing,” she tells Stylist

“I always encourage everyone to wear whatever they feel comfortable in. You don’t need an expensive specific bike if you are using it as a mode of transport or for leisure.”

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Adding to the problem is that road closures and cycle ways have become political debates, subject to lengthy legal processes and public consultations, pitting drivers against other road users. As a result, much of the cycling infrastructure put in during lockdown in Edinburgh and other cities has been ripped out. It could be many months, if not years, before we see any replacement schemes.

In the meantime, there’s no hiding from the fact that riding a bike can be dangerous. At Light Up The Night, we held a minute’s silence for all women and girls who have been killed on their bikes, including Heather Stronach, who was dragged under an HGV in Edinburgh last winter. Local campaigner Kirsty Lewin, who organised the event and held the silence, is herself a survivor of being run over by a lorry.

How to stay safe on your bike

One of the main things you can do to increase your safety is to take up space on the road, and not let cars or other vehicles squeeze you into the pavement. But it’s easier said than done when you feel pressure to let them pass by.

“There are stories women are told about what they can and can’t do. One story is being inconspicuous, not taking up space, blending in – cycling is the antithesis of that,” says Berry. “You have to take up space; you have to prioritise your safety. It means I have to be bolshier than I naturally would be: that is an empowering, even addictive, thing. It’s also a source of joy and adventure.”

As Berry spoke, my mind flashed to my new jumper that says ‘We are the traffic’ on the back. In the last eight months, I’ve attended five protests, including the global Fancy Women Bike Ride, where I wore a floor-length, gold sequin skirt. I’ve cycled to Glasgow during COP26 in the pouring rain, on my clunky old bike that I’ve had since I was 18. On my Christmas list is an air horn (to blast at angry or careless drivers) and a helmet camera. None of this equipment is necessary to ride, but it makes me feel safe.

Of course, sticking some fairy lights into your wheels can make you more visible and cheery.

At the Light Up The Night event on that cold Friday evening, I realised I had an opportunity to explore my hometown in a new way, appreciate the architecture, breathe fresh air and interact with people around me – completely different to being stuck in a traffic jam.

We ended by cycling through the Meadows, passing under a row of trees strung with lights, parking our bikes near to Sarah’s Tree, in tribute to Sarah Everard. The woman next to me fished out a tub of homemade chocolate cookies from her bag and offered me one. I cycled home, feeling more empowered and optimistic, the lights in my spokes spinning, taking up every inch of the road that I deserved.

For more first-person fitness stories, check out the rest of the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty/author’s own

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