Saturday, March 8, 2014

Ride Away

"Look at these cute bikes and these young ladies! Good for you girls. Good for you!"

The man was clean cut, of late middle age, and looked not unlike one of our teachers. But his expression of friendliness was too studied and strained. As he made his way to our bench in the shaded part of the park we instinctively put down our sandwiches and stiffened our postures.

"So... what are you exactly anyway?"

"Excuse me?"

"You know - Chinese, Japanese? Korean?"

"Umm..." I could see K's face twitch and turn red. She was born in Connecticut.

In the seconds of confused silence, he sat down next to us and leaned over chummily.

"Nice day!" He made a show of looking up at the sky, then glanced around furtively.

"Excuse me, but we came here to have a private talk..." I said this as friendly as possible, wile my eyes searched for passers-by.

"Hey, and what about you honey? French? You got a bit of an accent there."

I attempted a discouraging glare, but he continued.

"Polish? Knew a girl looked just like you once and she was Polish. Nice girl, very mature for her age. Strict parents though. Do you girls have strict parents?"

In the moments that followed I could almost hear the wheels turning in all three of our heads, crucial calculations taking place as the breeze tussled the leaves.

"You're quiet girls, aren't you?" he finally said. "I like that..."

In unison, K and I stood up.

"I'm Cambodian," she offered brightly, prolonging the breaking point.

We didn't run, but, leaving our lunches on the bench, moved quickly and with precision toward our bikes - rusty things propped up against a tree. Then we grabbed them, hopped on and pushed off just as the man's face contorted into an agitated snarl and he lunged after us.

"Dirty little sluts! You coupla whores!"

Safely out of reach we could still hear him yelling.

"I got a car you know! Gonna go after you all the way to your house!"

This made no sense, but nonetheless terrified us into riding circles around the neighbourhood for hours before going home. It was the summer after 8th grade and never had we been so glad to own bikes.

This was not the story I meant to come up with on Women's Day, but it popped into my head. The bicycle as escape tool. Not often talked about, but it has served that function for me and countless women I know.

48 comments:

  1. Wow. What a horrible story, but one that needs to be told.

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    1. Exactly what I was going to say. Scary stuff.

      -- Rolly

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  2. Thank you for sharing this story. It's very uncomfortable for people to think about these things happening, but every woman I know has had something like this happen more than once. For me, these interactions left lasting impressions that still make me fearful. All I can think to say is thank you for offering some exposure to this behavior.

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  3. When I was about 13 I encountered a similar situation. I intended to ride my heavy 3-speed to a friend's house about 3 miles away via quiet country lanes. Unfortunately, there were some pretty steep hills in the way and I got off to push. A man parked close by said that he could give me a lift - I said no, he persisted. The upshot being that I turned my bike around and coasted down that lovely welcoming hill and went home fuming. Several weeks later, I got up the confidence to follow the same route again and complete my journey. The thing that got me angry at the time wasn't that I was being accosted, it was the fact that the creep had spoilt my bike ride!

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    1. I was about 17 years old, cycling down a rather steep hill in rural Connecticut, wearing cycling shorts and a tank top. Ever loving the speed, I was down on my drops trying to make myself as aerodynamic as possible. Absolutely loving every minute of it!

      A small lorry, the size of a U-Haul, doesn't drive past me but matches speed alongside me, breaking my concentration. The passenger, a 30-something male in a t-shirt, leans out, whistles, and makes some comment about how pretty I am.

      I look up at the truck, confused. He grins at me, I scowl, I look back at the road. I'm already cycling as fast as I can so I brake as hard as is safe at my speed -- the truck passes me and continues on its journey...

      And, like you, at the time I was just angry that I'd had to slow down on my favourite hill. But the next day, I went to the shops and bought a high-neck, sleeveless cycling top. Over a decade later and I still can't cycle in low-cut tops, even when it's hot enough that I'd really appreciate the breeze.

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  4. Oh shit. That can only be real. I'm not sure I would've read that if I'd known what was coming but I'm glad I did.

    Blessings on you.

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  5. Ugh, makes my skin crawl in such a familiar way. You described this situation so well, I knew exactly where it was going and how you two were feeling. Sadly, I think almost every woman can identify with this story. The bike is definitely a tool to escape from or help avoid this kind of aggressive male creepiness.

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  6. Ugh! Had this incident occurred these days, you probably could have found this creeper's mug shot online in the registered sex offender directory. Hope you shared the information with your parents or another trusted adult.

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    1. I hate to say it, but this isn't an old-times problem. Girls are being harassed today in exactly the way Velouria describes from her childhood. My little sis has had men talk to her in a way that makes my skin crawl.

      Telling an adult does nothing - what could we possibly do? There's no name, no evidence, nothing to report except a feeling of fear. That's what makes these things so hard to deal with.

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  7. Re Mike and MT Cyclist - This was actually pretty mild as far as these types of incidents go, not deemed remarkable enough to tell anyone at the time. I'd say most girls experience this stuff regularly during their pre-teen and teen years.

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    1. I try not to think about that fact every time my Daughters go get on the bus, ride their bikes or just wander off to anther part of the bookstore. I know they've had a couple of nasty moments already...

      And while girls and women bear most of this, there's no shortage of males who know the words to this song too.

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    2. Sadly you are correct that yours is a relatively mild story.

      Definitely underscores why the world needs Women's Day.

      Long time ago while on a ride I saw a graffiti that read:

      Keep pushing until it's understood that these bad lands must treat us good.

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    3. YES. oh, god, yes.

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  8. Experiences like these were all too common when I was growing up in the '80s. Sadly this is why I am glad that I have sons, not daughters.

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  9. This is not exclusively a women's issue - the incident happened when you were a child. All children are vulnerable to adults with ill intentions. Many men can tell similar stories of a creepy adult stranger (usually a man) taking far too much interest in us out of the blue, and the discomfort and fear that resulted from not knowing how to respond, plus the awful self-doubt that one felt after such an incident, wondering if we handled it correctly, etc.

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  10. I don't know any women who don't have stories like these, many of them extremely recent. Happens all the time walking through the city -- a man tries to talk to you, you brush him off politely, receive shrieks of gender-specific expletives. You don't have to be young or pretty, though either/both will increase the frequency.

    On a nicer note, I went an entire long ride today without a single harassment from a car, not even a "hi you're a bicycle I'm going to honk and startle you". Some days are good days.

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  11. It's boggles the mind to think that this can be a common occurrence for preteen and teen girls. Are there millions of creeps out there or are the ones out there working overtime trying to destroys lives?

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  12. Not spokesperson for the male half of humanity, but I am so sorry and angry that you had that experience. I am horrified to hear that it is common.

    It seems so alien to me - such a repulsive and horrid way to treat another human being. It is impossible to imagine who thinks that this is OK. It is icky.

    I have young daughters, ages 13 and 15. I would like there to be an answer for this.

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    1. Prepare them now, if they are lucky the comments haven't started yet. If they are less lucky it could already be happening. For me, the first such comment happened when I was 10.

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  13. Very unfortunate how prevalent this sort of behavior is in our world and how, often times, the powers that be are unwilling to effect change. Here is a recent example in the news: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/military-sexual-assault-prosecutions-will-stay-in-the-chain-of-command/

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    1. Meanwhile, in Australia, some sort of leadership is being shown.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSR19QL8ZvI

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  14. I, too had several incidents like this when I was a teenage girl and into my early 20's.. one of which was violent. I don't understand it. It is far too common.

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  15. I'm commenting again because I thought so much about this today, even talking with my husband about it and how common it is. I was saying how glad I was to be of an age where it doesn't happen anymore, as usually these men reserve this type of harassment for girls and young women (happened mostly to me in college.) Yet as I was walking down the street today, a man said loudly, "Get those hands out of those pockets! My, my!" while looking me up and down. I laughed loudly, which is how women often react to offensive comments, and then spent the rest of the day fuming. What gives some men the ability to treat strangers this way and some women the inability to express how they feel at the time of the offense? It may take me another thirty two years to find out.

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  16. Street harassment can vary quite a lot depending on your ethnicity as well. So far on my bike, the comments I have received have been pretty minor, especially compared to what I have heard out and about. But this story also made me want to share the following video as well...

    http://youtu.be/DWynJkN5HbQ

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    1. ...which in turn reminded me of this, from Venezuela:

      http://caracaschronicles.com/2014/02/10/la-terrorista/

      The video is in Spanish, but the link is in English for non-Spanish-speakers.

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  17. This is horrible, and it really sucks you had to go through that. Hopefully he didn't stick to his word...

    It was also sad to hear him throw in the "what are you?" remark. I'm half Scandinavian and half Japanese and have definitely had similar remarks made at me from people I really didn't have any desire to socialize with even though I thought I 'passed' for white.

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    1. I get the "what are you" questions wrt ethnicity. Brought it up once with a group of friends, and there was a split in opinions - one being that it's just a turn of phrase for American English speakers, not intended to objectify. Not sure I'm convinced by that argument.

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  18. Violent and aggressive behavior should not be tolerated and should be reported to the police. Children are very curious and sometimes to the point of seeming rude. It's probably best to teach children to no speak to strangers.

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  19. A while ago I was doing my thing on my bike, minding my own business when a mini van full of guys decided to use their vehicle to try to nudge me into acknowledging their presence and wolf whistles. On a busy road. One of many uncomfortable situations I've found myself in as an avid cyclist of the female variety.

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  20. Sad that these jerks ruin it for the rest of us nice guys! Would like to pay someone a compliment every now and then but just bite my tongue because there's a lot of bad things going on out there.

    There's a cool service in Brooklyn called Brooklyn Bike Patrol. Girls (or guys too?) who have to walk home alone from a subway station at night can contact these folks and they will meet them at a predetermined time and escort them home.

    http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/brooklyn/brooklyn-bike-patrol-remounts-heart-attacks-sidelined-group-leader-article-1.1414732

    A couple of times I've sort of butted my nose into a conversation or interaction that I thought didn't sound too kosher. The girls seemed happy to get 'rescued'.

    I hope it will be a nice polite spring for everyone soon!

    vsk

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  21. With two daughters (17 and 19), I had a pit in my stomach forming while reading this blog post.

    My instinctive (over?) protectiveness as a father also turned on at full force yesterday when my younger daughter and I made a trial run of a commute that she plans on making regularly to her high school. She’s only moderately experienced on a bike. Like so many young Americans these days, she had, until recently, only riden here in parks and on low-traffic residential roads very close to home. Fortunately, when we went back to visit her mother’s family in Taiwan last summer, she experienced the wonderful freedom of utility cycling, getting around her grandmother’s small town on a bike, whether to buy an afternoon snack or go to the beach.

    The topography is very different there on the plains of western Taiwan from here in Asheville NC, where the ridge behind downtown leads straight up to Mt. Mitchell. And the biking and driving cultures are very different here too. There, most cyclists are of the utility variety, whereas here they are mostly mountain bikers or roadies in full getup. And because drivers in small Taiwanese towns are likely to have family members who get around themselves on bikes, they are patient with cyclists. Not so much here.

    Knowing these differences, I’ve made her take it slow as she prepares to ride to the high school. I found her a suitable bike on Craigslist (an old cro-mo Cyclepro mountain bike mixte that looks remarkably like a Betty Foy). It has a very relaxed geometry (slightly more relaxed even than a BF), so she can sit upright and be aware of the traffic, but it also has enough gears to get up Asheville’s hills.

    We started by biking on a bike trail in a riverside park, so she’d get used to the bike and changing its gears in a safer environment. We also focused on signaling and other safety issues. Meanwhile, I scouted out the safest route to the high school, rode it alone, and then drove it with her several times, explaining as we drove how we should ride and position ourselves at certain stretches for optimal safety. Since she runs cross country, stamina was not an issue for her. On the riverside trail, I’d tell her to lead, and on longer rides I’d find myself struggling to keep up with her.

    She took her first trial run with me on roads to the high school on Saturday morning (since the traffic tends to be light then). As to be expected, she found that operating the derailleurs was more difficult in stop-and-go small city traffic and on steep hills than on a mostly flat riverside cycling trail. But considering it was her first time riding a bike for stretches on arterial American roads (only two lanes), she did great.

    Twice, however, she experienced rude motorists, who honked at us when we did nothing at fault, such as when we rode on the left side of our lane for several hundred feet in anticipation of taking a well-signaled left turn. We moved into that position with hundreds of feet to spare behind us, and couldn’t have delayed the driver who subsequently pulled up behind us more than four or five seconds, but he felt he had to press on his horn the entire time once he did pull behind us.

    I usually try to be philosophical about velophobic American drivers, but I found it harder to do so with my daughter riding behind me. I confess that when we turned onto the empty side road, I looked back and shouted, “What are you doing?” to the impudent young lout in his pickup truck, who gave me the finger.

    I don’t need to be told that I shouldn’t have said anything—and that I didn’t set a good example.

    I hope the driver’s rudeness (and her father’s visible anger) doesn’t turn my daughter off from bicycle commuting.

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  22. I'm sorry you experienced it. I have my own version of suddenly encountering all the emptiness and rage of an adult world in childhood. It's much more disturbing than any clichés does justice to. The days I keep thinking about the bit in psycho where the main character talks about the way we're like birds that "claw at each other and the sky" without achieving anything. However, bicycles can be an emotional escape from all that crap too.

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  23. Without meaning to direct it personally at any of the commenters who have mentioned the protective feelings incidents like this bring out in them towards their daughters, it always strikes me that the more important thing is that people who read about things make sure their sons don't turn into the type of men who do this; because the problem, of course, is with them men, not the women.

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    1. Very true, David. I will do the best with my boys.

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  24. Very evocative telling. Had one of you been alone, your vulnerability would have been even more acute. World Bicycle Relief has made thousands of young women in Africa safe from sexual predators and has allowed them to pursue school in addition to their family duties. God save the children and God save bicycles.

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  25. "So... what are you exactly anyway?"

    *twitch* (urge to stab rising)

    as hinted in a couple of the earlier comments, this isn't just a women's or girl's issue. A lot of us 'outsiders' and visible minorities get this treatment *all the time*

    I rather liked this comic's treatment of that question: http://the-toast.net/2014/01/10/what-would-yellow-ranger-do-cartoon/

    and, in all honesty, I can see where a lot of white, mainstream establishment Americans interpret "where are you from?" as an innocent question, but everybody should be aware that this question is interpreted in a very different way by immigrants and minorities. It's like having a random stranger telling you that you have a nice smile. Absent additional information, it's impossible to tell if they're being genuinely complimentary or creepy; so such statements or questions are best confined to more familiar situations.

    Honestly, I can't help but get my guard up (and even feel a little disappointed) whenever somebody asks me that question, and I wish it were otherwise.

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    1. That "where are you from" question never, ever happens in CA. Women getting harassed as in V's original story, very rarely in the Bay Area.

      V disallowed on of my comments; fact of the matter is the pendulum has swung the other way in many instances.

      Further highlights our author's limited perspective as defined by European, New England cultures.

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    2. GR Jim -- I have family in Pleasanton, Oakland and South SF. I spent two years attending school in Redwood City. My experience differs from your assertion. It certainly doesn't happen with the same level of frequency or viciousness as can sometimes happens in the Northeast, but it does happen.

      You'll also note that the author of the webcomic that I linked to lives in LA.

      I know that you sometimes like to rib V on her perspective, but if you're being sarcastic in this comment, I'm afraid your humor comes off as a little too dry when it's just text.

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    3. On the contrary, what about what I wrote can be construed as humorous.

      Redwood City in what year, is the question. In 2014, here, I can't imagine anyone w/o an accent being asked that. If your family has one what is wrong with asking the question if it is in a friendly manner and not the first thing that comes out of one's mouth. I do it all the time to everyone, no matter their race. HERITAGE IS INTERESTING!

      Anyway who cares. To dredge up a story to illustrate the victimization of ___ on ___ day is rather pointless. My counter-example, which was deleted, was of a young woman who suggested to her friends I be run over with a car while working on it.

      Anyway judging from the number of females who slam into me on the sidewalk (yet not one single male in years. Go figure.) I'd say this empowerment thing is reflective of the pendulum swinging the other way.

      You can victimize yourself as V and the cartoon's author have by taking umbrage or you can move on. Then make a big deal out of it on a certain day; that's certainly the way I read the purpose of our "special days."





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    4. Also please note the irony associated with this post's tenor of "women as victim" in the context of this blog, one of whose main themes is, "the knowledge of bikes I have gleaned largely from men."

      The ribbing is what it is.

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    5. In 2014, here, I can't imagine anyone w/o an accent being asked that

      Then I'd suggest that given your chiding of V on her limited perspective, that you consider applying that observation to yourself as well ;)

      I mean, yes, there are many, many people in this world who treat each other with decency, who do ask "where are you from?" from a place of genuine curiosity and friendliness. And I agree, heritage IS interesting! The author says that too. She leads off her comic talking about how wonderful it is to exchange that kind of information amongst friends.

      However, there are also a lot of people who fetishize "exotics", even in cosmopolitan, ethnically diverse California (I'd even hazard a guess and say that California has a disproportionately high number of them). There are people who look at any Asian person and see submissive dolls or mystical strangers. For them "where are you from?" is not friendly at all. It's about putting the subject in a box, and trying to make them conform to some desired stereotype. They kind of ruin it for everyone else.

      I like to believe that you have a social circle and community who treats each other as genuine human beings, without stereotype or prejudice, and that's awesome! Please understand that not everyone (not even everyone in the lovely, utopian Bay Area) is like you. Please believe those of us who tell you that this happens. Please be open to experiences other than your own.

      And, yes, we can suck it up and move on. Given the frequency with which it happens, that usually is the only option. We can't fight every single jerk who looks at us as less-than-human, because that would be exhausting. And then it doesn't change anything except leave us with another scar and allows some creepy, shallow, prejudiced jerk the freedom to go off and creep on some other 'exotic'. Yeah, staying quiet in the face of unfairness or injustice -- that's always helpful.

      But, also to paraphrase the author, when I get one cup of coffee spilled on me, it's easy to shrug it off and say, "no big deal." If I get coffee spilled on me every damn day, then I start to ask people with coffee cups to stay away from me. Please also take that to understand that even if you or your friends are not actively prejudicial towards others, your female or minority friends may find themselves damaged by the prejudicial actions of others, and if they talk about this, it is not helpful to just tell them that their experience is invalid.

      Structural, institutionalized racism and sexism; it's not as bad as it used to be -- but it still kind of sucks. And, yes, I also agree that the pendulum is swinging the other way; but it wouldn't be swinging if people didn't speak up. That pendulum is propelled by people speaking for truth, and silence will just make it stop.

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    6. Experience is subjective. Everyone has a right to their interpretation.

      Not approving any further comments on this exchange as they exceedingly violate the moderating rules.

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  26. Whenever I'd search for Lovely Bike (I never bookmark anything, and I don't know why), Google would always deliver up "Lovely Bones" before I'd finished typing. How sadly appropriate in this case.

    To my mind, a sense of sadness has always underpinned the beauty of this blog (in a good way, in a mono no aware sort of way). It's quite something to see that sadness step out and be read.

    I'm very sorry you experienced such a thing, but I'm very grateful you shared it.

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  27. I think most of us guys would be shocked to know how prevalent this kind of thing is for women in our society. And now we have the advent of social media to layer on it. The impression I get from talking to women on Twitter is that the answer to the question, "How many women are harassed online by crazy-people?" is..ALL of them.

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  28. This makes me want to paraphrase Frank Zappa "I'm not a woman but there's a whole lots of times I wish I could say I'm not a man."

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  29. This caused me to flash back to a child memory: As a child of 8 walking home with my sister, a guy in a car stops, opens the door, beckoning us to take a ride home. Grabbed my sister's hand and ran home.

    This was in the 50's.

    There have been and sadly always will be not good people out there.

    Teach your children. My family always preached the "stay away from strangers" book.

    I'm a guy and have encountered my share of "unwelcome" moments. I imagine women experience that tenfold.

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  30. Jesus, I flashed back to the look on my then-15-year-old daughter's face as she described being followed home by a leering taunting creep in a van from her school bus stop.

    I could have shot that guy in the face and slept like a baby afterward.

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  31. Thanks for this post. The 'bicycle as escape mechanism' discovery is one I wish I had made earlier. I did some reporting on the homeless and mentally ill in Boston this year, and while many of the people I met were lovely and sweet, some were not - and sometimes I needed to get away fast without being followed. Nothing made me feel safer than hopping on my bike and zipping away, feeling the threat fade and get lost in a maze of city streets. It's what allowed me - a young woman, alone, flashing an expensive camera - to engage 'scary' people with compassion rather than fear. Nothing but a bike could have given me that freedom or confidence. Yet another reason to get more women on bikes!

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