I’ve been particularly enjoying having this month’s issue of Cyclist around the house, in no small part due to la femme featured on the cover. That’s her on the right in the red glasses. For me she makes a bit clearer portal than the typically featured dudes into the world of European cycling (Cyclist is a UK-based pub and features almost entirely European routes), which I like to revisit even a year and a half after our ambitious trip across the Pyrenees. Specifically, we rode from Lordes, France, to Cadaques Spain, covering about 375 miles in a six day stretch.
A portion of that trip that has stood out recently, both due to the Cyclist cover and some news out of believe it or not Afghanistan, is the summit of Tourmalet. Often in the Tour de France, the climb to the Col is strewn notes of encouragement painted onto the road for various Tour favorites, falls from grace notwithstanding. As we attacked it, Paul was as usual several minutes ahead, and I was settled into my enjoying-the-scenery pace. Vistas-wise, it doesn’t really get any better than the approach to the Col du Tourmalet, which was a good thing because by the last few miles I was likely the record holder for the slowest speed over ground while still upright on the bike. But even with my glacial approach, I got a a big reception at the peak.
I heard a gasp and then someone shout out, ‘C’est la femme’! A few people clapped, and I’m not gonna lie, right then I appreciated it. The climb was frustrating – towards the end I had tried to go faster but just couldn’t. It felt good to finish and it felt good to get acknowledgement for the hard work. But. Did it feel weird to have someone proclaim I am a girl? Yes. I mean of course I’m a girl!
A few times, I was lucky enough to meet the rock and roll photographer Bob Gruen. I am 100% certain he wouldn’t be able to pick me out of a lineup – I don’t mean to garner any halo effect here. But we had one very poignant conversation. I chatted with him the day before an important awards ceremony for New York City artists in which he was being specially honored. If he’d been more excited about it maybe I’d remember specifics, anyway at the time it struck me as an impressive accolade. But he simply said, ‘They’re giving me an award for being myself.’ In a way, that’s what it’s like when people are surprised to see girls doing something difficult or unusual (for girls). I think it’s safe to say that like men, women take on mental and physical challenges because we want to feel prepared, see how it goes and feel good about putting out a hard effort. This seems to just be a human condition for some, doesn’t it?
Tonight, I went to a panel discussion featuring Cheryl Strayed, the author of the best selling book Wild. The book chronicles Cheryl’s 1000 + mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, taken after a series of harrowing life events left her reeling. When the moderator asked if this was a woman with nature story, Cheryl explained that the key theme is the importance of each individual sorting out life for her or himself – in the end of Wild, it is Cheryl who sets herself straight, not her parents, not a new husband, not an improved set of circumstances. I agree that to feel personal satisfaction in life, we all must do that, not just women and not just men.
I shutter to wax political about a topic I typically give little thought to – ‘I yam what I yam’ and all that. Yes it is remarkable when women do difficult things and make significant accomplishments. But I do ask myself, is it especially remarkable?
In some cases, truly. As I mentioned, I recently learned about a newly developed women’s cycling team in Afghanistan. I never knew but women are actually banned from riding bikes there, and some of the members on the team have had stones thrown while riding! There are no words for this lack of freedom. And in this context, it’s impossible to try to equalize women’s accomplishments – as I read I felt fortunate, proud and grateful, and was reminded that what I thought I do in the world is what I do in my world. Now also feels like the right time to mention that my personal safety has never been compromised on the bike or otherwise, and while I am physically strong I hold no illusions that by letting my guard down or frankly through sheer circumstance it could be. I don’t think as many men share the same palpable vulnerability – another complicating factor as I try to sort this out.
The answer for me, in the operating systems I work with, is that I don’t know if it’s espicialy remarkable when women do difficult things, because women are so clearly capable. Part of me likes the fact that women have so many quiet accomplishments. One one hand, it feels weird when praise is caveated in terms of being a girl, on the other, there are some things that just feel really hard, that at the same time seem easier for men. (Although I suspect the reverse may also be true…) Also confusing is that when I hear references to ‘the weaker’ sex, it doesn’t upset me. When this is implied literally, well no kidding – on average women just aren’t equipped with the same musculature. Mentally, well I know that statement’s just silly and not worth paying attention to! At the end of the day I don’t think one sex is superior to the other in that department. So really, I don’t know. It’s nuanced I guess. Lynn Hill isn’t one of the best female climbers of all time, she’s one of the best climbers of all time. Merryl Streep isn’t one of the best female leads of all time, she’s one of the best leads of all time. These icons I haven’t met, but I’d be willing to bet that they do what they do b/c they enjoy it, are being themselves, and are compelled to push themselves to be the best, period. Still, several parts of the world are men’s arenas, and maybe in that sense it feels good to bring the house down while also just being yourself.
Thank you/darn you Cyclist for raising these unanswered questions!