„Normal life but on a bicycle“

Manchmal führt Katharina Müller-Güldemeister auch Interviews, sogar auf Englisch. Zum Beispiel mit Alice Bentley, die nach einer Zäsur versuchte, die Kontrolle zurückzuerlangen – allein, mit Rad, Richtung Australien.

Alice Bentley is 29 years old, grew up in a village outside of Oxford and studied philosophy and geography in Ireland. In 2015 she quit her job as a maths teacher in Birmingham and started cycling from the UK to Australia. Along the way she lives of making stop motion films.

Alice, we met in October 2016 on the road cycling to Istanbul – strong headwind, hilly road, industrial zone and highways for hours. I was happy to cycle in a group. How do manage terrible days like this as a solo cyclist?
There are definitely days, when you think: why the hell am I doing this? You literally chose to leave your warm house, your comfort zone to do this and it’s horrible! But actually: I had that in my job, too. You have that in life all the time. What ever you choose to do. It is just normal life but on a bicycle.

How do you motivate yourself then?
If I know that it will be a really hard day I book myself in to a cheap hotel instead of camping and then I have to make it. In Istanbul there was a guy who I wanted to meet before he flew out. It didn’t actually matter if I met him. But I pretended it mattered. So I had this mental aim.

You are cycling to Australia. Why Australia?
To explain why Australia I have to explain how I planned the trip. I had a map of the world in my room and I plotted all the points where I have friends and family. I had a lot in the UK, in Ireland, France, Germany, a few in Spain and then my uncle and aunt in Sydney. Then I played that dot to dot game to see what shape would come up. And then I decided: let’s do it.

Why by bicycle?
It is such a cliche but it is that freedom of mobility, the freedom to get somewhere in your own time, in your own space. In 2014 I did my first bike trip by myself and I realised that was how I like to see the environment. On a bicycle you are defined by the distances you can travel in a day. You have no choice but stopping in a village or a random town. Who knows what you’re going to find there.

Now a questions touring cyclists always get asked: how many kilometres do you do a day?

If I’m just cycling, I do 80 to 100 km per day. But I’m not concerned about kilometres. If there is a nice place to visit 20 km up the road, I’ll do 20 km, if there is an opportunity somewhere that evening, I’m happy to do 140 km.

Now a question touring cyclists always ask each other: what about aggressive dogs?
In Italy a guy told me: slow down. Don’t try to run away from them. Sheep dogs can easily go faster than you. If it’s really going to go for you: get off the bike and put the bike between you and the dog and bark at him. Later I had this really scary dog coming around the corner. I just barked this amazing loud bark. Somewhere in my psychology I had the strength to do it without feeling stupid. The dog stopped in his tracks. So I did it again and it ran away. And then I was like: okay, I have power over dogs.

Did you ever get attacked?
No, but I did have one dog in Greece who bit on to my panniers. He shook it like they do when they try to kill an animal. He almost knocked the pannier off. For some reason he decided to go to the other side. I could feel it and I just tried to keep the bike upright and not fall off. He almost knocked the other pannier off. So the bike was really unstable. I had a second where he let go and I suddenly lurched forward. I got away and I made speed. And then a car came and was between me and the dog and I was safe. I was a bit sad afterwards. So far dogs had never bitten me. Luckily I talked to a guy ten kilometres up the road. He knew the dog and he said it was truly a mad dog. So I felt a bit better.

How is cycling alone as a women?
It is good and bad. You draw a lot of attention from men by yourself. You sometimes end up with people who are less progressive. It was highlighted in south Italy. There were a lot of cafés and bars with just men in. Inevitably you are young, female, you’re very independent and you are wearing sports clothes, which is quite unusual in these areas. So men might come up to you and be like “You are cycling alone? Wow, you are a very strong woman. I can’t believe such a sexy, beautiful woman is travelling by herself.” Within three sentences of meeting me, they defined me by how I look. For a short time, if that would happen in the UK, that kind of comment would just bounce off me. I would think: what an idiot that guy is. I’m so sorry for his wife (laughs). Some men even get quite physical like touching my shoulders a lot, touching my back and on a few occasions I had guys talking about my arse and squeezing my thighs. It is probably just their nature and they would probably do that to their friends. So it is not that I am singled out. But I’m not used to it, I don’t like this kind of interaction. And by the end of the day, when you had it quite a lot you get stressed about it. Then you start being like: am I accidentally flirting – like with a sixty year old man. I don’t think I am. Maybe it’s because I’m wearing a t-shirt, maybe my shorts are too short. You start blaming yourself.

What helped you to deal with it?
I put on my MP3 player just female artists. I had Adele shouting at me when I went over a hill. Or after stopping in a café with only men in I put on Amy Winehouse or even better: Lily Allen. She has this funny approach to life. Then you feel like: it’s alright. Chill out. It is what it is.

So that’s a good short term solution. What about the long term?

I realised that travelling by yourself as a woman has more challenges than for men. As an initial reaction I was angry about it, because it shouldn’t be harder. But if you get in the attitude ʽit is harder, accept it‘, you tend to relax. I made the decision that the value I get out of travelling is worth it. And I realised: a lot of it is in your head. If you can take away the paranoia, the reality of the situation is: very few men are doing it. There are a lot of lovely guys out there.
The other thing that I have to remember is that I am a tourist and choosing to travel into other people’s country, mostly to look at them. I want to stare at their houses, I want to stare at people wearing things that are different from me. Maybe that isn’t so far off someone staring at me because they are not used to a female being by herself in sports clothing and on a bike.

Did you change your behaviour when approached by men?
Yes, I did. Part of my anger was that I didn’t want to change my behaviour. I like smiling and I like being approachable. I was like: if I have to change, I want to go home. But after some weeks I relaxed about it. I started not to smile immediately. Just being unapproachable for a short time. You get left alone. Maybe you miss an opportunity one in ten times. But it’s worth it. Because you get much more confidence and it only takes three sentences to learn what they want and if they are going to respect you. So you can be smiling within thirty seconds.

How about your communication?
I learnt that it is difficult for other people to understand the light expressions. I am very British in my language. Telling my friends that I don’t want to do something I might say: I’m not really sure if I want to do that. And every British person would know: she means no. But if it is someone’s second language, they hear: I’m not sure. And think: so maybe she wants it. Then it‘s nobody’s fault. It is just language barrier. But I learnt this lesson. When someone is approaching you, give him two sentences, and then make a decision. If you are not interested, make sure you speak clearly and your facial expressions are very clear about what you try to communicate.

So what are the good things about travelling alone as a woman?
People trust you very rapidly. And just being different gives you an advantage. Your stories are a little bit more interesting than a male cyclist. I had a few hosts, via Warmshowers, who said when I arrived: I was so busy but I had to say yes because I wanted to meet a girl who is doing this on a bike by herself.

What is good about travelling alone in general?
You look at your environment a lot more and have a lot of self-reflection. You can also be more spontaneous. You have an excuse to get into people’s lives, you want to be able to communicate with them because you haven’t had that communication on your cycling route. So you are going into a café and you push yourself to interrupt somebody. One thing that I don’t enjoy about travelling alone is that I don’t laugh as much. You don’t laugh by yourself.

Do you sometimes feel homesick?
No, since I can’t really identify where home would be. Not in a negative way but home for me is having conversation with my family and my friends. Every now and again I miss it being easy. Like I miss being in the place where I know where the café is. But I can solve that. I try to be in a place for a longer period of time to feel settled and to get to know people and locations. Sometimes if you have been moving every day it is nice to arrive to a city and know: I will be here for seven days. First day: you don’t have to see anything, you don’t have to wash your cycle clothes, you don’t have to skype with everybody immediately just because you found internet. Stop beating yourself up and relax.

When did you learn to cycle?
I learned cycling when I was 6 or 7. But I didn’t use it much until I was commuting. My mum, sadly, not with us any more, wasn’t very well. She suffered bi-polar disease, a form of depression, which sends you high and low. She was on a lot of medication and lost her driving license because of it. So it was one of those challenging moments when one of your parents cannot provide for you as much as you’re used to. I couldn’t control what was going on with my mum. She was going through hard things. But I could control the bike. I could fix it, I could cycle it, I could leave when I wanted. I could almost guarantee the time that it would take me to get places.

Your Mother died in 2014. You started the trip one and half years later.
I had to clear my head. There were a lot of things to deal with regarding the fact that she committed suicide. There was the fact that she made the choice to do it, to be willed, to leave us. There is the trauma of the event itself. And there is the longer term: I’ve lost the person who loved me most in the world.
To deal with trauma I needed my brothers. They shared the trauma and the impact of it. But after a bit of time I wanted to get away. I wanted to completely change my life. So that I didn’t have to live the life that I was living before but without my mum.

How did travelling help you?

My mindset is so different now. The trip had given me the space to think through my relationship with my mum. Her relationship with me. She suffered from manic depression all of my life. So I was thinking a lot about 26 years of living with her. Was it hard? Was it great? I’m not broken, so even: why am I not broken?

Did cycling help as well?
Yes. Especially in that mental struggle of going uphill I sometimes have my most useful reflections. And then if I go downhill the other side I can clearly think about them.

But why did you opt for travelling and not only for a change of environment?
The one theory I have is that if I’m travelling the world it makes it easier to think. The more you learn – about cultures, languages, people and history – the more open-minded you get. And I feel like I’m gaining control over the world again. I totally lost control for a while. Well, you don’t really have control but it’s nice to feel like you do. And obviously unexpectedly loosing someone you feel you lose complete control over the world. Anything can happen. Any time. Like I could loose my dad tomorrow as well. And you freak out. You almost go the other way. And when you start travelling you realise: you can’t control everything. But equally, the more you know, the more you understand, the more you can deal with anything that comes. You understand different cultures. So no culture is going to surprise you or insult you. So you have an element of control.

How about the relationship to your mother?
In Greece I realised: I have come to a point where I have done enough thinking about mum. I’ve had my space. I hold mum in a really positive place now. I’m tired of thinking about the sadness, there is a time when you need that. But I don’t need that any more.