Women on Bikes Series: Anna Williams

I'm 37, live in London and work in Market Research - I'm a freelancer, hence I gave myself a bit of time off to ride the Divide!

Day-to-day I enjoy outdoor activities but am not over-achieving sporty type (in fact, I've come in the bottom 10 of a triathlon TWICE!). In terms of cycling, I didn't have a bike until the start of 2013, which I bought as I'd entered a 100 race on a post-Olympics high, not really expecting to get in but I found out in January I got a place through the ballot.

So I trained for that, enjoyed cycling and, with a natural love of travel and of the US, an extended bike trip out there seemed a good idea. 
Plus I love animals and the thought of seeing bears, wild horses and antelopes was just too enticing! And I like burgers...and fries...and milkshakes...so, all-in-all, there was a big draw to do the Divide and, aside from fear of losing clients having a career break, not too much holding me back. I figured life on the road would be cheaper than day-to-day London living. 

Check out Anna's blog 

What motivated you to start cycling? 
I’m an Olympics baby! I watched the London Olympics Road Race live and that, coupled with all the buzz in London post-games made me enter the ballot for a place in the Ride London 100 mile event, a public race which follows the Olympics course, just with fewer climbs of Box Hill. I was lucky enough to get a place, bought a bike and that was the start of me cycling.

I didn’t really start combining adventure and cycling until I did a few overnight microadventures a few hours from where I live in London. Around the same time, a good friend of mine (http://uninspiredramblings.com/ )got quite into bike touring and his enthusiasm rubbed off a bit!

You recently rode the Divide, what made you decide to take on that challenge? 
Interesting you use the word challenge as I wasn’t looking to challenge myself, just enjoy a fun ride somewhere beautiful, although I suppose there are far easier routes I could have chosen!

The Divide ticked all my important boxes:
I’m not really a planner and didn’t feel I had the time, patience or inclination to pour over maps and plan a route of my own: I fancied a route I could do pretty much straightaway or I felt I may go off the idea (then latterly regret it) or life would take over and my plans would never materialise. Being able to buy easy to follow maps of a route and a book from the American Cycling Association  with a suggested 70 day breakdown of the route was perfect for me
     It’s off-road but not mountain-biking: I had an accident on the roads that actually put me off cycling for 15 years!  I was forced to overcome that fear whilst training for the 100 mile race but a mild fear of cars still lingers. I’m not a MTBer so didn’t want too off-road – the Divide is the perfect mix of not much tarmac but not too much standing on the pedals, white-knuckle stuff either
     I love that sort of scenery and am a big animal fan: the sun shining off glacial streams, Grizzly bears going for a wonder, miles of pristine forest, colourful alpine flowers, wild antelope… enough said!
     It’s in an English-speaking country: I went on my own and, given it was a short break rather than immersing myself in a longer, global tour, the idea of being able to readily converse with the locals appealed. Not that I’m adverse to non-English countries – far from it! – I think it just felt that at least one element would be familiar when engaging in an activity I hadn’t done anything like before and sometimes I think you need a little comfort factor

What was one of the most difficult experiences you encountered while riding the Divide? 
Physically, mud in Wyoming and some rocky climbs in New Mexico!

Mentally, it was one when someone I met early on in the trip pretty much I implied I wouldn’t be able to do it. I was furious at him for being so de-motivating  and crushing someone’s dreams before they’d really got going in even trying to make them true!

What was one of the most exciting experiences you’ve had while riding the Divide? 
Some of the thunderstorms were epic!  One struck when I was on a particularly primitive road which soon turned to clay and I was literally stuck in the mud, so had to dump my bike by the side of the road, pick up my panniers and make my way to a few square feet of rocky ground that could support a tent. I spent the night there with an unpegged-down tent being rolled in the wind like a tumbleweed ball with me inside it. Next morning, I saw some Grizzly bear prints in the mud not far down the road – exciting night!  

How did you prepare yourself for the journey? 
I tried not to get overly caught up in preparation and get carried away reading too many forums etc. where you read contradictory things which mean it can take you ages to make any kit-buying decisions! I bought Tom Allen’s Essential Gear for Adventure Cycle Touring http://gearforcycletouring.com/?from=13 which is great for, in the author’s words, “non-gear-nerds”.

Deciding which bike I wanted was the main thing but it didn’t take me long to settle on a Surly Troll. Physically I made sure I was reasonably fit but figured we simply don’t have the same scale hills in the UK as in the Rockies so there was no point in trying to get myself up to Divide-level fitness before I was out there as it simply wouldn’t happen!

Most of my prep was psychological, telling myself I only had to try it, not finish it.

Was the ride everything you had hoped it would be? If you were to do it again, would you change anything? 
It was more than I hoped it would be! I wasn’t really sure whether I’d find the Divide too physically and mentally challenging, or too remote, but it wasn’t at all.

I’d love to do it again. I was glad I did it on my own and would actually recommend others do so too: contrary to what you might expect, you can have more fun as I think local people are more prone to approaching and offering a meal, accommodation etc. to people on their own; you come across plenty of other riders to not feel lonely; and challenging conditions – hills, fatigue etc. - can put a real strain on relationships so, if you started the route with the wrong person, I think you’re unlikely to finish it with that person!. However, if I do it a second time, I’d consider riding it with someone else purely to change the dynamic from my first experience (and cut down the number of selfies taken).

What did you learn about yourself on the trip? 
I learnt that if I do things my own way, there probably is quite a lot I can achieve in life and if I try and follow what works for other people, the opposite may be true!  

Doing the Divide my style was really important to me and I didn’t follow a lot of the ‘rules’ about travelling light, training etc., but I followed an approach that intuitively felt right to me. I don’t mean I ignored the advice of experienced people or didn’t make what-to-take decisions without a sensible head on, I just felt that if I was to have a fighting chance of reaching Mexico, I’d have to travel in a way that I knew I could deal with and enjoy. So I followed my instincts about what I felt was an ok fitness to go into it with, how much researching the route to do beforehand etc. and, sure enough, it worked for me!  I think that if I’d been steered too much by other people, I’d have got overwhelmed and not even started it.

Which location during your ride did you feel was your most favorite and why? 
You can’t ask that – that’s like asking a parent which child is their favourite when they see equally great things in their whole brood!

If I had to pick one bit, I’ll say Fleecer Ridge which is notorious for an extremely steep, hike-a-bike DOWNhill section.  I’d been dreading it but it was beautiful and I loved the idea that it had totally blown my expectations out the water. 

What should people know about the Divide before they make the decision to go on their own journey? 
That it’s not as hard as some people make out! I think people in general (especially blokes ;-) ) have a tendency to over-dramatize how hard things are as it makes for a better story than saying “it’s fine”.  Get in the right mindset, and it’s really enjoyable and not too physically challenging at all! It becomes clear over time that there is no flat on the route (end of New Mexico aside), just less steep versions of up or down – but accept that fact early doors and you’re laughing! 

And be prepared for bad weather – the temperature fluctuated by 35oC when I was out there – so don’t leave the bulky cold / wet weather gear behind thinking you’re willing to chance it.

Do you use clipless pedals? If yes, what are some tips/suggestions for beginners that you would share? If no, are you thinking of trying it out at all? 
I actually use flat pedals. I know they’re not as efficient but after my accident I have a mild fear of being attached to my bike, even though I know it’s unjustified as you can release very quickly!

What do you love about riding your bike? 
It’s hard to put into words but there’s something quite magical in manoeuvring a heaving beast of a fully-laden bike off the ground into the standing position, swinging your leg over and then, with one simply foot stroke, you glide away almost effortlessly!

Tell us about your bike(s), what they are like and why did you choose them? 
I’ve got a Trek 7.6 which was a fairly light-weight but not too expensive bike for my 100 mile race. I wanted a hybrid bike as I’m not familiar with drop handlebars and they scare me!  

For the Great Divide I got a 14” Surly Troll as they have a great rep as an off-road touring bike and, being 5ft 2, 29ers aren’t a great option for me so that rules out a few models.

What clothing/bike accessories do you love? What would you recommend to your friends? 
My FiveTen Freerider shoes are fab – so comfy and better than proper cycling shoes for when you need to get off and push – and Assos shorts cost a fortune but I love them!

What do you feel deters women from getting involved with cycling? 
If you’re talking about cycling touring specifically, I’d say it’s a fear of not knowing enough about the mechanics of bikes. I did a basic maintenance and still don’t know a lot about how to fix a bike but I knew enough to stay safe on the Divide. Unless you’re really, really remote, the chances are you can have a mechanical failure and someone will rescue you in a few hours so you don’t need to know how to fix anything but the basics of puncture repair and brake tightening are invaluable.

What do you feel could happen to make changes and/or encourage more women to ride? 
I think blokes get a kick out of a bike being a machine to love and tinker with. I’m not sure women have the tinkering gene to the same extent and it’s more just a medium of transport! If more women felt comfortable in the fact that you don’t have to be part of a bike-loving, gear-nerd crowd to enjoy riding, there might be a few more female bikers.

Tell us a random fact about yourself! 
The Bee Gees used to own the house opposite where I grew up.