For as long as I’ve known her—and I suspect as long as anyone has—Charlotte Fagan has been empowered by bicycles and inspired to get more women to feel the same way.
Since we graduated from Macalester College last May, Charlotte hasn’t wasted any time in doing her part to get more women riding. With a pair of prestigious grants secured, she hit the road the first week of June for 15 months abroad, dedicated to studying how women across cultures are personally, politically, and economically empowered through biking, while actively getting more women on bikes along the way.
Throughout the first half of her travels, Charlotte has organized, taught, studied, raced, built and fixed bikes on four different continents—all chronicled on her aptly named blog, Woman On a Wheel.
With a few hours before her flight from Paris to Sierra Leone just before New Year’s, Charlotte took a break from packing and passed up sleep to share her favorite experiences from each of her first seven months abroad with us. Enjoy.
“Fairy Godmothers on Bikes” (Quito, Ecuador)
Before starting the year of my Watson fellowship, I returned to Quito, Ecuador, where I lived in 2010, to create a big sister/little sister cycling program called “Hadas Madrinas en Bici” with a grant from the Davis Projects for Peace Foundation. I used the grant money to buy and build 20 bikes for the Carishina en Bici Collective (“Tomboys on Bikes”), and we lent out the bikes to women who didn’t have the economic resources to buy their own, and paired them with a biking mentor/big sister. Carishina en Bici is already a baller organization of incredible, strong, and caring women, who were previously doing amazing work with no resources, so this project increases their capacity to positively impact the lives of women in Quito. Two highlights: 1. Teaching my little sister, Gaby, how to ride a bike and getting to see how excited she was when she first successfully pedaled around the park, and seeing her motivation to keep practicing. 2. I learned a lot from organizing with the Carishina en Bici group about how to work with a horizontal, volunteer-run collective. It was one of the most democratic spaces I’ve ever been a part of–so rad!
Carishina Race Ecológica: Pedal Power in Fishnets (Quito, Ecuador)
Three years ago, while I was living in Ecuador full time, I thought it was whack that the alley-cat races were so dominated by men. I decided to do something about it and started an all women’s alley-cat race series. I never thought many people would show up, or that it would take off the way that it has. I organized three races in 2010 before leaving Ecuador, but this last summer I finally got a chance to race instead of organize. It was, in a word, awesome. Over 100 women raced in pairs through the streets in Quito, dressed in costumes ranging from Frida to Avatars to astronauts, but always outfitted with huge smiles as they cheered each other on as they raced past. All the stops were ecologically themed—some of my personal favorites were making milkshakes on bike blenders and using pedal–powered grinders to make recycled paper. It was a blast, and so much fun to experience it from the perspective of a racer instead of an organizer. The race is also known for the most happening dance after-parties that Quito has ever seen, and it didn’t disappoint.
Riding Half a Country in a Day in the Name of Bike Polo (Taiwan)
There are a lot of awesome things about the Watson Fellowship. One of which is that if someone says to you, “Hey, there’s this bike polo tournament in Taiwan in December, want to come?” you only have to think about it for approximately two seconds before answering “I’m in!” And that was more or less how I ended up going to the Takao Bike Polo Tournament in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I played on a team with two good friends I made at the bike shop ‘Natooke’ in Chengdu, China, and we had a blast slaying on the polo court. Adding to the awesomeness, some friends from the Natooke shop and I rode half the island of Taiwan (220km) in one day to get to the tournament. Despite 100km of rain, it was an awesome way to see the country and get our legs extra warmed up for the tournament.
Fixed Gear Revolution (Beijing, China)
The biggest fixed gear event of the year in Beijing is a three-day weekend of events called the Fixed Gear Revolution. I could pretend that I planned really well to be in Beijing during the event, but honestly, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I participated in three of the six events of the weekend: a crit, an alley-cat, and a small polo tournament. The crit, my first ever, was a circuit around Beijing’s infamous Olympic Park. I don’t think I’ve ever been so exhausted after a race (last year’s All-City Championship in Minneapolis being a close second). After the race I was so hungry that at 2 am, I went to KFC to crush some fried chicken sandwiches, which is saying something for me. Day 3 of the weekend began with a morning alley-cat through Beijing, which included (unintentionally) biking on highways, eating the spiciest chicken wing I’ve ever encountered, and moving peas with chopsticks. It was disappointing, though, to see that not nearly as many women participated in the events compared to men, and that prizes for female winners were worth literally a thousand dollars less. While I had a lot of fun at the event, it definitely got me thinking about how fixed gear culture is being exported around the world, and how gender politics fits into that.
Weaving Through Traffic (Jakarta, Indonesia)
It’s hard to sufficiently express what traffic is like in Jakarta. Until you experience the anarchy, it’s hard to impress upon people how it’s even possible for so many cars and motorcycles to occupy a network of roads at that density for miles on end. To put it in perspective, it’s not uncommon for a four-mile commute to take two hours in a car. These same conditions make Jakarta one of the most exciting and challenging cities I’ve ever biked in. Riding down the road, you pick a line between the gridlocked traffic and bob and weave your way through. It’s even more fun riding with friends as you race through the traffic, seeing who can snake through the fastest. To me, it sort of felt like being a kid again, playing in a playground of traffic.
Bike Politics and Organizing (Jogjakarta, Indonesia)
Jogjakarta, located in central Java, is known as the arts and cultural capital of Indonesia, and the city is overflowing with university students. Both of these factors, among others, point to the makings of an excellent bike culture, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. The bike community in Jogja is one of the coolest I’ve ever experienced. There are tons of separate, small bike communities with different interests, but they all come together for larger events while still maintaining their own autonomy. It was one of the most diverse, inclusive, and democratic bike communities I’ve ever seen. I spent time hanging out with a bike/fashion/heritage collective called Siti Baik that really opened my eyes to how fashion can play a role in promoting a local (non-western) biking identity. The bike scene in Jogjakarta is diverse across age, gender, class, and ethnicity, and I feel like I learned a lot about bike politics and organizing from the experience that I hope to bring to other communities I’m involved with in the future.
Getting Lost (Jogja, Indonesia)
In preparation for a long bike tour (that never ended up happening, go figure), I started going on training rides while in Jogja. Early morning rides exploring the rice paddies, mountains, and coast of the province are some of the fondest memories of my time there. One of the coolest parts of riding in that area is that you can get lost while still knowing more or less where you are. If you’re going uphill, you’re headed north, going downhill is south, and there’s a visible mountain range to the east. The geography of the area gave me the confidence to explore tiny roads and paths knowing that eventually, I could make my way back. On those rides, I encountered tons of rural women and girls riding old-school colonial bikes and wearing the traditional batik clothing and huge hats—definitely a glimpse into a bike lifestyle that I would have otherwise never known existed.
Charlotte is currently in Lunsar, Sierra Leone, where she’s volunteering with the Village Bicycle Project through the end of March, teaching kids to ride and working to expand the local bicycle library. We’ll look to do a second installment of Charlotte’s travels down the road, but in the meantime, follow her at Woman On a Wheel, if you can keep up.