‘How could two people, routinely unable to leave the house for days on end, manage to cycle from Amsterdam to Spain?’
Gears for Queers
By Abigail Felton and Lilith Cooper
Published by Sandstone Press
You’ve had quite the adventurous time of it over the last couple of years. Firstly, you both cycled (and camped!) across Europe and then you decided to write about the experience. How did these adventures come about?
Abi: When we started dating, we both talked about travelling, but neither of us were sure how we wanted it to look. For a while, I had been thinking about walking across Europe, and it was Lili who suggested we try cycling instead. I hadn’t been on a bike for about eight years before we met, so I knew it would be a steep learning curve, but I was up for giving it a go!
The opportunity to write the book came up when we were approached by Kay, an assistant publisher at Sandstone Press, based up in Inverness. She’d got hold of a few of our zines and asked us if we’d considered writing a book!
Did you always know that you would write about your trip?
Lili: Not at all! Or at least, not in the way we ended up writing about it. I kept a journal the whole way, and when we came back we started writing blog posts and zines about the tour, but really focusing on specific things like offering advice for folxs considering touring, or vegan campstove recipes. I think we probably wouldn’t have written a book about the trip without the push from Kay, and she really helped us figure out the process. In the end, it’s a very time consuming, albeit rewarding, experience, and with the pressures of jobs and life, I’m not sure we’d ever have carved out that time of our own initiative.
And now you’ve had to go through the publishing process in the strangest of circumstances. As debutants you don’t have the comparison of publication outwith a pandemic. Still, how have you coped with lockdown?
Abi: I think like most people, lockdown has been a total rollercoaster. We definitely had a massive crash post-publication, because for a while that was our only focus, and it felt like it came around really quickly! The one thing that was great was having a really supportive community on social media, who helped keep us feeling excited and good about the process, because it’s easy for that to be chipped away at in such stressful circumstances.
Lili: We’ve been phenomenally lucky really – both of us have been able to continue working from home, neither of us needed to shield and we’ve got pretty stable housing. In terms of publishing, the hardest thing for me has been it not feeling ‘real’ – we can’t just go into a bookshop and see our book there. We’ve been really grateful for everyone sharing photos of Gears for Queers and messaging us to say they’re reading it or have enjoyed it.
But back to your story. We are well used to the phenomenon of the MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra) – so much so they have a recognised acronym! Were there challenges you didn’t expect cycling long-distance as a queer couple?
Lili: I think on the tour we write about in the book, many of the challenges were those we face in our everyday lives – questions of safety and visibility that are as present at home, as they are on the road. There were loads of challenges of long distance touring we didn’t expect, completely unrelated to being a queer couple, simply because we were complete beginners. And I think we also faced challenges that any couple would face, travelling together and living in a tent for six months!
We went on a second longer tour in 2019, where we cycled from Kirkcaldy to Budapest. Travelling through somewhere like Hungary, where we knew there were maybe more negative attitudes towards LGBTQ people, increasingly reflected in legislation, we were more cautious and, whilst there were lots of places where we felt safe and welcomed, it was also stressful as a queer couple feeling that bit more guarded.
Although your trip was testing physically and mentally, there were plenty moments of joy and appreciation. What are your favourite memories?
Abi: I think so many of the joyful moments came after really hard times – like a stop at a thermal bath in Germany in the midday heat, or eating the best falafel in Switzerland after a hell ride. But for me nothing will beat when we were invited into a family’s house, in the middle of this tiny village in France. We’d knocked on the door for water, because we were going to wild camp nearby and were invited to stay overnight. Sophie and her three children cooked us an amazing three course vegan meal, and we stayed up late helping the kids with their English homework. In the morning they sent us off with fresh baguettes from the bakery. It was such a warm and generous act.
Lili: I think one of my favourite memories is of eating dinner with our Warmshowers host on the roof of a student house in Wageningen in the Netherlands, as the sun was setting. It’s funny, whilst the cycling was fantastic, and some of the views and the hills and the routes will stay with me forever, the memories that are most special to me are to do with the people we met, who hosted us, or who we encountered on the route.
What did you notice about each country’s relationship with cycling that’s different from the UK?
Lili: God, so much! Especially starting riding in the Netherlands, it was so different – in terms of infrastructure, being able to ride off road cycle paths pretty much everywhere, and in terms of attitudes to cycling and cycle touring. When we’ve ridden fully loaded touring bikes across the UK we’ve felt like a total oddity, but it’s much more common across mainland Europe. The difference, especially in terms of how bikes (and pedestrians) have priority at things like roundabouts, and the way that can impact drivers attitudes, is really noticeable. It wasn’t always great – we had some pretty hairy rides in Switzerland and parts of the south of France – but there were undeniable differences.
Because of COVID-19, there has been a surge in interest in cycling. What advice would you give to these new cyclists?
Abi: I’d say don’t worry about what other cyclists are doing. There’s sometimes a pressure to cycle in a certain way, or be a certain type of cyclist, or look a certain way. But really cycling should feel fun – whether you’re riding to and from the supermarket, or along the Rhein. Sometimes I get bogged down because I don’t feel fit enough, or fast enough, but as soon as I get back on my bike, all that disappears and I know I belong on two wheels!
Lili: My advice would be more practical. Find a bike you are comfortable riding – it doesn’t have to be the newest or the lightest or the most expensive. If you’re interested in learning how it works, there are some great classes and places to do that – I’d recommend London Bike Kitchen’s online classes as great place to start – but if you’re not interested, that’s ok too! Try out different route planning tools – we use open street maps in combination with google maps and komoot to figure out new routes. Finally, I guess I’d say connect with other cyclists – whether in real life or online!
Have you been thinking about your next cycling adventure once travel restrictions are lifted?
Lili: We went to a webinar from Cycling UK about the Great North Trail and were totally sold. We don’t fly, so international travel is probably going to be off the table for a little while yet, and we were already looking for routes closer to home. In the far future, we have some unfinished business from our 2019 tour and I think we’re going to take the bus to Munich, cycle to Venice, and then follow the coast round and down to Athens!
Abi: I recently discovered the Great American Rail Trail, so that’s on my radar too!
How did you approach the task of writing your travelogue together?
Abi: We’re lucky in that a lot of the work we do is already done collaboratively, so we both felt pretty comfortable facing writing a book together, more so than if we were doing it individually! We decided early on to split the book as evenly as possible, and to make sure neither of us had more of the exciting events than the other. We worked to keep our voices really distinct. It can be easy to fall into a sort of ‘shared narrative’ when we are talking about the tour. That said, one of the advantages of writing alongside your touring partner was the ability to memory check each other, and we spent the first few months reminiscing and remembering together in as much detail as we could.
Do you have any plans to write together again?
Lili: Definitely! Abi is keen to start on Gears for Queers part two, but I’m waiting for the dust to settle from this first book. But we’ve been writing blogs and zines in the last few months – I think one of the best things about our relationship is that we enjoy working on creative projects together!
Finally, what have you been enjoying reading during lockdown?
Lili: Luckily, it was Abi’s birthday during lockdown, and two of our favourite bookshops – Lighthouse in Edinburgh and Category Is Books in Glasgow have still been delivering! The last book I read was The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, which I just smashed through in three days.
Abi: Pre-book publication I was reading a lot of memoir and travelogue, but since the book came out I have retreated into science fiction and fantasy. I finally finished Circe by Madeline Miller, and at the moment I’m halfway through Rosewater by Tade Thompson.
Gears for Queers by Abigail Felton and Lilith Cooper is published by Sandstone Press, priced £8.99.