Bar one Rapha Women’s 100 ride a couple of years back, I had never done an organised cycling event that is only open for women, non-binary and trans people. Last weekend, however, I found myself in beautiful Devon, sitting on a hay bale surrounded by nearly 80 others representing those often underrepresented groups. All of them cyclists.
It was a rather special feeling, to be surrounded by so much energy that I felt reflected my own. All of the Sisters in the Wild (SITW) Rally participants had come to Exeter specifically to ride the East Devon Trail, a 110-mile mixed terrain route taking in the region in all its beauty, harshness and hikeability. This was to be the first SITW rally, and so there was a sense of newness to it all.
I had signed up for the event rather last minute and, in what I feel has become the custom when I'm attending bigger events, I arrived at the base camp with mixed feelings. A sense of relief because I had made it, as with the unreliability of the trains that’s not always a given; a sting of anxiety about being in such a large group without knowing anyone prior to the event; and on top of this, the bubbling excitement about getting to ride my bike in a new place.
I’m quite sure I wasn’t alone in these feelings, and when I got to chatting with my fellow riders, I noticed the same topics surfaced. I met others who had come to the event alone and travelled from far, some worried whether their bike will make it through the weekend, whereas some were more concerned about the difficulty of the route, in general.
SITW x EDT women's rally talks, by Sarah Hewitt
The first evening was filled with mingling around little fireplaces, that left their mark on all of the clothing with the strong scent of smoke. Around the sheltered hall, qualified mechanics were helping people out with their last-minute mechanicals and giving the bikes a once-over. Fizik, one of the sponsors of the event, was present with a whole selection of shoes and saddles on display. The rally was designed so that equipment would not be an issue; you could also borrow Ortlieb bikepacking bags, test Fizik shoes and saddles on the ride and, although it wasn’t an option for this event, at other SITW events you’ve been able to also borrow a bike.
And I think this accessibility and inclusivity were visible at the first glance. The event is only open for women, trans and non-binary people and there was a whole range of bikes on display, not just race-ready machines that are kept for these kinds of special social outings. Plenty of riders were rocking flat pedals, riding in non-padded and baggy shorts, and in general, the vibe was very chilled compared to some other cycling events that I’ve attended.
SITW rally x East Devon Trail-22.jpg, by Suvi loponen
But what made it really different? For me, as a woman, it’s a rare occasion I get to ride with so many of “my own”. I’m used to being part of rides where I'm the only woman, always ready for a bit of mansplaining about any creaks my bike might make, from people who think women don’t know how to look after bikes. I'm used to being the one scouting for a good sheltered pee stop and then feeling like I'm slowing people down by asking to stop there instead of the open field where all the guys had relieved themselves. But this time, I wasn't alone in looking for a good bush to pee behind.
As much as I felt all of the conflicting emotions described above, the overwhelming feeling of attending something like this was empowerment. I felt immensely proud of all of us - just writing that word makes me feel emotional - turning up on our bikes and riding such a demanding, beautiful and rewarding route, together but yet still, each on our own.
What is a rally?
All of these feelings, as usual, succumbed to the simplicity of riding a bike as on Friday morning, after breakfast and a short rider briefing, we were rolling out of the base camp. There was no set time to head out, but rather, we were on our own from now on until we would get back together at the campsite on Suday. Some set off as soon as, and some take their time to get ready and disassembled their campsite.
SITW x EDT women's rally hero camping, by Sarah Hewitt
And this, us all doing our own thing collectively, is pretty much what a rally is. I had never done one before although I had seen and been inspired by the likes of the women-only Torino-Nice rally and Montanas Vacias gravel rally that happened earlier this year. The concept is that you get together, riding the same route at your own pace, self-supported, but at the same time knowing that there are others doing the exact same route so you can buddy up.
Our rally was three days long, riding the 110-mile-long East Devon Trail, which meant that we were to cover about 37 miles a day. After each day’s riding, we had the freedom to decide where to sleep; some chose to wild camp, some opted for hostels, and some for B&Bs.
There was no requirement to stick to the "official" route at the rally, either. You could tailor it to your needs; cut out the most technical river crossings, avoid hills, or decide to have fewer hills to allow your knees to rest - the choice was everyone's own.
Cliffs, sunsets, dolphins, hike-a-bikes
Katherine Moore, the mastermind behind the East Devon Trail route wasn’t lying when she said it really has it all. It’s punchy, technical, and demanding, but also rewarding. It makes you push yourself beyond your limits and then rewards you with a stunning view of the sun setting beyond the sea. It makes you climb up a hellishly steep hill to enjoy miles of forest tracks and an exhilarating descent. All the while it also delivers the best of Devon lanes: those tall hedges alongside the lanes, and numberless cows, sheep and wildlife that I was not necessarily the best at spotting.
East Devon Trail, by Weronika Szalas
The three days of riding were all very different, but all as enjoyable nevertheless. The first day took us from Exeter to Beer on towpaths, cycle lanes and some immaculate gravel paths in the marshland. The culinary highlight of the day was certainly in Sidmouth, where most of us had an ice cream stop, and just as we started the last leg of the day, the first - and only - raindrops of the trip started to drizzle down.
SITW x EDT women's rally icecream, by Sarah Hewitt
SITW rally x East Devon Trail-56.jpg, by Suvi loponen
My personal favourite part of the day was Bramcombe beach, where I got to witness one of the most beautiful sunsets of my life. At the beginning of the rally, we were told the sea was at its warmest, and when I dipped my feet into the water on the pebbly beach, I was pleasantly surprised - they weren’t lying.
SITW Rally beach, by Weronika Szalas
What was less pleasant was the surprise the route was about to give us. Beer, our destination for the first night, wasn’t all that far on the map, but it definitely was quite a demanding hike up the hill before we got anywhere near it. But we made it, and had a great night's sleep in a bell tent.
On the second day, we had a climb ahead of us again - this time out of Beer. Already on the first day, I had lost track of the number of climbs that we had done. The terrain was very lumpy; you were constantly either going up or down, with barely any flat sections to give you a break. It makes a beautiful ride, though, as you get views of the hills ahead of you, miles before you get to them.
SITW rally x East Devon Trail-55.jpg, by Suvi loponen
On the second day, we had our midway checkpoint to get to. The route took us to Robyn's (a SITW volunteer) parent's house, a true hidden odyssey not far from the beautiful beach of Lime Regis. Due to the setting being so spectacular, and the company even better, what was meant to be only a short-ish stop turned out to be an hour-and-a-half-long break from the saddle, enjoying some toasties, coffee and great chat. It was an excellent way for the group to get together before the final push to get to everyone's chosen spot for the night.
Cream tea and hunger for vegetables
Since the beginning of the rally, enjoying a cream tea had been mentioned as the must-do activity. Day three was the closest I got to enjoying the delicacy (which I due to my intolerance to cream gave a miss) - but I made sure to witness the ones around me spreading the cream on first! The last day of riding was a welcome relief after what had been two challenging days, as we were about to enjoy some much-needed chill riding, riding from Newton Poppleford back to Exeter.
SITW rally x East Devon Trail-62.jpg, by Suvi loponen
We had lunch and cream tea stop at the National Trust location in Killerton, which offered another long mid-ride break. The queue was long to the cafe, but by now, the sense of rush had disappeared from my mind, and I was rather content lining up for my soup and coffee, then sitting and blethering outside for a good while.
The rest of the route felt like a breeze, as it was comparably easy, and took us on smooth gravel paths and cycle lanes, before rolling back down to Exeter. As on most bikepacking trips, after two days of consuming rather beige foods (the chippie supper in Beer was the biggest meal I've ever had in my life), mentions of vegetables, and colourful foods started to pop up in our conversations evermore. And so when we reached the town, we stopped at M&S to pick up the essentials for an after-ride and pre-pizza meal: salad and juice.
Once more we set up our tents at the campsite and gathered together to chat about the ride, the experience and everything else over some delicious pizza and drinks.
I could have stopped writing at the above paragraph, and easily even said that the SITW rally was one the best experience of my life. It is up on the list as it was a very special one, and one I will definitely keep going back to in my memories for years to come. But I wanted to reflect very honestly on the three days of riding and I would be lying if I said there was no moment of doubt, discomfort or just general blues. I am not the chirpiest personality ever, and I am quite used to riding bikes by myself over very long distances, day after day.
SITW rally x East Devon Trail-66.jpg, by Suvi loponen
Sometimes my introvertedness takes over and I truly don’t feel like chatting with anyone, no matter how nice they are (and there were some incredibly nice people on this ride). This happened during the rally, as well. I was riding much of the second day by myself, and I would say some of those moments were the best - but this is just my experience of the rally. As I was riding along the East Hill and Core Hill Wood as the sun was setting, and earlier on the day through the pine-tree forests, I was really taken back to my childhood in the Finnish countryside - and reminded of why I like cycling so much.
On day two, while I was riding alone, minding my own business, I also came across a woman walking a dog. I was just unclipping as I had chosen too big a gear for the gnarly surface, and she made me stop by asking if I was lost and whether I was alone. I said "no". I’m not lost or alone. Yet I was alone, at that moment, literally in the middle of an unknown forest, but the fact I was doing the rally meant that in my mind I had all of the others supporting me, and riding with me, even though there were times I had no idea whereabouts on the route they were.
I could not recommend attending a rally more. It will likely not be only what you expect it to be, but more. And it's really cool you can do it all at your own pace if you so wish.
[Photographs by Weronica Szalas and Sarah Hewitt.]
[A note about the headline - due to the character limit it says "women-only", but the event is for women, non-binary and trans people]
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