Two wheels, that is, and by herself. This was a time when women riders were extremely rare, the internet didn’t exist, and the world was a much larger place. There was no one to look to for inspiration or guidance, because, unlike now, there weren’t thousands of motorcyclists riding around the world.
Without diminishing the accomplishment of others who have come since, let’s be real: there are articles in Forbes and GQ about how to ride a motorcycle around the world. Your aunt’s done it, your friend did it, and your dog is packing his brightly-colored dry bags now to take off and leave you in the dust. We’ve got GPS, emergency response technology, a multitude of motorcycles to choose from, and of course, Instagram.The world is smaller, with more paved roads than ever before. Half the yokels that leave on a round the world trip are so constantly connected it’s like they haven’t left, their “audience” practically riding pillion.
I sat down with Elspeth the afternoon before her presentation at San Francisco’s Piston and Chain last month, to talk with her about her travels and her book, Lone Rider.
“In those days, you traveled without social media. You couldn’t tell everyone what you were doing every five minutes of the day. It was very, very different. And you very much traveled for yourself. You learned about yourself, about the world, that was it really.”
Elspeth set out alone, to figure out what she wanted. She had no cell phone (obviously) and only had access to paper maps, sometimes. She was 23, her heart was broken, she didn’t know if she would continue with her architecture degree, and she needed a break. But I don’t know how much of a break she got. The trip was not an easy one: “It was quite tough, quite hard. And also, the riding I was doing wasn’t fun riding. You know, when you’re fighting your way every day just to stay alive on the Indian roads and your bike is falling apart. It’s 40 degrees, it’s not fun.”
Photos: Surj Gish
Attitudes toward women riders were hostile. No one believed she was capable of riding around the world, and no one supported her in the endeavor. This only fueled her desire to push harder, to prove herself to everyone who told her she couldn’t do it. She had contacted several publications before and after her trip to see if they’d be interested in sharing her story, but none were: “It’d be nice if I were recognized for my achievements, surely I am now.”
Disappointed by the disinterest from those close to her as well as the motorcycle community, she was left believing no one cared. She packed away her photographs, letters, notes—everything from her travels—and left them in a box for 35 years, moving on with her life.
“I had all this material to write a book, which I never thought I’d do.”
Last year Elspeth did come out with her book, which documents her two years and three months long journey around the world. The book is timely, in an era where women are vocalizing our strength: a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the #metoo movement, a woman presidential candidate. Add it to the list of strong women who pave the way for the rest of us, going against the social grain, calling on inner strength to overcome obstacles many will never face, creating new paths that didn’t exist before them. As a women rider, I have to thank her, because if it weren’t for women like her, tough enough to brave the misogyny, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.
Her story is bittersweet, and when I met her, I could see the effect of finally being recognized for her achievement. It’s also clear that she moved on from this persona we are all putting on her.
“I still haven’t quite got it in my head that anybody cares about what I did because when I got back, there was just no interest at all. And because I very much parked it in the back part of my brain, it was like another life that I had.”
Elspeth lives just outside London in an amazing water tower she redesigned and refurbished herself over a seven-year period. She’s an award-winning architect with her own firm. When her book first came out, if you Googled her, all the information was about architecture and her business. Nine months later, it’s now motorcycle this and world traveler that.
I can’t imagine how jarring that change must feel. “I just didn’t think anybody was interested. As I say, it was a whole life that I packed up and it was kind of gone.”
But I, and many others, are thrilled her story is gaining traction. It’s inspirational and entertaining—the allure of journey goes further back than The Odyssey.
“And even though we sort of say we’ve ridden around the world, if you actually look at it, all you’ve actually seen is both sides of one red line. There’s so much more out there to see.”