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Girls on tour - Catherine Sheehan on cycle touring

KathyWe met Catherine on the road to Dali, in China and she agreed to tell us about her cycle tour.

Very sadly, only 2 weeks after doing this interview, Cathy was hit by a car in KL, Malaysia and killed. We hope that Cathy would want us to keep her story on our website as she was so clearly having an amazing trip and was very keen to share her experience with others. Our hearts go out to her family and friends back home in NZ.


I am Catherine Sheehan, from Auckland, New Zealand. I turned 56 in China in May 2011. I got hooked on cycle touring after discovering Anne Mustoe's books 10 years ago. I had always read Dervla Murphy but she is such an exceptional person, I had classed long distance cycling as something I liked reading about but would never do, like mountain climbing or sailing around the world.

At first I joined a cycle touring group in Auckland, did some tours in New Zealand and then went on a group tour in Laos with Red Spokes in 2005 and then their Karakoram to Kyrgyzstan tour in 2007. As soon as my younger son turned 18 and was about to start university I abandoned all pretence of being a responsible adult, rented out my house and flew to China for a year's solo cycle touring funded by the rent money.

I abandoned all pretence of being a responsible adult, rented out my house and flew to China for a year's solo cycle touring funded by the rent money.


I have a Surly Long Haul Trucker with Schwalbe Extreme tyres and Ortlieb panniers. No suspension. Straight handlebars. Front and rear racks. I prefer not to use front panniers but keep buying more stuff. If doing this trip again, I would carry less stuff and perhaps use a folding bike.

I have a brown Brooks B17, perfectly comfortable since new. However it has chrome rails which have snapped and been welded twice. I hear the black rails are stronger.

I carry around 20kg I think. My full panniers and I, now weigh as much as I used to weigh on my own, just a few months ago. Some things I don't need but can't dump, like the Hennessy Hammock and sleeping bag for emergency camping.

One pannier holds hammock, sleeping bag, chargers, tools and spares, dishes and food and the other holds clothes, toiletries and computer. The ukulele, sandals and raingear go in a duffel bag on the rear rack. My barbag holds camera, snacks, passport, wallet, sunscreen, maps.

I've been very lucky with only one puncture in nine months and 9000 km (Schwalbe tyres, thoroughly recommended for women). I think a GPS might have been good and I should definitely have got sorted out with Skype so I could talk to my sons.

The highlights

I love cycling in China, particularly western Sichuan province. I also enjoyed Vietnam on this trip and Pakistan, Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan in 2007. I loved cycling in France in 2006, and Thailand is very pleasant for cycling. The highlights of cycle touring are:

  • A weight loss of more than 20 kg.
  • Total freedom.
  • Not going to work at jobs where I feared failure and disgrace (a self-fulfilling prophecy).
  • Astounding scenery.
  • Meeting people from many different cultures.
  • Feeling positive and optimistic.
  • Constant mental stimulation.
  • Spending the days in the outdoors.

What other kind of holiday can you take where you can eat as much as you like and still lose weight?

On clothes...

For cycling I wear the padded lycra, and some black below the knee looser bike shorts on top, for modesty and because I carry valuable things and iPod in the zipped pockets. I started with loose cotton shirts but now I am not fat I wear either a yellow short sleeved tennis dress or blue merino T shirt. I like bright plain colours for visibility on the road but don't like the bike shirts with cluttered logos all over them. I keep buying new tops and discarding the old ones. I have a pretty cotton Javanese sarong I wear for sleeping and instant relief from padded lycra after a day's ride.

I have a lipstick and some tiny French perfume samples, and wear earrings, necklaces and bracelets. I started off with high-SPF liquid foundation but now just use Neuterogena sunscreen.

Luxury items

I love my iPod and iPad, and have a speaker for them. I also have a ukulele, a yak leather handbag and I've just bought a little black dress. I enjoy listening to audiobooks and podcasts as well as the music and reading ebooks. Another luxury is an electric element for boiling water, and ground coffee and a filter. These all help me retain a sense of identity and provide a haven in an alien world.


Cathy SheehanI feel very safe in China. On this trip, which has included Laos, northern Vietnam, northern Thailand and four south-western provinces of China, I have never felt threatened by people, even when biking on very isolated roads where it would be easy for someone to attack me. Similarly I can walk around in cities at night without fear, because there are always so many people out and about. Respect for my age might have something to do with it, and these are non-macho cultures.

I am often the only foreigner around, and people would get into a lot of trouble if they harmed me.  However I have camped only in emergencies, and do not feel comfortable stealth-camping on my own.  It gets very dark and the sounds are more scary at night.  I'd rather be in town with a door I can lock, and access to restaurants.

I am travelling in countries where I can afford to pay for a room. I suspect I get inferior hotel rooms and pay too much sometimes, but an older woman in Asia gets more respect than in western cultures. Being the mother of two sons gives me status. 

People are generally astonished that I am on my own and they think I need protection.


In big cities with foreign tourists it's often a dorm, but elsewhere a room with TV and bathroom is around six pounds or 12 NZ dollars. I like camping but not on my own, and I like to have a shower, toilet, electricity and a seat with back support. I get all the outdoor stuff during the day, and usually have a picnic lunch in a beautiful spot.

Meeting Women from other cultures

I speak enough Mandarin to satisfy people's curiosity about my age, country, profession, marital status and motherhood. I find that although solo bicycle travel is an alien and undesirable concept for many women I meet, they think I'm strong, and I hope that my example - plunging into their world like a creature from another planet -  gives someone the strength to overcome a problem they have in their own lives, or just the mental freedom to consider different options for themselves or their daughters. Women have been very kind to me.

Toilets & periods

Toilets - I can hold on for a long time.  I've been very lucky with health. I carry loo roll. I started with a SheWee but ditched it because I never used it.

I'm Post-menopausal!  It has to have something going for it.

Challenges of solo cycle touring

CatherineEating alone at night. Being the only foreigner in town, means being subjected to stares and pity (at solitary female state), then trying to get and eat a good meal. People staring. Missing my family and friends. Being lost. Not being able to find a hotel, when exhausted. If in a place with other foreigners, feeling lonely (because I'm older and alone).  Karaoke noise at night and people spitting. Being ejected or rejected from a hotel because they aren't allowed to take foreigners. Scary drivers, tunnels; ghastly city traffic, fumes and motorways; landslides, high altitude and bad weather. Heat and steep gradients. Worrying about money and getting a job when I get back.

Cycling with a partner or kids

Yes I would cycle with a partner, if they were perfect in every way, like me.  In other words, it would be difficult at this stage of my life to find someone compatible that I didn't blame for everything that went wrong.  On my own, I just have to deal with it.  But it would be great to have someone to eat with, as long as they ate and biked as slowly as I do!

To me, cycle touring represents selfish freedom and escape from responsibility, which are not compatible with being Mum (at least not in our family).


I biked for a couple of weeks in France with my younger son, who was then 13 and spent the evenings listening to Ricky Gervais and Sonic Youth on the iPod.  He tolerated cycling and camping but would rather have been exploring New York or London with friends.

Things I have learnt

I love the freedom, the beauty and the simplicity of cycle touring.


I now know that I am not as lazy as I thought I was. If there is no urgency I can solve problems and rise above difficulties with patience, calmness and humour.

Advice to other women

Catherine SheehanRead some good books and blogs for inspiration.

Think about China and south east Asia where you can afford a hotel room and women aren't hassled.  

Get good Schwalbe tyres and a quality bike to minimise the chance of breakdowns.  

Go somewhere beautiful where you'll get hooked on the euphoria.  

If you go to China, do a language course beforehand.  

Find a club with like-minded people, such as a cycle advocacy group that has regular city rides, for possible companions for trips further afield.  

Give it time and don't expect to love it immediately.

Find ways of keeping in touch, such as Skype (Facebook is difficult to access in China).

Set a date and people will get used to the idea. So will you.


 There are always plenty of reasons not to do it, and there is no perfect time.  Slip the surly bonds!


Books & websites recommended by Catherine:

Llamas and Empanadas Eleanor Meecham

A Bike Ride: 12,000 miles around the world Anne Mustoe

Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a bicycle Dervla Murphy

Long Ride for a Pie Tim Mulliner

Shimmering Spokes Richard Allen


Read Catherine's blog here:

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