I caught up with Ishbel Taromsari at the Rapha café in Spitalfields and within about twenty minutes I was spellbound by her story.
Taromsari has probably experienced more in her thirty-something years than most will in a lifetime. She grew up in poverty, experienced homelessness, before upping sticks to go touring. On her return home, she eventually found herself with a professional contract as a track sprinter, training in Scotland and then Iran. The journey wasn’t smooth, and leaving the Iranian National Team having seen the struggle for gender equality in all its ferocious glory, she went on to begin a cycle around the world that is still going.
In two years, the child of a Scottish mother and Iranian father has pedalled her way through sixteen countries, all under the guise of ‘World Bicycle Girl’. She's cycling for a myriad of reasons - but top of the list is women's rights. After a short break she’ll be rolling back to Brazil, but luckily, I was able to intercept her trip along the way in London.
Where did it all begin? Mulling over an Earl Grey tea (a luxury you don’t get when touring) she tells me: “I was first on a bike when I was a year old. My dad’s Iranian, and my mum is Scottish. My dad was a bit of a rebel in Iran and in the end he was sent to Manchester, after the Iranian Revolution money stopped coming and it threw them into extreme poverty. My dad used to use a bicycle as a tool for travel – so as a one-year-old I was sat on the back of a bicycle. My dad would cycle from one end of Manchester to the other to buy a sack of potatoes that were a few pennies cheaper."
Times weren’t easy, and neither was Taromsari’s early life. Fostercare. Homelessness. In her 20s, she made the decision to up sticks and tour her way through Europe on a bike – she says: “I was a right hippie, I had no intentions of coming back. Then I came back home for a while, when I was about 26. My twin brother was involved in a cycling club and I joined them and did some racing."
Life became, comparatively, rather sedate – an office job and smart shoes (“nobody could believe Ishbel was working in an office!") until an impromptu trip to the Chris Hoy Velodrome revealed previously untapped sprinting prowess.
Initially, Taromsari raced as a Glasgow Life and Scotland Institute of Sports athlete, training for the Commonwealth Games. However, being half Iranian, the offer of a place on the Iranian National Team meant a chance at an Olympic slot at Rio 2016, and eventually our will-be ‘World Bicycle Girl’ made her way to Iran – a country she’d visited, but never lived in before.
"Women in Iran are told they need to be a ‘good girl’ to marry a ‘good husband’ – they don’t have benefits or the NHS, so they need to marry to acquire security."
It was quite a shock – she tells me: “Iran was difficult. I’d only visited; I’d never lived there. Women in Iran are second class citizens. They are told they need to be a ‘good girl’ to marry a ‘good husband’ – they don’t have benefits or the NHS, so they need to marry to acquire security. Police control the population by force and fear – everywhere you go there are ‘moral police’. For example, a man and a woman can’t be walking down the street together unless they are married or related, or they could be arrested and have to go through the court process and be bailed out."
Still, on the team she could cycle towards those Olympic goals. But it wasn’t easy: “The women were treated terribly on the team, and me being me, I couldn’t stand by and watch that carry on."
Ishbel gives several examples: women being ordered off the track because the men decided against their scheduled road ride (separate genders could not ride on the same velodrome). Women having phones confiscated to prevent distractions from ‘boys’ and travel expenses to training camps not being reimbursed after promises that they would be. The men’s fees were reimbursed and they kept their phones, she tells me.
Not many women from outside of the Iranian culture have made their way into the team – in fact, Taromsari supposes she was the only one. So in a country that in 2016 issued a Fatwa [religious law] that prevented women from cycling at all, how do these riders even get to the position of joining the Olympic team?: “The women on that team are not being told by their father’s and husband’s ‘it’s amazing you’re on that team’ – they’re being told ‘you’re not allowed to ride your bike, don’t ride your bike’ – they’re getting stones thrown at them. They’re fighting to cycle," Ishbel tells me.
She adds: “I had one friend who married one of the top male riders. When they met, she was on the Iranian National Team – and one of the reasons she married him was because all of her life she had been forbidden by her family to cycle. She had to sneak out, with her face covered; she was caught by the police. Her life was made very difficult but she fought. They fell in love as two Iranian cyclists. When they got married, he said she wasn’t allowed to cycle anymore." This is not an isolated story, but just one story that tells a hundred.
When the team finally made it to the Asian Cycling Championships, Taromsari tells me that the Moral Police had to accompany them, ensuring the women’s hair was covered and that long tights were worn, despite this conflicting with the rules of the sport as long tights could give an aerodynamic advantage. When she touched down after the Asian Championships, she didn’t wait for the managers to land later – she took her training bike and bought a flight to Turkey.
Ishbel tells me she saw evidence of doping as well as serious gender inequality in her time with the team, and tried to raise these concerns with the UCI later telling me: "After leaving the Iranian National Team I wrote a complaint to the UCI that included criticisms of the doping culture I had seen, and of the way the Iranian National Cycling Federation had treated women. For example, promising that all of the women's transport costs including flights to training camps would be reimbursed only to find out when in camp they would not be. The UCI never responded to my complaint, instead I got an email from the Anti Doping Federation for Cycling that the UCI had passed on my email. I waited for the UCI to reply to my email with regards to the other part of my complaint but it never came. I emailed a few times and it was confirmed from the legal department saying should I wish to pursue the other part of my complaint I could be liable for costs of investigation and subsequent hearing. I wondered, as a women who suffered gender discrimination in sport, what gives UCI the right to decide doping is more important than discrimination against women?"
The life of an Olympic development cyclist behind her, the journey began – all be it unplanned – our cycling nomad says: “I had some time off anyway so I spent some time just riding and deciding what to do. I met two other cycle tourists and I was so inspired I decided to cycle the world. So I flew back to Scotland, sold everything I had and left on a £300 city bike. At first I was scared – especially when wild camping in countries where there are animals we don’t get in the UK. I didn’t sleep, so I got a bit zoned out – I was just so tired and detached. But then I started to sleep."
She didn’t make the trip easy, heading straight to the Alps, even taking a pannier loaded bike up Alpe d' Huez only to cycle back down again (the road doesn’t go anywhere – we laughed about this for a while over Earl Grey and Peppermint tea).
"Was it worth the pain? One day I’ll think yes."
The hardest riding so far I’m told can be attributed only to South America. Taromsari tells me: “There are no roads, there’s no reception, nothing works at 4,500 metres, it all packs in. But it’s one of the most amazing areas I’ve ever seen. Andes, Bolivia – it’s phenomenal. Was it worth the pain? One day I’ll think yes. I did it because I had to cross the Andes to get to Bolivia. And people have done it before."
Since 2014, when the trip began, female cyclists in Iran have received a heavy weight of column inches in the press after a Fatwa was issues against women riding bicycles in public. Where once they may have wordlessly done as demanded, this year they revolted – riding anyway and sharing their pictures with #IranianWomenLoveCycling. On her World Bicycle tour, Taromsari has been continually offering those women support and posting her own images with the tag.
“The women riding in Iran and posting these images are putting themselves at a lot of risk - not just from the police but from society. Society imprisons women in Iran."
She explains: “A hundred years ago it was the same here [in Britain], women weren’t allowed to ride. Countries all over the world are at different states of development in equality. Iran is at the very start of the women’s rights movement. In all of these countries, whenever you get women fighting for their rights, you get women fighting to ride bicycles. It’s so important when we see these movements happening, that we get behind them."
She adds: “The women riding in Iran and posting these images are putting themselves at a lot of risk - not just from the police but from society. Society imprisons women in Iran. I really want people in the UK to understand how important hashtags are. It takes seconds for you to post one, but it shows the nations involved that people are listening. For the women it shows that people in the world agree with them."
#IranianWomenLoveCycling. Pass it on.