Bikes For Protest: Not a Hero’s Journey

An exploration of bikes as a tool for protest in light of the climate crisis

Feature type Story

Published Jan 03, 2023

Photographer James Robertson

Jessie Stevens Jessie is a writer, speaker and outdoors enthusiast with a particular interest in environmental communication and outdoors inclusivity.

While political response to the impending climate chaos would directly affect her future, for 17-year-old Jessie Stevens, below the legal voting age, it was also something in which she could have no say. But at the beginning of 2021, with building climate anxiety, she had an idea. What if she could bring youth representation to COP26 the international climate summit that would be happening in Scotland later that year?

The tricky bit would be getting there without flying and without breaking the bank. The bike presented the perfect opportunity. In Not a Hero’s Journey – Voted Best Environmental Film at Kendal Mountain Festival 2022 – filmmaker Catharine Dunn documents Jessie’s 600 mile journey from her home in Devon to COP26 in Glasgow, capturing the stories and conversations along the way. Beneath the film, Jessie takes us deeper into how the idea was sparked and journey and the role of bikes in community and as a tool for protest.

As the wheels started to spin and the pedals creaked on that soggy morning back in October 2021, it dawned on me that bikes have been a key form of protest throughout history. Was it the sound of over 50 bikes moving in unison? Was it the rising chatter of friendly strangers bonding over their love of the outdoors? Whatever it was, the ride to COP26 had only just begun, and I could already feel the power and community spirit that was radiating from the bunch of cyclists snaking up the hill ahead of me. 

To lean into the cliché, the first day of the ride to COP26 really was a whirlwind. From co-ordinating the army of cyclists through the lanes of Devon and what felt like hundreds of traffic lights of Exeter, to interviews and coffee stops, the day passed by in a flash. Before I knew it, I was getting ‘dropped’ by a fully loaded cargo bike on the last hill before Taunton which was to be our stop for the night. I vividly remember finally sitting down that evening and pinching myself. I couldn’t quite believe that after a year’s worth of planning, dreaming and training, I was finally here.

I wasn’t a cyclist, didn’t own a bike and had definitely never been on a human powered adventure

The idea to ride nearly 600 miles to COP26 came quite out of the blue. I wasn’t a cyclist, didn’t own a bike and had definitely never been on a human powered adventure. However one thing for sure was that I was anxious, really anxious. I can’t remember quite how it happened, but one day, about two years previously, I’d learned about that thing we’ve all got to know called the climate crisis. To be perfectly truthful, it rocked my world. No longer did my future plans seem achievable or relevant as I slowly woke to the fact that the world I was looking at that day, would look very different to the world of tomorrow.

Riddled with climate anxiety and grief, I was paralysed – I didn’t have the tools, the kind words, the ‘it will all be fine’ to get me out of this. Because I quickly learned that if we all don’t act to change the path we are on, it won’t. And so I decided to act. Lifestyle changes were the obvious first move but whilst everybody doing their own little bit is a great and necessary first step, the most effective change comes from collective action. And so I set my sights on COP26 – the UN Climate Change conference to be held in Glasgow. 

Perhaps naively, I planned to attend the summit with the aim to bring my voice and the perspective of youth. However I immediately hit two obstacles: gatekeeping and lack of affordable transport. The summit, I discovered, was largely closed to the public, with the decisions being made by politicians and lobbyists jetting in from all corners of the globe, while those who the crisis would impact the most impact had no choice but to sit at home and wait for results. And as for transport – what a joke. It would be far cheaper to fly to Glasgow from my home in Devon then to get the train. And so People Pedal Power was born, a movement aiming to bring people from all backgrounds together to cycle towards the summit, sharing ideas and experiences along the way. It was to be a space to capture the stories of all those who are left out of the decision making and bring those voices with me into the so-called ‘heart of power’. 

Day-after-day, mile-after-mile, through sunshine, amber weather warnings and everything between, the ride wound its way up the country, joined by more than 200 people in total. Everyday, the immense power we as individuals have for connection, collaboration and hope was emphasised to me. From strangers providing big bars of chocolate to boost morale when we were 70 miles into a 60 mile day or the posters placed on the cycle path to cheer us on.

What if we saw the bike as a weapon to help combat the climate crisis?

Despite climate anxiety falling on the shoulders of young people, it’s interesting to observe the lack of age diversity on the ride. This reinforced the connection between bikes and protest and how so many young people are not given the tools to see what a stand they can make by simply turning the wheels to create change. From the Suffragette movement to the current Critical Mass rides, bikes have been used to spark action throughout history. Just as within school we are taught about the climate crisis in isolation – a series of diagrams and statistics, we are not given the tools to explore how it impacts us and our mental health. Bikes follow the same path – a series of lessons about its health benefits and practicalities. But it’s left right there, and for so many young people it stays there. Instead, what if we saw the bike as a weapon to help combat the climate crisis? Not from a view of always putting the onus on individuals to lower their emissions, but from a place of change, mass action and collaboration. 

After 11 days, nearly 600 miles and an abundance of snacks, the movement made it to Glasgow. As with all good adventures, an element of anti climax fell upon the group. The ride had achieved what it had set out to do. But now was the time to leave my tired bike and walk (a bit weird after so long  in the saddle!) into the summit bringing the stories and messages of hope with me, from those I’d met on the road. 

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