Produced in association with Pas Normal Studios
In 2015, Donna Deeb, with very little cycling experience, packed some bags onto a bike she’d bought just a few days prior and set off on the Camino de Santiago. From London, she took a ferry to Santander and rode the 1000 kilometre track through stunning Spanish landscapes.
“I was going back to Spain to start a new job and I knew I wouldn’t have much time when I got there, so I wanted to do the ride,” Deeb says. “I spoke Spanish already so I knew it would be easy to communicate and the route was already marked for me. I’d also volunteered in one of the albergue there, where people go to sleep, so I saw many people who were hiking it back then.”
Deeb talks about attempting such a big physical challenge surprisingly casually. For some, taking on an adventure like the Camino de Santiago would take months of preparation, but Deeb explains she was simply grateful to have the opportunity to ride it in the first place. It would not be the first type of adversity that she’d faced in her lifetime.
“I was born in Aleppo, Syria. I've been living for the past 10 or 11 years in Spain. Cycling as a female in Syria is limited, something you were never supposed to do as a woman,” Deeb says. “From the first day I set off I met so many amazing people on the Camino, many friends who I still stay in touch with. They encouraged me and I kind of lost track of time, of everything, it was amazing. I was just fighting and reaching my destination everyday, keeping positive. I felt happy all the time, like even if I had technical problems or other difficulties, I could solve anything with this sort of attitude.”
Deeb’s first desire to try her hand at bikepacking was ignited when she met two cyclists during one of her stays in Aleppo, Syria. “I was about 12 years old and met two cyclists, Jamie and Henry, they were doing London to Sydney by bicycle. We hosted them at our house and they were talking about that adventure,” she says. “I was like, one day I would like to do that on a bicycle, I became motivated for it.”
The story that Deeb shares is a clear example of why representation matters in cycling; she’d seen others do something and that ignited a passion in her to do something similar one day. It’s this very ethos that Deeb carries with her into the work she does today with Transibérica, the company that runs three of cycling’s major ultra-cycling events: Basajaun, Transpyrenees and Transibérica.
“A year and a half ago, I met the race organiser and he was talking about the long events they organise. The numbers that people do in these kinds of races are crazy, like 500 kilometres in 24 hours, for example,” Deeb says.
In order to introduce herself to the possibility of racing events like the Transibérica, Deeb attended one of the Women’s Cycling Camps that Transibérica organises. These are weekend-long training camps by and for female cyclists to introduce them to ultra-cycling. During the camps, riders are given useful information about training, nutrition and other important skills while completing 300km-350km self-supported rides. Things like accommodation, food and female ambassadors as ‘guides’ are provided to make the camps less daunting for those with a lack of experience in ultra-riding.
“Sometimes, as women, we automatically think we're just unable or our capacity is just not made for such a long ride on the saddle. When you start to see so many great ultra-distance female riders breaking records. You start to think that if she can, maybe I could. Events like the Women’s Cycling Camps help newer riders have someone to look up to,” Deeb says, “It helps to have brands get involved to raise awareness, like Pas Normal Studios are our official sponsor and they are involved in all the events.”
Transibérica’s website states that the company has been promoting female participation in its events since 2019. However, the percentage of female participation is still below 14% which is under the 20% it targets as a reasonable minimum participation. Deeb and her colleagues believe that the main reason for low female participation is the fear of the unknown and a lack of information on how to train specifically or prepare for this sort of event.
“We're not used to the physical preparation, the mental preparation. It’s talking about what we need to be comfortable for 12 hours straight on the saddle, for example. Would I need food or is it self-supported? These are things we need to tick off the lists of women who would like to try these things but feel like they are limited,” Deeb says. “At the events, there is car support which isn’t full support but just mentally to feel like there is someone behind you and encouraging you really helps. Not knowing where you will sleep and things like that can be scary. The idea is to try and take away most of the limiting factors for women who would like to try this journey.”
Deeb’s key role within Transibérica is to provide feedback to ensure that events are improved year by year. She will complete a Women’s Cycling Camp again in 2023, helping to ensure the event is run smoothly and in a way that encourages women to come back and try longer events in the future. Deeb has already competed in the 69-hour long Transpyrenees, the toughest event she’s done so far. Not long after that, she completed an Everesting attempt, ticking off the required 8848m of elevation gain in 23 hours and nine minutes.
“My next goal is to do the Transibérica. That would be like a monster Ultra for me, because it is a 3000 kilometre ride which takes a lot of experience and technique, that’s my goal for 2024,” Deeb says. “I need to learn more things like how to ride at night comfortably, how to manage if you run out of water or need food, there’s many things.”
For Deeb, riding ultra-cycling events and encouraging more women to do so has a meaning close to her heart. It’s about breaking down barriers and proving that anything is possible, regardless of someone’s background or gender.
“I love the experience and the idea behind it. It’s an amazing feeling to do something that you weren’t sure if you could do,” Deeb explains. “I was born to feel very limited as a female and these kinds of events make me say: no. No one should ever tell me that I am limited because I did this and I finished and I feel great. That’s why I do it, it is suffering but it’s rewarding. Each time I see more women doing it, I think okay, this is what we’re talking about.”