People who cycle in Winchester #12: Saira

Photo of Saira riding a bike

Hi, I’m Saira.

I grew up in a fairly traditional city in Pakistan, where cycling wasn’t viewed as appropriate for a woman and I was driven everywhere by car with a male chaperone.

I came to the UK aged 18 and spent a year in London before moving to Winchester. I got married soon after and have lived here ever since. We had four children and life became very busy. When my youngest was a toddler, I decided to enrol at the School of Art for the higher education experience I had missed out on. I was outraged to find that, because I lived within 5 miles of the college, I wasn’t granted a parking space. My children were then at different schools in the city and I wanted to be able to reach them quickly if problems arose. I offered to pay for a space, but it made no difference. So my husband took me to Stanmore Park and taught me, at the age of 36, to ride a bike for the first time! I think the bike cost £65 at Asda. It took six weeks to get the hang of it. Since then there have been many accidents ending up with me in a ditch or a patch of stinging nettles but I’ve never looked back. My bike had become an imperative part of my world. Now if I need to go anywhere in the city I nearly always ride there — to classes at the new leisure centre, to talk to potential clients, for coffee with friends.

I love the speed, the freedom, the convenience, not paying for parking and not searching for a space. I also like to live responsibly. One day a friend wondered if I fancied cycling the South Downs Way. I didn’t know what it was but I said “why not?” and agreed. Then I looked properly at a map. I needed a year of training in preparation and an upgrade to a slightly better bike but it was worth it — we had a great trip. I now have regular cycling adventures with an ever expanding group of female friends in places like the Black Mountains, Yorkshire and the Peak District.

One sad memory is the day I had my new bike stolen. I was only nipping into the cinema for a few seconds to buy tickets. You can get very attached to your bike, especially one you’ve done some long rides on. Happily, eight months later, I saw it again locked up outside Debenhams. It had a different saddle but otherwise I recognised every small mark. I phoned the police and was quite surprised when within minutes four officers turned up armed with bolt cutters! I still had the frame number at home to prove my ownership. I’m happy that I seem to have passed on the cycling bug to our children. Our son loves to build and service bikes so has taught me a few useful things. One daughter was at Imperial College for six years and cycled most days. Another daughter has taken my ‘rescued’ bike to Brighton with her for getting around.

My business is running cookery classes and event catering. I organised zero-waste take-aways during lockdown and am now thinking that a Saira’s Kitchen trike might be an environmentally-friendly way of delivering food in the future! Cycling has changed a few things for me. For one, I became a far better driver the day I learnt to ride a bike. And although my immediate reaction was irritation the day that I found I couldn’t drive through The Square, it quickly turned into thinking what a good idea it was to block the road for cars. How much better for cyclists and for the city. One thing that cycling hasn’t changed though is what I wear. I cycle in any clothes I like and enjoy seeing heads turn on days when that’s a traditional salwar-kameez!

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