Do you do lycra?
Skimpy cycling shorts may be the norm in Europe and North America, but think twice before decking yourself out in revealing lycra to cycle through developing countries. While wearing bike shorts is unlikely to cause outright hostility (unless you’re cycling in Iran or Saudi Arabia), you will gain more respect by showing sensitivity to cultural norms.
In most developing countries, women dress fairly conservatively —particularly in rural areas.
African women rarely show their legs. Most ladies dress in a traditional long sarong type skirt or wear conservative western-style clothing. Many Middle Eastern women wear long, figure-concealing robes. In villages throughout many Central and South American countries you, also find very traditional cultures where women tend to cover up.
It may not seem fair, but locals will judge you by the way you dress.
Don’t take it for granted that a Maasai warrior in some far-flung corner of Tanzania is a Tour de France fan and understands why you’re riding through his village in skin-tight clothing. While cycling through Africa, I rarely wore my lycra cycling shorts. When I did, I noticed some long stares, a few embarrassed snickers and even hoots of laughter when I strode up to the local well to fetch water. I felt ridiculous.
If you’ve got the right saddle, chances are you will feel comfortable without the added cushion of bike shorts. I quickly got used to riding without special cycling attire. A cotton skort (shorts with a flap of fabric in front to make it look like a skirt) was my favorite and most comfortable biking attire. (Too bad it wore out after only 17,000 kilometers.) Then I switched to a regular cotton skirt that went just below my knees. Not very typical cycling gear but it was very comfortable and airy and respected cultural norms in dress.
Before cycling through Sudan, many people warned me that it was a very conservative Muslim country, and I would be wise to cover up accordingly. Well, it was hot and I continued to ride in loose cotton shorts and no one looked at me twice. When you're on a bike, people tend to cut you some slack.
Of course, when we stopped for the evening I quickly slipped on a long skirt as a matter of respect for the Sudanese culture.
A Western woman can get by with quite a lot when she's on a bicycle. Once she's off the bicycle that's another story, it's probably best to cover up more and be sensitive to local norms in dress.
Before setting off on your epic adventure, try out your clothing and make sure it’s comfortable—even after 6 hours in the saddle. And don't forget to pack stuff that won’t be too conspicuous out in Timbuktu.