45 days, 4 countries, 2,500 kilometres – and all of it by bike... Angèle Paty, a former student of the Europe–North America programme on the Sciences Po Reims Campus has set herself a major challenge. After her third year abroad at the University of St Andrews came to an abrupt and unfortunate end due to the pandemic, Paty launched the project SAORSA, meaning “freedom” in Scottish Gaelic. She has made it her mission to return to Scotland by cycling all the way to the Shetland Islands from her hometown of Montpellier – on her own, on muscle power alone. We asked her a few questions before she set off.
Where did the idea for this project come from?
Angèle Paty: This year, I was supposed to spend my third year abroad at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. I was lucky that my exchange went ahead and I was able to travel over in September, but the restrictions were already very strict from the first semester. With a new national lockdown announced in January, I was not able to get back to Scotland after the Christmas holidays. Despite the difficulties caused by the health regulations, I had really enjoyed the first semester, so I decided to return to Scotland as soon as I could!
For me, the SAORSA project is a kind of quest for freedom: it’s about learning more about yourself, getting out of your comfort zone and taking the time to travel. Cycling is a perfect way to do that. “[S]aorsa" means “freedom” in Scottish Gaelic, and freedom is very much at the heart of the project. There’s also the idea of resilience at a time when everything feels a little blurry and it’s hard to picture oneself in the future. This is a way for me to tell myself: “I did this project, I can spend 45 days cycling 2,500km, on the strength of my legs alone. I only need myself and a bicycle to succeed in doing that.” It’s also about passing on that message of resilience, of following through with an idea and bringing it about yourself.
When I get there, my plan is to make a photojournalism piece about island life. I was already keen to incorporate photography, my other other passion, in the project, and I have received a travel grant from an organisation called Zellidja (Fr). It’s a non-profit that provides travel funding to young people aged between 16 and 20, who want to spend a month travelling alone completing a study project. So I have this photo report to do, and I will be keeping a little travel log and spending log throughout the trip. Once I arrive, the idea is to go out and really get to know the islanders, see how they live, hear their personal stories, learn about traditional knowledge in the area, the landscapes, the open spaces, and then make a beautiful photo report exploring all of that.
What made you decide to travel alone by bike?
Angèle Paty: I only really got into cycling about a year ago. Before this year, I was certainly sporty: I did competitive gymnastics until I started at Sciences Po and then I was on the university volleyball team. When I began cycling last year, it suited me instantly: I absolutely loved it.
While I was in Scotland for the first semester, I spent three days cycling alone in the Highlands. I realised that, when you travel on your own, it’s very easy to meet lots of people. So this is a solo trip but not necessarily a lonely one: I’m sure I’ll meet a new person every day, while staying at people’s houses, having coffee in a village square and so on. Travelling on your own makes you more open to others and to the culture of the country you’re in.
This project is a very personal one, in the sense that I am tying up the loose end of my Erasmus year. That’s why I decided to travel alone. I’m doing it because I really want to go back to Scotland and discover these unique places; it’s almost my personal way of bouncing back after a difficult period. I didn’t really have any friends who cycled regularly either, or who had the time to prepare for the project. Because I have devoted a huge amount of time to this! The online classes at Sciences Po helped a lot with that, as it happens.
Speaking of which, how did you prepare for the project?
Angèle Paty: I was keen to get some funding for the trip, so I searched for sponsors. Prior to that, I had to come up with a project name, visual identity, think about how to present the project, keywords etc. From there I began seeking out partnerships, sponsors, contacting brands, putting together press and sponsorship materials, managing negotiations, marketing, communications… I mostly followed my instincts and tried out different things; I learnt a lot on the job as I went. I got a lot of rejections and a lot of no responses too – that’s all part of the game!
In the end, I’ll be setting off with multiple sponsors: a brand called Wilma, which promotes cycling among women (my project resonated with the founder, who’s also a woman). I’ll be working with a blog called Experience Outdoor (Fr), which is geared towards travel and nature sports. I received equipment donations from Sea to Summit, a brand that makes ultra-light camping material, which is perfect for bikepacking, from Stoots, a Made in France headlamp brand, I got a French down puffer jacket from Pirenex, and the brand Katadyn is lending me an ultra-light tent. I mainly tried to find ecologically engaged brands that use locally-sourced materials. A law firm, Schwal & Associés, has funded me for a part of the journey, and the rest will come out of my own savings! It was primarily through my collaboration with the Experience Outdoor blog, which is read by 20,000 people every month, that I was able to offer something of interest to my sponsors. It gave me credibility.
Ultimately, despite the fact that this is a one-person project, I’ve ended up doing a bit of everything: logistics (organising the trip, ordering all the equipment), communications, partnership requests, marketing… I have had a taste of it all and that’s been really enjoyable. I think my studies at Sciences Po helped with the project, because they gave me the skills to launch it single-handedly, without any advice or guidance: confidence in my ability to succeed in the project, writing skills, knowing how to speak to people, present a project, put together a sponsorship application, etc. I would say I had a head start on everything because of how often Sciences Po gets us to give presentations. Subconsciously, I think that helped me a lot.
What do you see on the horizon after this adventure?
Angèle Paty: Next September, I’ll be starting a Master in International Management and Sustainability at the School of Management and Innovation. Despite the pandemic making it difficult to plan for the future, this project has definitely given me a sense of the direction I want to head in later on. In particular, I would really like to orient myself towards small projects where you can do a bit of everything, as in the start-up format. Perhaps even go into entrepreneurship, which is something I had never considered before. I am still interested in business management as well. Running this project has given me a flavour of what it’s like to launch a start-up: devising a visual identity, thinking about my target audience, who I can contact, who might potentially be interested in following or even funding the project...
I was able to do a bit of everything, on the ground, at my own small scale. I found it amazing seeing the proportions that even a small project like this one can take on, and how much work it demands. In the end, I got into the swing of doing a bit of communications here, applications there, negotiations and so on. The project preparation aspect is intense but I really enjoyed it too.
If I had to give some advice to other students interested in seeking out their own adventure, the first thing I would say is to believe in your project. I was so determined to make mine happen that nothing stopped me. Sometimes, other people’s worries can generate a lot of doubt, particularly when you’re a young woman travelling alone. Even in a period as challenging as the current one, you have to tell yourself that things will get better. I think everyone should experience their own quest for freedom in the great outdoors, at least once in their life. Travelling alone doesn’t need to be an obstacle: it can open up new doors and so many new opportunities!
Angèle Paty left for Scotland on 27 June and has already covered more than 1,000 kilometres of ground. Her sponsors are Wilma.cc, Experience Outdoor, Sea to Summit (distributed by Nic-Impex), Stoots Concept, Pyrenex, Katadyn France, Abus France and Schwal & Associés law firm. You can follow her journey on social media, particularly Instagram.