A comment on my first post by TodayiFellOff really got me thinking about what my cyclist identity means to me and, in particular, how that intersects with being a woman. It’s a hard question to answer. I think I’ll start with the cyclist aspect of it and I’ll save how it relates to me being a woman for another day.
A Long, Long Time Ago…
Childhood: Learning How to Ride
First bike: I vaguely remember a bike with little tassels and training wheel. I’m pretty sure it was pink…and I think I had a basket. I was pretty young and wasn’t allowed to go very far without supervision (so, basically to the end of the block and back). But I loved it! I rode back and forth, down the sidewalk, playing with the tassels! The training wheels were never quite even and I could rock from side to side, swaying back and forth.
I don’t remember how old I was (I’m going to guess about 5 or 6) when I learned how to ride without training wheels. It was my father who taught me, and it’s a nice memory. I’m pretty sure I fell, but the details have long since escaped my memory. What I remember is that my dad pretended to hold onto my bike longer than he did, and how thrilled I was to learn that I had been riding by myself, without his help!
Up and down the block I rode, but also with my parents on a bike path. I remember that I had a baggie to hold things–on my handle bars, I think. During one trip on a bike path (which was a long drive away), there were black walnuts all over the ground. They are actually green and I hate the smell, yet I shoved a bunch into that little baggie and hoarded them. Why? Don’t ask me…only the child version of me knows. And why is that such an important memory? I really wish I had the answer to that one.
Riding my bike usually meant there was going to be a fun time with my mom, my dad, or both. I didn’t really have a connection with my bike, but I really liked riding my bike.
Pre-Teen: Living on My Bike
I continued riding bikes as a pre-teen. We’d always go to Target or Toys R Us and get a cheap-o mountain bike (over $100.00 for a bike? Ridiculous!). I actually didn’t even know there was such a thing as a “bike shop.” I thought everyone went to Target-like stores for bike gear! While riding was still fun, the meaning behind it changed. It was how I visited and hung out with friends. By now, we were living in the suburbs of Chicago, so there were fun places to go, like mini wooded areas and creeks. (side note: suburban life was horrible…I’ll never go back!). Riding my bike was, in essence, my transportation. That was how I gained my independence and got around by myself.
Around 13 years old, right before high school, I actually remember my bike. It was a hideous forest green and had a little pouch velcroed in the the front triangle/head tube junction. Although the color was awful, I started to become attached to my bike–I took her everywhere (I never named her, though). She was mine. We had some rough times together. I remember a particularly bad wipe out by the river because I was trying to hop from the road to the sidewalk. And then there was the time I was on a bike path and slide down a hill of small rocks. That last one left me with two scars on my knee, even to this day. I had her for a long, long time. I don’t remember why or when I stopped riding her–maybe I grew too tall. Maybe she fell apart. I don’t know.
Teenage Angst and The Angry Young Adult: Denying My Bike Past and Hating Other Cyclists
Then I started high school and it all changed. It was “totally uncool” to ride a bike and, at that time, I cared very much about being “cool.” The new way to get around and hang out was by car. I went from exploring the world on two wheels in the open air to cruising in a metal tube listening to crappy pop music. Riding a bike turned into something that kids do–not cool teens.
Then I started driving. I quickly turned into a “cyclist-hating nay-sayer” and did not like the idea of sharing the road. I’d get angry and irritated at those “rude jerks on their bikes.” I’d complain about how they’d slow me down and take up my space, or just otherwise annoy me with their presence.
Sure, I still had a mountain bike (a la Target) and would even ride around sometimes. But, it was exclusively for exercise. And, it was an exercise that I did maybe a handful of times every year.
And that’s the way it was for years. In fact, nearly an entire decade. There were no signs of having a changing attitude, either. J was the same way. But my body and health quickly paid the price for being lazy and depending on a car to get me around everywhere. I gained a ton of weight–so did J.
Adulthood (The Present): Embracing All That Cycling Is
In early 2010, I realized that I had gained a lot of weight. At over 170 lbs, something needed to change. J was right with me–he was nearly 300 lbs (he had already lost some weight within the past couple of years). We started to diet and exercise. Since it was cold outside, it started with a recumbent exercise bike. We worked on that bike nearly every day–counting every calorie consumed, every calorie burned. But the indoor bike soon became boring–we were losing interest.
But once the summer rolled around, some things started to fall in place. J went to his parent’s house and found a an old Schwinn World bike his dad no longer used. So he grabbed it, along with the MTB I had at my parent’s house, and drove them up to Michigan. We immediately started riding on a path by our place.
Once I was on a real bike, cycling outside, the pounds melted off. By the end of that summer, I was in the mid 140’s–a weight I couldn’t even remember being! And I started to love riding again. I would think about riding when I wasn’t, and when I was riding I was happy. It was a beautiful thing. But there was a problem–our bikes were crap. My saddle wouldn’t stay up, it was uncomfortable, and J’s bike was too big for him. We both needed new ones.
I was always a mountain biker, but J was always a road cyclist. He convinced me to give a road bike a try, especially because no matter how hard I tried I was significantly slower than him. So at the end of that summer we each bought a bike–A Trek and a Specialized (see my about page). That was the most I had ever spent on a bike! Originally they were about $700, and we got them on sale for about $500.00. Our bank actually called us to see if someone stole our card! What a purchase! But, we wanted to embrace a healthier lifestyle and had worked hard to get to where we were at…so we splurged.
Then I blinked and it was Fall. It became too cold for me, so I only got to ride her about 1-2 times before I put her away for the season. When Spring of 2011 rolled around I was thrilled to go out there again! I couldn’t wait! As soon as the weather warmed up we jumped on our bikes and rode off together.
…and I hated every single minute of it.
Switching from a mountain bike to a road bike was a painful process. The position was uncomfortable, I had to hold myself up, and what was with that saddle?! I was in pain all the time and could never get comfortable. I tried a new saddle. Didn’t help. Tried different gloves. Didn’t matter. Tried padded shorts. Hated them. J tried 10,000 different fits. Never worked. That whole summer, I only rode a handful of times while J rode obsessively. I was cranky and steadily putting the weight back on. I missed my mountain bike, but I had already donated it to a non-profit agency. I was stuck with my road bike.
And then it was fall again, then winter. With Spring 2012 approaching, I decided that I needed to forgo caring about “aerodynamics” (Like J was obsessed with). I needed to shred the idea of being “embarrassed” by putting comfort before style. I demanded he raise my handlebars and he installed a hilarious big-butt saddle for me.
I didn’t care how I looked anymore, I just wanted to ride.
Turns out, that was the right decision. I rode all the time. I started holding myself up and got used to my saddle (Still don’t like padded shorts yet, though). I lost the weight I had gained back (plus more!) and riding continued to help me cope with the ongoing stress of life. J and I rode together more than we ever have because I could now keep up the pace and distance. Plus, he started enjoying to ride his bike more with company (cue: awww). It was a much more pleasant experience this time. It was this summer that she got her name–Mildred–and her pretty blue handlebar tape (which is now my favorite color…). I got clipless cycling (MTB) shoes, and started wanting all sorts of cyclist things–like jerseys and Clif bars and keychains and stickers…
It was this summer that I made my relationship official: I love cycling. I am a cyclist. I still hate the cold and have already put her away for the season in my mind. I miss her, though, and I miss being out there. I still miss mountain biking, too, and am saving up to buy one…
That’s the cycling aspect of my “cyclist identity” journey. We recently read Bike Tribes by Mike Magnuson. It was a quick and fun read. While we found a little bit of ourselves in several of the “tribes,” it was the “Shrinking People” or “the Weight Loss Cyclist” tribe that hit home the most. In it, he says “They [weight-loss cyclists] know the sport has helped them lose weight and, in the process losing weight, they have acquired a newer, skinnier identity, and what else would that identity be but fanatical cyclist!” (p. 58) Nothing else summarizes our experience better than that.