I’m over forty. I’m not fit. I don’t really like exercise. And I have a tendency to imposter syndrome. So you can imagine my hesitation as I stood in a store looking doubtfully at the bicycle that the clerk (looking bored, half my age, and of course, fit) had removed from the bewildering variety available.
So why was I there? Partly because of this blog, to be honest. I know Sam and Tracy, and I follow and enjoy their work. Every entry that I read here makes me feel more capable, more connected to women like me. I regularly figure that I may just be fooling myself, like sharing something on FaceBook and thinking it’s activism. Maybe I feel good reading about fitness, but don’t follow up once I step away from the computer, I worry. Of course, like a lot of people who are self-aware about imposter syndrome, I can easily tell an opposing narrative that is also true: When I step away from my computer, I take pleasure in walking endlessly, easily, for miles. I don’t miss having a television and I’m not a couch potato. I eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and I haunt my farmers’ market.
Still, imposter or not, the fact is that I’m not fit. I am a middle-aged woman with a sedentary job in higher education and most of my day is spent at a computer. So I was also in the store in order to live differently. My husband and I had, just a week or two before, moved to a new neighborhood with a long and lovely bike trail running all the way to my workplace. We have opportunities that many people can only imagine, to live a healthy and thriving life in a community that really values its parks and trails. We are well aware that we are lucky to have the problem of a life perfect for biking, and no bikes. So there I was, straddling my first bicycle in twenty years.
“How does it feel?” my husband asked.
“It feels just right.” It really did. I felt like it was exactly the right height, the seat was even set to the right level for me. Maybe another woman my height had looked at it and backed out of purchasing or opted for something better. Fitter. Something appropriate to a person who cared and knew more, with a name like the Urban Hybrid or the Commuter Cross-Fit. The model I was drawn to was the “Women’s Comfort Bike.” That figures. It goes with my comfort-cut jeans and my loose cotton shirt.
It also felt fantastic. The handlebars were at a perfect level, as if they rose up to meet my arms. The clerk pumped up the tires and their new treads bounced happily on the store floor. My doubts weren’t about the bike. They were all about me. I’ll never use it. I’m going to fail at this. All these negative thoughts, and I hadn’t even left the sporting-goods aisle.
I said I’d take it. I tried on a few helmets and picked one that fit snugly. My husband enthusiastically suggested we buy a bell, both because he was really very supportive of my adventure in bicycle purchasing, and because he must have inwardly worried I could come to harm from sheer inexperience. We grabbed a tire pump, and headed for the check-out. I swallowed hard at the cost. I paid it with outward calm and inward fears that I had thrown away the money. We wheeled to the car.
There was no way it was fitting in the car.
“Okay, I know we didn’t plan this, but I can ride it home.” As soon as I said it, I started grinning. I hope I didn’t look nervous. My husband did. He was well aware it had been twenty years. And we were about as far on the other side of our little town as we could be, at the height of evening traffic, on the wrong side of an intersection recently named one of the deadliest in the county.
Novice observation #1: Just the thought of hopping on and riding away can really get the adrenaline pumping! I was trying not to act overexcited, in case I seemed completely delusional about the risks.
“Are you sure? Do you know what you’re doing?”
“I’m sure. I can do this.” I wasn’t sure. But I couldn’t take my eyes off the bicycle. I was already tightening the strap on my helmet. He promptly grabbed the tools from the car and fixed the bell to the handle. I strapped on the backpack I’d brought just in case. (Novice observation #2: So that’s what all those straps on backpacks are for. Hey, the waist-belt-buckle actually has a use!)
“Be careful at the intersections.” We kissed a bit more intently than necessary for two people who’d only be apart for 30 minutes. But there was Death Intersection to think about. Observation #3: Before I was on the bike, I was thinking about my route, my town, the drivers in it and the qualities of the roads with more attention to detail than I’d experienced since moving here three years ago. As I wobbled across the parking lot, I thought of philosopher Virginia Held’s work, arguing that a caring politics would arrange shared public goods so that we could look after each others’ thriving as members of a community. The speeding private cars, the commercial parking lot, and the weedy sidewalks at this end of town did not promote within me a sense of being cared for. (Observation #4: Bicycling can heighten one’s political commitments within about five seconds of beginning a ride.)
I picked up speed. I wobbled less. The roads in this area are hillier than I ever noticed (#5) was following quickly by the realization, I have thigh muscles (#6). And they work! Some of them work better than others, but the point remains: I am discovering that I’m capable of moving a bicycle up a not-insignificant hill. I worked my way to the newsworthy intersection of death. I renewed my acquaintance with lots of brake squeezing, and I looked into the windshields of approaching cars. #7: I am making a lot more eye-contact with drivers. People stop and meet my eyes, wave me across. I’m glad I live in a small town.
Then, the downhill.
#8: I am flying. I know this is called an endorphin rush and I’m trying to reflect rationally upon it, but I’m feeling too euphoric to be very chatty with myself. The uplifting feelings continue long after I’m back to pedaling and gradually working my way through the downtown. “That was fantastic,” I say with a big smile when I get home. I’m tired. My butt is a wee bit sore. I’m thirsty. And it’s clear to me (#9) that loose clothing isn’t right for bicycling. I’ll have to think more about what I’m wearing, what feels best and is safest for me to do. I feel happy.
He looks happily back at me. “What struck you most?”
“I noticed there were more people bicycling in this town than I have ever noticed before.”
He nods. “I noticed them more, too.” #10: I’ve taken one ride, and both of us are already more attentive drivers. We care more about keeping an eye out for the safety of others on bikes. That was unexpected. That stuck.