Content note: there is some mention of body image issues and struggles with weight loss in this post.
A couple of weekends ago, my cycling club held its annual feature ride to Rattlesnake Point, a conservation area on the Niagara Escarpment that road cyclists reach by climbing an absolute corker of a hill. (At just a kilometre, and with grades well above 10% along the way, it’s basically a wall of pain with a twist in the middle.) I did the ride last year and made it up the hill, but barely. My memory of it was, “did that, don’t need to do it again.”
When this year’s ride rolled around, though, I started to get a familiar feeling. I should do the hill again, I heard my brain whispering to my quads. After all, it wasn’t THAT bad. Right? Besides, said evil Kim brain to vulnerable Kim quads, if you don’t do it again you’ll always think you barely can and it will haunt you.
I decided to take to the internet for help. I wrote a message in our regular FFI bloggers message group asking the gang to “tell me I should do” the ride. I’m not actually sure what I was hoping for. A chorus of you go, girl! ? Maybe. Or maybe a good reason not to go?
Cate weighed in straight away, and in her inimitable Cate way drove to the heart of my problem. There’s no should here, she said. Why do you want to do this? What will it do for you?
Why do I ride? This is a question I’d actually already been thinking a lot about, before Cate hit the nail on the head. It’s been following me and my bike across the ocean for a couple of years now. It dogs me on club touring days, when I have to decide if I stay or if I go. And it’s there when I’m tired, but something inside says to me, get up! Don’t be lazy. You said you were going to ride today, so ride already.
There are a lot of answers to the question, why do I ride? Some are frankly awful. Some are amazing. And some of them are different now to what they once were, and different to what I ever expected they might be.
Here they are.
First, I ride because I love to ride.
(Images above, from top left: Kim in green helmet, riding glasses in her teeth, snaps a selfie at the top of Box Hill in Surrey, England, with green rolling hills in the background; Kim in the same helmet and blue, black and white kit walks her bike up a very steep lane, autumn leaves on the ground, and she’s walking because she couldn’t get up the hill but she’s smiling anyway; Kim in pink helmet and black Castelli kit stands in front of her bike proudly, hands on hips, in Richmond Park, South London, England. All these images are from 2014-15.)
This is objectively true and always has been. Road cycling is my sport; I’m massively strong and fast and awesome at it; I handle my bike with skill and have surprising amounts of chutzpah on the road that I don’t always have elsewhere in my life. I heart my bike, full stop. This is my best, and favourite, reason for riding. But it’s not always, or even often, the main reason I head out on the bike.
I also ride because I worry that if I don’t ride I’ll gain a bunch of weight. In other words, I ride because somewhere in my brain I’m convinced I have to or else bad shit is going down. This is my least favourite reason for riding, but it’s often the quickest motivator for me.
I have always struggled with body image; I was raised in a household where nobody was thin but thinness was the ideal. My mom and her sisters policed each other’s bodies like crazy, and mine too. I was overweight as a kid and lived with a terrible, irrational fear of gaining more weight. Passive aggressive comments followed many of my food choices, and someone was always watching and commenting on the contours of my body. I felt followed, all the time, and I felt horrible about myself.
I’m much better now, but that’s because I’ve been fit and strong for a while and as I’ve gotten to my fitness goals I’ve learned to appreciate the complexities of a strong and fit body. I’m still by no means thin – who wants to be thin when you can be strong? – but I have a great deal more body confidence. Still, the nagging fears with which we are raised do not just disappear. They transmogrify; sometimes they are countered by new practices and hard-won beliefs, but sometimes – often – they lurk. So one of the reasons I ride is to outrun this lurking worry about my weight. I’m not proud to admit it, but it’s real for me.
Third, I ride because I can, because not all of us can and therefore I am really proud of what I am able to accomplish, and dammit do I feel strong and amazing when I do. (I also love this reason.)
This is what I replied to Cate when she answered my message about the Rattlesnake ride, and then I thought a lot more about it – more carefully about it. I did not end up going on the feature ride that weekend (my partner turned up at my house on the Sunday morning and I very joyfully spent the day with him instead) but the next day I realized that I’d actually wanted to do the ride, because I knew I could get up that hill stronger than I was last year, and I wanted to show myself how strong I am today. I wanted to feel my strong body haul myself up that stupid-ass hill. So on the Monday morning I went out and did it, alone – and got a personal record, too. (It felt amazing.)
Fourth, I ride to go places and make new discoveries about the world. This is a new reason for me, and I’m excited about embracing it more often in future.
If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that Sam, Susan, Cate, and blog friends Sarah and David were recently on a seriously grit-laden (literally and figuratively!) cycling trip to Newfoundland. Early in the planning for this journey they asked me to come and I decided not to join them. I knew I would not enjoy it: I dislike camping; I knew it would be freezing; I suspected we would be tired and possibly wet pretty much all the time. For me, this sounds like a world of pain, not a holiday.
There was a time I would have said yes anyway, though. I would have decided it was a challenge, I would have told myself that I never shirk from a challenge, and that therefore I would have to go. For quite a while in the early planning stages of the trip I was actually worried that I was going to say yes for this reason; I have a history of saying yes to things that I think will be good for me in some horrible you-can-rest-when-you’re-dead way, and I almost never enjoy them (though I do get a feeling of satisfaction from the endorphin rush and the adrenaline of succeeding in the end). It actually took a lot of work and a lot of courage for me to tell myself definitively, you will not enjoy this. Say no. Not going to Newfoundland was a growth moment for me, then, as a cyclist and as a person.
While the gang were in Newfoundland, however, I was riding too – in Anglesey, an island in northern Wales. This trip was like many I’ve taken, where the bike and I get on a plane and then on a train and head for a cottage where we stay for a while, riding every day or every other day to neat new places we’ve never been before, racking up the miles and the Strava segments. This is my preferred way of bike touring: no camping, no schlepping in panniers. Stay in one place; return there to eat and sleep and shower each evening. Over the years I’ve learned that I don’t just prefer it this way, but love it.
(Images above, from left: I’m in my green helmet and riding glasses, taking a selfie with green pastures and blue sky in the background; Freddie and her orange bar tape chill out against a barrier with soft sand and blue water in the background, at Trearddur Bay, Anglesey; another selfie, this time with grey frog statue from a random Anglesey front yard. Half of my face is visible, glasses on my nose, and I’m looking quite serious, on behalf of the frog.)
On this trip to Wales, though, something new happened: I had to use the bike for errands, not just for touring and challenge rides. My friend and I had no car, and the nearest shop was 1.5 miles away up a hillside; the nearest proper shop was 6 miles away. So some days I rode the bike 50, 60, 90km, visiting beaches and outcroppings and a very cool salt factory; on other days I rode the bike 10km, 25km, 30km, to buy cheese and meat pies and veggies and swim in the ocean.
I hadn’t done this before – on previous cottage-style bike holidays I’ve either had a car or been based in a town centre – and it was actually really joyful. Using the bike for all sorts made me feel like I was connected to a community, not just passing through it on the way to yet another Strava prize. And it reminded me that my love for my road bike is about freedom and independence, joy in the outdoors, a love of movement, as well as strength and speed and skill, all blended together.
There’s one more reason I ride: to get stronger. I do this by riding with faster people in my cycling club and struggling to keep up with them. It’s not fun a lot of the time, but it works.
This reason I’m still struggling with.
As recently as last summer, I thought – as with my initial reasoning about the Newfoundland trip – that it was my duty to myself to always ride with the fast folks, and suffer and endure, because if you can, you should, and if you don’t you’re being lazy and will never improve. (Again, I’m aware these intrusive thoughts are not helpful, but they are real for me.)
But earlier this season something weird and unexpected happened: I decided not to care anymore. I arrived at a club ride in April and made the decision to ride with the second-fastest group, not the super fast kids. I told myself, sure you can ride with the fast gang, but it wasn’t that much fun, was it? Maybe you could prioritize joy over speed this time. Maybe there’s an important component of getting stronger in that choice, too. Through the season, I’ve been riding with social group two more often than speedy group one. And I’m OK with it, for now.
I still ride from time to time out of an obligation to my demons. But the great news is that, more and more, I’m riding just for the pure delight of it, knowing that I’m growing as a person, not just as a rider, when I do. I posted in our message group with my demons in tow, asking the gang please to validate them; instead, Cate reminded me that I do not need to pay attention to those dudes so much. There are lots of absolutely wonderful reasons to ride my bike – more than enough to keep me happily rolling.
Why do you ride? Do you struggle with demons around exercise? Can you tap into the joy of movement unencumbered? Let me know.