Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: Kim Solga
I am a university professor currently based in Hamilton, Ontario. I teach theatre and performance studies at Western University; previously, I was Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London. On Wordpress, my teaching blog is The Activist Classroom; I'm also a regular contributor to the popular blog, Fit is a Feminist Issue.
Here at FFI I’m one of the “bike bloggers”; along with Cate, Sam, and Susan, I get jazzed about the riding. We all have different styles and prefer different kinds of riding-based holidays, but the bike is our collective thing.
As a committed (and pretty darn talented) road rider, usually my yearly wellness goals revolve around bike training, club riding, and trip planning. This year I still have some of these – I hope to go to my regular South Carolina training camp in March, and I’ll be taking my bike to the west of Ireland in July, while I’m there for a working holiday – but mostly my wellness goals this year are about other things.
Specifically, they are about long-term joint health, and about long-term mental health.
First, the joints. I have an autoimmune condition called Ankylosing Spondylitis, which if untreated can cause incredibly painful skeletal distortion as I age. I’m lucky to work in a town and at a university with an incredible teaching hospital network, and I have a wonderful rheumatologist, whom I trust and appreciate, following my condition.
(I’ll never forget my visit to her the day after the November 2016 presidential election. We had a brilliant chat, woman to woman, about how dreadful we were each feeling before we talked about my hips. That visit also inspired one of my very favourite FFI posts, “What Women Weigh”; if you’ve not had a chance to read it, please click here.)
Alas, this past year I’ve noticed an uptick in my symptoms. I’ve had too many instances of anterior uveitis (a correlative condition – basically the inflammation of the iris, REALLY), and my hips have been stiff and sore more than usual. I don’t want to have to shift my A.S. treatment, because the next step up is to begin taking immunosuppressant drugs, which I’m very anxious about. (I WORK WITH STUDENTS #petridish) So, instead, I’m committing this year to making more time for yoga at home, as well as at my beloved Iyengar studio, and perhaps I’ll also fold in some sports physiotherapy.
I know this will mean dialing back on “regular” workouts to fit in more joint-focused, low-intensity stuff. I find dialing back on cardio and weights hard – #endorphins – but if I want to keep doing that into my old age, I need to reprioritize.
Second, the mental health stuff.
I’ve been going to Jungian, talk-therapy based psychotherapy for about 18 years, on and off. My doctor in Toronto is covered by our provincial health insurance (YES to medicare for all, friends! It is literally life-changing!), and he more or less saved my life in the mid-2000s. But after all this time, last summer I realized that I’d learned most of what I could learn from him about the traumas of my past, and yet I was still feeling sadness and far too much unexplained rage.
I chatted with Susan about this on a long dog walk last Christmas. She agreed that I sounded like I’d plateaued in my learning with Dr A, and she suggested I give a different kind of therapy a try to see where it leads me.
(Susan, in addition to being a bike person, is our resident “why dog walks are critical fitness activities” blogger. My favourite of her posts on the topic is here. IT IS HILARIOUS AND PROFOUND.)
Thanks to Susan’s advice, I’ve now begun a course of EMDR therapy here in my home city. It’s been remarkable so far: I’m learning to revisit certain of my past traumas in safety, and to dissociate the feelings I carry about them from my traumatizing memories. Already I feel lighter, I have more compassion for those who previously enraged me, and I’m looking forward to making more discoveries in 2020. I know there’s a way to go yet, but I also see that the end can be filled with light.
This therapy is not government-covered, nor does my private work-based insurance cover it (beyond a measly 15 bucks a session. WHATEVS). And it is not cheap.
After factoring it into my working 2020 budget (I paid off my car, and redirected the money from the car payments toward it), I realized that I will also need to scale back some other fitness spending to accommodate it. So I may or may not get back to rowing, as I’d hoped, in 2020; we’ll see. And while I need a new saddle, I think I’ll also need to rely on my fantastic partner for more cycling-related presents throughout the year, rather than let myself wander into any bike shops on whims.
So, in sum from Kim:
Fitness =anything we do to help our body-minds feel better, move better, move safer, be lighter. Yes this is bikes, and weights, and runs; it’s also dog walks, and mental health work, and joint support, and rest. As we try not to fall into the badgering temptation of the proverbial “New Years resolution”, let’s keep this range of wellness options in mind!
What about you, friends? What are your wellness hopes for the new year? And a happy one to all!
Paul the trainer and I were gabbing in his kitchen post-workout, while I packed up my stuff and he warmed up his lunch. I was feeling invigorated by all the lifting, pulling, squatting and pressing and was looking forward to eating all the things at my fave café up the road.
I asked Paul what he was having.
“Chicken and rice; I have it every day!” was the reply.
I wondered aloud if he didn’t get bored of it; not a chance, he said. He told me he grills a batch of chicken each weekend and freezes it; he makes big piles of rice in his steamer and adds some to each chicken portion. Sometime he switches it up with meatballs, but that’s it.
For me, even the same (delicious and filling) thing each day would quickly get annoying; I suddenly wondered if I was doing it wrong. I asked Paul what else he ate.
He told me: protein shake or similar for breakfast; the lunch above; a small snack in the late afternoon; a small portion of stew in the evening.
My animal brain kicked in – in this case, not the brain that says “eat something now!”, but the brain, well trained by its old handlers, to fear food and loathe oneself for eating it.
God, I thought. I eat way too much!!
“Ha!” I said aloud, joshing to cover the rising panic. “That’s the opposite of me. All I eat is donuts.”
Of course this is not true; I eat many things including donuts – once a week, my ritual Saturday breakfast treat. And clearly Paul knew this, because he is a kind and supportive and body-positive trainer.
He said: “Really? No!! I mean, not all the time.”
Let me translate. The above statement, said by Paul in that moment, meant: “No you do not only eat donuts! You enjoy your treats. You eat well and healthily for your body a lot of the time and your strength shows it.”
But in my head, filtered through my trained-animal-food-fearing brain, I heard:
“You indulgent slob!!”
What makes us compare our food and exercise choices to others? The same thing, I wager, that makes us compare every inch of our bodies to others’ bodies so much of the time. It’s a lived experience of being taught to compare, with the ultimate goal of shaming yourself into adhering to the promoted cultural ideal, as closely as possible. (Which of course is impossible. It. Is. Designed. To. Be. Impossible. Read that again, slowly!)
I grew up learning to compare. Maybe you did, too. My mom (bless her) would draw my attention to those around us who looked out-of-order: too big, outfit not age-appropriate, plate too full. She would quietly whisper shaming things; I knew they were directed at herself. But I’d hear them directed at me. I knew what not to do: look/eat/choose like that. I knew to compare and be wise.
Comparison is painful; we are our own worst critics, so we always come up wanting. It is also anti-communal; comparing means drawing hierarchical lines between me and you, rather than seeing what we have in common and celebrating that. Comparison has, thus, a very conservative political tendency: it discourages bonds between citizens, and therefore discourages change, revolution.
Comparison is also often limited in its nuance. It can tell us in broad strokes where the same/other stuff lies, but it usually stops there, shamed or prideful.
If you dig deeper, you tend to get more similarities than differences.
Take my experience with Paul’s lunch as a case point. After I got to my car, I reminded myself that my food, exercise and health choices lead every day to a body I want to be in and a life I want to be living. I took some deep breaths. Then I thought more carefully.
Paul trains several times a week, but he does not have the endurance regimen I do; he’s not racking up the kilometres on the bike that I do. Those kilometres contribute to my much-increased need for calories; those calories are pleasurable and they also help make me strong.
Paul’s wellness goals include maintaining his trim physique; my wellness goals are not as centred on such things anymore. I like wearing my selectively-chosen and carefully-purchased outfits; I’m cautious with my clothes budget and only buy a few items a year. It’s important to me to fit my beloved outfits well. Beyond that, I don’t care about the numbers on the scale. (And, like Cate, if I have to buy a new size next time, that’s fine; if the look is swish I’m in!)
Paul is also a man, slightly younger than me. As a woman approaching peri-menopause, I’m aware that things are changing around my middle in particular, and THAT IS LIFE, PEEPS. If I become a peri-menopausal and then a menopausal and then an older woman who can also climb the stairs up the mountain brow and cycle to Guelph and Milton to visit Sam and Susan and still dead-lift a Great Dane, who cares?
My whole life I’ve feared weight gain. Why? Somebody once told somebody who mattered a great deal to my mom, and she told it to me; all the magazines reminded me every week at the Safeway; and don’t even get me started on the bullies.
Things all these things have in common: FAKE NEWS.
Forget blanket, superficial comparisons. Try not comparing at all. What’s working in your life, your exercise, your food choices? Hooray!! What needs some work? Make a list, then maybe a plan, if you want.
But above all else, remember: the more we compare, the less of a community we are.
Do you tend to compare, positively or negatively? Does it work for you or cause you stress? Let us know!
Last month, I wrote about why I ride, the social justice edition. I focused on the ways in which riding brings me closer to the earth, to other humans, and to our shared entanglements on the road (and elsewhere). The bike, I argued, is a way for us to stay grounded in our commonalities, to recognize our different needs together, and to become more aware of the needs of our shared home, the earth.
For me, part of that last item has to do with changing the way I commute to work. My campus office is about 125km from my front door, and in order to manage that distance I used to drive to and from twice a week. (I’m fortunate to be able to work about 60% of the time at home.) I quickly discovered that driving was more arduous than I’d imagined (focusing on the road for 1.5 hours, at 120kph, is stressful: who knew?). So about a year ago I decided to start riding the train.
That worked fine, until the weather made it less than pleasant to walk the 5 or so kilometres from the station to my office along the riverside path. (One terrible winter day I discovered that the path was covered in about 4 feet of snow, uncleared, but having descended into the valley I had no choice but to do the portage. That was my workout for the day!) I began using the bus to get to and from the station/my office, but when I wanted to add in a visit to Paul, my and Tracy’s personal trainer, or my elderly parents in the west end of town, things got tricky. I discovered the buses don’t sync up well, and outer-ring-to-outer-ring locales aren’t served by direct routes very often, if at all. Cabs were an option, but seemed pricey as a regular choice.
So this past summer I decided that the best way to ensure I could continue commuting by train, and indeed commute much more by train (last winter it was about 40% train, 60% car, mostly because sometimes the ease of the latter got the better of me), was to buy a folding bike. One August morning I found a sale on my preferred model at Cate’s local bike shop, so I got the commuter service into the city and made the leap.
Here’s the result: Titania, my Tern Link D8:
(Images of a folding bicycle, open, blue and black in colour; in one, Kim stands proudly in the shop with her green helmet on, holding the handlebars. In another, the bike is on a train platform with a green and white GO train in the background. I want to pause here to recognize my privilege in affording this new piece of gear, which came in at around $1000CDN. I saved for it using my monthly commuter budget.)
Now, folding bikes aren’t cheap. Sam has the amazing Brompton, the Cadillac (or maybe the Lexus? The Mercedes?) of folding bikes. Her job is full to the brim of travel, and her knee issues mean a very easy to fold and unfold, quite light and very versatile bike are required for her to do her job effectively. For me, the Tern was the budget option: it suits my needs well because it has a rolling adapter that I purchased as part of the sale, and I can pull it from my car to the train and back like luggage. (This is also great for airports, I’ll add.) It’s on balance larger and heavier than the Brompton, but the trade-off is that it has exceptionally solid, almost regular-size bike features, and I notice literally no difference between it and my upright Dutch commuter bike. (In fact, I think the Tern is faster and more stable on hills.)
(The above is a video showing three characters from the BBC satire, W1A, “arriving in tandem” at work on their Bromptons. It’s a spoof on the poshness of the bikes, their status symbol value. The narrator voice is David Tennant. The deep voice is Hugh Skinner, who plays an intern who has somehow got himself a Brompton anyway; the higher voice is Jason Watkins as Simon, humble-bragging about his new carbon-fibre Brompton. If you don’t know the series check it out!)
I’ve now been commuting with Titania for a month. How’s it gone? Fairly well overall, though there has been a learning curve. Here are my top three take-away lessons thus far.
Just because it’s a folding bike doesn’t mean it’s utterly simple and totally intuitive, with instant swanning through subway stations and the like. On my first trip into Toronto at rush hour (when regular bikes aren’t allowed on the commuter train), I discovered just how heavy it is to run with a folding bicycle. I had forgotten to set up the roller option, and I was late to the train. I dashed, Titania at my left, bobbing about and staining my calf with chain grease. I shouted desperately at the platform staff: “please don’t leave without me!!!” In the end they shut the doors as I arrived, and then took pity and re-opened them for me. I spent the whole ride into town sweaty, headachy, and sore. Lesson learned: always have the bike set up on the easiest-to-maneouvre setting for your next outing. Keep it in the front hall for ease, too.
Unfolding a folding bike may be simple, but it’s not necessarily THAT simple. I’d practiced in the shop, of course, and at home once or twice. But then two weeks elapsed before I used it for work. When I arrived at my station, disembarked and began to unfold it, I realized I’d forgotten some basics. I managed to turn the handlebars to the wrong way, and rode about 100m with them backwards before realizing. Luckily, I did not fall over! Lesson learned: practice folding and unfolding it at home a few different times over several days, because when you’re in public, it’s embarrassing and potentially dangerous to screw up the basics.
All kinds of weather happen when you are commuting by bike; you will discover this when you least expect it! It was a crazy hot morning last Tuesday, the last day of full-on summer in Southern Ontario. 30+C (about 90F), and HUMID AS HICKETTY HECK. I put on a light summer dress and packed my workout gear in my backpack for later. THEN, around 3pm, the sky darkened. And it opened up. By the time I had to ride to yoga, it was raining gently, but there was flash flooding all along the bike path I use to get from campus to downtown. I had a few episodes of “wheee!” through puddles, channeling my inner Sam, but when I arrived at yoga my arse was soaked, and the underside of Titania was lined with grit. It took about an hour the next day to clean her fully, and worst of all, I spent most of yoga rather uncomfortable. Lesson learned: buy the fenders straight away, and check the forecast! Also: use the nifty rain pouch that comes with the bike’s fanny pack; it will keep your phone completely dry.
Readers: do any of you have folding bike war stories? Or bike-commute war stories? Please share!
Here on Fit is a Feminist Issue, we’re big cyclists – that’s hardly news. But lately we’ve been having a moment of connecting our cycling to issues of disability and access (Sam, Natalie), social and political justice (Susan), and personal resilience and grit in the face of unfathomable challenges (Cate).
My last post in this space talked about the reasons I cycle. While that post was comprehensive, I realized not long after it was published (and, honestly, thanks to Susan’s brilliant post on sweeping and the public good) that I had missed out a key – really key – reason I ride. And it’s a reason that deserves its own post.
Here it is:
I ride to keep myself grounded and in touch with our planet earth, the other humans on it, and the things we are doing to it every day.
I ride in order to know my own body and its connections to that earth.
I ride as much as I can in order not to drive quite as much as I have been driving.
[Let me note here that I drive a lot. I commute 125km to my job, twice a week, and at least 40% of that commute, still, is driving. I’m not anti-car; I think modest driving in the right vehicles will be part of a sustainable future. But I’m hyper-aware that our planet cannot survive if everyone’s lives look like mine, right now. And I’m striving to change that. Stay tuned for an upcoming post about my new folding bicycle and its role in my commute-in-progress.]
What do I mean that riding keeps me grounded, connected? Let me unpack this a bit.
A wooden boardwalk runs toward a marshland, surrounded by green wild grasses and trees. This is my home, in Cootes Paradise. Photo by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton.
The first thing any cyclist will tell you is that, when you ride on roads that were built for cars, with a tiny slice of sidewalk attached aimed at pedestrians, you become instantly aware that you are an interloper. You’re in a space that was not designed with your needs in mind, and one that often works actively against your safety. If there’s no bike lane, take your chances with the cars in the curb lane. Or hop onto the sidewalk a bit, being super-mindful of walkers. (I did this last week in the eastern suburbs of Toronto, and it was humbling – there was just no place anywhere on the paved street for me. IN TORONTO! IN 2019!) If there is a bike lane, well that’s lovely, but let’s face it. In many places, still, the bike lane is an afterthought, a political tack-on. It’s painted green or blue. It *may* be *somewhat* separated from traffic. And it’s in the gutter, so cyclists are the first to get whacked by cracked, broken pavement. Plus it’s about as wide as a road bike plus rider – not exactly your average cyclist.
A busy city street with lanes of traffic interrupted by a painted bicycle lane. It looks very pretty and promising but does nothing to protect cyclists from the dangers cars pose to them physically.
Cycling in such spaces, you learn quickly that it’s your job to be aware of everyone around you. To take everyone else’s needs into account, and to guess their potential actions too. This is perhaps more onerous than it needs to be, but I also think it’s a good thing.
Imagine our world if EVERYONE on the road felt like the road needed to be adequately shared, and EVERYONE on the road (or the sidewalk) paid attention to the potential needs of the different users around them. Imagine that. It would be a world in which compassion and recognition, rather than antagonism and hate, were the default settings.
So riding in town can be a challenge – and we know well that it’s a challenge that keeps a lot of people off two wheels, to everyone’s detriment. But what about other places? I mean, road cyclists ride in crazy rugged and isolated places, yes? (Newfoundland, you are amazing.)
For me, riding outside the city is when I feel most connected to, and aware of, space. My home terrain is a deep valley, connected to a looming escarpment (also Susan’s terrain – we are on opposite sides of the same escarpment), and atop that escarpment is exceptional, lush farmland. When I ride through these precious landscapes I feel in my body, ricocheting up from the road through my wheels and saddle, the rich beauty of my and my neighbours’ shared home.
A view from atop the Niagara Escarpment, which Susan and I share as our home. Here, sharp limestone cliff walls boast rich greenery, cascading down into miles of trees under a blue sky.
Some of this land (much, in fact – we’re lucky here) is heritage-protected; we’re part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and also the Ontario government’s “green belt”. And some of it is not. Though note: ALL of this land is the ancestral home of Indigenous peoples who were displaced or worse by European colonial enterprises. Our shared home is part of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum region; more on this at the end of this post.)
One of the things I notice when I ride in these gorgeous spaces is change over time: that suburb is really growing; that farm is no longer in operation; this pavement is breaking apart rapidly, the product of unusual freeze-and-thaw patterns that accompany global climate change. I notice land loss, change of land use, and the changing ecosystem. I also get the opportunity to revel in the stunning landscape we still enjoy, though for how much longer I’m not really sure.
Imagine if everyone who lived in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area, the “golden horseshoe” that is home to the densest population in Canada, had the chance to see their community from two wheels, at a modest speed-per-hour. Had the chance to experience the tourist draw that is Tew’s Falls, not by driving into the area and fighting for parking, but by riding the bare 10km up from Hamilton’s downtown core and witnessing the landscape and its needs alongside the waterfall wow factor.
Tew’s is a wow of a waterfall, no question. Parallel lines of rushing water cascade into a limestone bowl under autumn leaves. Most people drive to Tew’s to enjoy it, but it’s super close to thousands of homes and easily ridable from across Hamilton.
Imagine how much more we would all know, feel, think about what we stand to lose here.
Finally, to ride is to know what a threat cyclists seem to be to car drivers – and what that tells us about how much needs to change.
Think about this for a minute.
Share the road: a car, bike, and tractor can all do it together safely!
Me, a woman aged 45 bearing 175lb of fat, muscle, flesh and bone, and riding a 15lb carbon road bike, is apparently an epic threat to that guy in his F-150. That family in their Dodge Caravan. Those two joyriding teenagers who literally almost took me out when they intentionally grazed me speeding up Jerseyville Road, then laughed their mean-ass asses off.
Something about me makes all these motorists MAD AS HELL. Mad enough to not see me – to not see me as a person. Mad enough to want to risk hurting me in order to get the vitriol out, right out.
I can’t tell you how much abuse I’ve taken – ask any cyclist and hear the same. Usually I get the abuse not for doing much; mostly, just for being on the road, taking up space. Sometimes I do a thing that’s not 100% kosher – rolling through a four-way stop when I’m the first person to reach it, say, or not obeying a traffic signal at a three-way intersection, because rolling through along the curb side seems like it will be safe and fine. I’m happy to admit these are law-breaking activities and that technically I am at fault. But the rage that comes at me! That’s not anger at injustice, nowhere in proportion.
That’s rage derived from entitlement, rage bursting forth from shame.
I’m the last person on earth to lecture anyone about having an unhealthily passionate attachment to their vehicle and their right for that vehicle to occupy the road unimpeded. For years I drove an ancient BMW 535 that my dad gave me; I named it, repaired it at all costs, finally sold it reluctantly. It was a friend to me.
But cycling taught me that relationship was an unhealthy one. When I was in that lovely car the world whizzed by; cyclists jamming the curb were a pain. I didn’t stop to see, smell, think or feel about the world at modest kilometres-per-hour. I just wanted A to B. I just wanted this 4500lb of metal and engineering to somehow stand for me, prove something about myself to the world.
On the left, my former car, a 1987 BMW 535is, one of only 1000 ever produced. On the right, Freddie, my Cervelo R2 road bike. Both are pretty. I love them both. Only one is the future.
We live in a community of human beings, animals, plant life, and micro-organisms that is under grave threat right now. We also just live in a community. How can we be kinder and more compassionate toward one another? Getting on a bike is a great way to find out.
As I noted earlier, I am lucky to live in a beautiful ecosystem that is part of the Indigenous territory covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum: that’s a historical agreement that simply says, when you come here to this beautiful place, we all eat with the same spoon. Take what you need but not too much and please, please share. Be mindful of others all the time; we are all in this together.
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.
Swiss cyclist Nicole Hanselmann was competing for her Bigla Pro team at a race in Belgium; the men’s race had a 10-minute start, and Hanselmann made that up pretty quickly after grabbing an early lead. Her race was stopped so the men could get ahead again; she was given a head start once the women’s race resumed, but the wind had left her sails by then. (UM: DUH.) She finished 74th. Later she instagrammed the incident: “awkward” was her photo caption.
Why did this happen? I’ve been looking around for an explanation for the last day or so and have no clear one to offer you. It sounds like the officials made a wrong call on the race gap: 10 minutes was not long enough. (Is this a standard gap for this type of race? I can’t tell – I haven’t been able to find this information out. If you know, please say in the comments!) It also sounds like Hanselmann had GREAT legs going into the race, and really took advantage. (There are structural reasons why this might be the case; women’s race lengths are often not long enough to capitalize on women’s peak fitness, which means early attacks happen. Go here for more.)
But “why” on this day, in this place, is not really the point; there are a lot of culturally-embedded, fairly obvious reasons why this incident is newsworthy. And if you’re a strong female cyclist, you already know the why.
We get underestimated. This is true of pretty much ALL female athletes, but it’s definitely the case for female athletes in male-dominant sports. Snoop around on our blog for lots of qualitative evidence, most recently this fantastic guest post from just a few days ago, about trying to lift around men at the gym.
I’ve been riding road bikes since 2012; I learned early (from a hugely inspiring female coach) that I was strong and suited to the sport. I drop a lot of guys. I’m faster than a lot of guys. And I love riding with folks who are faster than me, because they make me get faster.
But fast guys also tend to misunderstand what it means to have women on their ride.
(And here, let me specify: I’m talking largely about CLUB rides. When I go on organized rides with guys I know and trust and train with, we are all good and the adventure is ace. #notallmaleriders, of course. But still plenty.)
How this misunderstanding? Step one: mansplaining.
If I’m on a high-end bike that fits my body, the bike is kitted out with all the gear, and I demonstrate clear road- and club-riding skills, chances are I do not need you to tell me basic things about the sport, my bike, or anything else to do with what we are doing at the minute. Keep it to yourself, unless you see me in obvious need of assistance. And if that happens, maybe ask first if I need any.
Step two: aggressive off-showing. Yes, I’m on your ride because I’m fast enough for the posted ride pace. This should not be an invitation to you to attempt to ride significantly faster than the posted ride pace, just because you can. Or maybe you’re trying hard to show off to the other dudes on the ride? (I see this A LOT. God, it must be exhausting to be a male club rider.) At any rate, 38kph on a posted 32-34kph ride is too fast for me. You are going to drop me. And quite possibly you’ll drop the other, less fast, guys on the ride too. Is that really what you want? (And if so, ask yourself: WHY DO YOU WANT THIS?)
Step three: excessive complimenting. I pulled that pace line for two minutes and it was a strong, effective pull? We held a good pace? Yup, that’s what happens when you pull, after resting inside the pace line for a bit. I pulled the peloton with another woman at the front, and it was a strong, effective pull? Whadaya know. We have #madbikeskillz. GET OVER IT.
If you’re not going to say “hey! Great pull! Way to go!” to the guys on the ride, when you say it to me the message is clear. You didn’t think I could do it. You underestimated me. Thanks for sharing.
It’s not just guys who underestimate women riders, though. Many women I know have no idea how strong they are. Many of the women in my club think they are too slow for the two faster groups the club runs; even the amazing mountain biker I train with in winter (like, PODIUM MB-er, peeps) isn’t sure she can hold the faster lines. (Spoiler alert: she really can.)
I know these women are stronger than they let themselves think. They don’t believe it, and that’s because they have been taught, over years of aggressive gendered socialization, that women aren’t fast or good enough when it comes to sports like cycling. There’s tonnes of external reinforcement of this idea, too: just ask Hanselmann. All around us the messages normalize the notion that women can’t do it, not really, no matter what Nike says as it tries to sell us things.
I know this post sounds cranky, but I’m fed up. Being underestimated is exhausting; it makes it hard to want to go on the rides, to try to get faster, to deal with all the noise while ALSO trying to ride the ride. Cycling is hard enough work; I don’t need to be doing extra emotional labour on the damn bike, too.
What’s your experience on the bike? Do you have supportive ride-mates, or do you experience unnecessary gender blow-back on your usual club dates? Do you have race experiences you’d like to share?
This time last year, we were under several feet of snow here in Southern Ontario. I know, because Facebook told me. Here are some images from 29 December 2017 that Big Brother Zuckerberg shared with me as “memories” a few days ago.
This year, no such luck. Today, it’s 10 degrees Celsius and raining, and Emma the Dog is hiding in a mucky hidey-hole in the garden. (Cheers, Emma.)
Last year, with all the snow and my glamorous new snow shoes from Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), Emma and I got all kinds of exercise out on the rail trails around our home near Toronto. Walking in snow shoes is both incredibly fun and an amazing workout for the hamstrings and calves.
This year, I’ve been alternating taking Emma for extra-long no-snow walks in and around our many protected escarpment woodlands, riding my bicycle trainer while watching The Good Place on Netflix, and walking the escarpment stairs for a nice glute and quad (not to mention cardio) workout.
And then, of course, on dry days, when the temperature is zero or above, I go for that painful mixed blessing: The Winter Road Ride.
I know Sam has been enthusing on the blog recently about the joys of winter riding (in all its unexpected, stolen glory), as well as the pains of having to clean the darn bike when it’s over.
I share both her enthusiasm and the annoyance re the cleaning. But I also feel other things around winter riding, which I thought I’d share with you today in case anyone else in the community rides in winter and wants to commiserate.
1. Winter riding reminds you that just because it’s nice outside when you go to get the mail, doesn’t mean it’s nice outside for three hours/75km.
It seems like a great idea at the time. You walk the dog and it’s cool but not cold, cloudy but dry, only a bit breezy. You decide to suit up.
You climb the 150 or so metres out of the lake-side valley in which you live and are winded and cursing yourself when you finally get to the top of the escarpment and can finally start riding properly. In summer this climb is annoying but OK; today, though, you are already pretty cold and wondering what made you think this bike ride was a good idea.
You get onto “flat” land (all “flat” land to the north and west of me is a false flat, until it’s a swoopy downhill and all your cares are forgotten – roughly 35km in). You start to pick up speed. Then you wonder why “pick up speed” means you’re going 26.5kph, rather than your more usual 28kph…
2. You’re generally slower in winter for lots of invisible reasons. Because of this invisibility, you see your average speeds drop, feel demoralized, and then get even colder.
Yes, I know some people argue it’s a myth, but I’m firmly on the “big temperature drop = not insignificant speed drop” side of things. I’ve got years of riding to demonstrate this anecdotally, plus there’s a very good reason why club ride start times inch upward as the temperature drops. Cold weather riders experience drag from poor air density, rolling resistance, and extra layers of gear worn against the cold. Plus, it’s typical not to pump those tires up to max in winter, to ensure you’re in a better position to navigate winter obstacles and debris on the road.
(Want to know a bit more of the science? Here’s a pretty good article by the folks at FitWerx, a top-rated bike shop in the northeastern US.)
I typically roll at 27-30kph, wind and incline depending; my average solo speed is usually 27-28kph in summer, accounting for anywhere from 400 to 800 metres of climbing (and the attendant gleeful rolling back down again at top speed). In winter, my average speed drops to 25-26kph – partly for all the reasons noted above, but also because the wind feels sharper and colder (and thus less motivating to push through) in winter, and because, given the time of year, I’m not riding for all-out, Strava-busting goodness; I’m riding to build my base and stay in my tempo (mid-range aerobic) zone as much as possible.
Logically, then, I can expect to be slower in winter, and That Is Totally Fine. But we are not logical creatures, us humans. We are rational, yes, but also deeply affective: how we feel shapes how we behave so very, very often. (Need proof? Um, you know where to look…)
So when I’m out on a winter ride, I’m already cold. And then I see my speed and go, oh feck. “I’m so slow today! What’s wrong with me??? Obviously I need to train more/better/focus harder/get me off this thing…”
3. All that gear adds weight, discomfort, awkwardness. As in: I CANNOT WAIT TO GET HOME AND PULL IT ALL OFF ALREADY.
Yes, riding at any time of year is a pleasure. And yes, if given the opportunity, I would DEFINITELY rather be riding in a pair of shorts and a lightweight jersey, with just my helmet adding a bit of extra drag.
Instead, winter riding requires the following:
basic shorts, not too bulky (but still really well padded!)
at least two, if not three, under layers (hello, wind chill)
a pair of thermal tights
a really good, insulated if possible, long-sleeve winter jersey
winter gloves (think ski gloves with a bit more maneuverability)
a cycling balaclava (to keep your head warm and also provide chin and mouth coverage if the wind kicks up)
a neck “snood” or equivalent (basically, a cycling scarf – mine is the fantastically-named Castelli “head thingy”, which I bought for the name alone and which I absolutely adore)
two pairs of socks, and maybe some hot pockets to keep your toes alive
shoe covers (an absolute must: cycling shoes are breathable, after all, which means the cold air gets in immediately)
All this stuff adds weight, bulk, and makes usually simple maneuvers fairly awkward. There’s also, again, that all-important feeling that things aren’t quite right; it’s supposed to be a free-wheeling sport, this, with equal parts “wheeee!!!!!” and zooming along in a tight, fast formation. Plus just feeling the wind on your face and not going, “fecking winter wind so cold ARGH! WHY AM I DOING THIS!!!”
So here’s the thing. As long as it’s not freezing cold and snowy outside I ride my bike. I try to remember that I’m base-building and it’s winter and I’m trussed up like a turkey and it’s cold, so it will be OK but not AMAZING. If it’s a good day out (especially if there’s sun!) there is NO WAY I am getting on my bike trainer, Jameela Jamil or no Jameela Jamil. So winter riding and me are here to stay.
But it’s not going to be ace from start to finish. A lot of it is going to kind of suck, TBH. And I am definitely going to miss my snowshoes.
Please tell me I am not alone!
But, having said that, readers, I’d love your winter riding stories/thoughts/feelings. Do you avoid it? Love it? Notice a performance drop and feel bad about it? Notice a performance drop and not care? Thanks for sharing!