accessibility · body image · fitness

On Being Naked In Public, #FridayThoughts #FeministFitness

This is a post about changing rooms. We’ve had occasion to reflect on them before here at FFI (for example, here and here), and I’d like to add my voice, and my questions, to the mix.

There’s a lot to say, in this moment of cracking and (I hope) crumbling gender binaries, about how we adapt our body images, and our images of others’ bodies, to a changing sex/gender paradigm. Getting comfortable with ourselves in our totally imperfect and non-binary bodies is only part of the challenge ahead; the other part is getting comfortable with the many different kinds of bodies around us, bodies whose hard-won privileges cannot any longer be denied.

A few weeks ago I found myself in Cate’s flat, asking her about gender-neutral change room etiquette. My question was prompted by my recent experiences in the changing rooms of the swimming pools I frequent.

My amazing new home town of Hamilton, Ontario has been renovating its swimming and recreation centres, and as part of that work has been installing gender-neutral change rooms. I do not identify as fluid, but I do identify as an LGBTQ ally, so I cheer this decision; I want to use the change rooms in order to show my support for their construction, and in order to show my support for non-binary folks using the space. Thus, when I went to a new pool in the suburb of Ancaster in early November, I bounced right on in through the middle door, without a second thought.

It was only when I was getting out of the pool and ready to shower that I started thinking twice about some of the complexities of getting naked, showering, and then re-dressing in this mixed space.

 

Two images of gender-neutral toilet and change spaces. The image on the left shows three brown doors with blue signs, one for “men”, one for “women”, and one in the middle showing figures of a man and a woman side by side. The image on the right (from the YMCA in Calgary, Alberta) shows the entrance to a clean-lined, white and blue locker space, with white figures and writing on a brown wall. The figures are of a woman, a man, and a wheelchair user, and the writing says “Universal Locker Room”. 

Now, let me be clear. I am very comfortable being naked in women’s change rooms, and I’m very comfortable with the idea of other women, including trans women, being naked around me. I’m also fine with men (and trans-men) being naked around me in settings where it is clear that we are in a non-sexual space and that the protocol is one of mutual respect along those lines (see below for more of what I mean here).

But as I was preparing to shower (and I LOVE my post-swim shower, in the warm water, joyfully naked after having pulled my tight swimsuit off) I realized that, maybe, not everyone in the gender-neutral change room in Ancaster would feel the same way as I do about public nudity. What if there was a man in the room who was comfortable with non-binary identifications but not comfortable with my nudity as a woman in a mixed space? What if there were parents with pubescent children of mixed ages who saw this space as also for them, but were similarly not comfortable? This is, after all, North America we’re talking about, and Ancaster ain’t exactly The Castro.

I posed the question to Cate: is it cool to get naked in a gender-neutral change room? Her response was measured but confident: anyone in that space is either fluid or an ally, and therefore should be comfortable with mixed bodies. Plus, it’s a change room: change rooms by definition are places you are allowed to be naked in public.

Are they, though?

It turns out this changing-room-nudity thing is a pretty culturally-determined truth. Cate and I feel a certain way, as do a host of my friends and colleagues, but we’re a particular demographic (fit academic feminists, for the most part, and many of us are white). Others clearly do not feel as we do. A town in the province of Quebec recently banned nudity in change rooms of all kinds in its public recreation centres; this is QUEBEC, people, aka the France of North America. And I’d be lying if I said I was usually joined in the women’s change room of various pools and fitness centres in my unabashed nudity; normally it’s all swimsuits, towels covering breasts, furtive scurrying, and ducking into changing cubicles.

Plus, I do get looks – sometimes.

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Are locker rooms safe spaces to be naked in public? The image shows a woman, with long hair in a pony tail, dressed in a pink striped sports top and loose black running shorts, hiding in part behind a locker door.

I don’t mean to belittle the activity of covering up – not at all. As a woman who grew up with horrifically bad body-image problems, I understand very well why hiding and scurrying and ducking happens.

But what if we thought of changing rooms as places where we can be, kindly and respectfully, and above all safely, exposed to a variety of uncovered bodies of different sizes, shapes, genders, and racial backgrounds – helping to make that bodily difference normative, and even comfortable?

This might (might…) be one hope behind the increase in gender-neutral change spaces more broadly. In pools around London, UK, where I also spend a lot of time swimming, I’ve noticed this trend taking shape. Twice this year I’ve been at facilities (run by Better, a not-for-profit organization) where large communal change spaces have been installed post-renovation (one of these, I’ll note, is in the Olympic swimming centre that became a public facility after the 2012 games). The demographic in both of the spaces I’ve swum (the other is in Chelsea, the posh West London community) has been very mixed; as these are effectively public recreation centres (as opposed to private clubs), visitors run the gamut of colours and languages, as well as ages and social classes.

These gender-neutral spaces are fairly big, to accommodate all users, but they are not really all that spacious; this is because they are populated largely by banks of lockers and changing stalls, lined up in neat rows. The idea is that you choose a locker near a free stall, and shut yourself in to get into and out of your swimming costume. There are also shower/change cubicles, so you are able to shower fully, removing your suit, and then change before opening the door to the world. Implicitly, I take from the presence of these larger cubicles, you’re not meant to get naked in the open shower area. Certainly, I’ve noticed no nudity whatsoever in these mixed spaces on the many occasions I’ve now visited them.

I get what these kinds of “gender-neutral” spaces are about, I think: saving space overall, breaking down gender division (an identified social goal in the UK right now), and sharing space more equitably between men’s and women’s zones are all worthy goals. Yet I cannot help but notice, in each of these “neutral” spaces, the lack of true neutrality. Because these spaces continue to encourage the hiding of our sexed and gendered flesh in the change cubicles, they do not invite us to break down the hierarchies of shaming and valorization that attend to, for example, fit vs unfit bodies, white bodies vs black or brown bodies, and men’s bodies vs women’s bodies.

Nothing about our bodies or their place in our world is shifted by this kind of flesh-policing “neutrality”; really, we’re just being herded into a more efficient, multi-use spatial system.

Would I prefer the female/male/neutral triad of choices now available to me in Hamilton to the enforced neutrality in all-comers gender-neutral spaces? Yes indeed, if only because the choice, in the first case, is provocative: it requires me to do some thinking about where I want to locate my body, and why.

(It’s also essential, I think, for those transitioning to feel safe in a changing space. One that is clearly marked as non-binary, alongside other, more “traditional” gendered space options, is by definition such a space. Click here, for example, for an article on the logic behind UC Berkeley’s decision to build a non-binary change room in its campus gym.)

Being herded into a large mixed change space, with its pressure to get dressed and undressed privately, does little except make me both physically and intellectually uncomfortable. I’d argue that it diminishes thoughtfulness around what “neutrality” really means, suppresses rather than invites important questions about gender.

It leads directly to the twin expectations that a) we all must share public space equally (a seemingly good thing), but that b) we also all must necessarily occupy that public space individually, keeping our bodies (and the shame they still too often carry) to ourselves (in no way a good thing).

This strikes me as separate-but-equal logic, which I cannot get behind.

I’d like your thoughts on this, very much; I’m still mulling and stewing. But before I close, I want to present a third example.

In early December I gave a workshop in the German lakeside town of Konstanz, on the Swiss border. Konstanz has a gorgeous local thermal spa facility, which includes a large and extremely well designed and maintained sauna section. (Entry to the thermal baths and outdoor pools alone is, like the Olympic swimming centre in London, less than $10 – this is a public facility. To use the sauna [also publicly maintained] costs a fair bit more, though substantially less than comparable but much less nice places in Canada, such as Toronto’s Body Blitz chain. To say the Konstanz spa-sauna is good value for money is an absolute understatement.)

On my last day in the town, my colleague Julia and I spent the morning at the sauna, moving between steam room, plunge pool, saunas of three temperatures, and a wonderful “calm room” for relaxing with a view of the Alps in the distance.

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An image of the 60-degree-heat sauna at Konstanz’s thermal spa facility; the picture is of a dark brown room with rectangular windows opening onto greenery, and the room is populated with curling light wood benches stacked in a rake for sauna users. The people in the space are covered in towels; in reality, these folks would be sitting on their towels naked, not wearing them. The spa’s website includes no nudity, although nudity is normative at the spa.

Julia advised me ahead of time that I needed no swim suit in the sauna area of the spa; it is considered inappropriate and unhygienic to wear one. Everyone changes into a robe or towel in the communal change room, then attends each of the saunas and plunge pools nude. This is traditional, and ingrained in German culture; the space of the spa is one where all bodies are welcome, and where nobody is to be leered at or commented upon inappropriately.

Of course this is not body nirvana: as Julia remarked, culture in this part of Germany is very homogenous, and all the bodies I saw were white and appeared to be non-trans (though I was not, in keeping with protocol, looking closely). How I’d feel as the lone person of colour, or lone non-binary body, in this space is a matter for another post entirely (or for a comment – if you have had such an experience, please let me know!).

What I can say, though, is that as a middle-aged woman with residual body image issues, I’ve never felt quite so at ease with my own body as I did in the sauna space. Young and old, male and female, fat and thin and in between; all seemed at ease in their bodies and fully accepting of the bodies around them. I found the resulting sense of ease permeated the space, generating a calming and welcoming affect that made the experience truly satisfying for me.

I found myself wishing we could infuse both Hamilton’s new gender-neutral change rooms, and the mixed/neutral change rooms of my London pools, with some of this embodied ease.

I’ll do my part, by continuing to use the new change rooms back home, and by being as naked as ever in them. I’ll welcome other naked bodies in turn, either with quick eye contact and a smile, or by not remarking on anything unusual – whatever works in the moment.

How about you? What’s your experience of gender-neutral changing spaces? If you’ve been at a public spa where nudity is common or expected, what was your embodied experience like?

accessibility · cycling · equality · fitness

Sports and the public good

A couple of days ago Sam sent me a Facebook message with a link in it. The link was to an advert from Pinarello, the high-end Italian bike manufacturer, for its new motorized road bike. In the ad, a conventionally gorgeous white woman appears in portrait orientation, smiling slightly; she is identified as Emma, 24 years old, a “couple rider”. The text beside her image reads:

“I’ve always wanted to go cycling with my boyfriend but it seemed impossible. Soon everything will become possible.”

I rolled my eyes. I may have laughed at first, though I was pissed off pretty much immediately, for all the reasons readers of this blog can easily anticipate. But I also thought the ad was more or less sexism-as-usual.

A sporting goods company doing something sorta douchy? Shocked. I was shocked, I tell you.

Sam said: “you should blog about this!!” Sigh. Probably I should, I thought. Except I’d already planned my post for this Friday (though not yet written it). And except that I couldn’t think of anything I could say about this issue that wasn’t already being said, loudly and well, from all corners of the public sphere.

TBH, even thinking about it made me feel tired: sexism-induced narcolepsy. Yup.

I hummed and hawed.

Then, while I was in the shower after what I can only describe as a very, very cold late autumn training ride (because, Pinarello: I’m pretty fast for a reason), I realized that the two pieces – my original topic, and the annoying Pinarello story – actually shared an important point of convergence. I could write about them both, making the post about that point.

So here goes.

(This image includes the male and female ads, and the twitter feeds attached to them. Both the man and the woman in the images are white, young looking, and fit looking. Which provokes the question: why do they need an e-bike to “keep up”?) 

The Pinarello advert (which also includes a disparaging “male” version, in which the guy in the image claims he has no time for training rides but wants to keep up with friends at the weekend) is grounded in some pretty basic and also very, very wrong assumptions about women.

First, that women aren’t fast. Second, that women only want to ride because their boyfriends do. (Also: um, paging heteronormativity? Pinarello def doesn’t want the lucrative lesbian market, then…) Third, that women who ride wouldn’t want to, like, train to get faster; because that never happens, in any cycling club or women’s pro team, ever.

All of this is stupid and infuriating. But, for me, what’s most infuriating is that this grade-A sexist bullshit is coming from a bike company with a massive public profile, and whose bikes are ridden by BOTH pro men’s AND pro women’s teams on the World Tour circuit. For lots of people, Pinarello, like Castelli, or Cervelo, or Trek, IS high-level cycling; it represents in its brand not just its products, but a world of sports aspiration that criss-crosses gender lines.

With that kind of high profile in the cycling community comes, I believe, some public responsibility.

With this ad, though, Pinarello made pretty clear where its priorities lie – and it’s not with helping to promote cycling as a sport in which people of all genders (and colours) are welcome and respected for their talent and determination.

Quite apart from being RIDICULOUSLY retrograde in its representation of women and (older?) men, then, this ad works against the public good, where sports and fitness is concerned.

I’m not a philosopher like Sam and Tracy, but in this case I’m defining “the public good” as a set of values that support inclusivity and access for all, and that encourage the removal of barriers to access and inclusion, whether those are physical, emotional, financial, or otherwise. (It’s worth noting here that the Pinarello Nytro ain’t exactly cheap. No Pinarello bike is. Put a motor in one, and guess what?)

So Pinarello gave us this week a textbook example of working against the public good.

What might it look like, though, for an organization to promote sports and fitness as matters of the public good, and to get it, if not perfect, a great deal more right?

I’ve recently moved to Hamilton, Ontario, a city about 50km from Toronto (and 50km from Niagara Falls) at the western edge of Lake Ontario. The area is blessed with immense natural beauty, in the form of the Niagara Escarpment, and all kinds of woodland trails, rail trails, and mountain bike routes snake around and through the city.

Hamilton is in general incredibly green; there are parks everywhere, and the grounds of local heritage buildings are often free to access too.

Lately I’ve been noticing not just how pleasant all this well-cared-for green space is, but also how many subtle measures the city has put in place to help encourage citizens to get fitter and feel better while they are out and about in them.

For example, my local park, just up the street, features: a public swimming pool (a year-long pass to ALL Hamilton pools, all-you-can-swim, is just CDN$106, a massive bargain), tennis and badminton courts that are free to use, a bunch of outdoor, public access fitness equipment (again, free to use, and popular with the older residents of the area), a baseball diamond (you guessed it), plus well paved and maintained walking paths that are sympathetically laid out and are all wheelchair accessible. There’s a playground for the kids, a “paradise” butterfly garden maintained by students at the local elementary school, as well as a community garden – for a small fee local residents can rent a plot or garden table for their own use, or they can volunteer to assist with the butterfly garden if they’d prefer not taking on a larger garden project. (Ours is just one of many community gardens dotted around Hamilton.)

I can’t get over what an asset this space is; the community gets together here. There are always kids in the playground, folks on the fitness equipment, courts in use, and gardeners at their plots. Not to mention dog walkers.

Further up the road, about 1.5km away, my neighbourhood runs into the Niagara Escarpment, and access points for the (to central Canadians, anyway) famous Bruce Trail. Here, a radial trail for walkers and joggers links the mountainside trails, several sets of stairs up to Hamilton “mountain” (about 300 stairs each, and popular with cross-fit types and those looking for cross-training), a public golf course (through which we are invited to walk, while signs ask that golfers be aware of pedestrians!), and a bunch of signed stations where those jogging or otherwise exercising are invited to stop for squats, push-ups, lunges, etc along the route.

chedoke-stairsdundurn-st-stairsDundurnWentworth-stairs2

(These fours images feature the Dundurn, Chedoke, and Wentworth stairs from the top of Hamilton mountain. Two are from fall/winter, and two from summer. The two summer images include City of Hamilton statistics about the stairs’ annual use: the Chedoke stairs, wider than most and popular for exercise, log over 2300 trips a day, and more than 871,000 a year, according to the 2013-14 data.)

I’ve been going to the Chedoke and Dundurn stairs for about four weeks now, and they are a real pleasure. I realize they are not accessible to those without good lower body mobility, of course, but for anyone looking for cardio or leg-strength training at a bargain, they are a gift indeed. Safe, sturdy, and well lit (you can see the lit-up staircases from the freeway!), I would not hesitate to use them after dark, especially because both are very well used and are attached to well-lit traffic areas at their bottoms (a parking lot, and a bus loop).

Now, the City of Hamilton is not the same as Pinarello in any way. Its job is to support citizen well being by plowing the streets and paying the firefighters; Pinarello’s job is to sell expensive bikes and bike stuff to MAMILS (mostly). Hamilton is a not-for-profit civic organization that funnels income back into city costs and services. Pinarello is a successful capitalist, featuring the requisite bit of philanthropy on the side. Apples and apples this is not.

Still, what I want to emphasize here is how easy it is to act in the public interest, even when you don’t have to. Hamilton does not need to maintain a butterfly garden in my local park, where kids can get outside, play, breathe, and learn; it does not need to groom hundreds of kilometres of walking trails or keep thousands of mountainside steps safe in winter, so that even the poorest of our neighbours can get exercise and fresh air. It could just pay the firefighters and the cops and say the rest is too expensive; I’ve lived in plenty of places where that happens.

Similarly, Pinarello does not need to play the old “my boyfriend is so strong and fast!” card. Dozens of fantastic athletes ride their amazing machines every year; why not get a range of those people to promote the e-bike, de-stygmatizing it in the process?

That advert could have been easy, classy, and smile-inducing rather than tiny, shitty, and cringe-inducing. All it needed was some forethought about genuine inclusivity and diversity. In the name of the public good.

equality · fitness · sex · weight lifting

Thoughts about fitness, consent, and pleasure

*Trigger warning: this post discusses issues around sexual violence and consent.

Regular readers of FFI know I’m an avid cyclist and sometime internet dater; what you may or may not know is that in my work life I’m a theatre scholar – I teach, write about, and regularly attend live shows of all kinds. It’s a huge privilege to be able to say, as I did on a recent Friday afternoon, “I have to leave my desk and take the train into town to see a play!”

That particular play is called Asking For It; is a piece of “verbatim” theatre – that is, theatre composed of interview material gathered, with full consent of participants, by the author and star of the show, Ellie Moon. Its jumping-off point was the media storm surrounding the now-disgraced CBC Radio host and popular member of Toronto’s arts community, Jian Ghomeshi, who between 2014 and 2016 was tried both in a court of law, and in the court of public opinion, for physical violence against women during sexual encounters. (I won’t go over the details of the case here, except to say that it turned out to be a textbook example of how the law treats women in situations like this one; if I had to send you to some sources for a primer, I would choose this one, and this one.)

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The promotional image for Asking For It, by Ellie Moon (Nightwood Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest in Toronto). The image shows a white woman (Ellie), both alluring and fierce, looking into the camera. Her long hair blows gently in the wind. Her neck bears a tattoo that reads “shocking to some”. The background is a sepia tone.

Moon was living in England when the scandal around Ghomeshi broke, but she was back in Canada as a jobbing actor when he went to trial. She found herself, as a result of the issues in the air, wondering about her own sexual preferences, those of others, and why we are not good at talking openly with one another about either sexual pleasure or sexual consent. The show asks: “How do we convey, and experience, sexual consent in 2017?” Using her interview material, transcripts from social media, and her own reflections (as a sexually active woman and a performer in the show) Moon creates a complex image of the ambiguities and ambivalences that shadow what we do and do not want to happen in private sexual encounters, and what we do and do not want to talk about afterward.

It’s a superb show, but why am I talking about it here?

For me, fitness isn’t just about building muscle, climbing hills on my bike, or stretching my aching hamstrings in yoga. It’s not only about eating yummy green things (and yummy chocolate things), getting proper sleep, and trying to drink less. It’s also about feeling safe, feeling joy, and feeling cared for in bed, when I’m not in bed alone. So while, as a theatre scholar, I was struck by the skill evident in Moon’s production and her adept use of the verbatim genre, as a woman interested in fitness and wellness (my own and that of others), I found the show struck some deeper chords.

Social messages these days try to make consent appear very clear-cut: no means no. And it absolutely does. But feeling consent, conveying consent, and expressing the shift from consent to non-consent when you’re deep into it can be a great deal more murky than the prevailing winds want to suggest – which can lead in turn to feelings of confusion and shame for men, women, and those who identify as non-binary alike. This is a large part of what Moon and her co-performers get into during Asking For It, and I found the labour of their honest reflection useful, moving, and also a bit of a relief.

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A pink button against a denim jacket reads: “Ask First. Make it Sexy. Consent is sexy. consentissexy.net.”

What happens, for example, when we’ve having loads of fun, but then suddenly, for one partner, something shifts? Whose responsibility is it to stop? How do we stop and not make things “weird”? Why do some of us (usually, women) feel such a need to keep things “light” (rather than “weird”) – and at what cost?

I had this experience not too long ago: I found myself crying into my pillow while my partner was behind me. We had been having fun, and then, suddenly, I was not. I felt such shame; the tears followed. He was unaware of the tears; I was fighting them because I didn’t know whether or not I was still consenting to what was going on, and that was making me even more anxious. (Note: he did not do anything for which he did not have my permission.) I cared about his experience and I didn’t want to hurt him; I also knew he didn’t want to hurt me. Eventually I told him to stop and went into the bathroom; when I returned, we sat and talked it through. After that, everything was absolutely fine.

This is an example of consensual sex working very well indeed – we talked it through; everything was absolutely fine – but it’s also an example of the complexities consent always presents in the moment-to-moment-ness of sexual encounters in the real world. Was it my job to tell him to stop? His to check in with me? Mine to give him signs that problems were surfacing? I have no solid answers to these questions. I think ideally he would have checked when I stopped being responsive, and I would have demonstrated more openly that I was starting to experience discomfort. But I know for certain that neither of us wanted to hurt the other – both of us wanted to consent to pleasure in one another, and we had / we did.

I also have no doubt that I was able to express my growing non-consent, eventually though imperfectly, because I am in my 40s and I now have a strong sense of myself as an independent sexual subject. Had I been in my 20s, and especially myself in my 20s, I’m pretty sure it would not have gone as well.

Which makes me worry a lot about my students.

Then there’s the question of where each partner’s responsibility lies in the acts of asking for, giving, and receiving consent before we even get going. Yes, in heterosexual situations men typically hold the balance of power, and so should always ask to make sure consent is intended (rather than simply assumed on their part). After all, violence in relation to sex is about power: social, historical, and physical.

But power does not always break down along expected gender lines, even in heterosexual situations.

In the sexual relationship I have with the man in the anecdote above, power is surprisingly balanced; we weigh similar amounts and are similarly strong, and our personal identifications (based on gender, ethnicity, race, and class) mean that in some key ways I am culturally more privileged than he is. Further, I initiate our sexual encounters at least as often, if not more often, than he does. Given these factors, I consider it my responsibility to ask his consent before I move too far forward; we do this playfully, thanks to a rapport built up over time (and thanks to our mutually compatible senses of humour).

About three quarters of the way through Asking For It, Moon and fellow actor Christine Horne recreate, for the audience, an encounter from Moon’s research between her and a friend: after a boozy dinner they are on a Toronto bus. Horne’s character tells Moon she should be approaching strangers as well as friends for her project of collecting material for the play, and so Moon goes over (rather reluctantly, and bashfully) to the only other passenger on the bus, a man played by Steve McCarthy. She asks him to talk into her phone about his experiences of asking for and receiving consent; he asks her if she is coming onto him. She says no; she explains the play project and asks again for his feedback. He becomes angry, though not hostile; he is obviously frustrated and feels blindsided. Moon then admits she’s “a little bit drunk”, and he says, “can you imagine if the situations were reversed?” If he approached her on the bus, asked to talk about sex, and admitted to being tipsy? Moon is taken aback; she gets it – that image represents the opposite of the safe situation they are currently in, and they both know it – but she also, at least a little bit, gets the difference. “But I asked you,” she says quietly.

She opened with a request for consent.

I find myself thinking about these issues as a 43-year-old woman who wants to enjoy sex but also to stay safe and healthy and happy in my sexual life. I also find myself thinking about these issues as a feminist, and as a feminist teacher.

I am often asked to explain feminism to others; I don’t mind doing it, because I’ve had a lot of practice. To me, feminism means appreciating and recognizing the privilege our sex and gender identities afford in relation to others, and in conjunction with other forms of privilege or non-privilege our bodies bear.

For me, as for Moon, “feminism” is a word that means “equality”‘; sadly, “equality” is a complex concept, and we seem to be living in a moment that jettisons complexity, too frequently, in favour of the superficial. A lot of the talk around consent is actually fairly superficial: no means no, dammit! Just follow that mantra and you’ll be fine. A lot of the men in Moon’s play know this mantra, but are struggling: they think that checking in, or making sure to ask, is the sum total of their responsibility. OR, they are angry and frustrated that, in the consent game, girls seem to be getting all the joy and none of the struggle.

Yes, no means no. But can everyone say no, really?

What these guys (and, frankly, what a lot of us) miss is that it’s really not that easy, for any of us. Understanding consent as more than a word or two – understanding it as a factor of power imbalances, historical privilege, and the challenges and joys that have arisen as women have become more culturally and economically powerful players in the public sphere – means coming to grips with consent as something that needs to be constantly negotiated between sexual partners, and something that needs to be fulsomely (not superficially) expressed by both parties.

It means recognizing that some of us have more vocal power than others. That some of us feel more free than others to express what it is we want. That some of us fear speaking out, ever, about sexual feeling, because the consequences can be catastrophic.

It means talking through power and privilege, even as we talk about consent.

 

fitness · health · meditation

Float report: Or, Kim tries hydrotherapy

I’ve just moved house, to a new city; it’s been a stressy time. Between the administrative challenges (do not put me on hold again!!), the physical labour (please, please, no more boxes…), and the emotion management required by getting to know a whole new group of neighbours, not to mention where the grocery and pet stores, the post office, the local riding groups, the gyms, and the good coffee shops are…

Let’s just say I spent most of September looking like this:

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(Image of a male cartoon character with bulging eyes, mouth open, gripping his hair. Stressed out, people!)

Luckily, my new joint – the Hammer, HamOnt, Hamtown, aka Hamilton, ON, the Brooklyn of Toronto – is super cool. My second weekend in town Emma the dog and I attended not one but TWO street festivals, heard some amazing music, ate some excellent food truck delicacies, and wandered the boulevards together. On one of those wanderings we found ourselves checking out booths set up by local businesses. One of those booths represented the Zee Float studio, just a five-minute walk from my new house.

Well, I have to tell you: I beelined for that booth, because I have always wanted to try float therapy. I love massage; I consider it part of my wellness regime (and it’s a huge privilege to have a job that covers part of the cost of semi-regular massage, I know). I love yoga, too, for the way it brings me into my body in a calming way, and encourages me to think about joint health, bone health, flexibility, and quality breathing.

Floating in a warm vat of water laced with Epsom salts has always seemed to me an extension of these kinds of self-care activities.

Yes, I’m mildly claustrophobic, but not so much that I worried about it as I eagerly chatted up the woman at the booth. As she described the facilities at Zee to me (three different kinds of float chambers! Kombucha on tap in the chill-out room!) I got more and more excited. Then she told me about their intro offer: 3 floats over 5 days, so that you can really try the experience fulsomely, and without cost pressure, for a very reasonable CAD$45 total.

Reader, I purchased it.

With both my massage therapist and my favourite yoga teacher back in London, ON, my former city, I reasoned a trio of cheap floats would be a quick way for me to de-stress during a tricky time, plus would give me a chance to see if this is something that will work for my body in the longer term.

So, how did it go, relative to my expectations? Well, it was a bit more complicated than I expected – especially since the point of it all is to relax completely, a task at which I do not excel. That said, by my third float, I knew I’d go back.

Herewith, then: my float report.

I arrived for float #1 a couple of minutes early, knowing there would be orientation. The cheerful and boisterous desk attendant, Hannah, commiserated with me when I said I was a bit nervous, gamely showed me around the whole studio, then carefully explained the entire pre-float procedure to me in my private room (the “Oasis” pod).

oasis_room

(The “Oasis” room at Zee Float: image of a wet room with white walls and a shower in one corner, a wood bench with towels, and a flotation tank with a door opening upward. Picture a shuttle launch from Star Trek.)

The space in which the pod (IE: the float chamber itself) is located is a wet room, with a shower on one side, a bench with pre-float prep items and hooks for personal belongings on the other. The room was bathed in a soft purple light, and looked quite inviting. However, I was nervous to realize that the float pod in the middle of the room looked, from the outside, a bit like a coffin – or perhaps more like one of those little launches that shoot off the back of the Starship Enterprise when crew members go exploring. Either way, it appeared to be pretty small. Hannah assured me, though, that the space inside was larger than a single bed, that the door to the pod did not lock, and that I could keep it open if I wished to feel more secure. The lights in the room, motion-controlled, would eventually turn off, and it would be as dark as I needed inside the pod, even with the chamber door ajar.

I prepped for the float as suggested: I went to the toilet, took a warm (but not hot) shower, covered my cuts with vaseline, inserted the earplugs provided, and got in. Instantly, I realized I hadn’t used the vaseline thoroughly enough; a cut on my arm, and the chafing in my groin (from my bike ride earlier in the day) both stung as my skin hit the salt water. I got out, splashing about as I did… and of course I then got salt in my eyes. Cue another quick shower, more vaseline, and a bit of talking to myself. Calm down! I shouted helpfully. You will be fine! YOU WILL RELAX!

Back in the space launch, I worked on breathing slowly. I turned on the light-up rubber duck to help me feel less panicked in the warm darkness. The glow-duck, however, reminded me how small the chamber was… which, in turn, initiated the following internal monologue:

Gosh this is tight. I bet there’s not a lot of oxygen in here!

Shut up, self. Obviously nobody has asphyxiated in here or they would not be allowed to run the business.

But seriously. How much air can there be?

There’s plenty of air. THERE IS PLENTY OF AIR!

…are we sure, though? Especially if I’m breathing… more and more… rapidly…

I shot out of the thing once more. More splashing. More salt in eyes. This time I used the clear water in the bottle attached to the pod door to rinse my eyes (a third shower, I reasoned, would be both decadent and slightly beyond the pale), and I talked myself down to normal breathing patterns once more.

At this point, I spied the head and shoulder rest Hannah had told me about earlier: it’s a little foam ring that you can use as added support if you’re having trouble getting comfortable in the float chamber. I reasoned it couldn’t hurt, grabbed it, and got back in, determined to make it through the hour.

To my own surprise, the head rest made a big difference. I felt held in the water more fully; I felt my body begin to untangle. I also left the pod door open this time, in order to stop myself from freaking out about the oxygen content. As Hannah promised, the lights in the room went out, and the glow from the duck grew more and more comforting. I drifted, letting my thoughts come and go past me, the way we’re often encouraged to do during Sivasana. I observed how my body was moving. I felt the salt drying on my skin, tasted it on my lips.

I was sad when the music came in, and it was time to get out.

Float #2 went a good deal less well. This was entirely my own fault, because I was hungover. (There is a post in there, about how I use alcohol as a quick route to relaxation far too often these days; look for that post in the next couple of months.)

I was in a different space this time around, the “Pro Float Cabin”, which is at once much larger (no oxygen panic issues this time) and, as a result, a bit cavernous and eerie inside. The male attendant, knowing I’d floated just a couple of days before, didn’t orient me; he simply left me to get on with it. I followed the procedure again, and again I got in – not less trepidatious, but, given the ache in my head, differently so.

I recall the evening before joking how I would test floating’s effect on a hangover; in the cool, dim light of the cabin that seemed a cruel joke on me. I had trouble getting comfortable because the sensation of my body in the water was making me nauseated; I berated myself for letting myself get tipsy the evening prior, and then my heart started to race. Once again, overwhelmed by anxious self-talk, I climbed out of the cabin.

Over the course of this float, due in part to the building nausea and in part to my utter lack of enthusiasm for the enterprise, I got out probably three times, and I took three showers. I found sitting on the wet room floor, outside the float chamber space, easier on my head. I waited and waited for the float to be over – but the music never came in, and the light in the cabin never came on.

Instead what happened was: the pump in the float chamber turned on! It was loud and decidedly not relaxing. Panicked that I’d done something wrong by getting out too many times, I climbed back into the cabin. I sat morosely in the churning water, with the glowing duck swirling past me, judging me.

Eventually I decided I was done; I was getting nothing from the float except more anxious and angry with myself. I dried myself, dressed, and emerged – only to discover that my float had ended when the pump had come on, almost a half hour earlier! I explained that the music hadn’t faded in and I’d had no idea; the attendant and I had a laugh over it, but of course deep down I was utterly ashamed of myself. I’d ruined my own self-care experience with an ill-judged experience of self-harm.

So, of course, I was determined to make float #3 better – and it was. It was blissful, actually. I was in the cabin again, and this time I knew exactly what to expect, what to do and what not to do. I took a proper pre-float shower, vaselined up, grabbed the head rest and the glow duck (bless the duck – I’ve decided to name it Seymour) and climbed in.

I didn’t chill out instantly, but I did chill out pretty fast, relatively speaking, as I was much more secure in my surroundings than ever before. After about 20 minutes I stopped wondering what time it was; at that point, I realized that the size of the float cabin (about twice as big and three times as tall as the pods) meant my arms could move freely, both above and below my body. So I let them float above my head and I started to starfish.

This motion, I realized, mimicked the freedom with which I sleep. (I’m a side-sleeper/flail-abouter.) As my arms traveled over my head my legs opened and closed on their own, too; I started to lose track of where the water began. I gazed up at the blue glow on the chamber ceiling and thought it might be getting on time for the float to end; then I let that thought pass by me, knowing it was really quite lovely just being in the moment, where I was.

images

(Image of a larger float chamber with a side door, not unlike the Pro Float Cabin at Zee Studios, where I floated. The chamber is bathed in blue light, and there are two lights under the water line, and specks of light on the ceiling.)

***

So, what did I learn?

First, floating in the evening was far nicer than the morning float, and not just because of the hangover. Evening means relaxation can be followed by sleep, which is far preferable to the other thing. At least for me.

Second, I learned that judging myself is antithetical to the float experience, and, because I judge myself in my head constantly, challenging myself to let the judgements pass while I’m in the float chamber is a key part of the experience for me. In the cabin, after a while, it became easy; moving past judgement got simpler as my body got more and more comfortable moving in the water. I had to give up some control and let it happen; that’s hard for me but worthwhile.

Finally, floating requires some trust. Yes, the water is clean and the air is ample. No, you will not be forgotten and thus left trapped in the chamber forever. The space is safe; the staff are professional and there is a lock on the wet room door, so you can be secure in your body as you float. Others have prepared a space where you can be vulnerable in your body and let go; being prepared to trust in the integrity of their actions and intentions is a big part of feeling safe enough to relax.

So I’ll go back, for sure. Having completed the initiation immersion I’ve earned a free float, so why not? But more than that, I suspect I can only learn more about myself, and learn to curb some of my least healthy habits, by choosing to float from time to time.

 

 

body image · cycling · fitness · holidays · traveling

Kim’s Tour de Yorkshire*

*… in which Kim is bested by some outrageous hills, but not broken in spirit.

 

(A mosaic of images from West Yorkshire: Kim’s bike, saddle first, with the moors in the distance; a road sign that says “that was so Hebden Bridge”; Kim and her bike in front of a stone wall that says “lane end”.)

Remember how I always go on about hills? How I like them and am good at them?

Into each one’s life…

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(A road sign that says “Cragg Vale: longest continuous gradient in England. Rises 970 feet (295m) over five and a half miles (9km)”)

I spent the first 10 days of July in the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, famously home of the Bronte sisters, and the 2015 Tour de France Grand Depart, depending on your fetish. (Mine involves both – swoon.) There is tonnes to do in the pretty market town of Hebden Bridge, but my bike was with me so my first priority was the riding.

Here’s the thing about Yorkshire, though: it is a cycling Mecca (for mountain as much as for road riders) because the fine folk who built the lanes don’t believe in switchbacks.

If you’re going to do a road ride in the Calder, you need to be prepared to climb. Doesn’t matter what you do: there is ascent to be faced. I wanted, in particular, to partake of the fine views over the moors that make this part of the British Isles justly famous; that meant I really needed to be ready to get up off the saddle, early and often.

No problem! I thought. After all, I might not be a tiny cycling whippet, but I’m really good at that shit.

On my first day out, I chose a route (from the several on offer at the excellent Calder Valley Cycling website) that included a long, snaking climb with most gradients in the 5-10% range. That’s my preferred kind of climbing: you can sit and grind, and if, like me, your strengths lie with endurance sports, you’ll not max out and will really enjoy the challenge and the views. Although I won’t lie, I was nervous to start, I felt great throughout that climb as the sun broke through the clouds, and I was rewarded with some sloping descents and then a short punch up into the farm lanes above Sowerby and Mytholmroyd.

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(Kim, in white cap and green helmet, smiles into the camera with green, sloping farmland in the background.)

As soon as I hit the lanes, though, I got my first taste of what was to come the rest of the week: narrow roads that don’t look like much to start, but wow, do they pack a punch, and sometimes when you least expect it.

Still, with the gorgeous views all around me and the happy feelings from the winding climb still in my arms and legs, I shoved my worry to the back of my brain. I took the set route’s lovely descent through Cragg Vale, the longest continuous climb in England, down toward Hebden, and then thought to myself: it’s cheating to go down but not up. So I turned around and did the climb (another happy, winding, mid-grade number), just to know that I could.

All in all, then, day one was terrific. But I knew it wouldn’t last.

My second ride out proved my rude awakening, though in a way I found really instructive: I learned a lot about myself as a cyclist that day.

I left in the early afternoon, and chose a short route with a big challenge: Cross Stone Road leaving Todmorden for more gorgeous views over the moors. The information online said the climb included a short punch of less than 1km followed by a longer, flat stretch, and then a steep but shortish kick up to the top. I reasoned that the word “short”, repeated a couple of times, meant I’d be fine.

Yup. Nope.

After missing my turn on the way into Todmorden and having to backtrack, I found myself on a steep but manageable residential road. I made the mistake of standing and pushing hard at this point, taking the “short” thing literally. Mistake number one! I found soon the road was not levelling, and I had to sit and push hard, breathing at my threshold, for a good 500m before the flat began. I heaved through the growing heat (Yorkshire is not hot, but sun plus no wind plus exertion is what it is), and prayed the second bit would hurt less.

Then the second bit heaved into view.

To say I was slow would be an understatement. The walker I clocked about 200m ahead of me as I began the punch ultimately beat me up the hill – though in my defence I had to stop twice: once to negotiate the single lane with a grocery van, and once just because I needed to cry a bit and ask god to save me. (I also needed to catch my breath: you can’t ride at VO2 max for as long as I was taking to get to the top, and not risk puking, which I did not want to do in full view of the confused sheep around me.) But I made it on two wheels: crying and praying or none, I refuse to walk any hill I’ve started on the bike.

I’m vain like that.

The rest of the ride was hard: I was spent from the climb. I got back to Todmorden, snapped some photos of the start of the climb to remind myself of the pain I’d endured, and home I went to eat.

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(Kim’s grey and orange bike against a stone wall, with a prominent white road sign that says “cross stone road”.)

The rest of my Calder rides varied between these two poles: long, picturesque climbs I’d ride again and again, and short, painful bursts of 18-22% gradients that I was convinced I had to do in order to prove I could, but that made me hate myself, my bike, and the world for the 5-10 minutes required to finish them.

Over the week, I began to think I had hold of the wrong end of the saddle, so to speak.

My first clue came from Strava. I’m a Strava junkie, and I uploaded my rides immediately upon each return. The long climbs were full of riders, many of them pro or semi pro. (My proudest moment: learning I was 32 on the leader board for the climb up to Oxenhope, with the British cycling star Emma Pooley at number 6. Squee!)

But hardly anyone did the crazy steep climbs: I’d be among 300-400 riders on the winds, but maybe one of 20 on the punches. I scored 8th overall on the climb where I stopped twice, for heaven’s sake! I think there were 11 or 12 of us in all.

Then there was the part where I felt joyous and free on the winding climbs, but sick and demoralised on the punches. Where I wanted to climb more on the winds, but I wanted to stop, cry, and turn around on the punches.

I wouldn’t let myself stop, though, because I thought stopping meant failing. It hadn’t occurred to me that, since punching is not my strong suit, maybe I shouldn’t have attempted those routes. Maybe they were not fun – not even a fun challenge, just a terrible, unhappy slog.

I’m a big proponent of challenging myself in sport, but the challenge needs to be both challenging and, ultimately, rewarding. I did not feel rewarded on any of those little punches; I was just grumpy and out of breath. What good is that?

On the train back to London I thought about this. Why did I really want to conquer the brutal little hills, when I train best, get stronger faster, and feel more satisfied on longer climbs? Why did I care about 500m at 20%, when as a cyclist I’m best suited to 5km at 5-7%?

Sure, you could say all climbing is learning, and all learning good training.

Except: the more I pondered it, the more I realised it actually, for me, had to do with body image.

I am not small: I am 174cm tall and I weigh 77kg. It doesn’t matter much that my fat to muscle ratio is such that I’m technically athletic; that’s still a huge amount of weight to haul up the side of a cliff, on the vertical.

My strength profile means I can kill a shallow climb, but my body weight puts me at a significant disadvantage the steeper you get. And that’s fine: there are climbers and sprinters and all-rounders in the world of cycling as a norm.

But for a girl alive and well under patriarchy, being too heavy to climb a steep hill easily has other reverberations; it smacks of the whole body-mass-index culture that tells us to be teeny, already, or hate ourselves forever.

And readers of this blog all know where that kind of thinking leads.

(My body mass index makes me technically overweight, just as my muscle ratio makes me technically athletic. Thanks, stupid and ineffective measures!)

Through one lens, you could say I learned in Yorkshire that I’m too heavy to punch, and should admit defeat and move on.

Through another, you could say I learned that I’m fit and strong enough to rate in the top 10% or better on iconic climbs that the pros even find challenging.

That punching is not what I’m good at, and so I need not worry about punching just for the heck of it when I could be winding up a mountainside, happily, instead.

And that, hey: if the walker beats you to the top, maybe you should just walk, already, and save the bike for another stretch of road.

 

cycling · fitness · health

Riding safely in the big city

I’m currently spending five weeks working and visiting friends in and around London, UK – the “other” London, as we know it in southwestern Ontario. This is where I began my road cycling career 5 years ago, believe it or not, and it’s a place where I lived, worked, and commuted by bicycle for 26 months between 2012 and 2014.

London roads are full to bursting with cyclists these days, and it’s one of the reasons why the big, blue, bicycle “superhighways” that were introduced by former mayor Ken Livingstone are now undergoing a series of much-needed upgrades.

promoCycleSuperHighway2

(Two images showing wide blue cycle lanes in London, England. One is a close-up shot on a quiet road, and the other a view from above of the lanes on a wide, busy street.)

When I commuted via “CS7” and “CS2” between my home in Tooting, south London, and my job in Mile End, east London, back in the day, the blue paint on the road was mostly for show: taxis, motorbikes, and double decker buses all crowded into our lanes, and I (famously, to me) got side-swiped by a Stansted Airport Express coach on CS2 outside Aldgate East station on Valentine’s Day in 2013. Why do I remember this in such detail? Because it hurt. And because the police did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about it.

I rode along CS2 yesterday, after a trip out to Surrey to play in the hills on my new road bike, Freddie. (My bikes travel with me everywhere. Your question: how much does that cost??!! My answer: not a penny. But I do tend to fly with established carriers, not budget carriers. Your mileage may vary.)

Were there changes to the lanes in the time since my commuting days? Oh my, so many! The route is now fully segregated in the high-traffic zone between the City and Whitechapel, by a mix of pole barriers and concrete, poured barriers. The bikes also now have their own traffic lights, meaning if you obey them and cross only when it’s safe to do so, you no longer have fight with turning vehicles not looking for you.

cmglee_london_cycle_superhighway_2_wikimedia_commons

(An image of London’s Cycle Superhighway 2, with a concrete barrier separating cyclists from traffic. This segregation is now the norm on what was once the deadliest road for cyclists in the capital.)

As I rode past The Spot Where I Got Hit four years ago, I thought to myself: that accident could not happen now. Or, if it did, it’d mean that the bus had jumped the barrier, which would also mean the cops could not just ignore it.

These much-needed improvements got me thinking a lot about how to be safe on the roads, especially in very busy, big cities. Lots more people now – in London, in Toronto, in New York, even in little London, Ontario – are commuting by bike, and bike lanes (and green bike boxes!) are more common in North America than ever before.

But I also know lots of people who won’t commute by bike, or ride on the road for exercise (Tracy is one), because they fear (very reasonably) the dangers that accrue to riding a pedal bike on roads built primarily for car traffic.

Which, of course, got me thinking that I should blog about how I have learned to ride safely in large cities, with the hopes that some of you who fear the roads now might use these top tips to give it a try.

1. Take up space.

This is my #1 tip by far. Beginner cyclists find the whole thing daunting with good reason: the majority of traffic on city streets is going 20-30kph (12-22mph) faster than you are. Gut instinct is often to cleave to the gutter, riding as close to the curb as possible. This is a mistake, though, because it gives traffic the impression that it can and should ignore you.

Basically, not taking up space gives cars license to not pay attention to you in the decisions they make as they pass you. This is good for nobody. It also means that you might hit stuff that’s been tossed into the gutter, possibly producing a fall. Trust me: there’s a lot of shit in the gutter.

What’s the alternative? Ride in the middle right (or left, depending on your national context) of your lane. That is: maybe don’t ride right in the middle (although there are times you can and should do this, and it’s legal!), but ride prominently in the middle of your “side” of the lane. That says to drivers: “I am here. I am riding safely, keeping about a metre between me and the curb. Go around me safely.”

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(An image, from the U.S., of safe riding in the lane to avoid what the image calls “The Door Zone”. It shoes a woman on the edge of a wide, marked bike lane and two riders in the middle of it. The image encourages safe mid-lane riding to make you visible and help you avoid being hit by motorists as they open doors.)

Sure, some drivers will whip by and curse you, because they are jerks – or maybe because they don’t know any better. Most, however, will pass you respectfully.

When they do, smile and wave or give them a thumbs-up to encourage them to keep that practice up.

2. Ride assertively (which is to say, with confidence)

That accident I had in 2013 on CS2 would not have happened if I’d been riding with my usual assertion, taking up space and maintaining a consistent speed in the face of traffic dodging around me. I wasn’t being assertive, though, because I was having a hip joint issue and struggling to produce power with my left leg. So I went gutter-side, slowed a bit, and the bus chose to ignore me (or maybe didn’t actually see me?…) as it veered left. WHAM.

It may take some practice in your neighbourhood, on quiet streets, or with trusted friends to build your confidence, but do it. Do it so you know your bike and your reflexes. Get friends to join you and ride very close to you so you know what that feels like. Get another friend to hop in a car and pass you in different ways so you know what that feels like.

Nope, you cannot simulate crazy traffic, I know – but you CAN simulate your responses to different kinds of driver actions. And that’s important.

Riding assertively means riding like you have every right to be there and to be moving at your preferred pace on the road. Drivers do it all the time; so can you. Take the time to get comfortable with both your bike and that feeling of belonging. You’ll feel stronger in every way once you do.

3. Don’t use routes you don’t like

Some routes to your final destination are more direct than others, and they probably involve high-traffic roads. If you aren’t comfortable riding on them, don’t use them. There are lots of alternatives. Get an app like Citymapper or Cyclemetre to help you find one, or use Google Maps to plot the best routes to and from preferred destinations. (And: use the “street view” function to be sure those routes have appropriate road surfacing for your bike. If you commute on a road bike you don’t want a gravel road: trust me.)

Over time, as your confidence builds, your willingness to use busier routes will increase naturally. Let that happen; there’s no rush. I may ride some of the busiest roads in London when I’m here, but back in LonON, I commute primarily on the bicycle paths, going at a much more leisurely speed. There’s no shame in that; in fact, it’s often the smartest route for me to work.

4. Drivers will get mad at you. Don’t engage.

I get yelled at. A lot. It’s probably the fancy bike and the lycra, plus the fact that I take up space and always move to the front of a line of traffic when we are waiting at a stop light – whether or not there’s a bike box. (Why? I want everyone at the top of the queue to see me and know I am there. They may hate it, but I know they would hate hitting me more.) Anyway, pretty much once a ride I get a drive-by “fuck you! Get off the road!”

Why do drivers do this?

Sometimes because cyclists are being jerks. (Some cyclists are jerks, just like some motorists are.) Sometimes they yell because they are having a super bad day and you are in their way. Or they are in a rush.

Or, they yell because they have been conditioned (by, you know, media outlets that are maybe not always sympathetic to the cycle commuter) to believe cyclists are all arrant rogues in flashy pants who deserve all the *#&$^% they get.

You might not ride like me, which means you might not get yelled at as much as I do. But you will get yelled at, guaranteed. When that happens, I urge you to let it go. Assume the motorist is being ignorant, not malicious. Assume it’s not really about you.

Remember that you do not know that motorist as a human being, and that motorist similarly does not know you.

Of course sometimes you’ll yell back. Of course you will use hand gestures from time to time. We are all human. Just remember that it’s not actually about you and the person in the car. It’s about a system that encourages us to see roads as car “territory” and bikes as interlopers. Until that changes, altercations are inevitable.

roadsage-560x628

(A cartoon image that encourages creative responses to car-cycle altercations on the road. My preferred response to the yellers? I smile, wave, and blow them a showy kiss. A kiss that says “I’m not fazed by you.” It’s disarming, and thought-provoking.)

5. Wear. A. Helmet. (Always.)

The bus collision in 2013 is not my worst ever bike accident. My worst ever bike accident happened 1.2km from my house in London, Ontario, in a parking lot at my local outdoor pool. I hit a speed bump, went over my handlebars, and hit the deck.

I had decided it was too short a distance to bother wearing my helmet.

Luckily, I landed on my chin. I had a big bruise but my head was OK. The first aiders from the pool were kind, but when I went back later to get my bike (I was taken to a hospital in an ambulance, for fear of broken limbs, but was discharged later the same day) they reminded me that helmets save lives.

Now I always wear one, even if I’m going just down the street.

You will fall. You will; it’s normal. Just be prepared.

Know that chances are the fall will be minor. Know that helmets are excellent protection against serious brain injury. Know that proper cycling clothes protect skin! (I have awesome road rash from that parking lot crash. I was wearing a swim suit and flip flops! Better idea: cover up for the ride, and wear proper shoes to ride, too. Closed toe – protect those small bones!)

Practicing how to fall is also a good idea, by the way. Choose a path near grass. Bring a friend.

***

That’s it. In sum:

Practice until you feel confident with and on your bike. Then, on the road, own some assertiveness. Take up space. Let drivers pass you, and if they yell, don’t engage angrily. Find routes that work for you. Wear protective gear to keep yourself as safe as is reasonably possible. Then: relax and have some fun.

Oh, and if you have any energy left over, get involved in cycling advocacy! See a route that needs improving? Call your local representatives. See an intersection that needs a bike box? Ditto.

Like I said above: safety for cyclists is tied to systemic assumptions about road ownership. Let’s change that system, one commute at a time.

 

cycling · fitness

New bike, new attitude

At the end of my last post I left all y’all with a teaser – photos of my smashing new grey and orange bike, Freddie. I’ve been waiting for a new bike for a long time, and this was the year the stars aligned: I’d saved up, I knew I was at a point with my strength and fitness that my old bike was working against me more than anything else, and my club friend L had been surreptitiously sleuthing around one of our top local bike shops with my list in hand: racier than my beloved Roubaix, mostly orange.

(Two photos of the bar tape and top bar of my new bike, Freddie. The orange tape and highlights will feature prominently in the following post!)

So one day in April, after term ended, L and I headed for TO Wheels and had a nose around together.

It took a good while for me to settle on the right bike with the right group set and the other bits and pieces you don’t think about until you’re actively shopping for a new bike. But once I had done all my fussing and reading and testing and more fussing, I ended up with the best bike I’ve ever had, and I’m not just thrilled – I’m faster.

No, really.

So, this is my “top five things I learned in my first month with Freddie” post; it’s mostly about how to buy the best bike you’ve ever had, too.

Spoiler alert: it ends really well, with me loving every minute on this great new machine.

1. Buying an expensive road bike is a big deal! Take your time, do your research, insist on helpful and supportive service.

I know lots of folks who turn up at club rides, or at the office, or in the bedroom (!! *eyeroll*), to say, “hey! I just bought a new bike! It’s got $$$$$$$$ on it and cost a million dollars!”

But that’s not me. I’d thought long and hard about a new bike since returning to Canada from the UK in 2014, and I set my budget at $3000 all in, or as close as I could get (given Ontario’s somewhat onerous 13% HST). I planned the spend and knew I could afford it this spring. I chose TO Wheels, our (I think) top local indie shop, because I knew the folks there (it’s owned by a woman, yo!) and knew they’d be helpful, supportive, and would match me to the best bike I could afford without up-selling.

When L and I got there one busy Saturday afternoon, the lovely and talented Andrew was awash in stuff to do, but still he took almost an hour to talk me through options, look at my bike fit data, put me on the Retül jig (see below!), set it up to my bike fit spec, and then we tweaked it together. We worked out that I’d fit the Cervélo R2, or the Liv Envie, almost exactly. (A pro bike fit – see below – is fantastic, and works especially well if you are having a bike custom built exactly to your spec. That’s really pricey, though, and beyond me at this point. Maybe next time.) I took that info, plus the new jig data Andrew had generated for me, away to do research on my own. I told him I’d be back, but he was not fussed; for him, an hour helping a customer discover important information about her bike needs, sale or no sale, was an hour well spent.

At home I read around the net to learn more about the bikes on offer. The R2 – the bottom of the line item from one of the best manufacturers in the world, sort of the cycling equivalent of the least impressive house on the best street – got superb reviews and sounded like a really ideal buy for me. The Liv, as a woman-specific frame, interests me, but truthfully I’m tall, stocky, and weigh as much as a fit guy my height, so that detail mattered less to me physiologically. While researching I also read a bit about Felt, a fantastic race bike series from the US; I got in touch with local dealers in nearby Dundas, Ontario and they chatted with me about custom group set options over Facebook.

In other words: I took my time. About a week, to be precise. Then I headed back to Andrew, and asked to take the R2 for a test drive.

2. Buying an expensive road bike is a big deal! Take it for a test ride. Take it for two test rides, in fact: one that mimics your commute, and one that mimics a training ride.

My first spin on the R2 was along the cycle paths that line the river between my house and my office. They are often busy with pedestrians, and they have some short, sharp hills that are great fun to punch. It was another sunny Saturday when I took the floor model R2 out onto the path and spent maybe 20 minutes in a commute-like doddle. I ended up having to portage around a small flood, to fight off some angry Canada geese, and then I punched the hill at the private school that leads back up to downtown and to the bike shop.

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(A shot of a sunlit bike path in London, Ontario, with a yellow line dividing traffic and trees on either side. Think this, but more geese.)

I loved the feel of the bike on the hill; the compact cassette gave me all kinds of power, even in the big ring, and I knew this bike was a fab climber. But I found the reach awkward; I wasn’t sure the fit was as it was meant to be, based on the jig work we did in the shop. I queried Andrew; he dropped the handlebars further and I went out again. Again, it felt great. Again, the reach worried me.

I told him I needed to think a bit more and that I’d be back.

Our next club ride saw me spend some time in the peloton with the always lovely and helpful Paul and Allan, who reminded me that to know a bike is YOUR bike you need to really test it – take it out for 40, 50, 60km at least. Don’t rely on a commute test run, they said; take it for a proper spin. So, shortly after, L and I did just that. I grabbed the R2 from Andrew and we headed North-West out of town. The ride was hard into the wind, but fantastic on the way back. I was still having reach issues, but L assured me I was both looking much more comfortable on this bike than on my Ruby, and that I was obviously accelerating faster and more smoothly. This came to pay dirt on our local “heartbreak” hill, where I accelerated up past L and held him on my wheel until the summit. Normally, he’d be off like a flash past me; he’s four inches taller than me, and rides with a substantial drop, making him a very quick puncheur.

The next business day at the shop I told Andrew about the reach issue; he didn’t need to hear it, in fact, because he’d already talked to L and had a plan. We set the jig again, and he showed me what a difference a shorter stem would make; it felt great. We then ordered the bike: the colours I wanted (groovy grey and orange highlights!), the group set I preferred (the Shimano 105 – basic but solid, and it will allow me to upgrade as I wish, to whatever brand I wish, in a couple of years), a 90mm stem, ORANGE BAR TAPE (OMG!), and a gorgeous black Shimano crank. I paid, hugged Andrew wildly, and prepared for my new road adventures to begin.

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(Time from first shop to arrival of bike: 3 weeks, all well spent. I left secure in my decision, and delighted with my new friend. Shown here: Freddie, complete, at the shop on the day I took her home.)

3. A new bike should fit like a glove. Take the time to get yourself a bike fit.

Remember above when I mentioned this thing called the “Retül jig”?

This is a Retül jig:

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(Image of a black bike fit machine, with tall central saddle, handlebar jig, rear tire and chain set. Sort of like what they might ride in The Matrix…)

It’s a tool bike shops use to help you figure out the very best position for you on a bike – and thus the ideal specifications for any bike you buy. A custom bike fit can be expensive, but it’s worth it. Good bike shops like TO Wheels will put you on their jig and help you find an ideal, comfortable position with good power, but a custom fit is more involved: it’s usually up to 2 hours with a pro or two, and it’s designed to assess your current power output, position, and comfort level on your existing bike, and then it compares that against ideals.

I did my custom fit in March 2014 at Le Beau Velo in Shoreditch, London with Mal Pires and Jo McRae; they took loads of photos of me on my bike, on the jig, and in different positions, and afterward set my existing bike up as close to the ideal measurements they’d taken as possible. Then they sent me five pages of photos and data to use when purchasing a new bike.

This is the data Andrew used to set me up on the jig and tweak things for Freddie, and it’s the reason why my new bike is perfectly fitted to my body and to the ways I produce power. I’ve got a much, much more significant drop on this bike (drop = vertical distance from top of saddle to top of handlebars), my quads are positioned more vertically in relation to the pedal stroke, and the top tube of this bike is flatter, meaning my reach when I hold the hoods (the very top part of the handlebars, where you access the brakes) is shorter and easier on my mid-back and shoulder blades. When I stand to climb I can get up in one smooth movement, without having to heave up onto my quads, and I sit equally smoothly in one swift movement. I feel powerful and yet also easy and free on Freddie, and I move visibly more quickly compared to what I could do on Ruby. All thanks to custom data and a careful fit at purchase time.

4. A new bike should make you feel good in your heart. Pick the accessories you want so you can admire it!

ORANGE BAR TAPE. I asked, Andrew delivered. I love orange; it makes me happy on the greyest day. I knew I wanted orange, but it’s not the easiest colour in the world to get hold of for a frame; when I was cruising the options at TO Wheels it wasn’t lost on me, even before we talked data and options, that the R2 was available in a grey-orange combo.

Would I have turned the R2 down, after all that research, if I couldn’t have had the orange? Probably not. But the nice part is I didn’t have to worry; I realized I could accessorize the bike the way I wanted, adding colour at will. Andrew found me the gorgeous bar tape (EVERYONE compliments Freddie on her bar tape!), the mat black crank and water bottle cages for complementary styling, and now I am in the market for shiny orange bike shoes. When I climb onto Freddie with my Foxy Moxy gear on, lime green helmet, and orange vest, I feel terrific: stylish and fast and strong. That feeling carries over onto the hills and the flats, and I love it.

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(Orange Giro cycling shoes with black accents. WANT.)

5. A new bike may give you the mental boost you need to say: yes, I CAN go faster. Embrace that!

My first club ride on Freddie was a windy, grey May Saturday, but wow did she attract attention! My pal Sue, the only other woman in the club who is a regular on Saturday tours, grabbed me and said, let’s go with the fast guys. Come on.

I said: ummm……

Freddie said: let’s do it!

So we did. Hard work into the wind on the way out but I did my turns at the front and hung on when at the back. At St Mary’s, we grabbed a quick bite and took right off again. Then it was tail winds the whole way home, and that’s when the fast guys opened it right up. Time for anxiety.

Brad, my Tuesday night ride friend, took care to make sure Sue and I were riding efficiently, drafting a lot and surging only when needed; Sue and I found it was not nearly as hard as we thought to stay with the guys. We made it the whole 95km, our average speed well above 30kph – a new record for me. And one I repeated two weeks later, when we barnstormed with the speedy dudes home from Ingersoll, riding an average of 40kph on the back 35km.

I KNOW. Like, insane fast.

What can I say? Freddie made me do it! Or, rather, Freddie showed me I had it in me all the time.

All I needed was a bike that was properly fitted to my frame and power profile, a heady new attitude, and the all important orange bar tape.