One summer, between my 5th and 6th grade years, my parents bought me a bike: a bright yellow 10-speed with racing handlebars and thin tires that flew over the pavement. I rode that bike to the pool, to the soda bottler’s little convenience store, and as a getaway bike when my friends and I decided to run off with Suzie-Q’s without paying for them. The faster I went, the better. I had little to no fear. Until the day a kid who was making a career out of annoying me ran out into the street just as I was picking up speed going downhill. He pushed me from the side, and I went down. Hard. Some older boys in the neighborhood saw it happen. I never found out what they did to that poor kid, but one of the older boys came by my house later to assure me the pest wouldn’t be bothering me again.
Even though I wasn’t seriously hurt, that incident took some of the joy out of my riding. I was suddenly, viscerally, aware of how easy it was to get hurt at fast speeds. The spill, coupled with the fact that it was a time when teenaged girls were encouraged to give up such active pursuits, caused my bike riding days to dwindle to a close. The yellow ten speed was around for years after I stopped riding it – I’m not sure when my parents finally got rid of it.
A couple of years ago, my friend Sue and I decided we were in need of a real vacation, and picked a resort in Michigan right on the lake hoping for long hours on the beach. But the gnats and biting flies were so bad we could only take short bursts of time on the lounge chairs. The resort had bicycles available for check out, and even though it had been 25 or more years since either of us rode, we decided to take a couple bikes for a spin. We were wobbly and easily winded, but both had so much fun we returned to our respective homes and bought bikes.
The rest, as they say, is history. Last summer I upgraded to a better bike, a Trek hybrid, and trained for something I’d always wanted to do: ride a portion of RAGBRAI. I spent every spare moment all summer riding. I travelled hardly at all, in favor of getting more time “in the saddle”. You can read my two-part post about my RAGBRAI experience, if interested, here and here. It was amazing.
But after RAGBRAI, I found myself making excuses not to ride so much. Fall came and went, with barely an additional 75 miles on my bike’s odometer. In December, we had such mild weather that I was able to ride twice the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Now, our early spring has provided a couple of weeks of sunshine and warm weather perfect for cycling. At first, I had to negotiate with myself to get out by promising myself a reward. I wondered if I had not really enjoyed biking as much as I told myself – I mean, this reluctance to get the bike out must mean something. Perhaps I had just liked the idea of liking an activity that well, or I enjoyed talking as if I was an enthusiast. Or maybe I just liked the challenge of RAGBRAI, and once that was checked off my bucket list I stopped needing to ride.
Then I rode.
To say that I enjoyed that first 28 miles is a true understatement. Here’s a partial list of the things I’ve discovered since getting back on my bike this spring:
- I love the fluidity of cycling, the grace you begin to display as you grow more attuned with being on the bike.
- On a bike, I am fiercely competetive – but only with myself. The other cyclists can do what they can do. Some are stronger and faster than me, others aren’t. But with the aid of attention to my body and my on-board “computer”, I can gauge how I am doing from one ride to the next. I can up my effort to see different results, I can privately crow with delight when my MPHs are up by an average of two miles. I can see my technical competence improving (I now know a lot more about using my gears than I ever thought I would, for example). On a bike, I am an athlete.
- Bicycling has helped restore my love of the outdoors. The other day a snake crossed the path right in front of me. Trees that were budding on that ride were in bloom on my next ride a week later. The nature trail I primarily ride takes me along the river, and through woods. Yesterday, I felt something alive inside my helmet and reached up to brush it off me. That’s when I discovered it was a bee…even being stung didn’t dim my enjoyment of riding an easy 18 mph with a strong wind at my back.
I never expected to find a physical activity which is at once both challenging and deeply spiritual. I know many people feel this about running, or about yoga. In my adult life, exercise and physicality has usually been work, occasionally accompanied by a feeling of accomplishment. Never joy, until now.
This morning at the gym, just as class was beginning, one of the women said, “Jen, you’ve convinced me: I’m buying a bike!” I was touched, because I haven’t spent a lot of time trying to convince anyone to do anything – but I have spoken about what cycling has brought into my life. When we discover passion in our own lives, it has a way of igniting excitement, and sometimes igniting a kindred passion in someone else. My hope, today, is that each of you has the opportunity to feel and share a similar passion in your life, especially you fellow late-bloomers out there. Because a life on fire with delight is a wonderful thing at any age.