Off the Back

And now I understand something so frightening and wonderful- 

how the mind clings to the road it knows, rushing through crossroads, 

sticking like lint to the familiar. Mary Oliver

I am risk-averse. I am a crossroads rusher. I wait until I'm well past the danger of actually turning from the predictability of my path to wonder where the other roads lead.

Fear chases me through the intersections.

I'm afraid of getting lost. Of losing myself. Of hurting someone. Of getting hurt. And most of all, of Doing It Wrong. I enjoy the illusion of safety on the road I know by heart. The security of doing things I already know how to do. Heaven forbid I actually get all uncomfortable learning something new on an unfamiliar road. 

For as long as I can remember, I have ridden bikes.

The first bike I bought from a real bike shop was a Bianchi Forte mountain bike with the fancy new click-shift technology circa early 1989. I loved this bike and rode it a lot.

Then I sold the Bianchi for a GT Karakoram mountain bike from the shop I worked at. I rode to work most days. On days off, I rode with a guy who raced snowmobiles in winter. He taught me how to keep my body steady and hover over the bike as it moved beneath me. I was constantly at the edge of my comfort zone, and it was ridiculously fun.

Then I moved to another town and wandered over to rock climbing for a few years.

When I eventually became a mom, I got back on the GT and pulled a trailer.

Later I added a cargo bike to the stable.

I logged a few thousand miles shlepping kids and kid-gear around. (When I'm older I want this bike to haul camping gear along the Great Divide Trail. On a child-free ride.)

After all that time on different bikes, in a variety of riding conditions, loaded and unloaded, I thought I knew how to ride. I thought riding was one of those things I was already good at. That it would always be comfortable and familiar.

I was wrong.

I moved away from forested trails and my small town where cyclists wave to each other into an overwhelming urban hardscape where waving brands one as Other. 

I got a great cyclocross bike for city riding and spent a lot of time having fun and feeling great on the bike. And then suddenly getting startled by silent, angry super-fast cyclists who blew through my personal space. Out on the roads and trails, I felt intimidated by other riders. I felt vulnerable and awkward. Inept. Slow. Lost in this strange place. And ashamed of my own incompetence. I felt like I was constantly Doing It Wrong. Being nervous made me crashy.

It was like there were secret, unwritten rules about riding here that I couldn't quite crack. Except the rule about not waving. That one I got.

So I slowed a bit and peeked around the corner of a crossroad.

From an article I wrote at the time:

I checked out a new-to-me LBS the other day, and the friendly owner made me coffee. Then he let me fondle the drivetrain of a fucktillion-dollar bike and invited me to join the shop’s group ride. He was so welcoming that I almost believed it really would be okay if I couldn’t keep up. I may actually work up the courage to go. It will be like exposure therapy, decreasing the likelihood that I will fling myself to the ground around roadies in the wild. It will also probably be really fun.

I gradually eased myself all the way around the turn. 

I Facebook-stalked the shop, studying the pictures of the group rides. Surprised that none of the roadies looked as scary as the dudes who passed me all the time. Some of them were even... waving! How odd. 

I pored over maps, learning the route. I trained and practiced, gathering my courage. I rode the route alone just to be sure I could do it. Finally, I started going on the group rides.

The first time felt like leaping off a cliff, but it was fantastic! Over time, I learned how to ride here in the big city. I eventually learned how to stay calm around cars and helicopters and sirens and people yelling. I learned how to ride with other cyclists. Even the skittish, unpredictable ones. I made some friends. I got clipless pedals and tipped over a lot. Then I got faster and had an easier time keeping up with the group.

Everything was new at first. It was like cultural immersion. I was learning a new language and strange customs. Always watching. Listening. Trying not to crash or cause anyone else to crash. Paying attention to the better riders. I was also rediscovering my body. Building strength. Learning to calm down. Excavating confidence from self-doubt. It was like learning to ride all over again. 

Eventually I rode with racers for the first time. It was crazy and cathartic, and humbling, but I got better at drafting.

Then I got a road bike.

This was a revelation.

Rapture. Now the bike propelled me forward with easy grace. It felt like flight. Floaty and free. And fast. So. Fucking. Fast.

This bike. 

I still ride as much as I possibly can. With faster, more experienced cyclists. With slower, newer cyclists. With teams. With myself alone. With strangers. With buddies. With calm, graceful cyclists and with unsteady riders. I still learn all the time. I still get uncomfortable. I'm still getting stronger. Developing new skills. Now I'm intentionally riding different routes and trying to find adventure rather than avoiding it. 

I'm even leading some of the group rides. I never would have imagined that a year ago when I cautiously pushed open the door of that bike shop. Where I managed to make friends. Where they let me try new gear, try new bikes, and get in the way of the mechanics while they explain that thing to me (again). Where crowds of friendly roadies show up on Saturday mornings and let me ride with them. Where, when I let fear show, or when I'm Doing It Wrong, someone will tell me I'm alright. Where I actually believe it: right now, on this ride, in this moment, I really am alright. 

Other cyclists tell me over and over again how riding saved their lives. How much better they are. How much happier. How much healthier. Inside and out. It takes courage to tell me these things. To even speak of ever having Done It Wrong. Maybe they sense kinship with me. They see that, even now, I still Do It Wrong sometimes, and I'm alright.

Come ride with me. I'll hang with you off the back. Or off the front. Whatever. I'm just grateful to be out on a ride in the sunshine. It will be fun. You'll be alright.