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on a bike

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This story originally ran at The Toast about four years ago. A slightly different version ran in Adventure Journal Quarterly. What I love about it now, actually, is that some of the commentary about culture and gender seem almost out of date. Like ideas about women and sports and what we can and can’t do, that terrain is shifting fast. So I guess what I’m saying is maybe there’s a glimmer of hope in these things. Either way, I still like this story. It has a lot of bikes in it. And bikes are good.

***

I’m working in my kit again. I thought I could escape, but then the phone started nagging. So I sat down to answer it and to answer that other thing, and to edit that one thing and to make that other thing. Sitting still is hard. I just want to go ride. The internet is such a dick sometimes.

So here I sit, my padded shorts feeling like diapers in my cushioned office chair. On the bike, I don’t notice the padding. Off the bike, it shifts and bunches like an over-sized maxi-pad. Finally, I pull up the straps on my bibshorts and zip my jersey.

If you’ve never seen bibshorts, they look like shorts with suspenders attached. Before the time of lycra, cyclists wore wool shorts with actual suspenders. These days bibshorts are a weird, one-piece contraption, the parts sewn together painstakingly by women in a factory somewhere in Romania. The sewing process is not easy. The lycra is pieced together and the seams placed just so. No one wants a seam in the vagina.

I’m a Title IX girl. I swam in college, my team funded because the law required it. Eventually I got bored of chasing the pool’s black line and turned mountain bike racer. My friends and I used to say that women’s participation in sports was one of the last battlegrounds of feminism. We were more optimistic about feminism then, and in truth, about life.

The wheels thunk as I ride down the stairs to the sidewalk and shoot through the grass to the street. The bike doesn’t really stop. Somewhere between the emails and interview transcripts and editing corrections and can you just do this one thing, I need to adjust the brakes, but I haven’t gotten around to it. It adds excitement to the whole thing to ride a bike that doesn’t really stop. You just go faster.

There’s a car coming, and the brakes being what they are — or aren’t — I hit a hard right turn with more speed than wisdom. It’s a constant fight with gravity, the bike. Maybe if I’d actually shown up to physics class instead of going to the beach, I could explain how all those centrifugal and centripetal forces work. But I didn’t. So I just turn the bike and keep pedaling.

There’s a dirt playground not far from where my office chair and my laptop sit, left for now to their own devices. It’s nothing epic, not the kind of thing you’d see in the photos in a magazine where riding a mountain bike is all tall trees and big jumps and deserted trails a long way from anywhere. It’s just a park that used to be a landfill. From the right angle, through a well-chosen Instagram filter, it almost looks pretty.

The place doesn’t matter all that much, though. You just have to get out there. In more than 20 years as an athlete, that’s the thing I’ve learned. You just have to go — Go to the gym, go to the pool, go on the bike, go for a run, go surf.

And if you just keep going, one day after the next after the next, it becomes as essential to your life as the air you breath and the chocolate bar you keep in your bag for those life emergencies that only chocolate can solve.

I fold the bike through the downhill switchbacks and feel the tires catch and release in the loose soil. My attention strays on a straight, fast section, and I superman into the bushes. Wonder Woman never does stupid shit like that. It’s the kind of crash that’s funny until I have to pull the prickers out of my sports bra.

Facebook is convinced I’m a lesbian, which is the painful kind cliché that only your best friend’s mom or a faceless data-crunching algorithm could possibly believe. Oh, you’re a woman! You play sports! You must be gay! It stretches the elastic of convention too far, apparently, to be a straight woman who likes to get sweaty. Forty years after Title IX, it’s all still a little subversive.

In truth, women athletes occupy an uncertain space in mainstream American culture. Open a women’s magazine and athletic women are few and far between. Fitness tips tell you how to make your ass thinner in five easy steps. Try if you can to find cute, feminine clothing that will accommodate a swimmer‘s overbuilt shoulders or jeans that will fit a bike racer’s rock-solid legs. Catalogues show smiling women with perfect hair running uphill like gazelles in a Disney movie. They’re all so shiny. Shiny is fine, but it’s not me.

I pedal my Schwinn over to the coffee shop to get an espresso and the guy behind the counter asks me if my hair is ever dry. It is sometimes, but not that often. I am in awe of my athletic friends who are good at fashion. I’ll go ahead and admit that I’m not. I don’t own a hairdryer. I had one, but it broke, and I never got around to buying another one. I have carbon fiber shoes hand-made in Italy, but no hairdryer. I wear boardshorts and flannel shirts a lot. No doubt Facebook knows all about that, too.

In this part of California, the coastal mountain ranges rise up steeply from the coast. When it comes to topography, California is such a drama queen, all massive highs and plunging lows. From my doorstep, I can climb 4000 feet in about an hour on the bike.

The road is carved into the mountain’s crumbling shale and soft sandstone, the elements of an ancient seafloor now pushed up and exposed to the light. Each winter, the rains’ run-off washes away portions of the pavement’s fragile ribbon. Each spring, the construction crews put it back. It’s as if Sisyphus had a million tiny rocks slipping through his fingers.

I climb until I reach the top or until my legs demand that I stop. The legs do that sometimes, they make demands. And the catalogues, they lie. It’s not pretty, riding a bike up a steep hill. It’s sweaty and difficult and slow and torturous.

The coastline bends south here and the mountain turns its face unflinching to the sun. As the road switchbacks upward, the temperature rises. There is no tree cover. Lizards sit baking on the pavement, flicking their tongues. A heated wind blows downslope, and my unzipped jersey billows out behind me. I ride headlong into a hairdryer’s belly.

I reach for more gears, but there aren’t any. The steep gradient pulls at my legs and gravity, that bitch, drags me backward. My legs feel like shit, but I keep going. I’m kind of stupid that way. It strips things down to the essentials, climbing like that.

Then it’s over. Back down the mountain, the road unwinds all in a rush. The world spins, land, sea, sky in a vertiginous blur. I slow to let a car get a gap, then open it up. The corners are perfectly, irresistibly banked. It would be wrong to go slow.

Down through the neighborhoods with their million-dollar views, I ride back to my shack with the bikes stacked in the front room. I sit on the couch in my sweat-drenched kit, my feet propped on the battered coffee table, a cold drink in my hand. And for the moment, the outside world with its demands about what I should do and who I should be doesn’t seem to matter much at all.

Photo by Carson Blume

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