I never much cared for biking. It wasn’t that I disliked it, specifically; more that I didn’t care about it.
When my folks got married, they each had separate interests and hobbies, so they picked one to do together. I guess it worked, because thirty-four years later, they still ride their road bikes all summer. They have never ridden a tandem, another factor I believe has contributed to the success of their marriage.
As such, I grew up on a bike. I was the first kid in my cul-de-sac to learn to ride a bike, unless you count our next-door neighbor, who had a much older brother and was thus popping wheelies by age four or so, and was subsequently covered in scrapes and bruises from then on. Unsurprisingly, he also holds the title of most of the neighborhood girls’ first kiss.
I was riding twenty- and thirty-mile stretches by the time I was twelve, tagging along (later, as a teenager, unwillingly) with my parents as they trained for an annual bike tour, covering 150 miles in two days, to benefit Multiple Sclerosis research. I knew the idea was to raise money for the disease that affected my beloved aunt, but still, my heart wasn’t in it. I relied on my youth to finish the yearly sufferfest without much in the way of training.
I thought cycling was boring. Most of the time, I preferred to stay home alone, holed up in my room, doodling horses and, later, the names of my crushes in a notebook I’m sure I’d be mortified to rediscover now.
By the time I got to college, my interest in cycling had dwindled to almost nil. But I went to school in Boulder, kale-eating-cyclist-capitol-of-the-world, where having a nice bike and riding it really fast in a spandex suit was suddenly way sexier than I’d realized. I’d been riding a couple of hundred miles a year on a road bike for a decade, I figured; finally, it would turn out to have been a worthwhile endeavor.
My sophomore year, I showed up for an early-season meeting of the CU Cycling Club, which met in the same classroom where I’d aced an excellent primer on post-colonial literature the previous semester. This seemed like an auspicious start. Other kids, mostly older, filed in, shaking hands and making plans to ride together. A familiar wave of social anxiety washed over me, and I was relieved when the meeting began.
I don’t remember the specifics discussed (or whether I actually spoke to anyone) at that meeting, but somehow, I signed up for a group ride that met at a local bike shop. On this particular day, we’d ride to Lyons and back, clocking about 35 miles. The distance, I knew, would be no problem.
I showed up feeling a little nervous, and the feeling was compounded when I discovered that the nerdy-looking seniors I’d seen at the meeting, who’d looked so innocuous in their street clothes, had calves like tree trunks and bikes that cost more than my car. I looked down at my serviceable old Specialized, feeling more self-conscious than I’d expected.
The pit in my stomach dissipated as we took off through town. I had no problem hanging with the group as we wound our way through North Boulder, and I started to think maybe I’d been worrying all this time for nothing.
The universe has a funny way of working things out, though. As soon as we turned onto Highway 36, which would lead us to Lyons, a few leaders sprinted out ahead of the pack, and a peloton formed and promptly dropped me.
I don’t mean, like, within a few miles of turning onto the highway, or that I struggled to keep up. I mean, we turned onto 36, and, like a well-oiled machine, a formation took shape and rode away so quickly that, before we’d descended the first hill, I literally could not see them anymore, because Boulder.
Things didn’t improve. I didn’t see the team again. I rode to Lyons by myself, feeling oddly circumspect about the whole thing, then ate a Clif bar in the park and rode back. By the time I made it back to the bike shop, the rest of the group had long since gone home or gone out for another lap or whatever the hell it is you do to make you ride that fast.
“It’s not a big deal,” I told my mom on the phone that afternoon, “It’s just, you know, Boulder. It’s totally fine. I don’t even care.” (I cared.)
After that, I didn’t try to join any more clubs at CU. I also didn’t ride my bike much, except for the annual Bike MS ride. That summer, I dragged my then-boyfriend along on a borrowed Bianchi, which my uncle graciously loaned him. On the second day of the tour, he pulled up to a rest stop 30 miles into the ride, demanded Ibuprofen, and threw his bike down on the ground.
The relationship didn’t last, obviously (he never returned the bike, either), but the story has become family lore, retold each year and occasionally reenacted by my father and various uncles, including the one whose bike I assume he pawned.
For most of my early twenties, that was it. I just didn’t get the appeal. I wasn’t interested in mountain biking, either, having made the same assumption I did about downhill and cross-country skiing, which was that one would roughly translate to the other. This supposition, in the latter case, was disastrously untrue, leading to an incident in which another boyfriend tried to teach me to cross-country ski on an ancient pair of 185cm Rossignols with three-pin bindings he’d picked up for $10 at Play It Again Sports in Wasilla. Frustrated with my inability to stay upright for more than one kick-and-glide, which I also wasn’t really getting the hang of, I was a complete asshole about it.
I did eventually learn to cross-country ski, which Bix pointed out as he tried for the umpteenth time to get me to go mountain biking with him two summers ago. I relented when things deteriorated to “Come on, it’ll be fun,” since no one wants to see a grown man beg like that.
It wasn’t fun. My borrowed bike wouldn’t shift into its granny gear, which is the only one I wanted to use on hills of any size. I was too afraid to ride the bike off a curb, let alone up or, god forbid, down through a rock garden. I hit the brakes a lot. I walked a lot.
At some point, though, I remembered to breathe, regulating my pace as I knew how to do on a road bike. I kind of got into a rhythm, eventually feeling confident enough to let loose a little, which lasted until I came too fast into a switchback and flew over my handlebars. Dazed, I took quick stock of my limbs, checking to make sure nothing was out of place, then dusted myself off and marched back to my bike. Was that the worst that could happen, really? (Definitely not, I later discovered, but, fortunately, I couldn’t know that at the time.)
Two years later, after a long, on-again, off-again relationship with bikes, I upgraded to a bike that shifted. I’ve ridden it three times this week already. It is all I want to do. The honeymoon phase may eventually wear out, but I’m glad I gave bikes a chance, because guess what? Riding bikes is fun.
Maybe this year, I’ll even train for the Bike MS. We’ll see.