A few months ago I got my mountain bike tuned up, and after a five-year hiatus I’ve been riding it on the weekends. Riding a bike reminds me of the best version of me.
See, I grew up a gawky awkward kid. I was 8 before I learned to ride a bike – a delay that can be explained by genuine lack of coordination compounded by my self-image of being uncoordinated. Gym glass was hell and I always felt disconnected from my body. Then as a junior in high school I escaped my home and small town and studied abroad in France. I gained 40 pounds on pain au chocolat and brie. It was a miserable year.
The next summer my mom bought me a Schwinn mountain bike and I started taking long rides in the Illinois countryside where I grew up. I’d bike for miles and miles along the long, flat, straight roads that bordered the long straight, flat green corn fields that met with clear skies. All the while I dreamed of going away to college, of being a writer, of falling in love. On and on I’d go, feeling free and physically strong– not at all fat or awkward or miserable. In a few months I lost the weight and then I left for school.
After that, I pretty much always owned a bike. In college I’d commute on that black Schwinn to class, the school newspaper and to visit my boyfriend who worked at the library. I loved that that I could go faster than pedestrians, yet break all the traffic rules that applied to the cars. Later, when I moved to Arizona I’d take the trails, marveling at the bizarre and beautiful landscape while nursing a broken heart or worrying about layoffs at my newspaper job. When I moved to New York City, I’d scramble to survive traffic and dodge opening car doors, feeling dangerous and powerful and invincible. Sometimes my husband would join me and we’d speed along, sometimes side-by-side as we’d chat about our media jobs and plans for our new life together. No matter where I lived, I could always turn to the childlike thrill of going fast down a hill.
It all stopped when I got pregnant five years ago. Suddenly, this freedom and danger seemed self-indulgent. I was a mom now. Time to be safe.
But a few months ago I started to itch for my bike mounted high on a wall in my apartment. All the yoga and running I’d been doing were well and good. But in the ongoing process of rebuilding my life after my divorce, I was peeling away ideas of who I thought I was and returning to who I had always been. I missed biking.
For the past few months I’ve been riding again. Usually this involves a 12-mile loop from my neighborhood in Queens, over the 59th Street Bridge, around Central Park and back. The bridge is a real butt-burner — I can always measure my fitness level by my heart rate on the ascent.
But on the descent, I bask in what has carried me for 20 years. Those seconds before I will ride into harrowing midtown Manhattan traffic and when I’m cruising faster than feels real are the moments when I am the girl who shook free of her limiting self-image, found thrill in risk and started to live in her body and life. That is when I sit up straight, let the wind hit my face and gravity pull me forward, and I get that familiar feeling — the feeling of being at once a kid and a woman, and knowing that I will be OK.