Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Morning After: Post-Sport Transport

Today is a day like any other. I unlocked my bike from our outdoor storage area, clipped my pannier onto its rear rack and took off for the day, wearing my regular clothing. If I get home after dark, I will give my dynamo bottle a little push and the lights will come on - sustained by my pedaling. I cycle carefully in traffic. I sit upright. Drivers and pedestrians see my old-fashioned loop frame bike and they often wave to me and smile. I have been doing this more or less every day for over two years. As a mode of transportation it is perfect for me; I have truly found something that works. And I enjoy helping others who feel that it could work for them.

But cycling in traffic this morning, I am also remembering what happened last night - and it's like a fuzzy memory of a drunken party in its sheer unreal-ness. I went on another paceline ride, starting off in a faster group this time. Five miles in I dropped my chain accelerating uphill, which was mortifying and had never happened to me before. But disaster was averted ("Chain off!! Slowing!"), the chain was soon back on, and we (the woman who stayed behind to help and I) caught up with the group in no time. The chase was a nice warm-up. Toward the middle of the ride, we ended up splitting in two again, with myself and a couple of others in the front. We received minimal instruction in this slightly more advanced group, and I took frequent turns rotating. I was on a high from the sheer excitement of it, not even feeling my legs - only the speed. As the end of the ride neared, the leader asked who wanted to go on an extra climb instead of straight back, and I was among those who came along. We were allowed to pass each other uphill, and I did - passing the others, then waiting at the bottom of the hill for a good few minutes. Next time, I am told I can join the next group up. There was also discussion of joining the team. Then I cycled home for 10 miles, elated but not particularly tired. Even as I write this, it sounds like I am making it all up. My mind is swirling.

Riding my bike for transportation, I feel at ease and familiar with the city where I used to resent living just a couple of years ago. Everything seems friendlier now, more accessible, more connected to my life. I have a personal map of the city in my mind, where every area includes the sensory experience of riding my bike there. I continue to discover new neighborhoods that surprise me, feeling like an explorer every time I need to venture somewhere new. It's wonderful, and I don't write about it daily only because it has become so incorporated into my everyday routine as to become mundane.

I wonder whether I will ever experience this sense of familiarity and belonging with cycling as a sport. I feel wildly different from the other women doing the paceline rides, who seem so comfortable with the very notion of it all.  They've been running, going to the gym and playing other sports all of their lives, while I've stayed as far away from such activities as possible. And it's not just a matter of being intimidated. The non-athletic have prejudices against the athletic, whether they want to admit it or not. I grew up with perceptions of athletes as shallow, aggressive, cliquish and bullying - nothing us artsy kids wanted to be a part of. It's hard to get away from that mentality, even as an adult, and it's hard to get comfortable with the idea of being something I am not. Hearing things like "put the hammer down, girl!" followed by appreciative cheering, makes me feel conspicuously out of place.

Cycling to the training ride in my shorts, jersey, gloves, styrofoam bonnet and sunglasses yesterday, I got a "Hey, slow down!!" shouted at me by a woman strolling on the wrong side of the bike path, accompanied by a look of pure hatred. I glanced at my computer and confirmed that I was in fact going very slowly. But she saw me as fast, aggressive, and dangerous nonetheless. Would this same woman have waved to me and smiled had I been riding my loop frame bike wearing a dress?

Since I began writing about paceline rides, some readers have told me they feel I am sending "the wrong message" by getting involved in roadcycling and publicising this involvement: My "turning into a roadie" only confirms the stereotype of cycling as an extreme sport. At the same time, the supportive emails I've gotten from the pro-roadcycling camp border on pressure - from suggestions for which local team to join, to being told that I am in a unique position to advance the cause of getting more women into racing. For the most part, I am just confused by it all. I admit that I am now addicted to the paceline rides, and that joining a local cycling team is appealing. At the same time, I am socially uncomfortable both within a group of roadies, and also with being perceived as one. Call it a mild cycling-identity crisis.

I cannot take seriously the idea that to take part in paceline rides is to "betray" transportation cycling. I see the two as completely independent activities that can be pursued in parallel. Am I being unrealistic? Today I am cycling for transport while daydreaming of sport, and it seems completely natural.


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