Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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On a bike I have wings and a kingdom. On a bike I’m a taller, stronger, wiser version of myself — the person I wish to be on land. It’s always been this way.
When I was three or four years old, and the neighbors’ big dog, Smackey, came waddling across the street to try to lick me, I was safe if I was on my trike: I could ride circles around her. If Smackey came over and I wasn’t on my trike, I had to go back inside, where my strange, bone-thin mother did not let anyone come near her, or make noise, or turn on the lights. Sometimes she was lying on top of her bedspread, looking like a wax figure. Other times I found her hiding in her closet.
On my trike I had no mother. I was above the dog, above the earth, above myself.
At the age of five I received a red bike with bright-white training wheels and red and white plastic streamers on the handlebar grips. I rode in figure eights on our shiny black driveway: a girl in a blue cotton dress, a girl with skinned elbows, a girl who traveled through life above the dog, above the earth, above herself. No one told her to keep pedaling, but every day she did.
When I turned ten, I was given a purple bike with a white banana seat. It was a fine ride for a couple of years, until it was stolen. By then my mother had gotten worse. She didn’t want me to leave the house or talk to anyone — it was too dangerous.
My mother had a dusty, old green bicycle that she never rode. It seemed impossibly uncool and matronly to me, and I didn’t think to touch it, much less ride it, until one bikeless day I was out in the garage and saw her bike as if for the first time. Suddenly it seemed like a fabulous tank of a bike. It had a wire basket, a bell, and a cursive S — for Schwinn — on the green-and-white vinyl seat. I pretended the S was for Sellers, and I named her Greenie and rode her as much as possible.
By the time I was fourteen, I was pedaling Greenie all over downtown Orlando, Florida — to baby-sitting and lawn-mowing jobs, to the grocery store, to the pool — often in a sundress with a towel and my bathing suit and a bike lock in the basket. I caught myself smiling as I rode.
I stood on the pedals, strong and tan and thin, surveying my kingdom, the most all-seeing girl in town. What harm could come to me? My long ponytail flew behind me like a windsock. I could ride sidesaddle. I even worked out a way to ride on my stomach, one hand cranking the pedal, the other on the handlebars.
For a lonely girl in an American city, a bike is a horse longing to be ridden. My relationship with Greenie was the deepest and happiest of my life to that point.
You’re taller on a bike, and faster, and the air is cooler, because riding creates a breeze — a blessing in Florida summers. On a bike the world seems made just for you. The tires carry on a conversation with the road, and you are both a part of it and listening to it all at once.
In high school I was still riding that old green bike everywhere — I had no car — when my mother told me I couldn’t borrow it without permission. She said primly, Please ask first if you want to use my bicycle.
On principle I refused to ask her permission to borrow anything — her cashmere sweater, her perfume, her jeweled evening bag. So I definitely would not ask to borrow that bike, my bike. I felt angry and humiliated that she had even suggested it.
One evening I brought Greenie right into the foyer of our house. I did this to irritate my mother, and it worked. She said, I don’t appreciate this funny business. I said whatever I usually said to her, and she replied, You can’t talk to me that way. She was wrong. Straddling Greenie in the small foyer, my hands on the handlebars, I could talk to her that way. I might as well have had a fighter jet between my legs.
My mother’s fear of people contributed to my shyness. I could not figure out how to interact socially in a light, carefree way: not at school, not at the restaurant where I hostessed, and not at Disney World, where I ran a cash register. I was often mute, unable to get my words to move out of me and into the world.
Whenever I went for a ride, though, I breathed easy, because of the way a bike moves through space: fast, quiet, smooth, each moment unfurling into the next. I could sing and often did: songs from The Sound of Music, Man of La Mancha, West Side Story. When I was on my bike, I could not only envision a happy, outgoing future self; I was her. The true me was the girl I was on the bike, and the other me was like a girl under the spell of a horrid witch in a fairy tale.
In the fall after my high-school graduation, against my mother’s strict orders and with the help of a guidance counselor’s letter and my savings, I managed to go to Florida State University in Tallahassee, a five-hour drive from Orlando. I’d wanted desperately to get into a better school, preferably one farther away from my mother, but I felt lucky to be leaving town at all. At college I’d been expecting to find wise professors, studious young people, and a new intellectual life waiting for me to step into it. Instead the campus was inhabited by heavily made-up girls with jewelry and sandals, and smug-faced boys in chinos and polo shirts — perfectly groomed, confident, and involved in one long conversation that I couldn’t join. I walked around the campus in a daze, unable to fit a single syllable into their flow of words.
I got a black Schwinn road bike that I kept next to my bed in my dorm — because I did not want it to get rained on — and instead of going to parties on Friday and Saturday nights, I went riding up and down hills. Orlando is completely flat, so the gently rolling terrain of Tallahassee was like the Alps to me. Somehow it was the landscape and not the beautiful campus or the textbooks or even the library that made me feel smarter than I had been in Orlando. On my bike I could fly through the clusters of other students. I was free.
When I told my mother over winter break that I was returning to the university for the spring semester, she said she had to end our relationship; I caused her too much concern. She stopped taking my calls.
I biked along country roads all over Leon County: Wakulla Highway, Old Miccosukee, Thomasville Road. I never saw another cyclist — not one — but there was a lot to swerve around: snakes, potholes, glass, sand, sticks, rocks, car parts, and dead possums, squirrels, raccoons, armadillos, birds, and frogs. On Crawfordville Highway a man in a pickup truck yelled, I shore wish my face was your bicycle seat! I never cycled on that road again. Other guys threw cans, bottles, or bags of fast-food trash at me. Teenagers hung from car windows and screamed. Women honked, swerved, and yelled, Get on the sidewalk, girl! But sidewalks were for baby strollers and pedestrians. I put my head down and kept pedaling.
On the bike was the only time I thought I was beautiful: sleek black helmet, long black hair, dark sunglasses, red lipstick, tight shorts, white tank top, black sneakers. I was strong and fast, and I could ride for hours. I felt like a bird. But in the rest of my life I continued to feel awkward and out of place. I went on a date to a restaurant and couldn’t think of a single thing to say. I went out to a bar with a construction worker who was helping build the university’s new business building. I had no idea how to act.
I preferred to ride bikes on dates: no talking. I once kissed a boy while we sped along, and it was so much fun, we did it again and again. We held hands on our bikes. We tied a rope around my waist and his and rode single file — do not ask me why. We rode in the rain and in the dark. We rode to swimming holes. I raced a college-basketball star, turning my head back to watch him watch me. That boy would come by my dorm and ride slow circles outside my window until I’d carry my bike outside, get on, and go.
And then there was Derry at the bike shop: gray apron and blue eyes and straw-colored hair pulled back in a ponytail. Derry rode for the Alfa Romeo cycling team. And now here he was holding my bike in one hand and grinning at me.
In the bike shop I was not my mother’s daughter. I found my words. I was talking, almost chatting, with a boy. He asked if I wanted to ride with him sometime, and I said sure.
When would be good for you? he asked.
How about now? I said, shocked and thrilled and more than a little nervous that I could be so bold.
I can’t say I learned how to love because of bicycles, but I learned something about the geometry of love. The feeling of being in his arms, of making dinner together or going dancing, was similar to what I felt on my bike: a kind of light but forceful movement into the future. Being with made me better than I was alone.
In 1995 I finished my PhD in English, got my hair cut into a bob, bought pumps and pantyhose, and moved to San Antonio, Texas. I left Derry and the black bike behind in Tallahassee, along with my long hair and flip-flops and other markers of my youth.
I never saw a cyclist in Texas, where I lived for three years. When my teaching career took me to Michigan, my first purchase was a hybrid Giant bike that I named Blackie, because I thought the paint was black, though it turned out to be dark blue.
The college where I taught was downhill from my house, and I coasted to work, feeling young and effective. I wore teacherly dresses and perfected a rolling dismount. I kept Blackie in my office, and at the end of the day I would pump my way home uphill.
I married a strong, lean sweetheart of a man who ran every night after work. In college he’d run two miles in under nine minutes, and he could still run fast and far.
My husband refused to get on a bike because he feared he might hurt his knees or hips and adversely affect his running. So I took up running, too. He taught me to lean forward and stop bouncing up and down. He taught me where to position my hands, elbows, stomach, and shoulders, and how to approach a corner. We spent a lot of our time running, or talking about running, or getting ready to run, or recovering from running, or nursing running injuries. (That last part was mostly me.)
The week after the divorce was final, I showed up at the bike shop on Main Street, and there they were: the same sort of boys I remembered from Tallahassee, but far too young for me now. The tall, tattooed one stepped over an aging golden retriever — the shop in Tallahassee had had a golden retriever, too — while the others listened to edgy music on a radio beside the workbenches. An elfin chatterbox, blond bangs hanging over his blue eyes, set me up with a shining, new Bianchi and asked if I wanted to join the shop’s riding group. Yes. Definitely.
I rode that night and discovered that, even in the raw grief after the divorce, I could still find happiness on my bike.
That winter I trained indoors at the bike shop, and when May came around, I began riding during the week with a group of women. My depression lifted, and I spoke freely again: You’re getting so strong. You’re a good rider. Let’s do the Blueberry Fest ride together. We wore matching jerseys and shouted and laughed and waited at stop signs for the older women in the group — Doris was in her seventies; Alice, eighty — to catch up. Those were some of the happiest hours of my life, tearing down the long, straight country roads in western Michigan; past cornfields, orchards, farms, and lakes; six or seven or eight women talking in one glorious sentence about nothing. We didn’t discuss illness, debt, or work. I didn’t even know what most of the women did during the day. Like children, we were free from the tyranny of the house, the job, the burden of being. You’re always a kid on a bike.
I still often rode with the bike-shop boys on Monday nights and Saturday mornings, trying to stand on the pedals at stoplights like they did, never putting a foot down to touch the pavement. We were above the pavement, lords of the air. We took turns being at the front of the pack. When the lead cyclist hit his hip with his hand and slid out of the line, the person behind him took his place. The idea was for the pack to constantly rotate leaders; when you got to the front, you pedaled for a while, then dropped off the side and let the pack pass you until you were in the rear again. So the line was really a loop, always moving counterclockwise in a circle. It felt like we were doing ballet on a roadway.
In my turn at the front I worked hard to keep my speed at exactly twenty-two miles per hour. Whenever we saw a green county road sign, the boys would challenge each other to impromptu races to the next sign. Sometimes I’d start to speed up when there was no sign, just to watch all of them leap forward like grasshoppers.
The lead cyclist warned the rest about approaching hazards, which we couldn’t see because the pack was so tight. He yelled, Hole up. Branches up. Wood up. Water up. Sand up. Rocks up. Walker up. Debris up. And once, Mattress up. And we yelled to the riders behind us. The last in line yelled, Car back, car back, car back.
At each intersection, when it was safe to cross, the person in front would shout, Clear. And, as in a game of telephone, the clears traveled back.
Cars sometimes came so close to me I could smell the passengers’ cigarettes and hamburgers.
I rode fifty miles, seventy miles, a hundred miles. I tried to keep exact count, but I always lost track. There were those in the group who insisted on reaching a precise number and would pedal in a circle in the bike-store parking lot at the end of the ride to do it. “Mile whores,” they were called. I didn’t care exactly how many miles I went.
Viva Italia! the boys shouted when I pedaled hard to pass them or when I peeled off toward home at dusk, my dark hair flying behind me — everything behind me.
Viva! I shouted into the night. Viva!
Riding in a pack, you have to stay together and move as one. This group movement activated some deep cellular sense of belonging in me. I became a fish with a dozen other fish forming one big, safe school. You can cycle faster and farther with others than on your own. The talking and energy and laughter carry you along. You’re fueled by joy itself.
Before joining the group rides, I’d hated and avoided groups. Even departmental meetings at work were hard for me. I never felt I was going with the flow, working toward a common purpose. After cycling with the friendly women and the bike-shop boys — learning the exquisite timing required to keep a steady distance from the riders in front, in back, and next to me — I became more at ease with people on land. Once, at a Tuesday department meeting, having ridden forty miles with a group the night before, I cracked a joke, and every one of my colleagues laughed. I was as surprised as they were.
One evening in late summer three friends and I rode down to Saugatuck and back. Afterward we chatted for a bit in my driveway, straddling our bikes. The sky was a dusky blue-gray, the trees a darkening green. As I was chattering away, I wondered how long it had been since I’d struggled to find my words. Seated on my aluminum horse, with my fellow riders on their steeds, I felt as though I’d traveled across the world to reach this point. And, in a way, I had.
When I moved back to Florida a few years ago, it was to St. Petersburg, a city with bike lanes and bike trails and bike shops and the largest cycling organization in the state. We have a coffee shop called The Bikery, where you can take your bike inside with you and see famous bicycles mounted on the walls, including one ridden by U.S. Olympian John Sinibaldi in the 1930s. Like me, he would only ride Italian.
I ride the Pink Streets neighborhood (just what it sounds like) along the glittering bay. The great Olympian’s daughter-in-law, Lenore, shows me the way. I ride under the palms and live oaks and the blistering sun, and I wonder whatever happened to Greenie, my mother’s old Schwinn. I look for a similar bike on eBay and find just the saddle, with its white cursive S, selling for eighty-five dollars.
In this new life I once again have wings and a kingdom. I know how to make friends now. It’s still not easy, but is it for anyone? I plan to see at least two friends a week: a walk with Jennifer, drinks with Debbie, a ride with Lenore or Katherine or Bob or Jim or Ezra. “Heather,” my friend Helen says one day, “you could make friends with a doorknob.”
On Saturday mornings I ride in a group. My old Bianchi is still fast. We form a tight pack, like geese in formation. It takes concentration to override your desire for safety and space. Close the gap! Wendy keeps yelling at me. Get up on her wheel. I don’t know these riders well. I can’t read their micro movements. The wind gusts coming off the bay are fearsome.
When someone in the pack isn’t pedaling but coasting, you hear a clicking, a chicka-chicka-chicka sound that makes the experienced riders anxious. Pedal, pedal, pedal! someone will always shout. You can’t coast in the pocket. You want to — it’s so cozy and easy to be carried along — but it’s dangerous: if one person slows down, even by a hair, the pack begins to break apart. You have to keep pedaling fast, just inches from all that metal and flesh and bone.
Pedal, pedal, pedal.
On land I have fallen so many times. On my bike I have not fallen — not ever, not once.
Because of its beautiful scenery and hills, my neighborhood attracts cyclists. I dislike them, especially ones who ride in groups, because they often block roads and do not follow traffic rules. But after reading Heather Sellers’s essay “Pedal, Pedal, Pedal” [January 2017], I feel a bit more forgiving toward them.
My love of Heather Sellers’s essay “Pedal, Pedal, Pedal” [January 2017] may only be superseded by my love of cycling itself. She captures how being on a bike makes you feel both like a better person and like a child again. Ride strong.