“Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia.” ~H.G. Wells
Ahh, I remember hot summer days of so long ago … hiding with my ever-present library book in the branches of the lone shade tree, an orange popsicle melting down my chin as I searched for respite from annoying, cootie-dripping boys and blazing, energy-sucking heat. Eventually I would run out of pages to turn or would tire of flicking the black ants off my skinny legs, and out of the tree I would crawl … and move on to stirring up mosquitoes as I ran circles around the lawn sprinkler, squealing in delight as the cool water soaked through my Josey and the Pussycats t-shirt. Eventually even that activity grew tiresome, so I was on to the next adventure, the best adventure of all … flying through the air on my bike.
Oh, my bike–my beautiful pink Schwinn with the banana seat, with the pink and white plastic tassels streaming from the handlebars and the playing cards clothespinned to the spokes for just the right amount of clackity-clackity-clack. That bike was my first ticket to freedom, carrying me all over the neighborhood and–more importantly–carrying me away from my mother’s watchful eye. Without her yelled warnings to “Stop it! You’re going to get hurt!” to deter me, I could ride a wheelie from one driveway to the next, I could fly down a hill faster than the mangy dogs chasing me, and I could balance forever with my hands in the air and only my little legs pumping me forward–until, as my mother had promised, one of my stunts would finally send me crashing into the gravel and dirt and running home to her forgiving arms. Skinned knees, bloodied palms, bruised ego … the momentary pain they produced was quickly cured with a Band-Aid and a kiss, and then I was slamming through the screen door once more to prove to all the neighborhood boys that I was every bit as tough as they were.
I don’t remember at what point I became too cool for my beautiful pink Schwinn, but I’m guessing it was probably about the same time I realized that not all boys had cooties, that not all boys appreciated a girl who could beat them in a race, and that not all boys approved of girls with dirt-streaked legs and scabby knees. The bike was parked, forgotten, until its rusty remains became some other little girl’s yard sale bargain.
Fast forward about 38 years: The little girl with scabby knees and a fondness for speed has been replaced with a “mature” woman with flabby thighs and a fondness for her recliner. That little girl would not recognize this woman–this woman who has forgotten the rush of wind in her hair and who has allowed herself to deteriorate into a fleshy, floppy mass of self-loathing.
But that little girl would be proud of this woman for finally–finally–making the decision to change her loathsome life by hoisting herself out of that recliner and flying into the wind on the seat of a bike.
Those of you who have been reading this blog for very long already know of my weight loss journey that started in January, and you know that in the seven months since then I have exceeded my goal and pedaled myself 27 pounds slimmer. What you may not realize, though, is that in my efforts to reclaim my health and my dignity, I have accomplished something perhaps even more significant …
I have rediscovered joy.
I won’t lie; it wasn’t joyous in the beginning. My little pink Schwinn was replaced with a cumbersome hybrid (a cross between a mountain bike and a road bike), which was a few months later replaced with a lighter, faster road bike. Missing from these adult versions were the banana seat, the plastic tassels and the playing card clackers (the fun stuff), and in their place were hand brakes and gears (the scary stuff). So much to learn! Shifting through 24 speeds was an entirely new experience, and even though I’ve gotten much better (through my husband’s “tutelage”), I sometimes still strip the gears–usually when I’m going up a hill–and suddenly find myself spinning feverishly and going nowhere.
Much worse than learning gears, though, has been trying to find a comfortable way to sit on a seat not much bigger than a pair of thong underwear (or so I’ve been told). In fact, here’s a picture of my bike seat; at the tip it is 1 1/4″ wide, and at its broadest it measures a whopping 6″. Now, I don’t think it’s necessary for me to disclose how wide my backside is at its broadest–let’s just say there is a considerable amount of “overhang.” Instead of imagining that picture (please don’t!), imagine instead what it must feel like to have the entire weight of one’s torso centered upon that tiny seat–and then you will understand why a long bike ride elicits a strong, almost overwhelming yearning for a strategically placed ice pack.
In addition to the throbbing buttocks, I’ve endured muscles quivering, elbows aching, toes cramping and sweat spilling from every pore. I’ve been pinged in the face by a rock, stung on the chest by a wasp, and choked by a multitude of bugs not smart enough to avoid flying into my open mouth. I’ve breathed in air so heavy with humidity and pollen that it has made me choke–and I’ve choked back my anger (and some very colorful language) when a pick-up drivin’ good ol’ boy intentionally rode up on my back tire before blasting a siren and then laughing at my reaction as he gunned around me.
And yet … and yet, I’ve learned to deal with it all. To make the bike seat a little less painful, I did what I swore I would never do and bought a pair of Spandex cycling shorts–not because I suddenly believed that I could be the first person ever to look good in Spandex but rather because they came equipped with foam butt padding–who knew! (So what if the view from the back was now even more bounteous–I couldn’t see it.) I learned ibuprofen and Icy Hot before a ride decreased the discomfort, and I learned ibuprofen and a whirlpool after a ride decreased it even more. I learned to keep my mouth closed while riding to reduce bug intake (although such intake will never be completely eliminated since a few little buggers still manage to find their way into my nasal cavity), and my husband installed a rear-view mirror on my handlebar so that I could see pick-up drivin’ good ol’ boys before they got close enough to scare me.
And once I learned to deal effectively with the minor annoyances and limited pain, the joy came steamrolling in. I couldn’t help myself; the wind in my face was pure ecstacy, and my speed down the hills was sheer bliss–for the first time since childhood, from somewhere deep within my soul, a long-forgotten “Wheeee!” escaped through my lips and made me downright goofy. Sure, I grimaced and groaned and huffed and puffed as I struggled up hills and struggled to add another mile and another mile to my ever-increasing distance, but still I couldn’t keep from smiling.
And sometimes I even laughed aloud, like the time I almost crashed into a very indecisive squirrel (is there any other kind?). I saw him ahead of me on the road in plenty of time to make a wide arc around him, but he did as all squirrels do and darted in the same direction–and when I corrected my course to avoid him still, he changed his course as well. Just before his tiny brain became splattered mush beneath my front tire (and just before such an impact would have sent me tumbling into the ditch), he finally zigged to my zag and lived to see another day.
Joy also came from goals set, met and exceeded. At the beginning of this month I was consistently riding about 12 miles a day, which is no small feat for an old gal riding on hilly terrain. But I decided I wanted to increase my mileage, so I set a goal of reaching 100 miles in 7 days–and reached it in 6 days instead. By then I was riding 20 miles at a time–and remembering with great disdain the old gal from seven months prior who couldn’t carry groceries up the stairs without getting short-winded.
And this past Sunday I exceeded my goals even further by logging my best bike ride ever–a heart-thumping, legs-pumping, mind-blowing 30 miles–me! I did that–the wimpy bookworm with a distaste for all things sweaty. And the best part–the most telling part–is that I rode the last 10 miles in the pouring rain. I could have quit–I had a good enough reason to quit–but the idea of quitting never crossed my mind. At first the rain provided a welcome cooling of the summer heat, but as it increased in intensity it stung my arms and legs and sent electricity pulsing through every nerve-ending–and it felt good. Raindrops were beading in my eyelashes, my soaked clothes were matting to my soaked skin, my shoes were squishing with every churn of the pedals–and it all felt good. When my odometer hit 29 miles and I knew I had only one mile to go–and knew I was going to make it–I started laughing aloud with the sheer joy of it. “Look at me, Adele!” I remember thinking in my giddiness, “Look at me! I am setting fire to the rain!” And my last mile was faster than the 29 miles before …
Even better than rediscovering joy has been the discovery of a few things I honestly (and sadly) never knew about myself. I have discovered that I am strong; I have discovered that I have will power and determination, fire and grit. It should not have taken me so long to come to such an awareness, but now that I have, I am ready for the next set of challenges–and I am ready to fly.
“I want to fly like an eagle
To the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me.”
–Steve Miller Band