When I first looked at my face in the mirror after my fall, scraped and bloody chin, bloody and oozing upper lip, two chipped teeth, I wondered why I keep doing this biking thing. Why do I put myself at risk for much worse than what had just happened? This wasn’t my first fall as scars on my knees and shoulder will prove, as memories of faded and not so faded bruises reveal. And I am constantly reminded by the cycling community of potentially worse injuries, torn ligaments, broken bones, death.
I know the risks and I keep getting on my bike nearly every day to suffer through intervals that leave me gasping and dizzy, my heart pounding. Or to fight hard to keep from being dropped off the back of a group, wanting to give up but refusing to allow it. I suffer through allergies, wind, rain, cold, heat and humidity. And I make myself lift weights and do exercises off the bike that will allow me to suffer more on it.
I am 48-years-old and all this work and effort is not going to lead me to a pro career or even turn me into a top amateur cyclist. I have no dreams of photo-finish sprint wins or gold medals. But I do have goals, challenges I want to undertake. I want to do the 5-day 281-mile MS Bike ride. I want to do the Almanzo 100 and maybe even the Royal 162. I would like to do the Headwaters to the Hills tour, a week long 470-mile tour from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the Minnesota-Iowa border. And do I imagine I might one day attempt the 460+ miles of RAGBRAI, a ride across the state of Iowa? I also want to try the Minnesota Race Across America Challenge; the 200-miles in one day race for sure, and possibly the 400 mile race.
But this still doesn’t answer the why of it all.
I started cycling regularly back in 2007 by riding three miles to work in the morning and three miles home in the evening. There were others at my workplace commuting by bike and even though it had been years since I had been on a bike, it seemed like it would be fun, not to mention a good way to get some exercise and lower my carbon footprint. With the encouragement of my coworkers I bought a hybrid commuter bike, tricked it out with a rack and nifty folding baskets to carry my lunch and work clothes and a book.
At first I was so out of shape that three miles twice a day was a lot of work. But the more I did it, the easier it got. And then I began going for bike rides outside of commuting to work. I am lucky to live in a city with generous green spaces and bike paths. The first time I ever rode ten miles I was exhausted afterwards but so proud of myself. And the rides kept getting longer and easier until the 30 mile fun ride my husband I did a few years in a row no longer felt like a challenge.
In 2015 I decided to get serious about cycling. Over the previous winter I had begun working hard on a stationery bike sometimes spending as long as an hour and a half, challenging myself to go faster and harder. I felt good and began seeing muscles where I had never seen them before.
I was 46 and in a moment of realizing my mortality I decided I wanted to become as fit and strong as I possibly could. I looked into the future and did not want to be a fragile granny who might tip over and break in a sudden gust of wind. My husband has multiple sclerosis and while he is fully mobile and has fairly mild symptoms, I knew that one day it might be otherwise. I needed to be strong for myself and strong for him too, just in case.
I told my husband that I wanted to be able to ride 100 miles in one go by the time I am 50. It seemed like a huge goal that would take years of work. Instead of a midlife crisis with a fancy sports car, I bought a road bike and began riding regularly. It quickly became apparent that I would be able to ride 100 miles long before I turned 50. By the end of the summer I was already doing 70 miles fairly easily with no training plan other than regular riding.
In November of 2015 I began training with specific workouts, specific goals and a power meter to measure my efforts and track improvement. I even tried virtual racing through the online cycling program Zwift. Currently I am enrolled via Zwift in a training program for women that requires I complete a particular structured 3-month workout program as well as participate in virtual group workouts led by a cycling coach. I am learning how to sprint, how to climb hills and a good many other things.
I have also been educating myself in sports nutrition and, as a vegan, this has been an interesting undertaking. Where most people can get their extra protein without much effort from eggs, meat or dairy, I need to make an effort to ensure I am getting what I need. It has gotten really easy to tell when my food choices are working well and when they are not because it directly affects my performance on the bike.
It has been a year and half since I bought my road bike. We spend so much time together I named her Astrid. Maybe it’s silly, but she feels like a partner. I invest in her a confidence that she can do whatever I ask her to and she returns that confidence to me. All of our success so far keeps me looking for new challenges. This spring I tried gravel racing, something I wasn’t sure about because the road is constantly shifting beneath the bike wheels and Astrid is designed for skinny road tires. With a bit of finessing, we made slightly bigger tires work. We had great fun riding out in the middle of nowhere past farms and along rivers, knowing that if something went wrong I would need to be able to take care of Astrid and myself and that I could.
When I go out on all-day Saturday rides I am usually alone for most or all of the ride. While I may be on roads and trails, often there is no one else around. I enjoy the peacefulness, the quiet made up of the sounds of Astrid’s tires on pavement or gravel, the singing birds, the peeping of frogs. I have cycled to places I would never had been to in a car, to parks and wildlife reserves, to the confluence of rivers, in rural areas covered with fields of corn, soybeans and alfalfa or pastured with horses, cows, sheep and goats. I have had the pleasure of seeing farmhouse flower gardens more elaborate and riotous than anyone within city confines could or would dare. I’ve heard the jaws of a snapping turtle snipping through a grassy breakfast. I’ve been just a few feet away from a deer on a misty morning. I’ve ridden along with swallows swooping and diving around me and it felt like I was flying. I’ve seen a hawk dive down and snatch up a mouse barely a yard away from me. I’ve startled a fox, been drenched in a downpour, watched a snake slide through leaves. I’ve carried Astrid through mud and water filled ditches and climbed with her over fallen trees. I’ve sweated and panted encouragement as we climb steep hills and shouted and whooped with joy as we zoomed down the other side. I’ve cried with her when we couldn’t finish a race because of heat exhaustion. And I hum to her while carefully and lovingly washing off all the dirt and grime of our adventures.
My husband worries about me being out alone. He frequently asks if there are other people around. I know he is concerned about my safety not only in case I have an accident but also because there is a certain amount of danger for a woman alone out in the world. He is getting used to the risks. He never tells me not to go, only to please check in with a text now and then. To ease his worries I text him photos and bicycle emojis, happy faces, and bathroom break updates.
I am not certain he understands why I love this biking thing so much but he is accepting. He will never not worry and that’s ok. I sometimes worry too. But I have decided the risks are worth it because the rewards are so much greater. I came across a passage in Juliana Buhring’s book This Road I Ride recently where she sums is up perfectly:
There is always something to be afraid of in this world, but fearing the unknown seems a futile waste of energy. One can plan for every potential risk, possibility, and eventuality, but if a truck is going to hit you, all the planning in the world won’t make a difference. Of course, the alternative would be to stay home, in the safety and predictability of a familiar environment, and never venture far for fear of myriad dangers. But then none of us would do anything at all, and what would be the point of being alive?
When I am out with Astrid I experience the world more fully than I do day-to-day. My mind if freed from stress and worry, I don’t think about all the things I have to do or make shopping lists in my head. Nor do I think about the things I should have or could have done. Everything drops away and I am simply present with no past and no future, just the now. I don’t think about anything while I ride; there are long stretches of time without a single thought flitting across my brain. When thoughts do happen they are the most basic things — drink, eat, look out for the pothole, steady up the hill, hi fat robin, turn right at the corner, relax your grip and shoulders, stand up and stretch, ah that breeze is nice, I wonder what that bug that just hit me was, what a beautiful day, I am so lucky, wow I am lucky, hi passing cyclist I can see you are as happy as I am we are so lucky, getting a little tired, home again, wow that was great, thank you Astrid, gosh I am lucky.