I was nearly twenty when I learned to ride a bike. As a kid, I had tooled around my neighborhood on my 3-speed, but these short trips never took me beyond the distance my feet could cover if a tire blew. It took the self-righteousness of young adulthood coupled with a bike-snob boyfriend to push me past the safe circumference of my known territory. Living in accordance with strict ideals about justice and simplicity meant a vegan diet, a cooperative house, anti-racist activism, and thumbing one’s nose at the auto industry. In Burlington, Vermont in 1993, a womyn had to learn how to ride.
The finely muscled boyfriend and I ventured into the country on our slick, matching Fat City Wickedlights. With shoes snapped into slim pedals and water bottles sloshing, we were so much who we aimed to be. In the span of a few months, I learned how to change a tire, true a wheel, adjust a derailleur, and repair a busted chain. Who needs AAA? On the side of the road with just a tiny cache of tools, I could handle anything short of an organ transplant. When the apocalypse came, I would be delivering the mail.
The only problem was that I could not ride. My personal drill sergeant would pedal alongside me, offering up corrections. He called it “help.” I had another name for it.
“Shift up,” he’d holler. “Lean down and just glance back.” I was too frightened to see if a car was gaining. Every time I did, my bike would sway like a drunken frat boy. The stress further constricted my peripheral vision, and I could only hope I would hear an engine coming before I had to make the next turn. Wildly swinging into traffic when I most needed to hug the shoulder, I was a two-wheeled terror on the Hinesburg-Shelburne road. I covered dozens of miles with the boyfriend drafting me as he shouted out warnings about approaching traffic.
After a few near misses and a lot of yelling, I figured it out. Just as a driver checks mirrors and blind spots before changing lanes, a cyclist has to look back while staying straight. I practiced leaning down, steadying the handlebars to keep the front wheel aimed in the forward, and taking a quick peek at the terrain behind. It is a bit of a mind game, turning the head without steering the body in the direction of the eyes. After a few tries, I could share the road. The boyfriend got off my rear a few hollers short of a black eye.
Hills, on the other hand, refused to yield to either logic or determination. At the base of every incline, my well ran as dry as my mouth. Vermont is not flat country, so the Green Mountain cyclist has no escape from the ups. Every time the ground rose ahead of me, my gut contracted and my heart raced. I hated hills the way George Mallory must have hated gathering clouds. My legs were not strong enough. My lungs were too tight. Every bump on the landscape was my own personal Everest. The altitude, no matter how miniscule, conquered me every time.
I tried to hoodwink the topography by speeding down the previous descent as fast as I possibly could, shifting into the highest gear and spin spin spining to get up the other side. Pedaling like a maniac carried me about halfway up before I started to lose steam. Barking in pain and gritting my teeth, my momentum slowed to a wobble. The sight of Lance Armstrong up ahead, standing up on his pedals with his legs of bronze sinew glinting in the sun as he floated up to the summit, was enough to make me want to shove a tire lever up his axle. I walked my bike to the next flat stretch.
“You have to shift to a higher gear,” he explained.
A higher gear? You’ve got to be kidding me. “You mean the harder one?” That went against all logic. When a tough stretch approaches, why would a rider increase the difficulty? I was working as hard as I possibly could in the lowest gear, and still was not strong enough to get up the hill without teetering off. I was a lost cause, and he was a fool.
He went on explaining. “First you shift higher then you stand.”
My mind rebelled and my body followed suit. “I just stand?” I saw him doing it, but I could not make sense of it.
“Just stand up. Like this.”
He orbited around me, shifted up to the highest gear, and lifted his fine backside up off the seat. I had a hard time believing this thoroughbred was my companion. His claims of confidence in my cycling abilities were even more incredible than his affections. It all seemed like an elaborate ruse, and I was the one who would land on my ass.
He continued to draw smooth ellipses around me. “Then you can climb. It’s easy. Try it.”
Nothing is harder than the task someone else tells you is not. I did try it, goddamn it, and it was anything but easy. Over and over again, I tried. My bike crossed that stretch of blacktop, and I willed myself to stand. I commanded my legs, “Climb!” I roared at my tush, “Up!” These intractable parts paid me no heed. My posterior remained planted on the seat. I rolled to a stop.
“Maybe it’s like the eyebrow thing,” I panted.
“You know how some people can raise one eyebrow, but other people can only do them both?” I lifted both mine to prove my physical deficiency. “It’s genetic.”
“You mean to tell me you are genetically incapable of standing up on a bike?”
I shrugged. “Maybe I am.”
“Yeah. Maybe you are. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. You can always just get off and walk up the hill.”
My tolerance for his proximity quickly exhausted itself. The ability to ride alone was too compelling. I would have to be independent after I killed him, after all. He was too perfect, and even if he were not, any witness was a distraction. This was between me and my goddess. Or, more accurately, it was between me and my demons. The boyfriend, no matter how right or skilled or just plain gorgeous he happened to be, did not have a say in the matter.
A few days later, I made my way alone to a stretch of somewhere road with a shortage of cars but an abundance of contour lines. I walked to the top of the first hill and perched there like a sky diver at the open hatch. I swung my leg over, kicked the chain up to the highest gear, and let ‘er rip. Body and machine sped as one down towards a rising wall of blacktop. “Go girl, go girl, come on!” I hit the dip at the bottom and started the ascent. My speed dropped and my legs began to scream. The urge to downshift almost won. I shouted at the road and the sky and my own resistant butt. “Up! Come on, UP!”
Just like that, I stood. Off the saddle, legs push-pulling the pedals, I was up where I had no business being. My torso tipped slightly forward to keep the now careening handlebars even. I sat back down and promptly ground to a halt, tipping off the bike and onto my feet. “Woah,” I breathed. “Just stand.”
Back at the summit, I did it all over again. Leap, fly, grind. Then, right at the beginning of the ascent, I stood. I started to climb. Climbing was exactly what it was. Ascending a hill is like walking up a staircase, one foot in front of the other. The bike felt alive in my grip, ready to lift right off the ground. The only way to hold it steady was to hover miles above the safe clutch of the frame. I willed my skeleton to stay upright, refused to succumb to the desire to cling, and pressed my mighty muscles into the climb. I trusted the laws of physics to pay me back in motion. In a blink, I crested the hill and went whirring down the other side. I hooped aloud, flushing grasshoppers from roadside brush.
It turns out that this is how it works. Plates make their tectonic shifts without so much as a warning tremor. Mountains appear where the land was once flat. The impulse is to pull back and creep along, gripping the earth and keeping to a familiar pace. It will not work. A greater effort is required, but that effort is unlike anything ever required before. Shifting into a lower gear may keep you feeling safe, but the wheels just spin twice as fast while covering only half the distance. Trying to stay grounded will wear you out long before you reach your destination. You will not make it over the hump.
No matter how counterintuitive this seems, the toughest transitions require a hefting of more weight, not less. Change has no mercy. It has no attention for resistance, cowardice, or the illusion of control. The starkest way is the only way forward: pure exertion. Crisis requires the courage to press pass the point of self-imposed incapacity.
Conquering the mountain is impossible, yet nothing could be simpler. Bear down. Engage the muscles. Brace yourself and rise up out of your protective posture. Allow momentum to carry you forward. The extra effort is unavoidable, but the mind and body are stronger than gravity. They are mightier than the imagination’s most clever tricks.
Increase the tension, lift your body past the pull of gravity, and climb.
Stories have a way of moving towards their proper denouement. The aforementioned boyfriend found his way to a partner and a purpose perfectly suited to him. Read about their adventures at 2cycle2gether.