Of Bikes and Men

I’ve just completed my first year as a full-time lecturer teaching writing at a state university, and this is, undoubtedly, the most anticipated summer vacation of my life. After nine months of being tied to my desk, of prepping, teaching, reading, and evaluating, of being saturated with fluorescent light and numbed by the institutional gray of my cement surroundings, I’m craving an experience that inverts all of that. And what I really want to do is to go for a long bike ride, to just pedal aimlessly through the open air.

Recently, walking in downtown Albany to meet some colleagues for an end-of-the-semester beer, I happened upon a guy who was unshackling his Surly Long Haul Trucker from its lock. The bicycle was this year’s model (in this year’s color of choice: Blacktacular), with 26-inch tires and fenders, a cute tan saddle, and handlebar tape to match. I knew what it was because I’ve been looking at bicycles obsessively online lately. I’ve particularly been looking at touring bikes, and have decided that I need to choose between a Surly, just like this one—the tried and true favorite among touring aficionados—and a Jamis Aurora, a less expensive, but potentially slightly less durable, touring bike.

Road touring via bicycle has been a fantasy of mine for many years: Traveling for days on end, my things loaded in panniers, a tent strapped behind my seat for road-side camping. With steady income and a three-month break ahead of me, what better time to rekindle this dream than now? The fantasy has always been just me alone, stopped on a desolate roadside. I can see myself perched on some rocks as the sun rises, writing in my journal, trying to capture the flow of thoughts that accumulated during my slow and meandering ride.

It’s a dream not just of being a road tourist, but of doing so via my own volition, powered by my own leg muscles. It’s also about capability and maintenance—I want to be skilled enough to easily change tire tubes, to know how to tighten spokes, to know my simple machine like it were an extension of me. I want to be capable—not because I need to prove that I’m capable, as I once maybe did, but because I want to be able to do what’s necessary in order to explore. Quite possibly it’s money that’s held me back from realizing this dream; the bike itself is one expense, but then there are all the accoutrements that come with it—shoes, clothing, panniers, lights, etc., which, when added to the expense of the bike, can easily add up to $2,000 or more. But I’m also rekindling this fantasy now because I feel like I’m finally over a stubbornness that once held me back from learning and pursuing. Once, riding a bike was about proving myself. Whenever I struck up a conversation about bikes, it always turned into a pissing contest. The conversation—and in turn, my pastime—wasn’t about wind on my face and the satisfying burn of my quadriceps at the end of the day—it always felt like it was about worthiness.

I was about to stop and chat bikes with this guy when another guy, a friend of his I presume, came up to him and started talking. The sight of the two men together forced me back into the center of the sidewalk as though I’d never planned to stop at all. Not that I assumed they were talking in exclusive dude code, or about the bike at all. But it just reminded me of what I’d come to dislike about bike culture—or any culture, really—where what gear you had and how well you could talk about it defined you, initiated you into some sort of elite. I just didn’t have the energy for it. I eventually realized I’d passed the pub, and had to turn around again and walk by the bike once more. I only ogled the Surly instead of stopping to ask how it handled downtown Albany’s potholed roads.

I realized then the reason I’d obsessed over the bikes online rather than just going to the bike store and test-riding one for myself. I was hesitant to dip into the bro talk of gears and components and “how she handled.” I was afraid to walk into a bike store and admit that I didn’t really know that much but I wanted to learn, because I’d been turned off by gear-mongering dudes who would throw out component stats in a know-it-all way. I didn’t want some dude asking “disc or cantilever” and me saying, “Well, I’m not sure I know the difference,” and then having to watch the disappointment on his face as he said, “Oh, really?” I didn’t want to have to be the helpless female.

For years I’d ridden a vintage Bianchi road bike. I’d wielded it as currency—it gained me entrance into some sort of special bike-nerd club, and it just looked snazzy, painted Bianchi’s signature celeste green, with mid-eighties decals (probably ‘87 or ’88, as one bike mechanic informed me). People often recognized me as the girl who rode the green bike. Men were always coming up to me to comment on it, which made me gloat a little. Several times I almost sold it, some guy saying, “God, I’d love to fix that thing up,” or, “I can take that off your hands for you,” and offering me a few hundred, as though the bike was more than I could handle.

But the bike was my transportation. For years I had no car, and my second year of college I lived several miles from campus in a hilly, northern Arizona town. In the mornings it would take me five minutes to cruise down hill, and in the evenings, after my night class got out, it would take me the better part of an hour to inch my way back up the steep hill, my red tail light blinking a feeble warning as traffic whizzed by, the wind of the cars too close as I navigated the narrow shoulder. But I was strong, in shape, and happy. The bike was my counterpart.

I learned to brush off patronizing bike-shop repair guys who would always say things like, “Careful on that bike, it’s awfully big” or “I’m guessing you just use this bike to get to school,” as though commuting was a lesser form of appreciating the bike, and that I didn’t really ride it. What really bugged me was the judgment I always felt, that almost always came from men, that I just wasn’t good enough for my bike and that it would be better off in more capable hands.

Their condescension chafed, perhaps because in some ways it was justified. It’s true: I couldn’t list what kind of shifters the bike had. I didn’t have clip pedals or a fancy biking jersey, and for two years I rode around with the handlebar tape unraveling until I finally had it redone. I was terrible with maintenance. One bike shop guy said I should strip the paint off the frame and re-do it because tiny, pinhole-sized holes would eventually work their way into the steel. But I never did.

Despite my shameful lack of maintenance, I rode that bike. I didn’t have a speedometer, I never rode in a big pack with other bikers, and I didn’t enter races. I used the bike for getting lost. Sometimes I would go for 65-mile rides on a whim (I’d later clock them in a car or on Google maps). I’d be gone for four or five hours at a time, exploring. After Arizona, the bike and I moved back east, and even in familiar territory in Massachusetts I would get lost on back roads. I’d ride down into Connecticut, sometimes not even realizing I’d crossed states. I’d know only when I hit certain stretches of road with castle-like mansions behind thick stands of maple trees, when I’d ride by Salisbury School and Hotchkiss, their telltale rolling green campuses and elite brick buildings reorienting me. Then I moved to northern Michigan and rode my bike along quiet forest roads, Lake Superior glinting off to one side through a stand of conifers, me always looking for little access routes that would spit me out on a rocky, empty lake shore.

There’s a certain way of getting lost that’s applicable only to bike riding. It brings you far enough out of your comfort zone in a way that’s hard to do when walking. Riding my bike in territory that I’d only navigated by vehicle I discovered the scenery was completely different. When I slowed down I absorbed more detail: Roads I knew often became strange, and the experience was as thrilling as exploring new, uncharted terrain. The way the familiar suddenly became unfamiliar was disorienting, and it forced me to relinquish control, forced me to trust that my bike would get me back to safety, no matter how long it took.

Now, at the end of my first year of full-time teaching, as I sit back to assess this career I’ve entered, as my life fills with adult responsibilities and any chance for adventure is channeled into scheduled time slots—I need this sense of disorientation. If it rains when I’m out there, if it’s blistering hot, I’ll be at the mercy of the elements. If my bike breaks, I’ll have to know how to fix it. Going somewhere, even if it’s nowhere in particular, will be my only goal.

After Michigan, I moved to a city with no bike lanes, where drivers liked to lean out their windows and flip me the bird. Once, one stopped quick, just inches from hitting me as if to teach me a lesson. I stopped in the middle of the road and glared back, developing a sort of road rage—a particularly lethal one since I only had two wheels beneath me. After two weeks of this, I gave up the rage. I didn’t have time to work hard at being a city biker. I took public transportation instead. I turned 30, and the bike that always had been just a little too long for me started hurting my back in a way that it never had before. I retired the bike except for occasional rides.

And what I’m realizing now is how easy it would be for me to retire the current touring bike obsession, to tuck it away down in the cob-webby basement alongside the Bianchi, as one of those passing summer fancies, which never really takes hold all because I’m intimidated by know-it-alls. It just feels too tiring to have to have something to prove. It really has little to do with my actual capabilities and a whole lot to do with how I fear I’ll be perceived—particularly as a female buying gear. And so part of me is worried about getting caught up in the pissing contest, of being too proud, which always has disastrous results. And so, as my fantasies rise up on the possibility end of the summer portal, before the summer has ever really even begun, it’d be so easy to snuff them out, to pretend they never really existed, to never have to enter that world.

But then, what I really want is to feel myself cutting through the summer air, to feel my own heart working to get me up and over hills, to feel the rush of rolling down the other side. And so my goal is to do it without getting caught up in the whole worthiness question. Because it’s that feeling of getting lost that I want to reclaim, and that makes the challenge worth it.


I recently listened to a memoir called Lift by Rebecca K. O’Connor. In the book, O’Connor tells of her experiences keeping and training a peregrine falcon for hunting. She chronicles her mishaps (several times she loses the bird but manages find it again by tracking via receiver) and provides a glimpse into the strange world of bird handling—how to capture a hawk out of the wild, how to train birds using a lure, how to rip the heart out of a raptor-caught duck to ensure its quick and painless death.

Interspersed throughout her experiences training her falcon are stories of her childhood—of her mother abandoning her, of molestation, of sexual harassment from strange men when she was a teenager. Her story is about her attempt to regain control of herself, how being able to handle this bird would somehow signify she had control over some aspect of her own life. But her bird is stubborn with a wild disposition and does things seemingly just to piss her off.

Falconry is a notoriously male sport, as is hunting in general. Time and again, O’Connor comes up against men who seem to question her capabilities. The men—her boyfriend, the man she buys her peregrine from, another man who helps her train—never overtly tell her she’s incapable, but their scrutiny is always there, the criticism implicit in the ways they try to instruct her on how she should train her bird, even though she’d been at it for nearly a decade. She recounts an experience she had when she used to fly birds in a show. Her boss was an “old-time falconer,” who wouldn’t let her fly the falcons:

I thought perhaps I was too clumsy, or perhaps inept in some other way too embarrassing to point out. Yet I trained other birds to catch grapes in their beaks, streak across the stage and fly breathlessly close to strangers. I know I was a good bird trainer, but a part of me still believes there must have been a reason I was denied the falcons. Surely it couldn’t have been just because I was female. Yet this fear is partially why I’ve never put a peregrine on my license.

On one of her encounters losing the peregrine, her boyfriend challenges her tracking skills. The man who helps her train scoffs at her suggestions even though she knows her bird’s personality by then. None of these attempts at help are overtly sexist—they could just be more experienced falconers trying to aid someone who is a little bit less experienced—but there is nonetheless a patronizing sense of “Let me show you how to do this, sweetheart.” It burns O’Connor, and she takes every opportunity to argue with these men, constantly trying to prove herself, that she can handle this bird, that she won’t fuck it up. And throughout the whole book is her paranoia that she will fuck it up, that she really isn’t capable.

It’s a sentiment that I and so many women I know can relate to. We seethe with frustration when some guy tries to tell us how to do something we already know to do, and then we feel insecure and like maybe we actually aren’t capable. We have the energy to stand up for ourselves, but by then the doubt is already instilled and can’t be erased. After all our fuss, we really can’t fuck it up. The doubt eats away at us, at our self-confidence. Sometimes, it prevents us from trying new challenges, and we snuff out our visions. We don’t want those doubting men to be right, so the easiest way to ensure that is to never try at all.

The next time her bird flies away, O’Connor nearly gives up. She almost doesn’t go back out to track the bird. She thinks maybe all those doubters are right after all.

But then of course she changes her mind. And she finds the bird at dusk, his crop full with a meal. The next morning she returns at dawn, and her bird flies down to her. In the end, she does know what she’s doing. Even though she did some things differently than the more experienced falconers she knows, she knew her bird best. Some of the instances of finding her bird again were dumb luck, but it becomes clear that it wouldn’t have been different for any falconer, no matter how experienced. Ten years after getting her falcon, she explains in the book’s afterword, she still flies him.

The book brought back so many memories for me. I didn’t like to go biking with the boyfriend (whose best friend sold me the Bianchi for $150) who first got me into bicycles, who had won all sorts of races, who could have taught me about Shimano components and how to tighten my hubs. There was always that feeling of being talked down to that would make me bristle. I know I’ve been too sensitive, too proud, and a little insecure. Of course that boyfriend knew more, but I needed the space to try and to fail for myself, a space that far too often isn’t respected.

As summer creeps up, as the leaves are out in full, trees in bloom, sunlight stretching all the way to 9 pm, I suddenly find myself with a wide, open expanse of time. I’m rekindling old desires. And I’m trying to resist the self-doubt.

Not that I question my capabilities—I know I can learn. But I’m certainly resisting putting myself in the position where I feel compelled to prove myself to a bunch of gearheads. But maybe I’m over that now. Hopefully, I can just take advice without feeling like the advice is some sort judgment on what I know, or worse—who I am. Of course not all men are patronizing, and sometimes women can be just as much. But it’s those experiences of men being competitive or talking down to me that stick with me, that make me feel angry, and then make me feel doubtful. And then it’s those doubts that allow me to let me fantasies slip away before I realize them. I know I’m going to have to take some pointers on 26-inch tires versus 700 centimeters, on cantilever breaks versus disc, on steel or aluminum. And I can bet you—I’ll bet you anything—that that advice is going to be coming from a man. But I don’t need to let a few machos sully the experience for me. I just need to stay focused on the goal: a nice, long bike ride. A way to get lost again.


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