Riding a bike as person who is female, 23, not white, and until only about 2 months ago, not a licensed driver is a powerful thing, for myself and for others to see and engage with. I walk into bike shops full of late 20s, early 302 white dudes and hope they don’t give me shit for not being able to tell them what’s wrong with me bike. The already assume I won’t know what I’m talking about so it irks me even further that they’re right. We can talk about how with all the “things” I am, I am expected to perform at a much higher level to be taken seriously, just to get my foot in the door. I can also tell you where all the bike shops in Brooklyn are that won’t do that to you and even one thats owned by a woman in Bushwick, whose kid comes in all the time. Im afraid they’ll see right through the toughness and autonomy that I feel when I’m on my bike and that somehow because they’re fixing the medium for that feeling, they are responsible for my experience. When my bikes out, with a fat or some broken gear shifter or the literally ten things that have been wrong with either of my bikes this year, I’m out too. But I brave the shops and haven’t had too negative an experience with those dudes yet. I take care of my bike because it takes care of me and that’s what I want to talk about.
I came by being a bike rider (I hesitate to call myself a cyclist because I know some serious cyclists and you know, I don’t have any special shoes or anything — look at me qualifying myself in regards to dudes. Maybe I’m a cyclist, okay?) by accident. I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn last summer, as did my job. My then boss practically forced my to borrow her very cute, very expensive bike while she was out of town. to get a feeling for it. Mind you I had no intention or inclination towards any kind of biking, especially in New York. My mom still has my black and purple Walmart mountain bike from when I was ten in the garage. When I attempted to ride to work a few times during a summer break from college, my mom told me I looked like Kermit the Frog, knees bent at my sides to ride the child-sized frame. Biking was not for me. No. I am not graceful, athletic, coordinated or even particularly in control of my limbs. Having never fully learned to drive, I didn’t feel at all comfortable on any kind of wheels on any kind of street. The street was for other people. Bikes were for other people, primarily intimidating white dudes with big backpacks, no helmets, and one pant leg rolled up (why, someone please tell me). It was a world that was not or me. I would be just fine learning how to navigate the trains as a regular commuter, thank you.
I picked up my bosses’s bike from her apartment in Greenpoint, awkwardly maneuvering the long spotless frame from the fenced in yard to the forgivingly quiet victim/witness-less street. On that first day, I rode from Greenpoint to my best friends house in Prospect Park South. Admittedly it took me about an hour and I was scared and uncertain for a good portion of that hour. I was not a natural I did not exercise much. It was hot. I was afraid of passing cars and definitely uncertain about the intersections. Forget about left turns. But the good greatly outweighed the scary, sweaty, and awkward. So I kept riding the next day, and the days after that. I learned a route to work and came to love the feeling of cruising down the big hill that Ridgewood, my old neighborhood sits on, riding the breaks the whole time of course. I learned to take my place in the morning traffic on Grand Ave, squeezed between parked cars and big trucks, living in near constant fear of opening doors (I’d never thought I’d fear doors before biking in Brooklyn.) The patterns began to feel comfortable and the habit formed. By the time my boss got back to Brooklyn from her trip a week later, I’d already met a girl from craigslist by the Pulaski Bridge and purchased my first bike as an adult. A week later, I purchased a second bike after the first was stolen from outside my house, after learning the important lesson of, in the time it takes you to run upstairs to your apartment too pee, yes someone will in fact steal your bike at 4 AM so always lock your bike up. This time, the bike stuck with me. A tan 3-speed cruiser with brown and orange stripes and 70s-style type spelling “All-Pro”, that I named Beatrice.
That September was about a lot of kinds of freedom for me, all of which were processed, enabled, and punctuated by my newly discovered bike life. I biked everywhere. I bike everyday to and from work. I bike to happy hour. I biked over bridges for the first time (Have you ever biked from Greenpoint to Long Island City, over the Queensborough Bridge, to the Upper East Side, and then back through the darkest most deserted part of industrial Queens late at night because don’t.) I bike to my friends in far reaching (East Village) parts of New York. I loved biking to work in the morning and arriving at the office with my mind and body already awake and active. I loved riding at night, being able to leave my friends and have thirty minutes of solitude and dark and focus with my bike and thoughts only. I saved money. I saved time. I learned Brooklyn. I learned to use only my physical strength and this machine to get myself around.
A cute autumn of riding around carelessly was met with the worst, most miserable winter I’d seen in New York ever. By the end of November, I’d locked Beatrice to the the fence in front of my apartment where she’d stay, frozen, often covered in snow (bring your bikes inside kids, or they will rust and be so sad) until April. I stubbornly took the L to the G, miserably shuffling and sniffling, hazy and sad with the other commuters everyday, until the weather broke. I happily resumed my relationship with my bike, after our winter hiatus. I rode into spring and eventually summer. I rode to meet dates where I’d proudly proclaim that I just did so and if they didn’t think that was impressive and adorable then, well I can’t tell you what would happen because they always found it impressive and adorable. I started riding to and from work again, but not joined by my best friend and coworker on much needed lunch break trips to the grocery store or the deli. We’d play music from our phones in our pockets as we’d ride around Brooklyn, a girl bike gang of two. I got more comfortable on the road and with my physical relationship with the bike. I still had a clunky and heavy (I’ve definitely almost gotten trapped under it heaving it up the two flights of stairs to my apartment before I called it quits on that idea) cruiser that loved to get flat tires and need tune-ups but it was mine.
Part of the appeal of biking to me comes from existing in the body and in the experience that I have and the performances of my identity, with my bike. Even in Brooklyn where many more people bike, when pulling up to a red light with another women or another person of color, though never spoken or expressed in any way there was a certain weight to the moment. It’s kind of like the secret of, we are not intended to be here but we are going to be here until we are part of this conversation, around who this space, this bike lane is for. Besides subverting the expectation of who a cyclist is supposed or allowed to be, the reasons to continue riding, based on who I am and my values and my identity are numerous. I feel safer, as a young woman when I ride my bike than I do on public transportation or on foot. I feel good and strong, riding with a group of girls late at night. Our presence is intentional, don’t get it twisted. We know what it means to be seen riding together and we are sending the message that we belong on the roads just as much as anyone else. Practically, I ride because it’s my way of getting around. I don’t have money for a car or really interest right now in contributing another car to the roads. Riding is my way of saving and hustling for the next steps in my life. It makes me feel powerful, as a girl with a college degree but from a background of “making it work” to be able to say that my way of getting around helps me make it work. My bike is my way to work, to the grocery store, to run errands – it is my way.
When I decided in April that it was time to leave New York and try out the west coast and travel, I made a list of all the things I had to do to make that move happen. This list included selling all of my furniture and getting rid of a lot of belongings. On the long list at the very bottom I wrote, “Sell bike (last week of August).” From this point on, I made every effort, just as I did with my friends I’d soon be leaving behind, to make the most of my time with that bike. I rode everywhere still but with that special feeling you have of wanting to remember how good you feeling in a moment. I rode through open fire hydrants. I rode through Brooklyn to catch fireworks over the river, catching glimpses of explosions in between buildings. I rode with a backpack full of ingredients seemingly at any given time, which upon my arrival at my destination I would assemble into a dessert trifle, a big salad, or pulled pork sandwiches. I rode over the Williamsburg Bridge late at night with a basket full of cookies to bring to a girl I would shortly fall in love with, waiting for me in Manhattan. I rode to drink coffee alone outside on Saturday mornings, seeking the buzz of caffeine and sunshine. I rode home many nights and days, stopping to cry a couple hundred times (a bike is a good place to cry.) I rode to the ocean and back, the best 30 miles (maybe second best) I’ve ever spent with my best friend. The story of my bike and I is the story of my summer and how this part of my life has come to a close. I happily and tearfully sold my bike on my second to last day in Brooklyn to my mentor and friend, who I hope is riding around Prospect Park being adorable and powerful right now.
So now I’m in California. No, not LA. Kind of far in fact. Upon arriving in the very hot, very suburban town of Upland, I felt nearly immediately, out of control. Control is a very big thing for me. I’ve always been independent, able to take care of myself, get around by myself, go on about my business by myself. Then here I was on the other side of the country, with no income, all my friends far away, and a 30 minute walk in the high 90s from anything at all. I felt so stuck, so quickly and so intensely. I set out to buy a bike that first day. i walked four hours in 93 degree weather, looking for anything, talking to the local bike shop guys who only had those fat tire cruisers and intimidating little fixies to sell me within $200 of my budget. That evening, I met someone from the internet (a process that has rarely failed me) who sold me a cyan 10-speed road bike, which I named Zuzu, a name which I find appropriately weird and cute. It took some getting used to, this new bike. A new way of getting on the bike, shifting, and steering, from my old, very upright and comfortable cruiser bike. We are still getting used to each other but after I took the bike on the commuter train and two busses to meet a friend in LA that first weekend, the bond was inevitable. With this bike I’ve learned something that contributes strongly to the feeling of freedom that I appreciate so much in riding which is speed and even grace. From my high seat and low stance, I feel in tune with the frame, like the bike is an extension of myself, a self that needs all the help and strength and confidence it can get at this point. Having this bike has helped me work through all the feelings that came with the move, the feelings of isolation and hopelessness around getting myself to and from anywhere without a car, in particular. Now I love the feeling of early morning rides to the bus station, battling downtown Los Angeles traffic, and occasionally heaving my bike over my shoulder to climb the steps at Union Station. I’m learning a whole new set of habits and memories here, with the aid and company of my new bike.
There’s also something special about riding and relying on a bike in a place that is so car-centric, especially being again, all the things that I am. I feel that my presence on my bike on any road, on public transportation, locking my bike to whatever I can find in a suburban parking lot, is subverting the idea that you absolutely need a car to get around or enjoy California. I get looks when I insist on bagging my groceries in my big canvas backpack that, like my bike, has become an essential part of my new movements. I am forced to plan my day and consider according to my body, my energy and strength. How many library books should I actually check out, considering I also have to buy groceries? How long does it take me to get down the incline that the house where I’m living is on in the morning, as opposed to climbing that same incline in the afternoon? When will it be cool enough outside to leave and where will I able to stop for water or a break? In this way, I feel more aware of and in concert with my body and the environment, in the same way that drivers might be aware of rush hour and commute times. I’m bringing my urban upbringing and ways of life to a suburban lifestyle. I’m building my trust in my body and myself, as well as autonomy and physical strength each time I place foot to pedal.
I’ll soon be continuing on with the next part of my move, finding an apartment in LA, a little closer to my job downtown. I really only have two parameters, as far as the location of my new place. It has to be within biking distance of downtown, and please oh please a decent coffee shop with a cold brew (Call me a new wave Brooklyn snob.) Riding has gotten me through the past year of shifts, switches, ends, and beginnings. I can trust that it will get me through whatever is next, if only I’d stop getting so many damn flat tires.
(All images by Joelle Riffle)