I eagerly anticipated 8th grade graduation since my brother had been awarded a brand-new $280 10-speed on the occasion. My own graduation came and went without a mention of a bike, and my frustration at the unfairness was practically unbearable. Yet, an upgrade from the now childish Huffy was mandatory. Babysitting over the summer for some cash, I luckily came across a decent bike for $50, a spotless antique suspended in a garage collecting dust. An unlikely find in that small cow-town, it was a vintage British 3-speed Raleigh with a classic women’s frame. My legs stretched to the pedals and I felt taller, stylishly continental. I rode it to high school now, and it got me there, but many mornings I wished its ponderous durable steel could be a bit more nimble to outride procrastination, but it was unsuccessful.
Senior year was spent at a foster home in the country, keeping me busy with farm chores. The second home was back in town, in the suburb. This family had a phenomenally sophisticated wall-sized sound system with reel-to-reel, tuners, huge speakers, everything. There was something about the depth of sound in those headphones, tuning out all my circumstance with immersion into a few records: Genesis, Yes, etc, and another favorite. Just an instrumental album with a simple guitar melody called Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter. There was something about that one song in particular- I heard faint glimmerings of something unfamiliar. Replaying it many times, I heard a simple contentment with the feeling that if it was in the song, it was somewhere deep in me. I stayed there a year in that stifling town, working in a strawberry packing plant, having had to wait to enter the military since I was just 17.
Then the auto accident and discharge, all that. Moving frequently and without a car, one old 10-speed or another found at garage sales got me to whatever various eccentric jobs I could find. My first car was $350, had an AM radio with no FM no cassette player. Pathetic that some thieves stole it.
During my late 20’s raising my kids, they got little trikes and little bikes and I was the busy mom. It seemed I worked to pay for the car that got me to work. And I worked to pay for childcare, and for their lessons, and all the sports. At least the station wagon had a higher-performance engine and a decent CD player with better sound than at home. Just as well because I practically lived in that car.
When the kids were in middle school, I was happy when we could afford a whole family of bikes, something we could all do together. My first brand new bicycle, embarrassed to admit now, was a Trek Y-Frame mt. bike, hoping the kids would trail ride with me. We got moving, exploring easy bike paths.
Half of marriages don’t last; our little family finally tore apart at the seams when I was around 35. By then, marriage had drained me, the divorce exhausted my savings, and the only job I could hold wore me out feeding horses and cleaning stalls. I needed freedom and youthful memories beckoned. So I searched for a fast bike I could afford. I found it in the back of a compact boutique bike shop smelling like tire rubber, a hushed place except for the occasional bell that announced the door. Hanging forgotten on the consignment wall, a Lemond thoroughbred had been assembled custom 5 years earlier to race. Now it was slightly outdated, and a dent on the top tube had put it out to pasture. It was steel though, so it was rideable enough for me. $300 was my entire savings, but then I discovered it’s not just a bike; special pedals needed special shoes. Drawing a fashion line though, I was not going to wear those silly latex Spiderman outfits. Until I rode more than 10 miles and my butt demanded it. And those pockets in the back of the shirt were kinda handy for snacks. That’s how addictions reel you in, just a little bit at a time…
Finding something in common, I started meeting other cyclists. One taught me how to draft, my skinny front wheel only a few inches tailing behind the bike in front, saving precious energy in the slipstream. The person in front pulls while the person in back pedals with a little less effort; the riders take turns pulling. Working together, the cyclists can go faster. Truly dangerous at 20 mph, I felt effectively blinded by the back of the cyclist a foot in front, and extremely vulnerable. He pointed at the ground with various hand signals to warn of upcoming road hazards. Touched by this silent language of trust and camaraderie, I was hooked. Cycling wasn’t necessarily an individual, isolated pursuit after all; this innate concern is essential to the sport for safety, especially among competitors. Each rider’s personal space encompasses the others, the peloton having to think and act as a group with an entire protocol of etiquette. This attitude seems to attract quality people I liked; my new life expanded with friends.
I realized that cycling exercise could help stabilize the life-long effects of brain injury. (I have since found that strenuous exercise is another way to stimulate the pituitary gland, a daily prescription.) My physique toned, lost some weight, grew stronger. My daughters would see me taking care of this new machine, cleaning the chain and setting out on an afternoon ride a few times a week. I started setting goals: 10 miles social 30-mile group rides once a week seemed a such a long distance. The next year I went for a century, 100-miles in one shot.
The following year, the only next-step-up was racing, even though I would be almost 40 and competing against women much younger. So what? We only have this one life. Sadly, my old companion the Lemond was too heavy, so I started looking for the upgrade. There were so many styles and brands to consider, mostly Italian. I discovered my bike hanging in the window of a small shop at the edge of a country town, an American-made Postal just like one in the Tour de France. I could never afford carbon fiber, but I tempted myself with a test ride anyway. It took my breath away with how responsive and smooth it was. It had been on display for almost a year, looking sharp and pretty for a town full of farmers. Beyond my budget, that bike was still meant for me so I made an offer and borrowed some money.
My old Y-frame was clumsy and heavy, but I was having so much fun tossing it around the turns like a tomboy again. I met friends who introduced me to true mountain biking: epic fun in nature with unadulterated happiness, maneuvering over rocks and tree roots, even 24-hour races with serious climbing and dangerous obstacles, wearing miner headlights at night. To race, I borrowed a superlight Schwinn Homegrown, the last racing bike they made in the states before the brand was sold to China. The bike is outdated now. I wish I could fix it up like an old classic car, but the fork is an odd size. I also borrowed a unique aluminum single speed from a guy I was dating. When meeting other riders on the trail, they recognized me by recognizing the bike. Oh, you must be dating so-and-so…
Eventually I bought my own, a lime-green Specialized Epic demo that had seen hard use on a trip to Utah, but that little dent on the chainstay reduced the price in half. It served me for five years all over the country, then I gave it to my daughter and then she raced with it. During Autumn when rain turns to sleet, Cyclocross takes the stage. Combining road and sand and mud, with no-rest-for-the-wicked, brutal suffering, it’s fun.
By the time I was 41, cycling was a lifestyle. I trained every day, planning what to eat and when, how many miles to ride and how hard, when to recover. Training hard all winter in the basement, the Lemond was now riding rollers. I-pods with tiny earbuds became essential motivation, to assist a meditation of effort spinning in place for hours. All summer I’d ride whenever I could; biking was the priority and work not so much. Ok, maybe it was an obsession, but I won a pair of socks or bike parts every now and then. Did I win races? No, I wasn’t a contender but that wasn’t the point. Racing seemed Walter-Mittyesqe, with cheering friends out on the trails and at the finish line. I did place at the last race of the year, sprinting to the line all out, neck and neck, winning a tiny trophy.
A riding friend did triathlons too. She asked me to watch one up at the lake with her when her boyfriend had entered but she felt under the weather. Then she said I should enter. I didn’t yet know her well enough to recognize her devious side.
“Me? I’ve never done one.”
“Its not that hard.”
“Brenda,” I said. “I don’t know how to swim.”
“Its close to the jetty, only a quarter mile.”
“C’mon, you’ll kick ass on the bike.”
So there I was the next day, standing on the beach with the third wave of competitors, not even sure how to pin on the number and someone had to correct me. Who needs to train for a triathlon?
The first wave set off splashing in the water, then the second, then my group. Wading out as they churned off ahead, I casually began a swimming style known as “modified dog-paddle.” Only halfway on the course I was winded and fortunate to find a jetty rock with my toe to rest a few seconds as the 78 year old woman in last place glided past like Esther Williams. Looking behind me to see the Coast Guard boat hovering closer to net me out, that would be just too embarrassing, I steeled my willpower to keep going. I was so mad at myself by the time I got out of the water, I transitioned to the bike and took off, marking and passing riders in succession. The run was decent, passing a couple more. I ended up finishing mid-pack, only a few minutes behind the leaders. If I had known how to swim, I could have been a contender.
I signed up for an adult swim coach. I remember telling him, you know, I’m finding its getting more difficult to train hard. It used to be my internal motivation felt like someone cracking a whip, but now I feel more content. How do you motivate yourself without someone getting on your case?
I loved the lifestyle, eventually tattooing two bike chains around my ankle, one broken with all that implies. I had truly discovered and reinvented myself.
Wanting to make the sport more accessible to underprivilaged kids in the city, I set out to build a velodrome, the oval track sport one typically sees only during the Olympics. I met my second husband mt. biking, who introduced me to challenging all day rides climbing up steep mountain ridges and careening down through wilderness forests.
As goals progressed, what could be next? How about a 500-mile ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles in one week with fellow wounded veterans. I had joined the Ride to Recovery event to raise money for a good cause. I respected the program and knew personally that cycling had changed my life. They turned out to be inspiring, helping me more than I could have helped them. Some had only just started riding a bike only a few weeks before; some were amputees fit with special-made adapters on regular bikes. They all joined on to the aim of riding 500 miles. No one whined about the wind, or sore butts, or the hills; the only point was helping each other finish each day. Some had lost both legs and rode hand cycles.
They could fly down hills at 50+ mph being so stable, but hills were a special challenge. Their go-cart cycles had poles mounted on the back so regular cyclists could help push while riding with one hand. Another cyclist would push that one’s back riding one handed, and yet again another cyclist, up to three riders in a phalanx helping the hand cyclist. While riding with them, I began to open up about my experience. I found a few others who also had brain injuries, and we could laugh about similar mishaps. The other veterans didn’t judge me about anything, my injury, the nature of my disability, how much I did or didn’t accomplish. I had enlisted just like them, and had to recover back to a functioning life just like them. It was the first time in my life I had been included unconditionally, helping dissipate the old shame. Thank you, R2R.
The next year my husband looked up from his breakfast cereal and said, “lets ride our bikes across the country.” “Sure, lets go.”
All those years before, participating in just about every kind of two-wheeled activity there is, I’d see touring cyclists all loaded down with stuff, plodding along so slow, mile after mile of highway. I’d shake my head in disdain thinking, I Would Never. Yet here we were, pedaling 30-lb beasts of burden carrying 40 lbs of gear each, setting off across the Western Cascades when it was snowing. Our ride meandered over to Idaho, into Canada and down into Montana and Wyoming, laboring up passes at 4mph, really breathing in the crisp air and experiencing the intense beauty.
Burning 6000 calories a day, each meal was the most delicious (fill-in-the-blank) we ever had. All the challenges and mishaps, camping and meeting people, would fill another book. We made it only 1500 miles, then unexpected surgery for me. It’s on my bucket list to eventually finish, until he looked up from the couch and asked, “you want to go on an adventure with me? Mt biking off road 2600 miles on the Great Divide from Canada to Mexico.”
“Yes, lets go.”
There was one late-Spring day, finally warm after a too-long winter training in the basement, when I just wanted to ride for a few hours by myself. No speedometer or training intervals, just enjoy the park road winding under the trees. I had downloaded some new music on the IPod, a sampler from the library. I felt truly happy. Life is Good. Rounding a bend by the river, coasting through sunbeams sparkling the park’s peaceful road, the first guitar measures of Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter unexpectedly began to play. I hadn’t heard that simple guitar tune in three decades. My God, time suddenly disappeared. I was right back in the forgotten foster home, listening for the faint silver threads of the contentment I was feeling at this very moment on the bike. The full force of this sudden connection, the wholeness of the life and unity in one epiphany, brought me to tears. I found myself pouring my heart into praying hang in there, girl, hang in there, you’ll find it… and felt my younger self hearing echoes of birds singing in new green leaves.