When I turned forty, I devised a list of new goals, one of which was to get back in shape. I look at all of these celebrity women who are forty-plus with great abs, posing in their bikinis on the cover of fitness magazines, and think, “There is hope.” They look fabulous, and I find it both nauseating and inspiring at the same time. When I see images like that, I think, “If I could just start to carve out time to exercise, maybe I can get there. Well, not there, exactly, but at least in the vicinity … I’d be happy in the next town over.”
So a few weeks ago, I took my old Trek mountain bike up from the basement, dusted it off, and brought it to a local bike shop to get tuned up. Then I went to Target to get a new helmet because, believe it or not, my old one was a bit worn.
I used to ride my bike often when I was single and living two blocks from the Chicago lakefront. I bought it after I broke up with a serious boyfriend, and it was such a wonderful thing. Nothing shakes you out of the blues like a ride in the fresh air and sunshine. But it’s more than that. There’s something about the freedom you get when riding on a bicycle—it’s liberating and empowering and is a great opportunity to clear your mind. And there’s also that link to childhood that you can’t detach from the experience.
When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs, my best friend and I would go everywhere on our bikes: to the park, to the pool, to get a hamburger or ice cream. And I don’t remember it ever feeling like work or “exercise”—it was easy and fun and just a practical mode of transportation.
Later, riding a bike in Chicago as a twenty-something adult brought back that same feeling. I’d ride along the lakefront, dodging joggers and looking out at the sequins of sunshine bouncing on Lake Michigan. I’d ride on the city streets, dodging potholes and parked cars opening up their doors, looking at shop windows and bustling people as I’d pull up to a Starbucks for a treat.
So the idea of getting back on my bike after nearly ten years, strapping on my helmet and feeling the wind in my face, was very alluring. Now is a good time for me to feel that sense of freedom and fun again.
I had my bike back from the shop for nearly a week but still didn’t get a chance to ride it. With work and young kids and busy weekends and errands, there are always other things to do. But on Sunday, I saw a window.
It was late afternoon and the kids were playing in the backyard, an activity that could occupy them for quite a while. My husband was sitting outside, keeping his eye on them, while listening to the game, and I realized that this was my opportunity to sneak out for one quick ride around the block.
I let my husband know I’d be back soon, but didn’t say a word to the kids. This type of escape is best likened to a prison break: as long as no one sees you leave or questions where you’re going, you’ll get away. And I did.
I rode out of our driveway, feeling like a kid again. Turning onto the street, I headed down the big hill that curves around our long block. Faster and faster I went, picking up speed. The wind was whipping my hair straight back, and I was probably catching bugs in my big, toothy smile. I couldn’t help it. It felt so great to be zooming down that hill, no pedaling required. I had the fleeting thought that I hoped the shop had checked the brakes, then just enjoyed the ride.
I zoomed down and followed the road as it curved around. I felt like I was twelve again! Of course, when the momentum faded and I had to get back up the hill that lay in front of me, I no longer felt like a kid. I felt like an adult. An old, out-of-shape, forty-ish adult.
I also hadn’t fiddled with the gears much and, to be honest, couldn’t remember which ones were best for hills. I used to ride in Chicago, people. We don’t have hills in Chicago. I could pedal for miles, since the streets there are about as flat as my hair on a zero-humidity day. This was different.
Ugh. Push ... grind … move … forward. And then, as I was struggling up that hill, two teenage boys came around the corner, holding their lacrosse sticks. I felt like a complete idiot. There I was, furiously pedaling and desperately switching gears, trying to find the right one to get up that little hill. Panting and starting to sweat, I swerved around the street, alternately standing and sitting on my seat to get leverage with the pedals. “Look at that crazy lady,” they must have thought.
I employed my NYC-subway rule: make no eye contact, and maybe they won’t see you. I kept my head down and kept pedaling. I laughed at myself when I got to the top and my legs could rest again. Ah, flat road ahead.
When I got back to our driveway, I thought I could probably squeeze in one more go-around, but decided against it. I felt woefully out of shape after that one little ride, and didn’t want those kids to see me walking my bike home on the sidewalk. But hey, I’d made it around once and would just keep building up my legs. Baby steps.
Although the effort involved to get up that incline was humbling, it didn’t diminish the thrill of flying down that hill. Nor did it erode my desire to do it again.
To feel like a kid again, to get outside in the sun under the blue skies, and to have that same sense of abandon that I felt when I was twelve was so energizing. There’s a certain freedom that comes with riding a bike, be it at twelve years old, when it allows you independence and the ability to get places by relying only on yourself, or at forty, when you don’t have anywhere in particular to go and don’t want one. At this stage in my life, getting somewhere isn’t as important as getting away. It’s a different kind of freedom, but equally important. It’s doing something for yourself, with only yourself and only your thoughts. Even ten minutes makes a difference. And it made me feel like me again.
I guess getting back on a bike after not riding one for years can be intimidating. Sometimes there are hills, and they can be challenging. And yes, you may even make an ass of yourself as you try to navigate your way up one. But the sense of pride you get once you make it to the top, and the fun of zooming back down, make taking the chance of getting back out there worthwhile. After all, if you never pedaled up the hills, you’d never get the thrill of riding down them.