My road bike is eleven years old. I bought it at a tiny bike shop in Kingston, NY. At about $1200, the bike remains the most expensive piece of exercise gear I’ve ever purchased. That year, I also purchased a magnetic indoor trainer so I could ride my bike indoors during the winter. I can clamp the rear axle of my bike into the trainer which holds the bike upright and applies pressure on the wheel, allowing me to ride in place.
I accumulated these items and a bunch of other equipment in 2011 and 2012 — the peak of my “cycling years.” I started riding on my 38th birthday in May 2009. I’d joined Weight Watchers that year and I needed to do some type of exercise that I didn’t hate.
I’m not a naturally athletic person. I hated the idea of forcing myself to exercise every day (I’d been that route before). Biking sounded fun, so I bought a heavy hybrid bike from a chain sporting goods store, figuring I could ride around my neighborhood.
The hybrid was a beast, weighing over 45 pounds. I weighed about 165 pounds. I would soon learn that this was a lot of weight to drag up the many hills that dominate my little corner of New York. I’d set a goal of completing a 10-mile ride by the end of that first summer and I was determined to achieve it.
I could barely ride for more than two miles at first. I often found myself gasping for breath as I walked my bike uphill (feeling defeated and fat and weak.) But by the end of the summer of 2009, I reached my 10-mile goal and even surpassed it. I was riding a dozen or so miles a day, five days a week. I’d also dropped about 20 pounds.
By the time I purchased my shiny new road bike from my local bike shop in 2011, I’d lost 50 pounds, dropped ten clothes sizes, and become fitter than I’d ever been in my life. I was riding an average of 15–20 miles every weekday and pushing 30 miles on weekends. I had lofty goals. I couldn’t imagine ever being sedentary and out of shape again.
But, as so many people have learned over the last year, sometimes life gets in the way.
My cycling years came to an abrupt end on August 25th, 2012, the day my 11-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. It was a Saturday and I’d gone for a long morning ride with a few fellow cyclists. I’d left my daughter at home with her father. She’d had a stomachache and I remember talking about it as we rode, worrying about her pain, saying something just didn’t seem right because she’d been feeling off all summer.
I’d cut the ride short at 20 miles, eager to get home and check on my daughter. They’d waved to me, my fellow riders, as I slid my bike into the back of my car and hurried home where I would find my daughter pale and in pain. I would take her to the walk-in clinic first and then to the hospital where life, as we knew it, would instantly change.
That Saturday was my last long ride.
It’s been so long since I’ve stood up on my bike, pushing down on the pedals while my heart feels close to exploding, using my weight and the bike’s momentum to scale a hill. I still remember how it felt to use my own body to drive the bike forward. I still remember marveling at my strength. For the first time in my life, I hadn’t hated my body. You can’t hate legs that have the power to carry you 10, 15, or 20 miles on a single ride.
For years, managing my daughter’s illness consumed every spare minute of time. There was no room in my life for long morning rides. The risk of an accident was too great too. My daughter needed me, I reasoned. I had to stay safe. My stress level was essentially a high-keening wail for the five years of her illness. I didn’t sleep well or eat right. My hard-won fitness quickly dissipated. The pounds piled on.
My daughter died in March 2017 and I retreated into my grief for a while. The only exercise I could manage were long, gentle walks in the woods with my tiny dog.
In the last couple of years, I’ve tried to get back to cycling. My bike remains mounted on its indoor trainer, where it has mostly collected dust. Over the years, I’ve climbed back into the saddle a few times, determined to train so that I can get back out on the road. I usually last a few weeks before I give up.
My body is heavy and difficult to manage. I’ve gained all the weight back, plus more. I hate my legs and my belly once again, perhaps even more so now that I know what my body could achieve. I could sell the bike and the trainer, sell the shoes and cycling gear, but something’s stopping me.
There’s a part of me that can’t let the bike go, some steely center that hungers for the rush of triumph I felt when I stood up on my bike and crested the steep hills. It’s not just about losing weight anymore, although I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that weight loss is part of it.
Three weeks ago, I climbed on my bike for the first time in over a year. The old muscle memory still worked. I filled the rear tire with air (115 pounds), replaced the battery in my (ancient) heart rate monitor, updated my exercise playlist, and started riding.
I have one goal with training — get strong enough to ride on the road in April. I harbor no delusions that I’ll lose a huge amount of weight between now and then (though 15 pounds would be a nice place to start.) Every pound shed is a pound I don’t have to drag uphill.
Even now, only three weeks into training, I’m remembering how much riding helps with everything. You can’t rush training. An hour on the bike is an hour on the bike. Impatience works against you. It saps your resolve and your strength along with it. During this time of perpetual lockdown, when I can’t go anywhere anyway, riding helps me slow my impatient brain. It reminds me that my body can be strong.
I will be 50 in May. That might seem old to get back in the saddle, but many of the people I rode with a decade ago were in their fifties (with some in their sixties). I can do this. I want to do this. I finally have the time to do this.
Strength is an old road bike that sits in an obsolete trainer and continues to bear my weight, no matter what it may be. Strength still lives in my legs, that can push the pedals forward for 15, 30, and (soon) 60 minutes a day. Strength is watching the trees speed by from the saddle of a road bike, cresting a hill, and relearning how to fly.