People ask me all the time how I got into cycling. My initial response is to explain that I started cycling in Colorado. Which is true to some extent. I was living in Colorado when I went from the casual 5-10 mile rider to a less casual 15-20 mile rider. I bought a road hybrid bike and began to commute to work–20 miles each way–a few days a week. It was in Colorado where I found my masochistic love of climbing. The frequency of my cycling increased. I became a bit more obsessed. It’s true Colorado, with all of its hard-core sport-oriented population, ignited my love of cycling and took it to all new levels. However, I wasn’t cycling then nearly as many miles as I do today. The increase in mileage and frequency of cycling actually happened when I returned to Ohio, after I bought a road bike and started riding with Akron Bicycle Club.
But none of that really adequately explains when it all started. When I really trace back the origins of my cycling, it goes much, much further than that. Growing up in the safety of a residential area, and in a time when parents could leave their kids unattended for hours without a worry, I was never without a bike. The first bike I remember clearly is the pink Schwinn (I don’t remember what model it was) that I got when I was ready to go off training wheels. It was the bike I learned how to ride–really ride–on. I vaguely remember my mom teaching me to ride it (sans training wheels) in the parking lot of Kidder Elementary one summer afternoon sometime after I got the bike. I don’t remember if I was fearful or brave about the experience, only that I was filled with a determination to ride the bike in the same way I remember a fierce determination, years later, to learn to ski. It was a challenge, I knew, that would lead to fun adventures ahead and I wanted to do it.
Once I was an expert cyclist, I’d to ride up and down the street with the boys of my neighborhood, particularly Scott–my best friend in those early years before we both ended up at the same high school and it was no longer “cool” for boys and girls to hang out as friends. We put baseball cards in my spokes so that our bikes would make a noise as we pedaled which we were convinced sounded like a motorcycle. On our imagined motorcycles, the mailboxes were the drive-through windows for McDonald’s and Burger King or the pumps at a gas station. We built ramps in each other’s driveways and I jumped them bravely (something I know I would never do today!). We played Voltron, riding down the street in formation as we screamed, “Form legs and arms.” I was Princess Alura in Blue Lion; Scott was Keith in Black Lion; and sometimes my brother would tag along as Pidge, the Green Lion pilot (I don’t think he liked this role too much–he got it because Pidge was the short kid character on the show and my brother was younger than us).
I can’t separate riding bikes from my childhood memories. I loved riding so much that even when I was at my Grandma and Grandpa E’s house, I would make my Grandpa drag out my dad and my aunts’ old bikes so that I could ride them up and down the sidewalk on their street and, sometimes, around the block. I loved the different feel of these older bikes. I loved the freedom and speed of getting away from the confines of my grandparents’ childless house where there were not a whole lot of toys for me to play with. On a bike, I was able to explore new territory and escape supervision. I loved the freedom bike riding gave me.
One year, I even participated in a ride for multiple sclerosis designed for younger kids. There was a one mile loop around the high school and after completing each mile, a volunteer punched your card to record how many miles you’d done. All my relatives and neighbors had pledge to sponsor me by the number of miles I did, most of which were giving me 1-5 cents per mile. Scott’s dad, however, pledged $1 per mile and had playfully told me that he didn’t think I would do more than 5 miles. It was a challenge to me that I took with the utmost seriousness. I ended up riding a grand total of 20 miles that day, not only surprising the pants off of Scott’s dad, but also impressing the heck out of my entire family. The funny thing is, I don’t remember being tired that day. Because my grandfather had MS, I had a fierce determination, which continues today, to raise money for the cause. And that I did.
When I was older, maybe about 11 or 12, I got my second bike–a twelve-speed “racing bike,” I called it. It was gold and had the now-familiar bent handlebars of a road bicycle. I wanted a bike like this so bad because I dreamed of going easily up the little hill on the street in front of my house with the ease of gears. Even then, I was picturing myself climbing hills. All the older boys in the neighborhood had one of these cooler, sleeker looking bikes and for me the upgrade was a status symbol. I was on a grown-up’s bike now. Of course, I laugh when I remember how heavy that bike was. By today’s standards, it’s hardly a “racing bike.” I’m not even sure it was a racing bike by yesterday’s standards.
I rode that gold bike well into my teens, even after riding a bike was seen as less than cool in my age group. Before I had a license to drive, it was my only means of solo transport to my friends’ houses, babysitting jobs, and sometimes to the bank when I needed to deposit a pay check. I probably stopped riding it shortly after I got my license. Teenage life was about looking good and you’re hair gets all messed up when you transport yourself by bicycle.
Time moved on and soon I was in college. Hiram, being a small campus and very hilly, is not conducive for bike riding. I did bring my bike to college the first year I was there, but I only rode it once. One afternoon, I thought it would be a good idea to use my bike to grab lunch in Garrettsville. The 3 or 4 miles along Route 700 from Hiram to Garrettsville is somewhat rolling with a huge climb at both ends. While I could easily do the route today with my current physical condition, the last hill into Garrettsville really knocked me out. I did “grab lunch” at McD’s, ate it there, and was hungry again by the time I returned to Hiram. I think that was the last time I touched my bike while attending Hiram.
The biggest lapse in my cycling happened between college and meeting Mike. Ever the outdoors man, Mike had a bike and encouraged me to go riding with him. On my birthday in 1998, he bought me a mountain bike (really, a trail bike)–Gary Fisher Gitche Gumee. We began riding the Akron Metro Parks bike path and Stow Bikeway (then unpaved) and the towpath with some regularity. It was just another one of the things we did, though, between hiking, backpacking, and jumping out of airplanes. I rediscovered that youthful feeling of freedom cycling provides.
I signed up for my first MS 150 in 2000. Though I’d never ridden more than 20 miles at that point, I completed the whole first day’s 75 miles. I did not come back to ride the second day, however. Mike didn’t join me in the ride, but after watching my brother and I do it, he wanted to ride it the next year. He even had signed up for it, but, of course, he died before that could happen. The day he died, in fact, we were supposed to meet up with a friend to do a training ride on the towpath. I’m still rendered breathless when I think of signing in at the registration table for the 2001 MS 150 and the lady handing me my packet asked, “There’s one here for Michael F—. Is he riding?” I guess she assumed, correctly, since we had the same funky long last name that we were of the same family.
“Um,” I gulped. In the newness of my widow status, I didn’t have any prepared answers for situations such as these (which I would later). In those seconds, I wanted to spill it all. I wanted to give a reasonable explanation for his absence, as if simply being absent would besmirch his dedication as a cyclist. But in the end, all I said was, feeling very small, “No.” And I walked away, stricken. (I’d also spent a good portion of the night before crying on the telephone while talking to my father-in-law).
Anyway, I guess that first MS 150–the one in the happy days of 2000 before I was widowed–kindled my interest in distance riding. Though I didn’t return to do another MS 150 after the 2001 one until 2004 in Colorado, it was always on the back of my mind to actually complete a long ride. Unfortunately, I didn’t complete both days of the MS 150 in Colorado, but I did complete the entire first day–long climbs and all–and forty miles of the second day (which also included a lot of hard climbing). I didn’t complete a MS 150 until 2006 in Ohio.
I guess though I’ve always been a cyclist at heart, and I’ve had a lot of cycling influences throughout my life, the truest origin of my cycling craziness began in the years following my husband’s death. I needed something that could momentarily relieve the aching of my grieving heart and give me additional, healthy, jolts of energy. A lot of the coping mechanisms I employed in the beginning were unhealthy, such as smoking and a bit of heavy drinking. For the longest period in my grief, I approached life with a sort of reckless abandon. I felt like the floor could disappear beneath my feet at any moment. Because of this, I didn’t care about polluting my lungs with smoke or drinking myself to sleep at night. Every time I got into a car, I wondered if I would get into a car accident and die. Sometimes I feared (and almost welcomed) that I wouldn’t wake in the morning. I needed to do something healthy–something physical that I could control–to break this depression I found myself in. I found that when I was cycling, I needed only to focus on the task at hand, that I could lose track of my darker internal thoughts. Additionally, the endorphins from the workout made me feel whenever I was feeling numb. Cycling made me feel alive again. I felt like a kid, riding on a single gear bike up and down the street with Scott and the other boys of my neighborhood, free and full of the world.
In a lot of ways, I think cycling saved me. It was an activity that didn’t belong to the part of me that was Mike and Mars Girl. It was something he and I had done together some, but when cycling alone started to dominate my passions, I made it my own. And it’s still my own. Even though I know that had Mike lived, and had I become obsessed with cycling, he would certainly have matched me in the ferocity of passion for cycling. He also liked to challenge himself and I’m sure he would have loved to do all the rides I’ve done. It’s useless to think about him doing things I’ve done since he can’t. And I’ll never know what it would have been like to cycle with him. Still, sometimes when I’m out with my bike club, or I’m in the middle of a ride by myself, I imagine what it would have been like to have Mike pedaling beside me. I wonder if he would have loved to climb hills like I do, if his natural ability for sports would make him faster than me or if a bicycle would equalize us. I think about how he would have loved to get to know some of the people I’ve met in the club (in fact, whenever I’m with a new group of people I’ve just met, I am always able to pick out the people I know Mike would have liked and gotten a long with). I guess thinking about how our spouses would respond to the worlds we’ve built for ourselves post-marriage is just something we widows do.
Whatever I might ponder about the “what-ifs” and “would-have-beens,” cycling is the first activity I found for myself in my new life after Mike. It allowed me to experience the world in new ways with bike trips to Italy and Germany, throughout and across Ohio, through the mountains of Colorado, and–this summer–the Pacific Northwest. Cycling has given me a great way to expand my social network and meet new people, which makes me feel a little less alone. I’m thankful for the continual exposure to cycling that I’ve had throughout my life that allowed me to find the activity again at a time when I most needed the distraction. Little did I know when I was putzing around on my little pink Schwinn that I was starting on life long journey that would continue well into my 30s… and end up in the land of complete fanaticism… where I’d find myself accomplishing amazing feats of distance and endurance that I could only imagine in my wildest childhood dreams….
The Bikes I’ve Owned:
– Pink Schwinn (model unknown), ages 5 to 11?
– Gold “racing bike” (model unknown), ages 11-17?
– Gary Fisher Gitche Gumee, 1998-2005 (traded it to an ex-bf for his older telescope)
– Trek 7500Fx, 2003-2009 (sold it to another ex-bf)
– Giant OCR 1, 2006-present (my road bike)
– Surly Cross-Check, 2009-present (my touring bike, on and off road)
– Specialized Rock Hopper (1996), 2001, 2009-present (Was my husband’s bike, then I gave it to Diane in 2001; Diane, upon getting a new bike, returned it to me. I am going to do something with it, but I haven’t decided what.)