When Rapha, searching for their Women Ambassadors, asked me to write about why I loved cycling, it was easy for me; I write about cycling on my blog all the time – how it saved me, how it empowers me, the joy it brings me. I’m brimming with words on the topic, which is why it struck me as odd that I couldn’t quite articulate how I felt when I was chosen to be part of the program. Is there a word for the feeling of your body preparing for total humiliation? Is “Oh shit” an emotion?
I had written extensively on my blog about how cycling had saved me from crippling anxiety. Illnesses and incursions had left me with a complicated distrust of my own body, and I became a paranoid hypochondriac. The slightest heart flutter sent me swirling into panic. But on a bike, the heart flutters felt like engine revving. I would whisper to myself, “this is your body working, this is your body getting stronger.” Bonking, wiping out, carrying my bike home three miles after ripping off the derailleur, riding 20 miles, 30 miles, 80 miles, I did it. A solitary struggle on the road, a battle with my body to gain ownership of it again, to prove who was in control. Cycling didn’t just give me nice calves, it gave me my life back.
But there’s a difference between proclaiming your love and proving it. Here I was shouting from the digital rooftops that I’d found something so precious, and Rapha showed up and asked to see it. I was nervous about adding up, about fitting in, about losing this thing that had become mine, that if it turned out I wasn’t good at it, if I didn’t know the right things to say or the right lingo, that it would disown me, that being discredited would take it right out from under me. I was being sent cost-free to a villa in Malibu with like-minded women to spend a weekend doing what I loved and I was scared out of my mind.
The ambassadors were being flown in from all over the country but Malibu was my stomping ground. It was where I rode canyons and dodged surfboards and doors on the Pacific Coast Highway. So, when they showed up one-by-one, starry-eyed by our surroundings, it was easy to hide I was starry-eyed by them. These women were people who won things other than participation ribbons. These women were athletes. And I was supposed to be one of them. What if they hear me panting up the hills? What if they can’t hear me panting because I’m so far behind them? What if I get dropped? Dear God, what if a car has to come get me?
It was a crisp Saturday morning when we were lining up for our first ride together as ambassadors. For 18 months I had been clipping in to SPDs with hand-me-down boys mountain bike shoes with broken buckles. This was my first ride in my own shoes and my first ride on road pedals. Someone was telling us about the route, about how very steep the descent was, about how there had been a bad crash recently, and I was shaking like a rattle. All I could think was, “I am going to humiliate myself.” I wasn’t even listening because I was trying to clip-in to my right road pedal, for the very first time, and then toppled over onto Rapha’s very own Jeremy Dunn.
“Sorry! First time on road pedals!” Everyone laughed.
With the humiliation section of the morning seemingly already begun, there was nothing to do but ride.
Women whooped and hollered, settling into their drops for a swift descent, and I was fumbling to clip in to my second pedal. My hands were frozen in a stiff grip, excited trigger fingers on the brakes. The familiar wind of a ride cooled the beads of sweat on my neck as I picked up speed. Ahead of me, each woman leaned into the turn like a ski racer and I smiled: it was the first time I was chasing ponytails down a descent.
Out on the ride that day, we switched positions throughout, leaders and tails, getting to know one another. Stories of injuries and kids and jobs and bikes, passions and heartbreak, stories that always somehow ended on the bike. Stories just like mine. I was telling Lindsay Knight, a fellow ambassador, about my broken buckle shoes and how the new road pedals felt.
“Oh, I thought you were kidding when you said it was your first time,” she laughed. I smiled, because we were riding together, in cadence side-by-side. She was a cyclist, and so was I.
Day two, we were leading a ride from Bike Effect in Santa Monica. We would be on the road as ambassadors in our matching kits. We were going into the canyons with strangers following our lead. I had spent hours and hours of ascents up serpentine canyons by myself, checking one more time that I really couldn’t shift down anymore. Coming around a corner to see at least one more winding climb ahead, yelling at the road, “are you kidding me?!” On this climb though, when I was struggling for air, two cyclists came up beside me. “You know, we can see when you hit this point,” offered one. “Fill your belly with air, like too much air if you’re not on the bike,” said the other. And they coached me up the hill. And with them, I was stronger. With them, I was faster. With them, I was powerful.
This power source I had held so dear to my heart, guarded so carefully, afraid it would be taken from me, it grew stronger next to those women. It was the first time I felt like part of a team, the first time that cycling didn’t feel like mine or theirs, but ours. And all of a sudden it felt profoundly selfish to keep that to myself.
It’s been three weeks since that weekend. I’ve been on my bike every day since, commuting, riding with Bike Effect, riding with men and with boys, with women and with girls, riding canyons and 70-mile PCH loops, up climbing neighborhoods and through busy thoroughfares. My heart flutters all the time and I love it. I’m having the time of my life.
Cycling is where I found my strength, it’s where I found power not just on the bike but in myself. Because you don’t turn around. You don’t stop climbing. You just breathe deeper. On descents, I howl. I whoop in tunnels. I sing on straightaways. I found something better than freedom on my bike, I found a place I belong, I found confidence, self-assurance, bravery, and more than that, I found home. And all I want to do is welcome others in.