When I was young I had a pretty diverse group of friends. From what I remember we didn’t pay much attention to gender or the typical stereotypes that often accompany being a girl or being a boy. I definitely played with G.I. Joes just as much (or more) as I did with My Little Pony. And even though this is nothing to brag about, we all took equal turns at ringing doorbells when playing ding-dong-digit.
A lot of my time in the summer was spent on wheels of some sort. First it was a Big Wheel, then a two-wheeler and eventually I graduated to a 10-speed. Riding a bike gave my friends and I freedom to travel at faster speeds and have new adventures. Back then not much else mattered. I just had to be able to keep up on my bike. And I loved, loved, LOVED riding my bike.
But then something happened…we all grew up.
Suddenly things like what I was wearing or how my hair looked mattered a lot more than how far I could pedal my bike. When my mom told me I had to wear a helmet I actually retired my bike to the garage. Back then my friends didn’t wear helmets and I didn’t want to be different. Eventually the excitement of being able to play all day gave way to the anxiety of not being good enough. To this day I’m not sure exactly what I was afraid of not being good enough for...but never the less, the feeling followed me throughout my middle school and high school years.
My parents did all they could to build my self-confidence. I swam, took karate, played an instrument, and was in the Science Olympiad (in other words I was a dork!). But no matter how many things I accomplished I was still more worried about fitting in. My biggest concern was if I was going to be picked on by the “high school bully,” who happened to be especially ruthless with me. I was too skinny, too tall, too ugly…too everything I didn't want to be. I tried to avoid him at all costs. When that didn’t work I tried to be overly nice to him. Neither approach worked and I always just ended up feeling bad about myself.
Things got better during my college years but they were nothing to brag about. I worked a lot, went out WAY too much, and lived a very unhealthy lifestyle. I didn’t really exercise unless you consider the fact that my friends and I often walked to the bar.
But then something else happened…I met my future husband.
His name was Scott and I was smitten. Incidentally we met at a bar, but little did I know that it was the beginning of the end for my “wild-college-going-out” days. On our first date Scott talked incessantly about mountain bike racing and the fact that he was going to buy a lighter bike. Our date lasted four hours and I’m pretty sure he talked about his bike for three of them. At the time I had no clue what the heck he was talking about but something clicked and I remembered that I had a bike too. It happened to weigh 40 pounds and had about ten inches of dust on it.
It wasn’t long after that I was dragging my bike out of the garage. And I’m not exaggerating when I say "dragging". The thing really did weigh 40 pounds. I put on a pair of sweat shorts, adjusted the cages around my tennis shoes, and Scott loaned me a helmet to wear. The helmet was completely ugly and covered with banana stickers, but I didn’t give a second thought to what I looked like. We started pedaling and the same feeling of freedom and adventure that I used to get as a child was back. I was hooked.
My second time around of riding a bike did not come as easy as it did when I was a child. There were a lot of tears, a lot of crashes, a lot of fears, and a lot more crashes. Trust me when I say that I might just hold the world record on crashes while learning to mountain bike. Scott will back me up on this.
I started racing about two months after riding, and I’m not quite sure how I got through the actual race. I had no clue what to expect. My biggest fear wasn’t if I could finish, it was that I was going to get in the way of everyone else. And as ridiculous as this sounds now, my second biggest fear was that I was going to wear the wrong thing to the race. I had bike shorts, a helmet and shoes, but that’s it. So the night before the race I spent quite a bit of time going through my closet. Finally I settled on a blue tank top from The Gap because it looked “pro.” Scott mentioned that everyone racing beginner would be in the same boat but it was lies….all lies! I pulled up to the start line and all the other women were wearing matching cycling kits. Instantly I was scared because everyone looked really, really fast.
However, all of those fears went away the moment the race promoter said, “Go!” Once I started pedaling I realized that I had MUCH BIGGER things to worry about. Not only did I crash directly into a thorn bush within the first mile, but I continued to crash anytime I saw a root, rock or tree. In other words, I was on the ground more than the bike. To make matters worse I was racing on a flat tire and never even realized that it was flat. Crossing that finish line was a HUGE moment for me. Not only was I incredibly relieved (I thought I was a goner in the woods) but I also felt really proud.
I remember looking in the mirror afterwards. I had scratches on my face, mud in my hair, bloody knees and bruises already appearing. For the first time in a long time, I REALLY LIKED what I saw.
From that point on cycling changed my life. Feeling good on the bike meant making healthy lifestyle changes. Riding my bike replaced going out. As my fitness grew so did my self-confidence. My wardrobe changed to jerseys and cycling shorts. And then there were my “too skinny and too long” legs that I used to be so self-conscious about when I was younger. They are still skinny, but now my calf muscles are disproportionately small compared to my quad muscles. My knees are covered with scars and I usually have a few purple bruises scattered around for good measure. In the summer I have such bad tan lines it always looks like I’m wearing white shorts and socks.
I’m sure the high-school bully who used to torment me would still think that they are ugly. The difference is in me. I could care less about what he or anyone else thinks. I am super proud of my legs and what they can do. In fact, sometimes I brag a bit when showing off my scars…I can’t help it. The scars aren’t just battle wounds. They are a symbol of a lot of hard work, a lot of sweat, a lot of tears...but also a lot of fun. They are a reminder that I am tougher than I ever imagined I could be, and that I shouldn’t be afraid of getting in the way of faster people during a race.
And most importantly, my scars are a reminder to always be cautious when going over wet bridges and to always cross a wet root at a 90-degree angle. They are a reminder of just a few very important lessons I’ve learned about riding a bike, but more importantly about myself, along the way.