Together, my bike and I travel places I’d never visit on foot or by car. The ability to traverse multiform paths—grass, gravel, dirt paths, paved roads—means I can easily take a new path or chase down a distantly glimpsed landmark, riding a mile in a quarter of the time it takes to walk and with no trouble finding a parking place. A key to that liminal space that still exists between human dominated and human shared space, my bike permits access to nature, even as I enjoy the city-life. I’ve raced alongside deer at dawn, surprised lumbering families of raccoons crossing a snow-filled path after dark, and enjoyed coyotes playing by a moonlit lake. A habitual amateur botanist and mushroom hunter, I often stop to examine species new to me.
In winter, many paths belong almost exclusively to a small subset of cyclists, payment for our endurance of Chicago’s lowest temperatures. In summer, we share, and in every season, cycling connects us intimately to the time of year, the time of day, and the weather outside—one gets caught in a rainstorm only once before learning to check the forecast, and I generally know what time sunrise/sunset is due.
As I am, to put it delicately, a well-fleshed woman, cycling is the only exercise I’ve ever done that lets me go fast. VERY fast, under the right circumstances. Over the past decade, increasing from occasional rides to twice daily commuting, my body has become accustomed to riding. The occasional ache or bump has never been enough to outweigh my ongoing pleasure in a bike ride. Feeling my childhood “thunder thighs” become thunderous in reality is often a near euphoric pleasure, as I manage terrains, inclines, and speeds not otherwise possible. On a bike, my body is about what it can do, not how it appears, and that is an incredible experience for a woman in America.
In more presumptive moments, I think it’s insane that anyone foregoes the mental and physical health, economic, entertainment, and environmental advantages of riding a bike to wait for a bus or maintain a car. Just get a bike and go! But then I remember that parents can’t easily transport kids to daycare by bike, that it’s challenging to ride a bike to work if your path lays on roads with heavy traffic and no bike paths, that some people have commutes so long or jobs so demanding that bike commuting is physically impossible, that bike commuting requires an investment in clothing, gear, and maintenance, that still others have physical, mental, or social hurdles to participation in this activity that I love so much. So I cherish my ability to cycle, respect the privilege, and advocate for access for all.
- Jennifer Howard