At the start of April 2016, I could count on one hand how many times I’d ridden a bike since I was a kid. But by the end of that summer I rode round-trip on my mountain bike from Brooklyn, NY to Croton-on-Hudson, NY—about 50 miles each way.
So how did I transform from a self-proclaimed “not outdoorsy” person into somebody with a mean biking habit? It all started at a flea market.
For those familiar with anxiety disorders, it’s no surprise how it can shrink your world. For me, that meant I was living in a carefully constructed comfort zone, one that did not include physical activity. Exercise was something other people did. “Getting fit” meant sweating a lot and operating machinery I wasn’t sure how to use. Whether the machine was some sort of gym equipment or a bicycle made no difference, because just being in public and moving my body meant feeling uncomfortably exposed.
I’d only ever really power-walked as exercise. For a while, it was my main form of exercise because it didn’t feel out of place with all the other fast-walkers in New York City. Plus, I didn’t have to go out of my way to do it.
So one day, at that flea market in Brooklyn, I found myself forking over 120 bucks for a slightly rusty, but serviceable, used bike. (The only thing I find more anxiety-inducing than feeling vulnerable in public is wasting money, so I bought that bike to trick myself into riding it—and it worked).
With a hunk of metal staring me down (and taking up a LOT of space in my tiny apartment), I had a reasonably motivating incentive. My next step was to preemptively address every barrier that could keep me from riding (I’m tired, it’s scary, etc.). I can always come up with a reason to avoid doing difficult (or just annoying) things, so I identified three ways to support my new would-be riding habit.
I studied up.
If I feel under-equipped with something, I almost never follow through. I knew I had to demystify cycling in order to stick with it. Bike culture (a community of tight-knit people who seem to know a lot about biking) can be pretty insular, but there are tons of amazing organizations (like 718 Cyclery, Sun and Air, and WEbike) who emphasize that cycling is for everyone. After all, it’s a cheap, accessible form of transportation, a great alternative to cars or the subway, and it’s relatively easy exercise.
I started with 718 Cyclery’s Bike Maintenance classes, which are free and designed for beginners. There are women-identifying and non-binary classes, too, which I found less intimidating. YouTube was also a great resource for asking those questions I was too embarrassed to ask because they felt so obvious (how does the chain work?). Hint: Obvious questions are only obvious once you know the answer, y’all.
I built routes and routines.
I’m a routine kind of person. I need structure. A lot of my nervousness around cycling came from unanswered questions: Where am I going? Am I wearing the right thing? Will I have to ride in traffic? What if I get a flat? These are totally valid questions. So much so that there are cycling classes that address them in detail!
Because of my lone-wolf nature—in addition to my social anxiety and general stubbornness—my strategy was to set aside low-pressure time to address each question, within my comfort zone. That meant roping in my friends who were comfortable with cycling for weekend rides.
I also mapped out every route that could be part of my schedule and made friends ride with me during the weekend, when traffic was lighter and I was on no sort of schedule. We rode from my apartment to work (and back), to the cafes I frequent, the grocery store, and my boyfriend’s house. We also found all the bike lanes along the way.
I used my navigation app to pinpoint every bike shop on those routes, too, so I was never far from a quick maintenance stop in the case of emergencies.
I took a “How to Change a Flat 101” class (in which no dudes were allowed!) just in case. I got extra crappy leggings and tee shirts to ride in, stocked up on wet wipes (for “showers” at the office), learned how to braid my hair to prevent helmet hair, and starting leaving clean clothes at my desk. It was a lot of prep, but I felt so much more comfortable and capable knowing everything was accounted for.
I found my people.
My boyfriend is an avid cyclist, which was a huge help in the beginning, but I’m also an #independentwoman so I branched out significantly on this front.
Women-only cycling groups were a lifesaver; I was able to plug in with some feminist groups that created inclusive spaces for women or non-binary identifying people to ask questions, learn together, and have positive cycling experiences outside of the pressure and mansplaining that often comes in more traditional cycling atmospheres.
I also realized there are a ton of people just like me who ride casually or commute by bike but are by no means ride-or-die biker types. I started casually bringing it up in conversation and discovered friends I had no idea rode bikes and could offer tips. Bonus: Biking is a great way to spend time with people doing an activity that requires minimal talking!
In the end
Ultimately, finding my people, building routines around cycling, and demystifying all the scary parts of biking led to empowering myself. I liked the challenge. That’s how, a mere two months after I picked up my “baby antelope” (that’s what the bike shop guys call my tiny white trek antelope bikie), I was riding 100 miles round-trip from Brooklyn to Croton-on-Hudson.
I wouldn’t suggest picking up a bike and doing this the next day, of course. Having built up some strength from bike commuting for a while, along with having a support network of more experienced cyclists, I felt equipped to take it on—and I did!
Moral of the story: Go a little bit at a time, find your pain-points, ask questions, and push yourself a little further than you thought you could. Riding my bike has empowered me to take on other adventures I felt too nervous or incapable of attempting, has given me a new form of transportation, and makes me feel strong.