I don't know much about bikes, but I've learned a thing or two.
Thanks mostly to the bottomless encouragement, patience, broad knowledge and generous gear gifts from my dear partner Kevin (http://goldenpliers.tumblr.com), I’ve been fortunate to travel over much of Oregon by bike. As these two-wheeled adventures become known to my less bike-savvy friends, I’ve unexpectedly found myself considered some sort of knowledgable bike person. I feel somewhat burdened by this responsibility, since I’ve always taken a stance of curmudgeonly refusal to buy new gear, and idiotic pride in performing even the slightest mechanical efforts (“I adjusted my seat height!”). Dumb as I am, I’m still too prideful to admit it, and if you ask me a question about bikes (or anything, really), I will give you an answer that will lead you to believe I know a thing or two. Luckily I can usually defer to a humorous anecdote, or my live-in ace mechanic for bike knowledge. But honestly, I’m trying to give myself a little more credit and develop a little more confidence in this department.
For many unfortunate years I kept myself from participating in my friends’ bike trips due to a sense of lacking, in gear or knowledge or confidence, when it comes to bikes and bike culture. Ultimately I have only myself to blame for not hopping on the saddle sooner, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the intimidation factor of the racer-centric, male-dominated culture that is the bike industry. I’ve always felt there was no place for me (broke, noncompetitive, Queen of Hand-me-Downs) in a culture that thrives on pushing the newest-lightest-brightest-fastest specialty gear to its followers. The bike industry, like most modern industries, does its best to constantly render its own products obsolete so as to sell you the latest and greatest. A good friend of mine recently broke a mountain bike frame (one of his many talents) that was less than 10 years old. While it was covered under warranty, he could not simply replace the frame, since few of the components on the bike were compatible with the latest comparable frame. So now he’s got a pile of “outdated” parts, a broken frame, and an incentive to buy even more new bike stuff that will doubtless be considered outdated by the time I finish typing this post. This and similar stories are discouraging and befuddling for someone who seeks little more than fun and exercise from their bike, and can draw a line in the sand between “cyclists” and everyone else.
But deep in the belly of every body on a bike there is an animal moving forward by its own power; a sense of self worth, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, a simple joy at moving one’s body through the wind, and this is the part of cycling I understand. This allows me to forget about the money-driven clubhouse that seems to surround bike riding, to just go for a bike ride, long and slow, get some fresh air, pay no attention to how fast or far we go.
And so, in learning about and loving this tool, the bicycle, I’ve found a different cycling community, one that’s difficult to find in most bike shops. A dear friend gave me an old bike-swap bike (my first steel rig). The Durham Bike Co-op’s mechanics guided me through repairs with patience and kindness. A handful of lifelong friends just kept inviting me on rides. Kevin has been my Mr. Miagi for bike knowledge: first handing me a Rivendell catalog (far more than a mere catalog of products), then taking me on bike trips that crushed me, walking me through his best-ever tire patch method, tirelessly explaining the infinitesimal differences among handlebar curvature and stem length. He most recently guided me, with unfailing patience, through building my new Troll from the frame up. Finally I’m finding a place between the saddle and handlebars for my feminism, Midwestern pragmatism, DIY values, and a mild ignorance of what’s new or cool in the bike industry. They fit just fine. I’m lucky enough to meet more and more nice folks who share many of the same ideas about riding bikes. These kind people regard my bike style—overlarge baskets and eccentric bags built of mismatched scraps—with a sense of curiosity, or nonjudgmental wonder. So, in celebration of what I’ve learned, I’ve compiled a list of what I consider to be the most valuable and accessible advice for anyone who rides bikes, or wants to ride bikes more:
1 Appreciate the bike you have and celebrate what it can do, and how you won’t allow yourself to be limited by the perceived capabilities of any bike. Any bike will get you somewhere. Before you decide to spend a bunch of moolah upgrading your rig, push your current steed to the limits of comfort, load bearing, or off-road capabilities. This will make you a stronger rider, and help you determine what you really want or need if you do decide to upgrade your bike. One of my dearest bicycle guru buddies notoriously acquires the cheapest and filthiest bikes from police auctions (abandoned, recovered bikes) and builds them up with free, discarded parts into amazingly versatile go-anywhere machines. For years he rode a bike that was recovered from a harbor in Lake Superior after sitting in a watery grave for several years.
2 Go out on a ride ridiculously unprepared. Get lost, get rained on, MacGuiver some sort of repair, and learn from your mistakes. Getting lost often pioneers more scenic and less traveled routes that you can then share with a friend on the next ride. And being underprepared for weather or terrain, well, think of a hot shower after a full day in the cold pouring rain; a sauna after being caught in a snowstorm; a hot meal when you’re famished. A little deprivation can do wonders for your ability to appreciate the smallest of comforts.
3 Or, bring a bunch of stuff, because it’s fun. Pack for a day or a weekend like you are 7 years old and you are running away from home to live in your tree fort FOREVER. My favorite handlebar bag goodies: slingshot, deck of cards, pens and doodle pad, pot brownies, bikini, bandana, a warm beer, Yahtzee (score card, pen, and 5 dice work), Leatherman, a fancy chunk of hard cheese from the “$5 and under” basket.
4 Be friendly. Ding your bell at pedestrians. Reach out to people who show interest in biking. Let them ride your bike, poke at your frame bag, squeeze your tires. Recently Kevin and I were unloading our bikes at a trailhead, and started chatting with another cyclist, a woman in her 70s. She inquired about Kevin’s Surly ECR—an off-road touring bike with oversized tires—and he encouraged her to try it out. I can’t be sure whose joy was greater at the experience, with this adorable old lady whipping around the gravel lot on a bike comically oversized for her, smiling and calling out, “I always wanted to try a pair of these Jones bars!”
5 Eat too much, and ride too slow. You burn a lot of calories riding a bike, and getting hungry and then eating a lot is one of my favorite pastimes. A little bit of deprivation turns that basket of onion rings from a country bar into the finest meal you’ve ever had. A couple of beers with that basket of onion rings is probably going to slow you down a bit—all the more reason to take your time and truly regard the scenery, smells, and local people as you pedal onward. Stop whenever you want to, pick some roadside blackberries, pee in the woods, check out that old barn, stick your feet in that creek.
6 Wear your normal clothes. Cycling in normal clothes and shoes best serves you for comfort and practicality, plus you don’t look like a visitor from another galaxy when you roll into a bar or cafe for refueling. And when people see more bikers wearing regular clothes, they build an understanding of cyclists as regular people riding for fun and exercise, and are hopefully encouraged to do the same. One of my favorite warm-weather bike touring getups is a floral print cotton dress from the 1990s that I bought for five bucks at Goodwill. It is stretchy, comfy, and has great pockets in the skirt. I hacked the hem off above the knee and now it is too short but I still have good legs.
7 Girls: be girls. For ladies who ride bikes, riding in a group can feel like yet another instance where we are trying to make it in a man’s world. Ladies, if you are out riding with guys who can’t help but out-pace or out-skill you, don’t stress or talk down to or about yourself (“Sorry I’m so slow, guys.”) Instead consider the strengths you bring to the group, like your patience, kindness, or an ability to talk about things other than gear ratios and chamois chafe on the ride. You don’t need to play tough to play; surely guys in the group are happy you’re there to break up the machismo and bring some balance. Give unexpected hugs at the top of that soul-crushing hill. Pack cookies for everyone. Wear lipstick. Gentlemen, invite some ladies on a ride, and appreciate how a co-ed ride feels different (maybe more relaxed, less competitive, more fun?) than an all-dude ride. And let this translate more widely: encourage everyone in your life to ride with you—your old parents, your coworker who drinks too much—because it’s good for everyone.
To you, dear friends who ask me technical questions about bike gear: be patient with me. Slowly but surely I’m learning more about this fantastical pedal-powered machine, and as long as I find some utility in the information I’ll hold on to it and pass it on as best I can. Until then, I’ll continue to invite you on rides, even though you tell me every time how your tires are flat and your brakes kinda don’t work and you haven’t been on a bike in a long time. I’ll say come anyway; I’ll pump up your tires if you buy the beers.