11 July 2008

Riding Like A Girl

"You throw like a girl!

That taunt ruined gym class for me for life. I heard it more than once, not only from other kids, but from teachers, too.

I never quite mastered the manly art of throwing a ball. However, I got pretty good at kicking one. So I played some soccer (football to the rest of the world) when I was in high school. We didn't have the same cachet as football or basketball players, but those of us on the soccer team nonetheless had the same privileges as other athletes in our school. Among other things, we didn't get the shit beat out of us by the school bullies.

Since I no longer had to throw a ball, people forgot that I did it like a girl. Or, at least, they stopped reminding me of it. And I forgot about it, too, for a long time.

And I didn't hear about the other things that made me a "sissy." Like the way I talked: my emotional, descriptive and, at times, adjective-laden speech was mocked by teachers and other kids. So I talked less and less as time went on. Then I acquired new labels, like "high-strung."

The thing about bicycling--which I continued all through my teen years, my twenties, thrities and early forties--was that there was hardly anyone in the place and time in which I grew up who could criticize the way I did it. Oh, some mocked me for riding at all when I should have been behind the wheel of a gas-guzzler. But no one seemed to know how a boy or a girl pedalled.

And, more often than not, I was riding alone.

So what's different about my riding now?

Well, for one thing, I don't do nearly as much of it as I once did. There were years when I rode my bikes more miles than most sales reps drive. These days, getting out a couple of times a week is a big deal for me.

But even if I were still riding 360 days a year (Yes, I've actually done this!), I still don't think I would be riding the way I once did.

For one thing, I simply don't have the physical strength I once had. My doctor said the hormones would do that: Sinews and muscle would turn to flesh. That's the way of being a woman.

But something else is different: my attitudes about riding. For one thing, I used to feel that I absolutely had to ride every day, whether or not I felt like it. It's true that I raced for a time and I did some touring on a bike laden with camping equipment through the Alps, Pyrenees, Green Mountains, Adirondacks and across the mountains of California and Nevada. You certainly have to be in some kind of shape to do that. But, while those feats were arduous, they were hardly Herculean.

The mountains...They were there to be climbed upon, conquered, subjugated. I realized this the day I did my last long, steep climb: up the Col du Galibier. While a long, struenuous climb, it's not the most difficult ascent of the Tour de France route. Arguably, that distinction belongs to l'Alpe d'Huez, which I'd climbed earlier, ahead of the TDF pack. Getting up those mountains was not just about the conquest of them; it was also a matter of pushing forward through the muck and mire of this world, of my life, on my anger and sorrow.

When you conquer something, you can only be a stranger. You can never be part of what you conquered and it cannot become part of you. Somehow that is what I learned that day when I pumped my way up the Col du Galibier.

As I began my descent, I recieved a message. It wasn't visible or verbal; somehow it reached me. "You don't have to do this. You'll never have to do this again." I mouthed those words to myself; I had no idea of where they came from. I hadn't the slightest idea of what they meant. Of course, I don't have to do this, I mumbled. But how could I not? What am I going to do? Ride around the block to a craft shop? To Sunday brunch? That's not real bicycling, I told myself.

But the message, whatever it was, took hold of me. I wasn't trying to show my exquisite bike-handling skills as I descended those turns through a glacier, fields of wildflowers and finally part of a farm. My senses filled with the smells and colors of flowers and field. "You don't have to do this anymore"--the message repeaed itself.

Later that day, I reached a town called St. Jean de Maurienne, only a few kilometers from the Italian border, just as people were walking or riding home from work. I stopped at a traffic light. (Yes, small-town gendarmes pull cyclists over for running red lights.) Back in those days, I resented any intrusion on my bursts of speed and power. However, that day, I knew somehow that I was stopping for more than a red light.

The light turned green. I didn't click my feet into my pedals. Instead, I straddled the bike as cars made semi-loops around me and, diagonally across the intersection from me, a slender middle-aged woman in a long button-front dress accompanied her shadow along a beige stone wall. Her steps were not meant to push away the distance between her and wherever she was going. Instead, her every step took her further into the sunlight that blazed between that brick wall and wherever she was going. No doubt she wanted to get there quickly; however, she did not seem to be pushing toward her destination. Rather, it seemed, the light and air were drawing her toward it, and she was following and being filled by them.

I had no trouble imagining her following the moon. However, I could not imagine her conquering a mountain.

Needless to say, the rest of that tour was very different. So is the tour I have taken as Justine.

This afternoon, I took a short ride I took through some local back streets and to a recently-opened open-air mall (where I checked out the bike and shoe stores), under clear skies on a very warm day.

I was filled with that light, that ride, even if , in spite of all the ways in which my current bikes are beter than the ones I've had before, it seemed that I was expending as much of my strength as I did when I was climbing the Alps. Yes, I'm out of shape, but I have an excuse: My body has changed permanently.

But more important, my spirit has, too. I was on the bike today. I got fresh air and sunshine in return. The guy in the bike shop complimented my bike; a guy driving home from work yelled "nice legs" as he passed me. Heck, I even stopped for a cat I saw looping around in the yard around a house. And--no film-maker could make this up!--the cat, a pretty calico, tiptoed toward my hand and rubbed her head against my fingertips.

Even Lance says it's not about the bike. His life hasn't been about cycling: cycling has been about his life. He got up l'Alpe de Huez, le Col du Galibier and all those other climbs faster and with more elan --actually, more like la force vitale--than any other rider. He ran--pedalled--for his life, not to get away from or conquer something. Nobody conquers anything in order to stay alive; one simply lives and is not consumed by his or her circumstances or choices.

If I recall correctly, he said that around the time of his fifth Tour win, he was really starting to hate cycling. Of course I can't presume to know what he was thinking. But I would guess that he was trying to live up to the conquests that the press and other people thought his victories in the mountains and "over cancer" were. Also, I wonder whether he simply got tired (literally and figuratively) of pushing his body to its limits every day of his life.

Not to impute my own feelings to him, but I felt something like that, too, during my last conquest--the one of le Col du Galibier. Descending that mountain, I began to learn how to ride like a girl--or at least like Justine.

By the way, I'm getting rid of my last bike jerseys. I'm selling them on e-Bay, with the proceeds going to the American Italian Cancer Foundation.