Updated: Dec 18, 2020
When I became bike-only after my car was totaled a year ago, I thought my life would change dramatically—for the worse. But mostly it hasn’t. I’ve saved a ton of money on my new free transportation. I have friends who live nearby. And I’ve tried to be mindful about where I meet up with other friends—I don’t want to make people always come to me. I found a meditation center I can bike to. I enjoy my Ballard weekends: friends, yoga, barre, boyfriend, library, groceries. I can bus downtown or hop on the 44 across town, always prepped with warm clothes, music, and a book. Sometimes I think “I should really get my car washed” or “I wonder if it’s time for an oil change” and then remember that I no longer have a car. I never have to walk into a mechanic’s shop and listen to a greasy-handed man ask me for thousands of dollars just so I can move through the world. Biking feels like I’m getting away with something.
But if I’m being honest, most of this year I didn’t bike as far I could have. And truth be told, I probably did miss out on some get-togethers because I decided it was too cold, rainy, or far. That is, until two months ago when I felt compelled to plan a bicycle trip in France. Part of that compulsion was to go to France and live my dream, but it was also to get in shape. I was beyond frustrated with not being able to run, or walk, as much as I wanted because of plantar fasciitis. I also remembered the great satisfaction of training for the marathon; the striving for and achieving excellence. The days when even though your work is frustrating, you can go out and kick some ass. Even if I wasn’t a runner the same way I used to be, I wanted to return to the mentality of a runner people knew me for. I wanted to do something hard. That’s why I signed up for a 4-day bike tour in Provence, averaging 20 miles a day with 1,500 feet of elevation and all the training it required. I wanted a comeback. I decided that if I was going be bike-only and date a cyclist, I needed to get on the saddle…and stay there.
I wouldn’t have signed up for the tour if I hadn’t already ridden 20 miles. And while that ride had very little elevation, I was amazed that after it I hardly felt anything. Anytime you run, even if it’s just a mile, you know you ran. I like that feeling: proof that my body has done something hard. And while I may have been destroying my knees and feet in the process, at least the effects were evidence of a workout. I know that it’s not good to feel pain and that biking may be better for you than running, but without the post-run aches, I’m not as satisfied.
So I’ve become a hill-craver, learning what 500, then 1,000, then 1,500, then 2,000 feet feels like. Hills that were at first barely manageable have become simply a thing I do. I can ride up to 73rd with only a slight glow. The entry hill to Discovery Park has become only that, and no longer the main event. Now I ride all the way up 3rd to Queen Anne, and add more little guys on top of that. I can go up Lighthouse hill. Last week I did a two-for after work: Golden Gardens and Carkeek. I like the hills aspect of biking. Hills are just plain hard, like life. And you can keep going or get off and walk. I take hills a lot slower than my pals. But when I started craving hills I remembered the time it took to become a better runner and knew I could make great strides, err pedals, in cycling too.
The trouble is, what goes up must come down—and there are few hills I like to go down. Most that give me the challenge and satisfaction of the uphill are terrifying to fly down. I hate this part of cycling. I know a lot of people love it, but to me it’s just plain scary. There’s no control, no predictability, and worst of all, no workout. Sure there are little hills that give me that freedom and reward after the climb. I’ll take that sweet mini-descent on Commodore past my friendly geese any day. But most good climbs are scary to go down. You work so hard to get to the top and then are “rewarded” with panic. It doesn’t seem fair. And it sort of reminds me of a fear of success. That if we actually work hard to climb something big, we’re going to have to face up to next-level success. We have to learn to ride that success, and that ride won’t necessarily be easy.
This is very different from running. I miss running’s combination of control and freedom. I used to say that running was the one place I could always find control and freedom, and not being able to have them in the same way in cycling is hard. There’s always a part of cycling that feels a little scary or unsafe because of the cars, roads, and hills. In running it’s just you, your muscles, and your mind. Cycling requires so much awareness. And, my god, the gear. It is my mission to be the best cyclist I can be with the least amount of gear. All the stuff, and the money put into the stuff, frustrates me. Didn’t cycling begin as a simple way to get around? I long for the freedom of my own two legs.
But listing what I dislike about cycling isn’t going to help me up or down those Provence hills.
So I keep going. I go up the big ones and try to breathe when flying down. I’ve rejoined Strava. My Strava now shows lists of achievements after each ride. And if it’s a route I’ve done before, I get a PR almost every time. As the weeks go by and I’ve become a better cyclist, I can now bike up hills I used to have to walk. I learned that those padded bike shorts are spelled “chamois,” not something intuitive like “shammy.” I even succumbed and bought a pair. I took a bike on a ferry and rode up and down Vashon. I had a 46-mile day where I met the inventor of Pictionary at a mid-point winery. I recite bike jokes I steal from the internet and make my co-workers uncomfortable, “put some fun between your legs!”
Do I miss running? Yes, but not as much as I used to. Am I adapting to what is in front of me? Yup. Am I moving and getting out in the world? For sure. Am I doing something that is hard? Absolutely. Am I trying to better understand and share interests with my friends and boyfriend? I am. And so I keep going, to the thing that is close to running but not the same. I do still run sometimes, just for a mile or two. Some moments it does feel amazing, and I remember that feeling. Sometimes it’s just another 15 minutes of my day that I enjoy for what it is. And sometimes, as I’ve become a stronger cyclist, I’ve actually thought how much easier it would be to bike the route rather than run it. That was a surprise. I remind myself that booking that bike trip to Provence is the thing that is getting me to France. I remember that biking saves money and helps the planet. I remember that hills will always be there, literally and symbolically, and I can either get on up or stay at zero.
The other day while talking about commutes, a friend suggested that by me not having a car, there were certain things I couldn’t or didn’t do. That is a true statement, but it didn’t really feel true. She pointed out that I planned some activities around when I could borrow a car. That was also true. This conversation triggered something in me, and afterwards I made myself think about why. Did my friend not get the blissful simplicity of being bike-only (I say this under our sunny June skies) or do I not get the inconvenience of coordinating activities around when I can borrow a car?
Only it doesn’t feel inconvenient to me. And honestly, with the money I’ve spent on France, I could have long since bought a car, maybe two. But it feels good to spend money on an incredible trip and live my day-to-day life in a simple, small circuit. I like knowing when I’ll have a car and then reaching out to friends or planning exciting errands. I am grateful for my car-owning boyfriend for making my car-free life a little less car-free. I am grateful for the kindness of my friend (who lives three blocks away, talk about convenient!) for letting me borrow her car. I like grocery shopping and filling said car with wine, frozen chicken, eggs, toilet paper, cat litter, and cases of La Croix. I like the planning involved in these errands and the satisfaction of when they’re complete. I like the limits of being bike-only in Ballard. It makes for easy weekends and fun bike adventures to other neighborhoods. It fosters my homebody/international traveler lifestyle. I like that the frustration of getting to a place will never mean sitting in a hot car in traffic swearing at another driver, but instead pushing my legs to do something a year ago I didn’t think they could do. That feels incredible.
Coming back from the wineries last weekend—mile 30 or so—my boyfriend rode up alongside me and placed his hand on the small of my back, gently pushing me forward. We laughed, riding along together: He was being “such a helper.” It made me think about how most of us learn to ride a bike with our parent’s hand pushing us and then letting go. I thought about how after that “let go” we must find our own balance and strength. I thought about how I’d done so in waves, hills if you will, over the past year.
After a year, I think I’m the lucky one. I think I know a secret: Experiencing life by bike feels good. I feel involved, stronger, and (I’m sorry I’m going to gloat) a little bit better. I’ll have a car again someday—I know I’m no better than anyone who drives. There are a lot of cyclists who commit to being car-free their whole lives, and I’ll never be that good. But I did take a potentially challenging situation: my last birthday when I ended my relationship, moved out, and my car was totaled, and turned it into an awesome new lifestyle. Maybe being bike-only has changed my life for the better. It’s prompted me to take my dream trip to France. It’s how I met and fell for my boyfriend. It’s how I got the strength of my legs back. None of those things would have happened without my clunker, squeaky-braked bike I got for free from a woman around the corner. This bike, and all the places it’s taken me, is a blessing, not a curse. Maybe I do know a secret. Maybe I am getting away with something. So for right now—until life offers another sharp turn or a hill that needs a little more time—I’m gonna ride it like I stole it.