There are certain things that nobody tells you about riding – things I didn’t know before I started.
There are, of course, things I did know – things like the friction zone and the fact that nobody sees you.
And then there were things that I learned while learning to ride – things like how to enter, hold and leave a turn; how to emergency stop; how to weave, swerve, and ride a box.
What they don’t tell you about is the other stuff. The good stuff. The less tangible; the lovely.
Here are ten of those other things:
You’d better like the sound of your own thoughts.
Seriously, though. Figuratively. Literally.
First of all, the obvious: your thoughts are pretty much all you have. There is no music and no phone – no phone calls, no texts, no emails, no IM. (Not that you should be doing most of that anyway, but we all know that we do.) When riding, your “entertainment” is: your bike, the road, the other drivers, the conditions and, yeah, whatever’s in your head. You’ll get pretty cozy with whatever’s up there. (Which, for many riders, is actually part of the appeal.)
Secondly, though… You don’t just have the thoughts as thoughts. You know all of those little internalizations (or even verbalizations) that might otherwise go unnoticed? The things we mumble to ourselves? The way we replay a moment from our day? Our laughter recalling something funny? Our remarks to other drivers? These become a pretty big part of your riding “soundtrack”, and you quickly grow much more intimately aware of your chuckles, your grumbles, your sighs. I have learned, for example, that I groan – a growl, really – when I am at speed and ride over “footing” I don’t like. And this sort of thing – along with a lot of whatever else I’m thinking – permeates the inside of my helmet as I ride.
The smells are… so beautifully amplified.
You smell things you’ve never smelled before while on a bike.
Like the fact that it smells like fruit candy just west of the Harlem exit on highway I-290. And Lake Street, just west of Mannheim Road, smells like garbage. The underside of the L’s Green Line smells deliriously like fried food, hanging in heavy pockets in places beneath the girders. The intersection of Ogden and Chicago smells “like a Subway;” it has that specific bread smell. And the area around the Nerdery office in the west loop smells like livestock.
Perhaps my favorite, though, is the smell of cologne and perfume rising off of collarbones from cars around me when stopped at lights. I imagine the corners of a body where each spray hit; those places now pulsing with the heat of a day’s existence and of summer.
For someone whose sense of smell is weak – laughably, almost tragically weak – the smells I experience from the bike bring with them a sudden, very sensual awareness – like being brushed up against in a subway or feeling the air wrap around your frame as someone runs by you – that is not entirely unpleasant even when perhaps it “should” be. It’s not just a smell and does not warrant an assessment of “good” or “bad.” Rather, it is some extension of the existence of life around me and brings with it a sudden awareness of proximity; a sensory arousal. Smells like this make life feel bigger – closer; more intimate – than it feels when off the bike.
If you wait for “perfect” riding days, you’ll almost never ride.
“Perfect” days are really few and far between. And even “perfect” days aren’t actually… you know, perfect. Not across the board. Sunny days provide a pleasant backdrop but they get hot when you’re sitting still. Cooler days are better for leathers, if you wear them, and sitting in slow traffic (nice for those of us who ride their commute to work) but can get a little cold at speed. Not to mention that weather is weather and weather can change – a beautiful day can get cloudy; a hot day can bring rain.
Riding isn’t linear. And even “good” conditions, if you catch them, cannot be constant.
But the weather? It kinda doesn’t matter.
You can ride in most anything. And if you really like riding, it’s enjoyable in almost all conditions. Clouds can actually provide much-appreciated reprieve from heat; lots of sun, a bit of warmth. And the rain really isn’t all that scary.
My bike and I have spent 3,000 miles together since I started riding two months ago. And I am being utterly honest when I say: almost every single one of those miles – and all of their days – thoroughly delighted me. But if you were to ask how many of them actually qualified as “perfect,” it would also be honest to say: only a few of them could. It kinda doesn’t matter.
At speed, air acts a lot like water.
I used to swim — I guess I still swim, technically, but I used to swim a lot more — and when I call up my most distinct memories of “swimming,” from my childhood and adolescence, when I spent hours of days in pools, I recall the distinct sensation when you first enter the water; a sensation even casual swimmers know – especially if you dive in – when there’s this sudden wash of cold across the surface of your skin. And then, moments later, when it eases away and becomes warmer and okay.
Sometimes when you first start riding at speed, there is a moment, early on, when the air has just started washing over you and you start to feel cold and wonder, feeling the coolness, if you are underdressed. A thing happens after that, though. The air, as it moves over you, becomes a steady, flowing thing, and your body acclimates very much like it does after diving into water and setting into your warm-up stroke. And it becomes warmer and okay.
You can ride in ballet flats.
Especially for short distances. If you try.
No, it’s technically not “safe.” (Of course it’s technically not safe!) But arguably, neither is riding to begin with. And though one might point out that once you commit to that much risk, you should limit the rest, others might point out: come on, wet blanket. Life is only so damn long.
The shoe thing was an open question for me because I ride the bike to work and change from boots to flats. And for a while, every day when it was time for lunch, I was changing back into boots to get there. And then changing back again, once back. And the whole thing got kinda old. So I wanted to know if it was possible to ride in flats and so one day I walked out, got on, and tried… and yes, my xx-chromosomed friends, yes it is. (You can also ride in shorts and tank tops and pony-tails. Not that I ever have…)
Heels, I have not tried. If I do, I’d start with wedges.
But earrings are near impossible. There are no earrings on a bike.
Unless, I suppose, you go helmet-less. In that case, earring away.
This is a weird thing, I know. And not really shocking, when you think about pulling a helmet on over earrings, and so perhaps an odd inclusion here. But… I found it sort of interesting.
Because I tried, guys. I really did. And maybe others can make peace with the tiny, stabby sensation of earring rods digging in behind their ears. But it didn’t work for me.
Drivers are kinder than you might imagine.
After two months of riding, I think I can count on one hand the number of people who have tailed too close or cut me off. Overall, I have found drivers to be far more polite – more patient, more generous with their space while following, more apologetic when they don’t see me – than I had prepared myself for. Riding still requires a lot of awareness, but I have found that drivers, overall, want to take care of you too.
Riding as passenger is still fun.
This one surprised me. I really and truly believed that once I got a bike, I’d be all gung-ho Miss Independent about riding my own (especially after the safety-squirrel “load triangle lecture” we received in BRC.) But that’s just not the case. There is still something really enjoyable about being on the back of a bike — no, not “still” enjoyable; rather, there is something just as enjoyable… equally enjoyable, but in a different way. It’s a different ride. And on the spectrum of pleasurable, it actually still has a lot merit.
It’s exactly what you make of it. And most any approach is okay.
Riding is your own practice. Some people take their bikes out twice a season; others, every day. Some ride to work; others multi-thousand-mile trips. Some approach it philosophically, others see it as social. There are people who see bikes as “projects” and others who buy brand-new. People who quickly get “bored” riding alone; others who strongly prefer it.
Other people may take note of what you ride and how you ride and what you like to do, but ultimately none of them really matter. The only person it matters to – and the only person it should – is you.