My bicycle has always been a tool. It’s a means to an end; it’s my transportation, my trunk, my freedom, my way to move every day. It’s my outlet before and after work, my transition vehicle, my motion, my patience tester, my get-on-and-go ride to get away from anything to anywhere.
I began riding as a child - around age five - and by age six or seven I was commuting on my own around town, riding to Vacation Bible School and to handywoman jobs in my small 800-person town of Oriental, NC. I didn’t get my license until I turned 18. Even then I drove minimally. In college I had and drove a car but when it checked into the junkyard my junior year I didn’t bother with getting another until I had to, which was at the very end of my senior year at the cusp of entering t.h.e.r.e.a.l.w.o.r.l.d. I did it because I had to. My first jobs out of college required me to either use my own vehicle or a company truck – 75% or so of my duties revolved around driving. I only lasted a little over two years driving 50+ miles per day before it got the best of me.
I met a guy, then six months later sold or gave away most of my belongings, hopped on a plane, and moved across the country with him – my most valuable possession now being my class ring from my alma mater, Meredith College. Nearly two years later we are still car free. That was North Carolina, this is Sacramento. That was then, this is now. I made the conscious decision to live car free when I moved here. It’s not because I can’t afford a car (I can’t, but that’s not pertinent to this conversation), it’s because I got tired of driving and I got tired of depending on something I don’t need – I wanted to challenge my perception of need.
It’s also because driving physically hurts my body. Being in a car is isolating, environmentally murderous, and nowadays (to me) driving is increasingly more about socioeconomic placement, prestige, appearance, and speed – all opposites of my desired identity (I’m a sociologist, in case you’re wondering). Our society is becoming faster and faster by the week; the newest iPhones, Androids, e-readers, tablets and Macs are coming out faster than we can emoticon an overwhelmed expression. We haven’t even downloaded all the apps before we’re tossing yet another $700+ gadget in favor of the next one (we’ll have to talk later about where these newly unwanted gadgets end up). Why? Because the powerful media + technology relationship seemsto be spinning us round and round faster like a spool of thread unwinding, and we, for fear of really becoming unwound, somehow remain teetering upright with our newest purchases. We are a trash society – wasteful, impatient, and we judge today based on tomorrow’s news. Big Brother IS watching, and we’re either willingly or unwillingly performing for him.
S L O W S
so we can see the world around us. We can think on a bike (a necessity). A bike frame will last as long as we make it last – and if we get tired of it, we can alter it or trade it or sell it or give it away. That’s one of the ways we can combat the McDonaldization of Society (look up the title, it’s a book). Get on the saddle and get the lactic acid flowing, ladies – let’s partake in our own form of ‘out with the old, in with the new (the processed, the chemical-infused, the expedited life)’ with our ever-muscular legs; our grease and sunscreen laced sweat; our fashion; and our contemporary desire for choosing our pedal speed.
Bike riders, as a group, make up one of the most diverse of the athletic crowds. We’re a bit like feminists, who are often assumed to collectively have the same views and beliefs – there’s almost too much diversity. Vehicle drivers often expect we bike-riding women are all the same, so they often treat us all the same, much the same way that many in society expect all feminists to have the same view on housewifery and voting. Pair women and bikes and you have a society of vehicle drivers expecting a bunch of feminist cyclists with dirty tricks up their spandex.
I don’t vocally label myself an advocate or activist, but I am one by default. I’m a do-er; I don’t spend time ironing the “watch for bikes” decal to my kit or jersey (I don’t own any bike jerseys). I’d rather spend the time playing Tetris with my groceries so they all fit in the shopping basket bungeed to my bike rack, or chatting with other cyclists as we share the road or take the lane, or deciding whether I can wear the pencil skirt to work today without splitting the seams. I’d rather be talking to people about why I am car-free than yelling at them about the rules of the road.
Yes, I’m an advocate, but in more subtle ways. I always will be an advocate, whether it’s for bikes, sports, gardens, cats, crafts…just because they are all things I DO or that are part of me.
In a way, I don’t have a choice but to be an advocate – others perceive my expertise just because my rump is on the saddle, because my hands are digging in the dirt, or because I’m putting the recycling in the correct containers. I must be an expert if I’m putting an effort into something, right? Assumptions, you know how they operate. First impressions, labels, stereotypes: others label us even if we are not willing to label ourselves, and others will label us according to their perception of our actions or inactions. The question is, what am I willing to adopt as my dominant identity? What do I want people to see first?
All of the above is a preface to the biggest surprise of this post – my reason for writing, and my reason for riding (not that I started out that way). I’m sorry in advance for this, but without sharing this you would be missing a big part of my story. This labeling stuff, these perceptions from the outside world - it’s what makes me an expert in chronic disease, because I happen to have one. Surprise! I have a chronic disease!
Because I have a chronic disease, I am automatically the #1 informant and expert about it to those I meet, and their thoughts are formed based on how I handle being that informant. It doesn’t matter how much or how little I know; in their eyes, I know what I’m talking about. As I continue, think about how you tell and show others that you are a bike rider (or a mother, or a daughter, or a student, or a pilot, or a doctor, or a teacher), knowing that each person’s reaction will be dependent on how you present your story. Now, shifting gears:
I am in constant pain. Movement is crucial to my quality of life. If I don’t ride a bike, or run, or play soccer, or walk, I don’t MOVE. My body will become immobile. I have a rare, severe form of arthritis called Ankylosing Spondylitis. I’m coming out to you as a victim, a sufferer, a survivor of this disease that is characterized mostly by extreme, constant, achy or needle-sharp pain in many joints in the body but mainly the sacroiliac joints and the lower back. It’s an autoimmune disorder that is progressive; there’s no way to diagnose the disease before it begins to attack the body – no one yet knows exactly what causes the disease (though 90% of cases are considered genetic), so no one yet knows where to look for a cure.
I’ve lived with this for exactly half my life, yet I wasn’t aware that my symptoms since age 13 (double it and you’ll know how old I am) were obvious giveaways that I inherited my father’s disease until 6 months ago. Since he was physically abusive to my family when I was very young we don’t have a relationship, so I learned about this via email after contacting him with questions about health issues on his side of the family (I don’t recommend finding out health issues via email, FYI). I then had to find a private insurance plan I could afford, then a doctor who would refer me to a specialist who would prescribe me the drugs I need with minimal testing. We’re still working out the meds and meanwhile doing tests to see how far this disease has already progressed.
The worst part of AS is the fusion. Somehow, AS causes the body to grow bone spurs through a process called enthesitis (inflammation where ligaments and tendons connect to bone) and the spine slowly fuses together in a fixed, immobile position. Many times it forces the victim to live with a hunched back. Some refer to it as bamboo spine, others – for those Dorothy fans out there – call it the Tin Man disease. Exercise and movement (in addition to strong medications) are crucial to maintaining good posture and improving inflammation to slow the progression. Since I ride a bike every day (other than an occasional car or bus or light rail ride), it’s crucial to my well-being and quality of life. I rely on my bicycle to live because it forces me to move. What
does a bike mean for me?
What does a bike mean for you?