A bicycle is the most efficient transportation machine. A little input and I’m gliding, moving a useful measurable distance but more than that. I like going fast enough so the wind in my ears is louder than my thoughts. On a tough day I like riding until I can be grateful again; sometimes that takes a couple hours but every ride is a good ride.
My youth’s independence was a banana seat Huffy pulled from an under-appreciated pile of rust in the back of St. Vincent’s Thrift Shop. No school bus meant riding to school, the first 45 minutes of every day in all weather. Afternoons were exploring detours; summers were expeditions to the city limits, sometimes beyond. I needed an upgrade for high school; I found a spotless antique 3 speed Raleigh, the cultural English workhorse collecting dust in an unlikely garage for $50.
I kept it through two foster homes. The first one kept me busy with farm chores, but the second was back in town. There, I had the bike back, and as an aside, they had a phenomenally sophisticated wall sized sound system: reel-to-reel and amazing headphones. I would forget myself in records: Sgt. Peppers, Genesis, Yes, etc, and another favorite. Just a guitar and piano instrumental album with a simple melody called Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter. Something about that one song in particular I heard faint glimmerings of contentment that was denied to me. I would replay it to cling to this hint of a simple happiness I didn’t understand; that if it was in the song, it was somewhere deep in me.
Without a car for 10 years, one used 10-speed or another got me to various eccentric jobs.
Fast forward to the life-changer, after a divorce. Needing to reconnect with myself, I searched for a decent bike. I found it hanging dusty in the back of a cluttered boutique shop smelling of tire rubber, quiet with racers’ confidence. They had a Lemond thoroughbred on consignment, assembled custom 5 years earlier to race. It was slightly outdated, but a dent on the top tube put it out to pasture. It was steel though, so rideable enough for me. My entire $300 savings and it was mine. Then I discovered the special pedals needed special shoes, so another month saving for those. I wasn’t going to wear those silly spiderman outfits, until I started to ride more than 10 miles and my **** demanded it. And those pockets in the back of the shirt were handy. I met a friend who taught me how to draft: my skinny wheel a few inches behind the bike in front at 20 mph, to save precious energy in the slipstream. Truly dangerous, vulnerable, and effectively blinded; but he pointed at the ground with various hand signals to warn of upcoming road hazards. I was touched by this wordless language of trust and camaraderie. This innate concern is essential to the sport, even among competitors, so it seems to attract quality people I liked. My new life expanded with friends.
I discovered biking exercise could stabilize the life-long effects of brain injury, lost some weight, grew stronger, and started setting goals. First longer group rides, then a century (100 miles in one ride), then mountain biking: epic fun in nature, unadulterated happiness. Then novice racing, then the next category up with a team, then a triathlon. It became an admitted obsession but I won a pair of socks or bike parts every now and then. Eventually tattooed two bike chains around my ankle, one twisted and the other broken. I loved the lifestyle, and had truly reinvented and rediscovered myself.
A 500 mile ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles with fellow wounded veterans helped dissipate the old shame from the military. I had joined the ride to raise money for a good cause. I respected the program and knew personally that cycling had changed my life. They turned out to be inspiring, helping me more than I could have helped them. Some had only just started riding a bike for only a few weeks, some were amputees fit with special-made adapters on regular bikes, some had no legs using hand cycles. They all joined on to the task of riding 500 miles. No one whined, and helping each other finish the day was the only goal. While riding with them, I began to open up about my experience. I found a few others who also had TBI, and we could laugh about similar mishaps. The other veterans didn’t judge me about anything, like when I was injured, the nature of my disability, how much I did or didn’t accomplish. I had signed up just like them, had to recover back to a functioning life just like them. It was the first time in my life that whole chapter in my life was accepted; I wasn't odd, and they helped close the shame on that old chapter. (Thank you, R2R.) The next year I took a 1500 mile self-supported bike trip through western mountain ranges with my husband and soulmate, whom I had met mt. biking.
There was one late Spring day, finally warm after a long winter, when I just wanted to ride for a few hours by myself. No speedometer or training intervals, just enjoy the park road winding under the trees. I had downloaded some new music on the IPod, a sampler from the library. I felt happy. Life is Good. Rounding a bend by the river, coasting through sunbeams sparkling the park’s peaceful road, my earphones unexpectedly played Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter. I hadn’t heard that simple guitar tune in three decades. My God, time suddenly disappeared. I was right back in the forgotten foster home, listening for the faint silver threads of the contentment I was feeling at this very moment on the bike. The full force of this sudden connection, the wholeness of the life and unity of myself in one epiphany, brought me to tears. I found myself pouring my heart into praying hang in there, girl, hang in there, you’ll find it and I felt my younger self hearing echoes of birds singing in new green leaves.