When I tell someone that I just rode a bike to Philadelphia–and that I did it last year–there are two kinds of looks people give me. Some people look impressed. This makes me feel awkward because it really isn’t that hard and I lame out and trains are involved and all of that. Or, more commonly, they give me The Look.

Women's Montreal UCI World Cup 2009 winner Emma Pooley of Britain on her Cervelo.

Image courtesy of Flowizm on Flickr. CC-BY.

This is Emma Pooley, winner of the 2009 Grande Boucle, or Tour de France Féminin. She was the last person to win this tour (the fancy term for long distance, multi-day bike racing), as it was discontinued after she won. This is what a long distance lady cyclist looks like.

Marianne Vos cycling on a mud track in 2007.

This image is public domain.

Marianne Vos, a Dutch cyclist, is the most recent winner of Giro d’Italia Femminile, a tour in Italy. Emma Pooley finished second. This is what a long distance lady cyclist looks like.

Mika Matsuzaki on a fixed gear bicycle by the Charles River.

Image by mako. CC-BY-SA

Mika Matsuzaki is a friend of mine. She does not ride this bike on long distance rides. She rides a different bike, one with gears, for instance, and a backrack, when she covers many miles over several days. This is what a long distance lady cyclist looks like.

I do not look like any of these people.

To quote myself, I am in a round, soft-and-squishy shape. I’ve hinted at the level I dislike my body, which is, I gather, a very normal level to hate your body as an American girl. We, as a culture, have created expectations not just about how people–or we–should look, but about how different kinds of people should look.


Even the most understanding and liberal, the most socially conscious acquaintances I have, people who fight for equal rights, who think very hard about everything they eat, and the impact of their actions, and the meaning of advertising and the world around them, have given me The Look. The Look expresses, in a momentary flash across their face, that they don’t believe me. They might consciously understand what I just told them I do, but they cannot, even if just for a breath, comprehend that I biked 300 miles.

Then their conscious mind takes over and they acknowledge that I, a size fourteen, XL, one-piece swim suit kind of girl, can bike 300 miles.

I hate The Look. It makes me feel small. It makes me feel ashamed. As the look fades and the other people’s conscious mind takes over, my shame fades and my anger takes over. I think of all the snippy remarks I want to make. I think about how I want to tell them they can’t call themselves accepting when they still have The Look in their repertoire. I think about how their expectations about me are one of the things wrong with our culture.

Then my conscious mind continues to race ahead. It reminds me that people are taught these expectations and they’re an intrinsic part of who they are. They aren’t in control of what they think or, really, their immediate expressive actions. They’re in poor control of those anyway.

Recently, at work, some people restarted a weight loss pact that they had put on hold for a few months. I decided to join in. I mentioned this to SG and she had a rather negative, immediate response. I found myself mumbling over the intellectual reasons why I think losing weight is a good idea: I will be able to do more things–there are yoga poses I can’t do simply because I have more body to try and squeeze next to other body. I will be able to lift myself up by my arms if there’s less to lift. Cute clothing is easier–and cheaper–to find in a size eight than a size fourteen. But underneath all those conscious, logical reasons, I want people to stop giving me The Look. I don’t want to feel that strange twinge of shame when I need to explain that I swim, run, and bike long distances.

Bicycle, 02

If you’ve talked to me at all in the past, oh, thirty hours, I’ve told you that I biked forty-one miles on Friday. I’m telling everyone who will listen. I’m proud of something I did–this doesn’t happen often. My friends here are being wonderful and patient. They do not seem genuinely impressed that I biked forty-one miles (as opposed to say, my friends in Philly), but there seems to be that good feeling like learning someone likes your favorite band–there’s a shared experience between the two of you. In this case, it’s an intense experience.

My bike here is black. It’s on loan from the co-op I’m living in. Both breaks work. The gears shift. E–neighbor–helped me tighten the brakes so they work even better. I have a bike pump available, so the tires are full. On the handlebars, there’s a plastic thing that the light I use for night riding slides into. There’s a backlight that lives on the back of my shirt or backpack after dark. The frame is just a little bit too big when it comes to getting on and off, but it’s perfect for riding.

I don’t like just the bike: I like the freedom it gives me. I like that bus schedules are meaningless. I like that I now have a new thing to talk to people about. I can talk about my bike, we can discuss bike routes, we can talk about places we’ve biked. When I put on my pants in the morning, I roll up the right leg to a space between my knee and just under my calf muscle. I keep finding small smears of grease on me, marking a leg or a sock, the cuff of my pants or my hands.

I’d been planning on biking the Minuteman Trail–eleven miles and an extra mile (or so) from here to the trail head. It transitioned to a bike ride to Walden Pond. Walden is sixteen point five miles away. RO had been there before and offered his company, so I wouldn’t have to go on the adventure alone.

We left in the early evening. The sun was low, but still present. The path was surprisingly crowded. It was warm. The Massachusetts sunsets have so far surprised me with their golds and pinks smudged across the sky as a natural afterthought. It was getting dark by the time we were off the trail and onto the road itself. Sixty-two leads you from the Minuteman to Walden Pond. We biked through small New England towns, quaint places that made me wish I was an older gay man. I wished I was into antiquing and staying at bed and breakfasts and belonged doing these things.

The last major uphill made me wonder why I had decided to bike sixteen point five miles. I cursed it. Walden Pond was closed by the time we got there–it closes at eight. We went down the path anyway. We walked our bikes along the final slope leading to the pond. We turned off the lights that shine halogen white. RO reached around me and turned off the blinking brake red light attached to the nape of my hockey jersey. The sounds of the road, already low, faded. A house by the pond was lit up. We weren’t supposed to be there. We spoke in hushed voices, as though that could protect us from the crime we were committing.

We locked our bikes up to the bike rack. RO knew where it was. He’d been there before. To me, Walden was this non-existent place. Even standing there, it belonged to the land of national attractions. It was a thing that existed in photographs and lists of places to see. In the stories people tell one another when they talk about their summers and deep, meaningful personal experiences.

We walked around the pond on a path, looking for a place to go down to the water. I’d taken my bike light and was using it as a flashlight. The pond water was high–it’s been a wet spring. When the path ran out, RO hopped the hand-made wire-and-post fence meant to keep people safe. I followed and he gave me a hand.

Things like hopping fences, climbing trees, and actually swimming in natural spaces are outside of my realm of experience. I grew up in a big, safe city. And by safe, I mean without natural fears. I was raised to understand people, not the dark. I have trouble getting over a fence unless it’s chain link. Hopping one always makes me feel small and pathetic. I felt more awkward than I ever did in my teens.

Eventually we settled on a spot and put the backpack we’d been sharing down. We sat on a rock and I turned off the flashlight. There were moments of mostly silence strung together. The noises of the road sounded like the animals–the bats, the birds, whatever they were, and the owls–calls and responses across the pond and the night.

RO felt the water and declared it warm enough to swim. I stood up and there was a pause. In essence, the whole point of going to Walden was to swim.

I’d met RO my first weekend in the area. The ritual behaviors here include a weekly trip to a local pub. It’s a wonderfully pretentious place that friends of mine from all over know. The pub has a story about a legal case where they fought hard for, and won, their liquor license. The food is okay, the beer selection is good enough, but the real worth comes from the dimly lit cave atmosphere of the basement bar. Everyone was nice, taking their respective turns in a disorganized fashion of talking to the new person. They introduced themselves and answered the basic questions, asking more to me.

We went to Walden my third weekend. The question hung in the air: What kind of relationship was this going to be? Were we going to be the kind of people who swam in Walden Pond together? These decisions are not only based around how you interact with a person, but how you want them to perceive you. Are you going to be the kind of person who goes in with your clothes on? Will you roll up your pants legs and wade? Will you strip down to your skivvies and jump? How will this affect who you are to each other and how you will know one another?

He slid down the rock and entered the water. There was no pause. The behavior was natural. I stood on the rock at the edge, my feet just wet. I was scared.

“I’m scared,” I said. He was patient and didn’t make fun of me. I went through the words and the reasons, trying to talk myself in and out of going in. Explaining my reasonings and hoping I would find the right justification that would make it okay.

“I watched a lot of X-Files as a kid.” Pause. “I like to swim. In pools. And the ocean. During the day. Lakes have monsters in them. Monsters!” Pause. Silence.

I slunk down into the water and pushed off out into the black. It was neither cold nor warm. RO congratulated me without irony. We listened to the sounds. We heard something moving in the woods. We heard what sounded like another person and that was, in and of itself, scarier than the idea of a monster. No one came.

I was afraid of losing track of where we were. I thought we’d swim too far away and be unable to find our stuff. I thought we’d lose the bike light or the keys to the lock. I thought my shoes would go missing. I thought I’d get pulled under by a monster.

I inched away, swimming in small circles that largely consisted of treading water and floating backwards with occasional hectic arm motions. Off to one side, light pollution bubbled on the horizon. The sky had more stars than I’d seen since leaving Arizona.

Walden became real.

We sat on the rock and shivered. RO put on a sweatshirt I had packed at the behest of a friend I’ve had since high school. Wet, we looked over the pond and at the sky from the frame of leaning trees in silence.

Biking back was a fight against myself. We went past a field so full of fireflies it looked as though the field itself, and not the things in it, was alive. They blinked on and off, calling to one another just as the birds and cars had. They called as people do in the night, to stave off loneliness and fulfill biological imperatives.

We ended up lost and biked an extra eight miles. Before we hit the Minuteman, I was so tired, I’d wondered if I would make it. We passed Spy Pond, right near the last stop along the Red Line–one stop away from where I live.

Carrying my bike up the steps to the apartment was the hardest part of the whole evening. My whole body hurt. I sat in a chair in the kitchen. I didn’t move for half an hour.