I'm not what you'd call a "healthy" cyclist. I've touched a bit on this in the past, but I'm pretty well hobbled for those of you just joining. I have a myriad of health difficulties that will forever keep me from being at the front of any racing pack, and some difficulties which keep me from cycling regularly. That has never diminished my love of cycling, however, I still grin at getting in the saddle, even on bad days when I really shouldn't be riding anywhere, and I still cheer on random folks who are confused by the sudden appearance of a personal cheerleader. What can I say? I come from a small town and I'm still not used to seeing someone and then never seeing them again. Besides, sometimes, like today, I'll shout "GO PRONTO!" to a rider and get a "WHOO!" back so I count it as totally worth it.
But being a less than healthy cyclist gives me a perspective few in the saddle get until they reach old age. The shame that comes with being a less than healthy cyclist is real, and palpable. Its easy to forget about, or even ignore, because the cycling community longs to see its members in the saddle again; casual commuters are bolstered like Lycra clad heroes, wounded racers are sent well wishes like grizzled war veterans (some actually are), and of course, the ever palpable joy of seeing old friends on group rides who you haven't seen in ages. If you remark you're unable to ride, dozens of riders will offer to add a mile or two to their ride, for you. Truly, people on bikes tend to be some of the most supportive and outgoing individuals you'll meet across the world, from the Philippines to Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Alas, there is a very real stigma to being a less than healthy cyclist, and sadly, this stigma comes from within.
You see others riding and want to be with them, you walk down the sidewalk, but your heart remembers what its like to sail along, and the mournful glance you cast at others cycling could be easily misinterpreted as the look of someone who lost a family member. The hills that once reminded you of roller coasters now resembles mountains, and you look around for a Sherpa. You feel the urge to get back in the saddle, and your heart breaks when your body betrays you. The grip that was once so firm on the handlebars has become shaky, the legs that pumped away hills and miles becomes a millstone, and the breath that once filled you is exhaled in shaky gasps of pain. You look in the mirror and no longer see a champion of the wind and rain, but a defeated warrior against the perils of asphalt.
The stigma is internal yes, but no less real. It feels not just like a fall from grace, but a resonating disconnect between yourself and your community. Its like becoming having your voter I.D. changed to a different party without your consent. Its like...
Okay, let me tell you a story; you see once upon a time I lived in Alaska and I longed for spring each year, and, each year, I marked the arrival of spring by the blossoming of soft, downy, sweet scented pussy willows. This is how I knew I could ride again during winters when the snow was too deep for me. One day, in a craft store, I saw fake ones, and my heart leaped, if I could have that softness every day of the year... I grasped it, rubbing it to my face.
Only to be rewarded with a scratched cheek. I flung the faux willow away in disgust.
So I get on my bike, with hope in my heart, only to feel my body perform like a fake pussy willow.
Its not Scamper's fault. Its not Pinkie Pie's fault. Its not even really my own fault. There is only so much I'll ever be able to cycle, and I have to accept it. I have to accept that some days I will have to take the bus. I will have to accept that some days I won't be able to bike and that's okay. But I doubt it will ever feel okay, I think it will always break my heart just a little. I think there's a part of me that will never accept the defeat my body offers. Someday the pain will outweigh the joy, its not today, and probably not tomorrow, but it will happen someday.
And on that day I will sadly relinquish my stable to another rider, forcing them to promise to keep all the stickers on Scamper and all the bells on Pinkie. I'll give each one a gentle caress as they ride away without me, though the tears will be bittersweet.
Afterwards, I'll go back into my home and look at all the pictures of me and my stable, running my finger over the smile that once graced my face, remembering how the air felt in spring in those days, reminiscing over how fall smelt so sweet. Then, with a heavy heart, I'll board the bus, taking my husbands hand, the hand that helped me up after so many crashes, strengthened by the arms that held me through so many fits of despair.
Together we'll go, and speaking of our past adventures to each other, laughing at days past, we'll purchase e-assist bikes.
Because in the end I know I'll only stop when die for the third time. Its not a habit I can break, its my life. I breathe it in the saddle, and will only exhale it with my last breath.