My life on the bike: Cycling, strength and politics

A dear friend refers to me as an “adult onset athlete.” It wasn’t until reaching my 30s that I was able to truly cultivate my own athletic identity. And my entry into the my athletic sensibilities came on the bike.

There was something about cycling that I loved. It put me in touch with the little girl I once was, the one who saw the world filled with possibilities and opportunities. Some of the best summer days were marked by the arrival of friends at our front door, asking if I wanted to go ride bikes. We didn’t need an event. Bike riding was the event. It could be social or solitary, but whether I was riding with my pack of friends or traversing the neighborhood by myself, there was always a feeling of true freedom. A feeling of joy. Of feeling of being alive.

No wonder I still love my bike more than any other material possession.

And so, as today marks International Women’s Day, I choose to celebrate it by celebrating one of my favorite pastimes — cycling.

It’s difficult to wrap our 21st century minds around the turbulence of the bicycle and women back in the 1800s.

Women's Cycling in 1894

Organizing the overthrow of governments via social media is our mode of operation these days. Riding a bike can hardly be considered a political act.

Oh, but it was. And it went hand-in-hand with the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.

Susan B. Anthony, one of the grande dames of the women’s suffrage movement, said in 1986 that bicycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

As described by author Peter Zheutlin:

As women learned to ride bicycles they not only gained physical mobility that broadened their horizons beyond the neighborhoods in which they lived, they discovered a new-found sense of freedom of movement, a freedom previously circumscribed by the cumbersome fashions of the Victorian era as well as by Victorian sensibilities.

Riding a bicycle for women included issues such as dress reform (including outfits resembling trousers for women), health and morality (there was concern that straddling a bicycle seat could be “stimulating” for women).

We can laugh at these alleged affronts to societal norms today. But they were real issues in the lives of real women, women who were looking for ways to express themselves and take ownership of their own bodies.

It still rings true today. Women across the world are looking for ways to create power in their own lives and in their communities. One important, but often trivialized, place to begin this creation is through sports. The ability to take up running or play on a soccer team can be transformative for women as they begin to understand the power which lies inside of them.

As author Mina Samuels wrote in her recently released book Run Like A Girl:

When we learn what it feels like to be inside our skin, to pull from the deep well of our inner resources, to maximize ourselves in one area, it is much easier to bring that knowledge to bear everywhere else in our lives.

Riding my bike gives me that sense of being inside my own skin. It gives me a sense of freedom. Challenging myself in cycling leaves me understanding the strength and power I have, not just to climb a hill or ride fast, but face anything that life may throw at me that day, that week, this lifetime.

Every woman should have the right to explore athletic opportunities. It’s not just about games and good health. With the power individuals gain from possession of their own bodies, the possibilities for positive transformation spread through families, communities and nations. It’s more subtle than a social media revolution. But it’s a meaningful, and lasting, revolutionary force nonetheless.

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