I paused on the side of the bike trail to sip from my water bottle, gazing at Milwaukee’s awesome lakefront. I moved back on the trail, glanced behind, and mounted up.
Suddenly, a male biker whooshed past me. You know the type: mostly young, sometimes with a gray ponytail, always with muscular thighs and heads bent down. I call them the Men in Spandex. On this trail, there are a lot of them.
The whoosh forced me off my bike and onto the grass beside the trail. I didn’t fall over, but I was shaken.
“Slow down and watch where you’re going!” I yelled. Actually, there was an expletive at the beginning of that sentence. I was invisible to him, an experience that “women of a certain age” often have.
Shortly after, my bicycling confidence began to fade. I wobbled turning a corner, felt shaky when I stopped. Even mounting had become a challenge: Instead of leaping on the near pedal, flinging my other leg over the top, and taking off into the wind, I looked for a curb to stand on. Was this the beginning of the end, bicycling-wise?
I’m 71, and bicycling has been a big part of my life. At age 3, I got a tricycle, then a dented two-wheeler with balloon tires that my parents bought at a rummage sale. I don’t think it even had training wheels. I didn’t need them; I was a natural.
For my 11th birthday, I received a shiny, red Schwinn three-speed, which gave me mobility in my suburban hometown. I bicycled to friends’ houses, to the library, to the Ben Franklin five-and-dime, where I glanced furtively at sleazy magazines with tantalizing headlines such as “Sex and Sin in Hollywood.”
I also bicycled to junior high and high school. Back then, girls were forbidden to wear pants to school, and skirts came in two styles: straight with a kick pleat in the back or circular, worn with a cinch belt and lots of crinolines underneath. Neither was suited for cycling. The straight skirts hiked up. And the full skirts often caught in the back wheel, forcing the bicycle to a sudden stop and leaving a black grease mark on the fabric.
No helmet, of course.
I brought that Schwinn to Wellesley, and it served me well my first year in Freeman. Every time I mounted up, my spirits lifted. The pressure of hour exams and term papers, the disappointment of bad dates—all faded as I glided around the campus. But during my next three years in Caz, the bike languished. That hill leading up to the Quad is a killer.
When I was a young married woman in Cambridge, Mass., my husband and I put very few miles on our ’56 Ford Fairlane, thanks to our bicycles (my Schwinn, still). This helped our meager graduate-student-plus-secretary budget.
Several years later, as a divorced, commune-dwelling hippie in Philadelphia, I upgraded to a sleek, blue Raleigh 10-speed. I felt very cool—until it was stolen outside of my bank, its heavy link chain intact but the lock snipped in two. I seethed; the police were dismissive. “Lady, it doesn’t even look like your bike anymore. Ten minutes after it was stolen, it either got dismantled for parts or painted and tricked out.”
Then came motherhood and a sedate Schwinn five-speed with a child seat. In 1983, in my late 30s and inspired by the movie Flashdance, I bought a 15-speed Centurion road bike, trying to look like Jennifer Beals. I enjoyed gliding around, but no one ever mistook me for her.
Fast forward—through several bikes, each with more gears than the last—to the Men in Spandex incident. Part of the problem, I decided, was my aging Giant, which had creaky gears, stiff brakes, and out-of-true alignment.
I marched into my local bike store. “Look at me,” I said to the young salesman. “I’m obviously not in training for the Tour de France. I want a bike that I can keep riding as I get older.” He took me over to a turquoise, 21-speed Trek hybrid with riser handlebars, comfortable saddle seat, and suspension seatpost. “It will feel like you’re sitting in an easy chair,” he said, “sort of a Barcalounger of bikes.”
Now I ride often, once or twice a week, sometimes on the bike trail, sometimes around the streets of my community. On hills, I pride myself on getting to the top, albeit panting. I’m in training for this year’s Bike the Drive, a 30-mile ride along the Outer Drive on Chicago’s lakefront.
I hope to ride into my dotage. When my kids finally take my car keys away, I’ll get one of those three-wheelers. Maybe with an orange flag on the back to make sure I’m visible. Those Men in Spandex will be eating my dust.
Carolyn Kott Washburne ’65 is a freelance writer and editor in Milwaukee as well as an adjunct associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.