The path beneath my two thin tires alternated between asphalt, dirt, and the dreaded loose gravel. My pale knuckles seized the handlebars for hours on end, relaxing only when the pedals came to a halt and my feet touched solid ground. Fear of the gravity devil’s fingers toppling me towards scrapes or broken bones turned me into a timid rider-who erupted into a terrified one on downhill slopes or uneven terrain. Yet here I was, riding over 350 miles on the Erie Canalway Trail from Buffalo to Albany. Dreams of joining this annual event had teased me for over ten years. Its first name, “The Big Fat Fanny Ride”, had placed it within the realm of possibilities; a ride for ‘normal’ people, not just athletes dressed in spandex! But a convenient excuse arrived each year as it approached: kids, work, elderly parents, the floor needed mopping….. The kids were grown, care for elderly parents had ended and the only excuse left was… well, there was no valid excuse! It was time to get in the saddle or take this one off the bucket list.
Training – a first for my sixty-year-old, petite, curvy physique never destined to morph into long, lean or athletic – began in April for this early July adventure. Across three months, I pumped past my starting five mile limit to forty-mile excursions. Growing definition of my calves and thighs, less gasping for breath on hills, and the fortification of the area where the bike seat met my seat, testified to the hours spent preparing. On good days, a voice from a place I usually ignored coaxed me past doubt and resistance. But more familiar refrains often grew louder by the mile: “You’ll never be able to finish.” “You’ll be laughed at for even trying.” “Who do you think you are?” The swinging door between belief and uncertainty threatened to close before I allowed myself to commit to the entrance fee.
Another uninvited but familiar companion followed at my heels. Fear. Fear of falling, of being hit by a car, of losing my way, of losing my nerve. Fear squeezed my gut, accelerated my heartbeat, restrained my breath and crunched my shoulders towards my ears. And that was before I mounted the bike!
Despite hesitancies, preparation moved forward in all areas except one. This trip was a choice, but not an easy one. The little girl that had literally clutched her mother’s sturdy leg, with averted eyes and words locked behind closed lips around strangers, often surfaced and slowed or stopped my progress. My natural tendency towards shyness had been fortified by the confinement inherent in being raised in an isolated rural setting. Parental constraints that limited social activities further hindered the development of self-confidence. But discontent had grown as I grew, and an inherited stubborn streak had refused to accept limitations set by others. I had left home despite efforts to keep me there and became the first in my family to attend college. I soon realized that the social skills others had already acquired would require as much effort to understand as the course curriculums. Lessons learned through developing friendships became as important as those taught in the classrooms.
A network of friends became the support system I depended on during tough times, both as a naïve college student and throughout the years beyond. But although well wishes and verbal support were abundant, no one was available to accompany me on this trip. My husband promised to rescue me anywhere along the way, but also declined participation. I would be on my own.
My dependence on the comfort of a close companion in social situations was challenged. I felt as vulnerable as the girl sitting at the rear of the classroom praying not to be called on fifty years ago. I worried that my solo self would not be able to weather exposure to the judgments of strangers. Training could not prepare me for this piece of the trip. But I was ready to let go of this worn out dance between fear and desire, control and faith, wanting and doing. I hoped to learn a few new steps to the tune of possibility
I submitted the entrance fee at the last minute. No turning back now-I never took a monetary commitment lightly! The next step was reserving a place on the bus to transport me one way to my destination. But the bus was full! How could that be, are that many people crazy enough to do this? Are they all those athletes I thought would find a big skinny fanny ride somewhere else? Then again, the name had changed to the Erie Canalway Ride – no fanny’s mentioned anywhere anymore! Panic lead to a phone call to try to get on that bus. A long wait list was my answer. My mind sped backwards to another bus missed a very long time ago, in High School. I had been the only student left behind due to what appeared to be my failure to measure up. In reality, it had been another one of my parent’s rigid restrictions that had limited my participation in activities for my entire seventeen years. But that disappointment had been the final straw, had set me in motion to change the direction of my life. The motivation for this bike trip remained unclear, but it felt as linked to a change in direction as the trip I had missed so long ago. I would not let missing this bus stop me. I checked online to see if I could arrange a ride share with some others that still needed transportation. I pushed past my resistance to contacting strangers online and posted a request to share a ride. I quickly received a response from a younger man. We decided I would rent a car one way, he would travel to me and we would make the trip together. A total stranger and I, five hours in a car with nothing to say to each other – a personal nightmare. But that fresh voice inside that believed in me, whispered: “You can do this, it’s OK to be afraid, you’ve been there before and succeeded, you’ll be OK.”
Three weeks before the ride my well loved ten speed Peugeot bike, an extravagant purchase from my first professional paycheck at the start of a career that spanned over thirty-five years, gave out. I considered yet another repair of the bike with a frame that fit my body like no other ever had. I had replaced brakes and tires and wires in the past, but I didn’t believe I could bring it up to speed for a trip so far beyond any challenge I had ever placed before it. Another old friend unable to accompany me. After a few days exploring and test riding, I replaced it with a modified lighter model with more gears than I would ever conquer! I rode the new bike as far and often as I could to gain confidence in our ability to work together to make the long trip home from Buffalo.