Editor’s note: This story by Silja J.A. Talvi first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #67, Published in August 1998. Art by Mark Tierney.
As a young girl living in a cold, rather depressing Scandinavian town, I remember relishing the freedom afforded me by my three-speed bicycle, which had been graduated from training-wheel infancy to two-wheeled maturity.
Whereas my gender was already proving to be a hindrance in other areas of my life, at age 6 I still felt no different as a girl bike rider than my boy counterparts. Rides with my father through heavily trafficked streets were intimidating, perhaps, but they also gave me a distinct feeling of pride and self-sufficiency that walks through our sometimes hostile neighborhood could not. A dark haired Jewish-Finnish girl in a Swedish town, most of my days were filled with the dread and anxiety of dealing with too many kids and adults who viewed my little sister and me as outsiders. But with my little legs pushing tiny pedals and creating the comforting sound of my turning wheels, I felt capable and solid.
A year later, I found myself transported to the smoggy, sunny megalopolis of Los Angeles, California. No longer an outsider by virtue of my darker coloring, I was now more a second-grade misfit by virtue of my lack of American vocabulary, slang, and my love of education and reading. The latter two passions carried nerd connotations which were to confuse me to no end.
As the months and years wore on, English vocabulary and Los Angeles slang came to me easily. But I could not break with other habits so easily. Loving to read was one of those habits. Bicycling was another.
Before my first year of junior high, I was given the gift of a 10-speed road bike. Proud of my new bike and the speed with which I could travel, I would make a point of riding to school often. As before, I would relish the solitude of cycling. While my classmates took the bus home or rode in cars with older friends or parents, I would head for my beloved bicycle, with heavy backpack in tow. In the sweltering Los Angeles heat, I rode wearing unfashionable pants or skirts and eyeglasses. Hardly the epitome of cool.
One afternoon, I was headed home on my customary route when I passed a group of older school kids who had gathered on the sidewalk to smoke cigarettes. When I rode by, I was harassed and subjected to all manner of ridicule, but not about the fact that I was wearing glasses or that I was dressed like a nerd. The problem, it seemed, was my bicycle.
“A girl on a bicycle! Look at that girl on her stupid bicycle!” Not daring to stop or retaliate, I rode home in shame, their voices ringing in my ears.
Unable to dismiss their juvenile antics or understand the venom directed toward me, I was simply unable to ride my bicycle to school again. I felt humiliated and scorned in a way that I couldn’t express or comprehend. My bike sat abandoned in the garage and I began a chaotic and unpredictable life as a bus rider.
Within a year, owing to a set of difficulties and external circumstances that included the influence of the L.A. punk scene, I evolved into an outsider of an utterly different sort. With a shaved head, fishnet stockings, combat boots and an attitude to match the hatred I felt for the superficiality around me, I was reborn as a mutant Angeleno—angry, tormented and totally without a bike.
Without much by way of self-respect, I spent the next several years on a roller coaster ride of a largely unhappy life. To a great degree, punk and reggae music kept me going, building my character even while other elements of my life threatened to tear me apart. Eventually, my love of intellectual pursuits returned, but my fear of bike riding and the stigma I perceived to be associated with it remained the same. Bikes were for nerds, or else for super-athletes. But not for me. To further convince me of this fact, I never saw teenage girls on bikes, and I rarely noticed adult women cyclists in my car-choked city. I decided, with adolescent logic, that there really must be something wrong with females on bikes.
Coincidentally, I had developed a severe dislike for cars over the years. I had been hit as both a pedestrian and a passenger, and so I never pursued my driver’s license and continued taking public transportation throughout my teens and early twenties.
When my partner, Brian, came home one afternoon with a Diamondback mountain bike, my eyes widened in apprehension. He’d traded in his road bike for this … thing! What was it? What was with those huge, funny-looking tires? I couldn’t be convinced to try riding it around no matter what he said. Instead, I’d feigned total disinterest. No, I just don’t feel like riding. No biggie, I’d say. But on certain days when I’d be working at home alone, I’d wander over to his bike and stare at it. It looked so utterly different from the skinny-tire bike I’d ridden so many years ago. Touching the bike, I felt a mixture of sadness and yearning that seemed inexplicable. Somehow, bicycling had come to epitomize every bit of self-doubt I had about myself.
My fear of getting back on a bike continued to persist and taunt me until one year, after months of cajoling, Brian was finally able to persuade me to join him on a bike ride in Sausalito, one of the legendary bike-friendly cities located in California’s Marin County.
He promised a safe, short trip. In the days leading up to that Saturday, I fought off waves of fear and anxiety. When the day came, I was fairly convinced I would embarrass myself and be noticed by everyone around us. Bravely, I accompanied him over the Golden Gate Bridge, from San Francisco to Sausalito. It’s now or never I told myself. Trying to keep my trepidation hidden from everyone around me, I can scarcely remember what I said or did in the bike store. I do remember my first few pedal strokes as being uncertain. I was sure I had forgotten how to ride. I was sure I would fall. I was sure I would fail.
But it didn’t happen that way. My pedal strokes grew more certain and my anxiety began to vanish. Twenty-five exhausting miles later I felt like the happiest grown-up 6-year-old in the world. I felt as though I had accomplished something tremendous. I was on top of the world, on two knobby wheels.
Three weeks later, I was the proud owner of a Fisher. Two months later, I was cycling every day, everywhere. Day by day, I grew stronger, more alert, confident and capable. Eventually, one Fisher became two Fishers. Bike tools, clothing, parts, tires, tubes, gloves, pumps, levers and magazines began filling our apartment, much to the amusement and joy of the man in my life, who’d since become my husband.
While street riding and commuting became my preferred mode of daily transportation, my true passion evolved into mountain biking. Getting caught up in the wild, wonderful rolling dance of dirt-encrusted knobbies, I had learned to tackle trails and singletrack, navigate climbs and descents, and grapple with roots and rocks. Leaving behind a bit of skin and blood on more than one occasion, I quickly learned about bandaging and moving on. I also began to understand that falling did not equal failing.
Ultimately, bringing bicycling back into my life provided me with a double-dose of that which my younger life could not afford me—the celebration of my intellectual and physical abilities as a female member of the species. That feeling of joyous celebration is magnified every time a little girl stares inquisitively at me on my bike. I wave and smile, and her eyes light up in brilliant enthusiasm. “Look mom, she’s on a bicycle.”
Here’s looking toward the day when she is, too.
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