I have a gay agenda: to get every LGBT person who can climb on a bike to start riding one. There are similarities between being a successful cyclist and a happy queer: the more visible you are on the street, the better; you can wear loud, garish outfits with pride; and you feel free to go almost anywhere.
I just completed a five-week bike trip up the entire length of the Mississippi. My original intent was to challenge myself at a time when I was beginning to feel like my body was on an inexorable slide into arthritis and pain. I also wanted to see the heart of America at the gentle pace only two wheels can provide. On both counts, I got much more than I expected. I discovered that America is a kinder, sweeter place than I had come to believe just listening to the news. And, despite my aching back and Spanx-resistant gut, I felt strength and freedom that I never experienced before.
Our community faces disproportionate health challenges, such as obesity, substance abuse and depression, much of which can be blamed on discrimination and isolation. Until that ends, we can take some matters into our own hands. Exercise itself is a powerful medicine for mental health and general wellness, but cycling offers even more. When you realize that, under your own steam, you can go five, ten, or even a hundred miles, you can’t help but feel liberated, if only for a little while.
Let’s start with five miles. That’s what I did about ten years ago, on a geeky recumbent bike because I had wrist problems then. Other cyclists regularly whizzed past me, but I kept riding – which is my first and most important tip. Don’t be afraid to slow down to a crawl, but do keep going. Regularly up your distance a mile at a time and you’ll be amazed at how far you can go. I hit a personal best last month of 115 miles in one day. I’m on a regular road bike now; I still go slowly, but I go.
And a few more tips: Don’t worry about what type of bike you’ve got, as long as it works. If your old Schwinn’s been in storage, take it to the shop for a tune up and to make sure everything works properly. Check your tire pressure every few days.
Biking shouldn’t be painful. A decent bike shop can adjust your ride so that it works for you, provided it’s roughly the right size. No matter what you’re riding, consider a professional bike fitting if you want to ride regularly, you’re ready to go on longer rides, or have physical restrictions. Precision fit is not just for skinny triathletes.
Make friends with your gear and your gears. Thirty gears isn’t much harder to use than three. Low gears will get you up that big hill; high gears will make you zippy on the flats. Wear a helmet that fits snuggly, and don’t keep it at a jaunty tilt. You want it straight on top of your head, like Don Draper in a fedora.
Once you’re out there, claim your right to take the whole lane and ride with confidence and purpose. Ignore people who honk at you.
Don’t be intimidated by faster riders. Instead, how about finding inspiration from the 80-somethings I met in Minnesota, who meet on the weekends for a short ride to the bakery, where they reward themselves with lattes and cupcakes. Maybe skip the cupcakes, but do drink lots of water, and eat good carbs before, during and after your ride.
This brings me to my last tip. Find people to ride with. It’s a great motivator. Bike groups exist for all levels. If one group goes too fast or far, drop ‘em. Or consider a bike tour with like-minded souls. My Mississippi ride was with WomanTours, and my fellow riders ranged from 40 to 72, laid-back to speedy, lesbian to straight to who knows. What we all shared was a love of biking and a lot of mutual encouragement.
Now, let’s go. Imagine where you could be next year if you start peddling today.
*Abby is a civil rights attorney-turned-author who has been in the LGBT rights trenches for 25+ years. She can be reached through her website: squeerquestionsstraighttalk.com.