I was on my way home from work at 5 p.m. on a Wednesday in January. I could only see the few feet of cracked pavement illuminated by my bike light and all I heard were coyotes yipping somewhere in the prairie. As I pedaled my fixed-gear, hodgepodge bike up a hill with 25-mile-per-hour winds pummeling my body backward and pulling cold tears out of my eyes, two thoughts circled around my mind. One: the wrath of god is real, and he means business. Two: My thighs are hands down, without a doubt, my favorite part of my body.
No, I’m not being sarcastic. The hill grade steepened. I lowered my head to be more aerodynamic, panting in rhythm with every determined pedal stroke, and as I looked down, my first thought was, “Thank you, thighs. You’re the best.” A year earlier, before I started commuting to work by bike, I would have been stuck in traffic on the way to the gym to make my legs swimsuit-ready.
My thighs themselves didn’t look any different than they did a year ago. Commuting by bike had not transformed my body in any extreme way, but it transformed what I saw when I looked at my body. I’m not a competitive cyclist. My commute isn’t meant as a workout. It’s how I get from point A to point B, to work, to the grocery and back home. Bike commuting taught me what years of organized sports never had: my body, the thing I mostly viewed with frustration and appraised for aesthetics, was useful. Depending on my body to get me to work every morning and home after an exhausting day taught me to respect and trust every part of it, even the parts I had formerly criticized. I learned my body could actually do something in the real world, with a real impact. Two skinny tires, a thin metal frame, and my average legs replaced a massive, complex, fuel-chugging machine. If that’s not badass, then I don’t know what is.The sensation of depending on my body, rather than, in this instance, a car, is one of those rare addictions that was actually liberating, but it took a while to foster this trust in my physical ability. I never tested what my body could do because I never thought of it as being useful. The first few weeks of bike commuting, I was always worried about what could go wrong. I obsessively thought about what I would do if my bike broke, if I got in an accident, or if the weather took a turn for the worse. I still have these concerns, but I realized I know my bike and my legs a lot better than a car engine. I relaxed and reveled in riding my bike to work and anywhere around town I wanted to go. If I could bike to work during a Midwest winter, I knew I could depend on my body in other ways, and I started to daydream about solo adventures and new hobbies.There was one issue with my new dreams: everyone I shared them with seemed to think they were stupid and unsafe. Once I learned to trust my physical abilities, I ran into a mental wall constructed by what I had been taught and what I saw. Before I started biking to work, I thought of my body as fragile and requiring protection because that was what, in not so many words, I had always been told. I had proven to myself that my body was capable, but I was still held back by society’s expectations and what most people considered normal. In my community, I didn’t see many people, and almost no women, biking once October hit. I figured everyone must know something I didn’t. As the weather worsened and I kept biking, I started seeing that the limitations I had believed and even helped create weren’t true. I became comfortable with being outside the norm and stopped worrying about what everyone else thought I should do. I thought there would be some point when I would pack away my bike for winter, but it’s spring and I’m still pedaling away, no worse for the wear. This experience showed me that sometimes it’s fine to be the only person doing something. All at once, my dreams seemed possible and a hundred doors opened: a solo hiking trip, a biking adventure, learning to lead climb, camping alone.The ideas multiply as I write this. It’s exciting. I’m excited. I love the independence that comes with trusting my body and disproving the self- and society-imposed limits on it. I don’t know where I’ll go next, but I trust my body to get me there. Thanks, legs.
Hannah Ward lives in small-town Illinois and spends her free time backpacking, camping and exploring in the Midwest. She is a tofu-lover, avid reader, yogi wannabe, rock climbing enthusiast and runner. Her favorite possession is her bike, and her favorite place is her parents’ garden.