Brenda wrote this great piece about "learning" how to ride a bike in the city, and all of the new skills that includes. Hooray for little blue Schwinn bicycles!
I arrived in Minneapolis in late August of 2003, not-so-fresh off the Amtrak train with only two suitcases of possessions to my name. I was 22 years old, had no experience living in a city, and no real life experience other than living on a farm in southeastern Minnesota. Instead of feeling free and excited to be here, I felt anxious, depressed, and trapped. At that time, north Minneapolis looked and felt quite different than it does today- imagine endless pavement, no trees, giant dirt pits with no sign of work, and random groups of small children chasing each other with sticks.
The biggest problem I had transitioning to life in a city was simply orienting myself. I grew up in the Bluffs and in a small town where trips were navigated solely by landmarks. The Twin Cities are incredibly flat in comparison, with very few large landmarks to give one a sense of north, south, east, and west. I remember standing on the sidewalk, just turning in a circle, trying to figure out where I was and where I was going. The thing that helped me the most in this regard was getting a bicycle.
Each day after work, I would take my bike out for a spin and train myself in the topography of Minneapolis. Ten blocks north, then ten blocks east, and so on, until I made a square to get back to my house. I noted the hills and rises, the streets that had flowers, the yards that had sweet barbeque smells, the streets where cars whipped past me so fast that they left me shaking. This being in the days before smart phones, I spent long minutes bent over my paper map of the Twin Cities, charting out each day’s completed journey. I gradually developed a sense of direction that stays with me today. I am proud to know most of Minneapolis and Saint Paul by bicycle, and I am familiar with the streets in a way that I don’t think a motorist could be.
Cycling gave me a lot of economic freedom during a time in my life when I had no money. The first year that I lived in the Twin Cities, I made maybe $8000 from a volunteering stipend. The next few years were almost as lean, as I tried to establish myself as a “professional.” But because I didn’t have the expenses of a car, I had the economic freedom to explore work that fit my interests and developed my skills. I was not forced to pursue higher-paying (but potentially boring) jobs just to pay my bills. Of course, my cycling did tend to make me the office outlier- but instead of feeling like a weirdo, I felt confident that cycling instead of driving was the right choice for me.
The third, and maybe most important, way that cycling has shaped my life is that it gave me a form of exercise that I found pleasurable, which I had never experienced before. As a child, I was obese and hated all forms of exercise. I was too fat to run with the other kids, so I would fall behind them and they would turn their heads to stare at me and whisper, which led me down a shame spiral of hating my body and hating myself, and then eating more junk to soothe those bad feelings. I developed something of a grudge against physical exertion and I defensively mocked any people that enjoyed exercise, railing against “jock culture.” What I didn’t know was that different kinds of exercise feel different to different individuals, and that I just hadn’t found my fun type of exercise yet.
When I rode up a hill and coasted down, I felt free. I felt the city disappear around me, and I felt neighborhoods and families rise up. On a bike, I no longer felt anonymous or like a stranger. I felt like part of a community. As I biked more and more often, I lost weight without even trying. The first year that I cycled, I went from weighing 240 pounds to 180 pounds. Then with a little effort, I got down to 165 pounds, which feels like a good weight on my 5’7” frame. After discovering that I liked exercise, I was more willing to try other physical activities. Now I swim, lift weights, do aerobics, and dance. I would like to get into cross-country skiing and rock-climbing. Twelve years ago, I never could have imagined this, and it all started with my little blue Schwinn bicycle.