Twenty-five is a tough age to first learn to ride a bicycle, especially if you already have a five year old who is, from your motherly perspective, going much too fast on his. My first bicycle, bought at that age, was a Schwinn light purple women’s mountain bike that sold for $99.99 at Target. Since the cost was so high, I hatched a plan to ride the bicycle for one Sunday only and return it for a full refund the following day. It was a stunning summer day — the perfect day to give away my biking virginity. I walked the bike up and down the Nyack boardwalk in Rockland County with the Target tags and instruction kit dangling at the sides, paper circles with information shuffling inside the wheels, the whole thing shaking dangerously from side to side if I tried to mount it. I raised one leg high over the seat and planted it on the other side, walked on my toes while pushing the bike between my thighs, and tried to pedal a few times before falling over. (It would be a while before someone would show me that if you tilt the bike to the side, getting on doesn’t require picking up your leg to your nose and looking like a mad yoga lady in the middle of the street). I rode a little, but also crashed a little, and at the end of the day the Target bike with bent handlebars and mud covered frame was destined to stay mine.
I never rode a bike as a child, because bicycle riding was, of course, one of God’s infinite nos. Even for the boys, for whom the immodesty of raising a foot to the heavens to climb on was not a concern, bikes were absolutely forbidden. They were called shaygetz bikes. There was no female version of the bike; shiksas in the rabbi’s minds didn’t do much besides lure the bikes with their cleavage.
Athleticism for women was not even a concept I had ever heard of. There was no sports program in the girls’ school, and as we approached our mid-teens we were thought too grown up to be very physically active – with the exception of a sporadic ball game during recess or swim in the pool where I made seven somersaults at a time with my knee-length swim dress on. The occasional energetic girl would briskly walk to school with arms swinging from side to side, but that kind of athleticism would never be mine. I was the girl who was always on the school bus a minute after everyone, my pleated skirt unpleated and my thick tights puckered with runs that ran from the pantyline to toe, where a knot would take care of the big toe’s exit. In all, my athletic future promised to go as far as prenatal Lamaze.
Then in my early twenties when I left it all behind, one of my big appetites was to actually learn to ride, no, fly, a bike. So there I was – ripe business for Target.
Rockland Bike Club was a bicycle club for riders of all levels, said rocklandbike.org, and they welcomed anyone for the weekly ride in the park. At the next opportunity, I lugged the purple bike out of the garage and over to the meetup location with the plan to learn how to work the thing properly. I could easily spot the “club”- its bicycle wielding members appeared from slick SUVs with racks mounted on the top, wearing spandex and walking funny. The riders strapped on shoes and fastened gloves and marched about in pants that looked exactly like the girdle we religious girls had to wear to hide our wanton buttocks. The cyclists’ girdles didn’t hold up thick beige stockings, and paradoxically, came with padding that only made their behinds look bigger. They wore the underwear just like that – skirtless and shameless.
I did not look anything like them and they all seemed to have telepathic knowledge of each other’s names but mine, so I sidled up to the group quietly and tried to keep a low profile by doing what everyone did. We rode around the park. Then they all stopped to wait up for me. I was far behind, sat far below, pedaling quickly in small circles with my knees coming up to my face. I looked like a circus girl on a unicycle, someone was kind enough to tell me. To stop, I had no choice but to skid with one toe, skid with another, let go of the bike, fall, dust my palms and retrieve the bike.
They watched me, the purple acrobat, collect my circus prop and join them.
“Where d’ya get the bike?” Someone asked me.
“Target,” I said innocently.
“You mean”, said a short gentleman pumping air in my tires “Tarjé“.
The club laughed.
I laughed. Still not blending.
But they were nice – as nice as cultists can be to outsiders. Someone pulled the bike seat up to my hips, someone else got something from his car after it was conferred that it’s desperately needed. The gears were moved and chains lubricated. The brakes, they said, were shot, but that didn’t stop them from turning screws, adjusting pads and tipping the whole thing over and spinning the wheel. While I stood at the side and watched, a woman wearing knees support over her girdle told me she paid over three thousand dollars for her bike. I just stared at her hundred fifty dollar sunglasses through my prescription plastic frames, my $20 Chase account balance flashing before my eyes.
The sport is clearly expensive, fanatical and dangerous – my elbows and knees are testament to the last. I should have never coveted it, I shouldn’t have seen those bikers on yomtov when I stayed in Williamsburg as a kid. But what could I do that I fell in love with biking – purple Schwinn and all? What could I do if riding down the hill in Haverstaw to the library made me feel so free and light and alive? Or if hours of riding along tree-lined roads led me to feel magically content, an epiphany of internal peace – otherwise known as endorphins?
The Tarjé took me through as many emotional rides as physical rides. Bike Club be damned, I was purple proud of my evolving skills of coming off unharmed and going downhill without panicking. But just as I was starting to chain the bike whenever I left it outside, it was stolen. It was stolen in front of an Orthodox shul in Manhattan, while I was sitting inside in the women’s side of the divide, enraptured by the fact that women had an equal half of the synagogue. When I left the services I found no bike. Someone must have put something in my prayers.
It was replaced, it was upgraded and somehow, slowly, I amassed the gear and jargon of a regular radical cyclist. This year, three years since I learned to ride a bicycle, I rode my first century – the Gran Fondo 100 mile race from the George Washington Bridge into Rockland County. As I biked in the rain for miles and miles through hills and mountains, I reflected on what drives us, a mad crowd of athletes riding since dawn, to push ourselves through such intense physical challenges. Endurance sports are so foreign to my childhood culture, yet almost an obsession in the secular world. Why do so few Hasidic people care about such things? I pedaled and pondered – as is fit for a multitasking cyclist who comes in last. Perhaps, I thought climbing up Bear Mountain in rain and dense fog, this is about setting goals and proving to ourselves that with perseverance we can obtain any goal. Maybe in it lies a very unreligious idea, the belief in our own human powers — that we can reach beyond the impossible and make it possible; to challenge fate with willpower. That’s the very secular American concept that the destiny can be controlled if we have enough human resolve. May the heavens open with ice cold rain, may Rockland tilt and suddenly become all uphill mountain, may the cleated shoes lock and the bike fall over – we can still get up and keep going.
I think for the Shaygetz girls and boys that’s really what drives at least some of us. Or maybe it’s just the pasta you get at the end, which is just not kosher for the people of my home culture. Either way, the thrill of riding against so many challenges and facing the terrifying fear that you can’t go any further, and pushing yourself on despite, is enough to keep me racing. The pasta and medals and waving crowds and festive afterparties and facebook likes are only added perks.
That’s why each finish line I cross I get a medal for overcoming the challenge of the ride, plus a second for overcoming the personal challenges of being an adult-beginner and single parent, and I bring home the second one for my son. Well, I don’t quite get that second medal, I take it – hey, I deserve it. As with the whole sport, it’s all part of culture of self-determination: whatever you want, you must take!
Somewhere someone who took a purple Schwinn Tarjé is nodding an enthusiastic head in agreement.