Fitness at 40+
Cycling through Covid
The pandemic put my usual fitness routine, and all its mental health benefits, out of reach. The fix? As easy as riding a bike
After months of pandemic lockdown, the progressive reopening phases didn’t lessen my anxieties or apartment claustrophobia as much as I’d hoped. For decades I’d thrived on swimming, making me toned, fit, calmer, fueled by endorphins. At bedtime I felt naturally tired. I mourned the loss of my university pool due to COVID last March, where I’d been lap swimming for a decade. I sadly made an appointment to pick up my goggles, latex cap, and flip flops from my locker. And then my swim gear languished in my dresser drawer.
I tried online power walking videos, but I’d never been a gym class devotee, and the constant pounding put stress on my arthritic joints. In the absence of strong quadriceps from swimming, I began to have achy knees. A visit to my rheumatologist sparked my cure. If I couldn’t swim, the doctor said, biking was the best exercise for my knees.
But I didn’t live close to bucolic parks where cyclists pedaled free of mad motorists and car fumes. I lived amidst boulevards clogged with construction crews, massive trucks, and food delivery bicyclists who sped in the wrong direction, dashing dangerously through red lights — and scaring me off the roads even as a pedestrian.
And on top of that, my biking background was complicated. I never had a bike as a child. My first-generation mother, who’d grown up in an orphanage due to poverty, was lucky enough to have shoes that fit, let alone wheels. When I begged for a bike, she thought she was protecting me by not buying me one.
“You can hurt yourself…down there,” she whispered.
She had received most of her facts about puberty and adolescence through misinformed peers. I was eight and confused, but later realized she believed bouncing on a bike would cause me to lose my virginity. Ironically I turned into a shy, late-blooming adolescent, dateless until my senior year of college, when I invited David, my first true love, to do what a bicycle seat never would.
Actually, the first love of my life was next-door Bruce. He gave me a ring he found on the street when we were nine. Occasionally he let me ride his bike, hiding my deviant behavior from my mother. I perched on the saddle unsteadily, lacking confidence, a shaky rite of passage I was thrilled to experience in brief secret spurts.
I finally bought a bike when I was an adult, but hardly used it, except on vacations out of the city. My husband had a fancy Italian racer named Celeste (his other woman, I joked). He biked 30 miles with his buddies across state lines on summer weekends. All those hills and valleys without shoulders made me apprehensive. I stayed home, safely playing Scrabble.
I made sure that my daughter learned to ride a bike, wanting her to feel as intuitive on two wheels as she was on her own two feet. I measured her growth by the bikes she traded in for bigger versions. She progressed from a frilly model with training wheels and neon streamers, proudly perched years later on her junior adult bike. I was cautious, left behind while she zoomed down steep hills, exhilarated, hands in the air.
“Hold on!” I warned, although she never fell. When she pumped straight-legged back up the hill, I pushed my bike back up, panting.
One August, returning home from vacation, all three of our bikes flew off the roof rack of our car. We were grateful to be on an empty road; no one was hurt. But all three bikes were mangled. My daughter wailed over the demise of her cherished bike. My husband bid farewell to lovely Celeste, a relationship older than our marriage. I had no emotional attachment about losing what my daughter called my “old lady” wheels, and my husband called “a tank.” I would never be the snazzy racing beauty atop thin wheels.
Our insurance reimbursed us for new bikes, and I progressed to a lighter weight but steady mint green number, which mostly sat unused in my building’s basement bike room.
Until the pandemic.
The time had come to dust off my bicycle. I was fortunate to have a bike in this time of shortage. “They’re buying bikes like toilet paper,” David Sharp proclaimed in The Chicago Tribune. Bikes were replacing mass transit in many cities. I had the goods — now I just had to get past my insecurities and embark on a new outdoor fitness regimen.
Still shaky on the saddle, I was afraid to navigate clogged city streets to reach the closest bike route, which circled the perimeter of Manhattan with dramatic views of the Hudson and East rivers, framed by skyscrapers. So my husband lowered the back seats of our car, slid my bike in, and drove me to my Tour de Cité. Exhilarated by the sparkling morning light cast on the river, I felt freer than I had all year. At last: open space, endless sky, boats bobbing, a refreshing breeze in my face. Bikers whizzed past me — leaving me a view of their clearly defined calf muscles and high tech shirts with a rear flap for a water bottle.
I’d been fit before the pandemic, so I knew I could regain stamina and strength. My conscience became my private personal trainer, driving me forward, pushing me to traverse a little more each time.
I stopped for water and a brief rest every few miles, savoring the view of puffy clouds changing shape. I built up to four miles, then eight, soaring to ten miles at a clip. Affixing an odometer to track my average speed, total time, and mileage was an inexpensive method of reward and motivation. I hated U-turns, still afraid I’d tumble over (although I never have). So what if I had to walk my bike around narrow turns?
My husband insisted on raising my seat, claiming it was too low to stretch out my legs correctly. Now I’d have to jump up on the seat. So jump I did, each time more bravely. As my speed increased, I began passing others, imitating my fellow bikers’ barking commands: “On your left!” Half of them didn’t hear me, plugged into earphones. Unlike the maniac speed racers who passed me like tornadoes, I remained the polite cautious driver, choosing optimal times to get ahead, proud of my evolution from slowpoke to confident cyclist.
I even started an Instagram theme. When I came across an interesting view I hadn’t paid attention to before, even a sign or graffiti or street art, I’d take a photo of it with my bicycle in the foreground. My Instagram friends named it, “Where’s Candy?” in reference to the classic children’s book Where’s Waldo?
“You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it,” said Academy-award-winning costume designer Edith Head. Which brought me to a huge bike store. I needed a cycling windbreaker to keep me warm enough in the fall, a light rain jacket to keep my delicate body from drizzle, wrap-around sunglasses, and dedicated biking sneakers.
“These have Velcro,” the salesperson boasted. “They’ll make you pedal more efficiently. And your laces won’t get undone.”
Smiling, I recalled how I bought my daughter her first Velcro sneakers when she didn’t yet know how to tie her shoes.
I grabbed a chocolate bar while waiting to pay from the wide array in the impulse section. Now I had even more reasons to shop here.
In the beginning, I thought I’d give up biking when my pool reopens, but just call me Biathlon. I still wish my mother would have let me have a bike. After I graduated from college my parents moved from the suburbs into the city, and my mother began pedaling around on her own version of a tank. She too had never had a bike, nor swimming lessons in the orphanage. It wasn’t until middle age that she mastered biking and swimming.
“Doing difficult things is good for you,” she told me throughout childhood. I didn’t pay much attention then, but now I think of her wise words when I orchestrate a U-turn on my bike. Whew, I made it! Now I was ready for the big leagues: pedaling my way through traffic. I convince myself I can do it, munching on a chocolate bar from my handlebar storage pouch.