Retro bicycle

It’s Not a Boy’s Bike if It’s My Bike

And it’s not a man’s world if it’s my world

In 1980, somebody stole my bike, a Huffy 5-speed girls’ model, from our side yard. In my journal, I wrote about its replacement. My dad had bought me an old beat-up orange 10-speed — the only thing wrong with it was that it needed air in the tires.

The new-old bike looked just right:already broken in, sleek, a touch too big for me. It was like inheriting a perfect pair of faded, ripped Levi’s from a brother I didn’t have. At fifteen, I didn’t play sports, but I cycled all over our Chicago north-side neighborhood and beyond. I couldn’t wait to be seen unlocking this battered bike in public. 

In our garage, my dad put new tubes in the tires for me. As he watched me pump them full of air, I realized I’d have to learn to fix a flat by myself pretty soon. 

“The tires and the chain look good, so you should get a lot of use out of it if you don’t mind riding a boy’s bike,” my dad observed. 

I sighed. Had we — the familial “we,” the societal “we” — not outgrown the ridiculous idea of girls’ and boys’ bikes? 

“This kind is probably better, so people just say it’s for guys,” I said. I whirled my right leg back and around and stood over the horizontal top tube, which brushed the ragged edge of my cutoffs. 

“Well, it’s made for boys,” my dad said. “But it’s not too tall for you, so you should be fine.”

Made for boys. The phrase felt like a stone in my shoe. 

I rode to the beach and back. Leaning forward to reach the drop-style handlebars made me feel taller and seemed to give power to my legs. Biking through the neighborhood, I was absorbed in my surroundings. I felt skilled, unselfconscious, and a little bit tough. I wondered why boys wanted to fly along with their vulnerable nuts only inches above a metal bar. Maybe they should ride step-through bikes, I thought. Girls were more rugged down there.

Later, in my room, with its green-painted desk and Endless Summer poster, I brooded. Step-through bikes for girls were one of a host of distracting and annoying ways in which girls were differentiated from boys for no good reason. Debates over women’s equality had been in the news all my life. But even if I was equal, it seemed I wasn’t supposed to feel similar to boys or men. Girls were supposed to remember we were girls at all times. A boy’s hobbies and opinions made him an expert, and girls were supposed to admire him — not be similarly involved and expert. Don’t imagine you’re athletic; don’t imagine you’re a Star Trek fan; don’t imagine you’re funny, because women aren’t. So what did “equality” mean?

I wanted to express opinions, explore my interests, talk about them freely, and have my jokes laughed at. I wanted to be taken seriously when I saw a male as a role model instead of as a crush, or to enthuse about a non-traditional woman — say, a female musician or activist — and not hear her scoffed at for doing something men do. At fifteen I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this, but I was pretty sure I’d never have a boyfriend until I met a guy who shared my interests without trying to take sole ownership of them.

“It’s still a man’s world, Fran,” my dad would say, when I chafed against the unfairness. His placid tone seemed to push me to  accept an immutable second-class status; it made me furious. I wanted that bike-ride feeling to fill my life. I felt like a person on a bike, felt like I was anyone’s equal, a strong and fit person who happened to be a girl. What would I have to do, I wondered, to be treated as an equal?

Maybe my prickly discontent helped me filter out the jerks. Just a few years later, my first boyfriend was indeed a great bike-riding partner. We tore around the north side of Chicago, egging each other on to longer distances. Later, my future husband bought a bike as soon as we started dating so that we could ride together. That commonality doesn’t seem so remarkable now, but back then, most guys I met just wanted to attach me to their own hobbies.

At fifteen, would I have been surprised to learn I would eventually find a career in a traditionally male field as a strength and conditioning trainer? I’m sure I would have loved to know that when I grew up I’d lift weights and develop muscles. But if you’d told teenage me that I would join competitions, go to seminars full of men, and start teaching people to lift — hard nope. I would have seen nothing but the risk of being belittled. Even in my 40s, those learn-to-coach weekends, so full of male shouting, made me nervous. But, to my surprise, I also found the shouting encouraging. Men and women befriended and supported each other. In general, I was treated with the camaraderie I wanted when I was young, and I relished it. These rigorous challenges let me grow into my new career. 

I had managed to hold onto that feeling I loved at fifteen, of reveling in what my physical body could do, until it finally became part of my working life. I’m a strong person, who happens to be female, who can share her expertise and get respect, with no fussy fake dividing lines between what guys do and what women do. My dad stopped telling me it’s a man’s world and started asking, “How’s business?” And of course, female lifting coaches aren’t that rare now. I’ve known and worked with non-binary and trans trainers and trainees, too. The more voices, the better.

These days, bike rides still boost my mood and center me in my most real self. It’s the feeling that signaled empowerment when I was a teen, and I feel it when working with fitness clients too. It’s the feeling of being an outward-facing person in the world, unselfconscious and free. 

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