The romantic image of the solo cyclist first began when cars in our money-driven world supplanted cycling and the clubs that sustained the riders. While today the bicycle seems ready-made for individual characters, if you look beyond the media focus on pros and record holders, you can see that it actually takes a lifetime to achieve the status of a cycling character.
My home town had its own protagonist. A “convincingly non-fictitious” lady on a bike. She wasn’t a sports hero; she was a legend. We told stories about seeing her here or there, this time and that time…
Becoming a cycling character takes many interactions. Some riders salute you every single time you see them. Or they tip their hat. Some are stern and never wave; they ignore you. Some are always crabby and ready to express how they feel, maybe with the most vulgar of hand gestures, maybe directed at bystanders too young to understand the eternal nature of this rusty cyclist’s daily slog, or the gravity of an interruption by an errant basketball or an aggressive driver.
Only after years of these encounters do you realize exactly what you’re seeing: an authentic giant. You know that this character is not only in your story. You know you aren’t the first to make eye contact with a living legend. These same characters come up in the stories of other motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists.
This is due to the fact that cycling characters are always out on the street—public streets. Engaging those streets, mounted on a bicycle. And the bicycle, again, in the traditional sense of the word, is a machine to be seen.
In becoming legendary, these characters establish a long-term relationship between their routes and their public appearances. Their paths are etched in concrete. Their chronicles are layered. Seen so often, following the same line through town. One day on top of the next, seemingly never-ending, tracing and retracing. Even as a witness, you get the feeling you are one of many, that you’ve stumbled onto the story line, that you yourself are a character, an extra in the cycling lore of this stereotypical but concretely material “cycling lady.”
Of course, there are also “cycling guys,” but the character in the cycling legend of my youth was a woman. She was everywhere, reoccurring to the point that I can’t think of a single story without her in it. She seemed to pop up all over town, in the most far-off places, at the most random times, without the slightest coincidence of another significant event.
Over time, her appearances became the event. I can picture her on her single-speed beach cruiser, riding in the turning lane, down the middle of the road, straight into a headwind. Every interaction with her, even in the moment, seemed like something that must have happened to her every day for decades. She was historic in her presence, and she made us feel that way too, like we were witnessing the passing-by of something great. She made bicycles feel historic, and that’s the most important part of her story.
Discipline and determination. Regularity and absurdity. She was more active than your dad. She was outside more. She battled the wind more. She was more alone. She was more exposed. Not a hundred pounds sopping wet. Character as far the eye can see. She inspired the stereotype we strive to be. It’s because cycling ladies can convey, in a single encounter—the grandeur of their passing-by—that bicycling is a classical art.
To see one of them is like watching a superhero streak across the sky, except by the time you’re old enough to start recognizing them around town, they look like your grandma. But time still stops. Even your parents say, “Hey!” There she is. Again, way on this side of town. Haven’t seen her in a while. Riding in this weather.
It makes you wonder where they live: the cycling ladies. To be seen all over town. Where are they going? Like slug bugs or fire trucks, with groceries, in the rain, on the coldest of days. On the street, riding every day. I am not a cycling character. Maybe if I take the same route to work for the next thirty or forty years, I can wear a groove in the road and put my name on it. Except it doesn’t work like that. Real cycling characters appear in other people’s stories.
They don’t all sing, but this one did. I think she got bored. “I’m pedaling; I’m pedaling, even if you kids don’t get out of my way!” Wow, her lungs must have been strong to belt out lyrics so clearly, at her age, in winds that strong. “I’m pedaling; I’m pedaling. You won’t be the first that I flipped off today!” You could hear her coming from a block away. “I’m pedaling; I’m pedaling. I hope I’m singing loud enough for you to hear what I say!”
Her approach had the effect of freezing you in place. None of us could move. We were awestruck. The basketball falls and rolls out into the road. Nobody moves. It’s more important to watch her. “I’m pedaling; I’m pedaling. A hundred years of bicycling every single day. I said a hundred years of bicycling every single day!”
Carl Eugene Stroud is an online language teacher, with a background in French existentialism and anarchist pedagogy.