Throughout my life, I’ve always used a bicycle as a way to get around. When I was eight years old, it saved me a few minutes walking to get to my friend’s house down the street. When I was sixteen, it saved me a half hour’s walk to get to my boyfriend’s house across town. And now, at 21, my bicycle takes me to work, to parties, to get groceries, or to any park bench in the city.
It never really occurred to me until about a year ago that my bike rides were also a great form of exercise. Cycling is probably why I avoided the freshman fifteen, or any extra fifteen pounds for that matter. But I didn’t really make this connection until I saw the super-fit athletes that work and shop at Breakaway Bikes.
In other words, I didn’t get into cycling because I thought it would help me lose weight. It was a fun and easy form of transportation — it still is. However, I realize that cycling is also a sport, an extreme sport in some cases. Many customers come into the shop looking for a way to get into shape. Still others come in looking for a way to conquer an Ironman competition. In short, a lot of people see a bike as a fitness tool.
Why had I missed the bicycle-fitness connection? I started to think that maybe cycling fit a certain niche for people — one that didn’t necessarily concern body image or weight loss.
When people use the word athletic, for example, a certain body type comes to mind — one that’s slender, lean, muscular, etc. Could it be that the cycling world is an exception? As Katie Lambden points out in her own blog post, even professional cyclists seem to show a wider range of body types than most other professional sports — especially female professional cyclists. It might just be that bike riders encompass a peculiar population that go unaffected by the nation’s body obsession.
So what came first? Does cycling simply attract those who are more open-minded when it comes to body image and health, or do cycling and its culture actively encourage these ideals?
I want to argue the latter. Riding a bike, while it can be intense, does not have to be a work out all the time. That’s why we have beach cruisers and the granny gear. You can take it easy on your bike but still be riding your bike. You don’t have to be in shape to enjoy cycling. It’s inherently rewarding and thus encourages people to do more. But when you want to work at it, you can. You can really push yourself on a bike, even if it’s a hybrid.
Furthermore, I think cycling culture, as diverse as it may be, can foster healthy notions about body image. When you see other people on bikes, of all different shapes and sizes, it takes the emphasis away from the body and places it appropriately on the activity — riding!
Perhaps, though, that feeling of invincibility is only present on the bike. We can be different people when we’re not riding. Once again, we have to confront our bodies: what food we’re going to eat, when we’re going to eat, what we’re going to wear, how much we’re going to drink, etc. I’m not completely convinced that our positive body image translates to the non-cycling parts of our lives.
While the approaching warm weather means riding outdoors in the fresh air, it also means a swarm of mixed signals about swimsuit bodies and summer tans. So I’ll leave you with this message: healthy does not always mean skinny, beautiful, strong, etc. Health encompasses both the mental and the physical. Health matters both on and off the bike.