Get back on the bike

Three days after we’d arrived at the station, the graduate student I’m working for asked me, “Do you know how to bike?”

“Yes,” I said, and then tried to remember the last time I’d ridden on a bike. “Well, it’s been a while.”

We rented our bikes from the station, and they looked old and fairly beat up, but seemed to be in working order. The bikes were also one-size-fits-all, which of course meant that they were too big for me. After a first attempt where I struggled to reach the pedals, we were able to lower the seat slightly, so that with only a little extra effort, I could make it move decently well.

The next day, we took our bikes out into the field, and although it took me a few false starts, I managed to follow her out into the forest. With each turn, the bike squealed and groaned, the sounds of rusty gears resonating though the frame. I told her that the noise was a good thing, as this way she would know if I fell off, because she wouldn’t be able to hear me behind her.

Years ago, when I’d first started biking down the sidewalk, I had always been worried about the short brick fence that separated our yard from our neighbor’s. I would stare so hard at the fence trying not to hit it that I’d end up aiming straight at it. My parents convinced me that the best way to avoid hitting the fence was in fact to not look at it, so I spent many rides thinking don’t look at the fence, don’t look at the fence, don’t look… and coming close to running into it anyway.

On our way to the field site, we biked across bridges–don’t hit the rails, don’t look at the rails–past hanging branches and vines–don’t hit the tree, don’t look at the tree–and around tight curves–don’t fall off the side of the trail, don’t look off the trail. I wobbled and flinched and multiple times barely managed to stay upright. When the trail turned uphill, my bike began to protest even more loudly, expressing the pain my poor muscles were feeling as I urged legs and bike to go just a bit faster.

Getting on the bike the next day, I quickly realized that I was painfully sore. The muscles in my legs were not complaining too much, but my bottom felt bruised and raw. I wondered if it was possible to get saddle sores from biking. For the next two days, I did everything I could to shift around while we were biking, to stand up slightly when I wasn’t pedaling, and to hide the fact that the short, beautiful ride was causing me so much pain.

When we arrived at the site on the fourth day of field work, she stood and looked ruefully at me.

“This bike really hurts my butt,” she said.

I almost sighed in relief. “I thought it was just me.”

We realized that it had something to do with the shape of the bicycle seats, which seemed to be made for men. But with only a month of fieldwork to do, we decided that trying to buy replacement women’s seats wouldn’t be worth the time and expense.

As we got further into the fieldwork, the biking also got more intense. Now instead of needing to keep only myself upright and moving forward, I had to bike with a pack full of gear, carrying a stick (to check bushes for snakes) across my handlebars. Her job was even harder: she biked carrying our soil corer, a long metal pole with a handle on one end and an open drill-like twist on the other. The packs, stick, and corer added extra off-center weight to a task that already felt like a balancing act. Getting back on the bike after eight hours of field work was a high demand on tired muscles, and each day arriving back at the lab, I would stumble off my bike and drop my pack on the ground, standing still for a full minute before feeling capable of moving again.

A week later, I carried the corer. I managed to get to and from the field site with no major mishaps, and only a few close calls, which I considered fantastic success of courage, ability, and luck.

I was hoping to end this story right there, with me stepping off in front of the lab, triumphantly tossing the corer to the ground, and standing next to my bike glowing as if I’d just finished a marathon. How wonderful it would be to just bask in that small success, to let you celebrate my safe arrival with me. But somehow ending the story there seems slightly dishonest.

You see, I carried the corer again three days later. We’d had a long day of field work after a short night of sleep, and I decided as we walked down the end of the trail that she looked even more tired than I felt. Confident in my newly developed biking-while-carrying-dangerous-object abilities, I insisted that she let me take the corer on the ride back.

You know that saying about pride and falls? Sometimes it can be quite literal. Having set out enthusiastically with corer balanced across my handlebars, I made it only a couple minutes’ ride down the trail before I hit the edge of the corer on a fat vine. It was one of those spectacular falls, where the bike went one way and I went the other way, and I don’t even know where the corer went other than that it thankfully didn’t land on me. I bruised my hip, scraped up my knee, and imbedded a fair mass of broken leaves and twigs into the skin on my arm. When we picked up my poor bike, it refused to move, and it took us ten minutes to shift the front brake back into its proper place.

I remember falling off a horse once during a summer lesson, how it really annoyed me that the instructor spent so much time trying to convince me that I really did need to get back on the horse, because if she’d just stop talking I would already be back on, thank you. There was no question in my mind that the same thing applied to bikes, so I stubbornly insisted on picking up the corer and getting back on, which I’m sure dismayed my poor graduate student greatly, and I biked with that corer all the way back to the lab.

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