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RACING WITH a BUTTERFLY

by Elaine Reynolds

From Radiance Spring 1999

Elaine ReynoldsI have discovered the joys of riding a bicycle. I have observed that when we humans discover something, it often comes as a surprise that we are not the first.

As a historian, one of the things I love best about studying the past is the sense of shared discovery: the realization that people before me often felt what I feel and grappled with many of the same issues and questions. So it was a great pleasure for me when I discovered that one of the leaders of the women's suffrage movement at the turn of the century had also experienced the joys of riding a bicycle.

Frances Willard, head of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and a leader of the women's rights movement, learned to ride a bicycle at the age of fifty-four. She became convinced that cycling could be one of the keys to women's freedom. In 1895, Willard wrote, "We saw that the physical development of humanity's mother-half would be wonderfully advanced by that universal introduction of the bicycle sure to come. . . . If women ride they must, when riding, dress more rationally. . . . If they do this many prejudices as to what they may be allowed to wear will melt away. Reason will gain upon precedent, and ere long the comfortable, sensible, and artistic wardrobe of the rider will make the conventional style of woman's dress absurd to the eye and unendurable to the understanding."

Susan B. Anthony was also convinced that bicycling did "more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." A woman on a bicycle, according to Anthony, was "the picture of free, un-trammeled womanhood."

I do not exactly recall what led me to buy a bicycle. I am not the athletic type. I am a very large woman with short legs. I live in a town and state with lots of hills. And the idea of exposing myself on a bike for the rest of the world to gawk at and heckle was daunting. But I was motivated in part, I think, by life-style issues. I wanted to consume less, pollute less, live at a slower pace, and do more outdoors. Another influence was encouragement from friends. Many of my friends had bought bicycles and were telling me what fun they were. And then there were those rosy memories of learning to ride when I was five, on a friend's sister's bike that was way too big for me, and of my sense of accomplishment when I could stay up all by myself and ride the entire length of the block.

So I decided, at age thirty-four, to buy a bicycle.

I went to a store recommended by a friend and found the nicest people. Stan and his son Trevor were helpful, informative, and honest. I did not know you were allowed to test ride bicycles! And bikes have changed considerably from the ones I had known and loved thirty years ago-for the better. With Stan's help, I found a ten-speed, green, all- terrain Schwinn, with a dropped frame, indexed shifting (it clicks so you know you are in gear), and a nice, wide seat for my nice, wide rear end. Stan had been frank about what a large person would find comfortable, and he was right. I loaded the bike, along with a helmet, into the car and took them home.

c.gif (1107 bytes)omfortable clothing is as important as a comfortable bicycle. In the past year (thanks to Radiance), I have found suppliers of large-size bike shorts: Fit to Be Tried in Arizona (520-881-6449) and Junonia of Minnesota (800-JUNONIA or 612-647-9100). Junonia sent me a catalog and, lo and behold, they have good quality windbreakers and pants and, better still, padded bike shorts. Most manufacturers apparently do not expect that large women will actually be riding bikes in their bike shorts. The padded kind are hard to find in large sizes, even though our soft tissues are no less vulnerable than a skinny person's.

Having outfitted myself smartly, I spent my first few weeks as a bicyclist finding the flattest route to William Jewell College, where I teach. In westernMissouri, this was quite a challenge. In the process, I saw parts of my town that I did not know existed. I found the main cemetery, the softball fields, some interesting neighborhoods, and some beautiful gardens. I waved at people I did not know. Finally, I would huff and puff the last few yards up to the college. (Why are colleges built on steep hills?) At this point, when I would be gasping for air, I would inevitably meet someone I knew, and he or she would ask, "So, did you ride your bike?" (I would always nobly resist the urge to ride over the questioner's toes.)

There are, unfortunately, other hazards to cycling besides well-meaning colleagues. One is rude remarks from drivers of passing cars and pickup trucks.   Another, and more scary, is drivers who try to run me off the road or the jerk who threw a beer bottle at me. I have talked with other cyclists and learned that this is a problem faced by most riders in most parts of the country: large women are not the only recipients of such abuse. Only when I rode in Europe did I get treated with respect by motorists.

I am a fair weather cyclist. I do not ride in the rain or when it is too cold, too windy, too hot, or too humid. This still leaves plenty of time to cycle! And I have come to love my bike because of the people I have met along the way-there are people of all sizes, shapes, and ages on bicycles-and the way I feel when I am out riding. I began taking longer rides on weekends, especially once I found friends with whom to ride. I do not always keep up with them, but they always wait for me. Everyone makes it clear that they are glad to have me along. Experience and helpful friends and strangers have taught me many important things. I have learned that I can make it up that first big hill on Highway 69 if I don't think too much about it and just pedal. I have learned how to use all my gears. I have found that "Ode to Joy" is just the right rhythm for a pedaling cadence. My biking friends push me to my limits-and beyond. Two of them, Cliff and Helen, have talked me into some rides that I never would have taken on my own (indeed, one wonders if any rational person would have!). I wear with pride the T-shirt that proves that I rode twenty-five miles one August day in 90-degree heat. And I was not the last one to finish! My friends Kit and Frankie always let me set the pace; because I've improved, I can now give them a good workout.

In July 1996, I fulfilled a long-held desire and rode the Katy Trail, a two hundred-mile trail that cuts across central Missouri, following the path of an old railroad. The Katy Trail is a wonderful asset to our state, allowing hikers and bikers to follow the Missouri River in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. And because the trail follows the railroad right-of-way, it is never very steep. A friend and I did thirty-two miles in two days, sharing the path with all kinds of people and with blooming wildflowers, black snakes, a deer and her fawn, rabbits, and butterflies. One lemon yellow butterfly cut ahead of me and kept just in front of my right handlebars for several feet, as if challenging me to a race. I took her on. I pushed harder against the pedals, and, as the gravel crunched beneath my tires, I left that butterfly fluttering in the breeze!

When I am out on my bike, I feel many things: the sweat in my eyes, the soreness in my rear, the ache in my shoulders, and the numbness in my hands and feet. But I endure because when I am riding, I feel strong, powerful, and free. I feel at home in my body in a way that also happens when I swim. Both my bike and the water enable me to move in ways that I had forgotten that I could-or never have before. I see things from the seat of my bike that you could never see from a car: the mice in the tall grass along the road, the robin on a roadside bush, and the sweep of the landscape as I crest the hill. Those are the things that keep me out on the road, in spite of the discomforts. After all, where else can a fat woman on a bicycle race with a butterfly?

Note: Both quotes are from Frances E. Willard, How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle: Reflections of an Influential Nineteenth- Century Woman, ed. Carol O'Hare (Sunnyvale, Calif.: Fair Oaks Publishing Co., 1991). This is a revised edition of the original, which was entitled A Wheel Within a Wheel (1895).

ELAINE REYNOLDS teaches history at William Jewell College in Liberty, MO, and has just published her first book, a history of policing in eighteenth-century London, titled Before the Bobbies. She now owns three bikes and recently completed a personal best: a one-day ride of 60.4 miles. She hopes to complete the William Jewell 150 in October 1999 in celebration of the college's sesquicentennial.


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