No Country for Fat Tires

I biked nearly every day of my childhood until I could drive. Three decades later, a bike seemed the best answer to soaring gas prices, a widening waistline and an ever-present worry about carbon emissions. Biking as an adult seems pretty straightforward—what could be more “like riding a bike” than riding a bike? But adults like to complicate everything.

For starters, people who ride motorcycles are bikers and people who ride bikes are cyclists. Don’t get that mixed up, because cyclists think bikers are weird, and bikers think cyclists are, well, silly. I wonder why.

There are on-road cyclists and off-road cyclists. I started as a road cyclist, and within this group there are clear categories. Of course you can’t miss what I call the Shiny Butts, the top guns on the road, in their coordinated kits with adverts plastered over those gleaming fannies. You see them coming, the signature crouch over the handlebars for low wind-resistance, their clip-in pedals producing a smooth cadence. 

The sight of them evokes dread. Your ride just got harder. Now you gotta pick up your pace, minimize your panting—not to mention your audible whining—as you try to mimic their grim, determined look. Once they’re close, you smirk and utter a tough guy “hey,” as in “I feel your pain.” Maybe they nod their head or flip their fingers up in a half wave, but usually they steamroll ahead without a glance, leave your greeting hanging in the wind. Cue the crickets. Resume whining. 

They saw you coming a mile away on your less-than-$1,000 bike with your catawampus gait. As they got closer, the sad lack of adverts on your chest displayed the biggest label of all: loser. You are bereft of a shiny butt. 

I was just biking to work. I didn’t want to invest financially or mentally in a spandex-covered diaper. I wear whatever won’t get caught in my chain, expose my undies, or make me look too foolish when I arrive at my destination. I saw others like me, sometimes with panniers—a fancy French name for bags on the side of a bike. We are cyclists with a utilitarian need for bikes as we haul our stuff and ourselves to work—we are Commuters.

While commuting, I noticed a third category of cyclists. They are a range of ages, almost always men who look down on their luck, riding old-style bikes. They don’t wear helmets. When you’ve worked in an ER, this lack of injury prevention is personal—I’ve seen the result up close and the impact on loved ones. I callously called them Short-timers. My husband said they might be DUI offenders having to bike to get to work; not wanting to judge, I now call them Amateurs.

Then there are the Faux-Euros, youngish cyclists on retro bikes. With their hipster jeans or short skirts, they’re wannabe European cyclists, sans helmets. I want to hit them upside the head with a pannier newsflash: This ain’t Europe, y’all. You can tell by the number of cyclists hit by cars in our streets. Get a damn helmet. If you forgo your organic shade-grown cold-brew coffee for one day, you can pay for it.

Off-road cyclists are a completely different species. They get to be called bikers, if the word “mountain” precedes it, even if the trail is as flat as a pancake. Mountain bikers tend to snark at shiny butts, thinking their ensembles are so much cooler: baggy shorts descending to the knees, T-shirts featuring gears or predator animals, hydration packs strapped on and, if they’re what I call Hot Dogs, a full facemask. A facemask means: “I’m going to take jumps and clear some epic air. I’m willing to risk falling and breaking all my bones, but not messing up my face.”

Once I saw a full-on Hot Dog woman mountain biker. She worse tight shorts as small as bikini bottoms, with black compression socks pulled up to her knees, a muscle shirt and a full facemask. Definitely bad-ass. She spun down the trail, but later I saw her panting, walking her bike up the hill. I expected better fitness from a Hot Dog, but I’m sure she cleared epic air on the downhill run.

Although they usually reek of testosterone, I find them refreshingly transparent and friendly—no grim faces here. They not only greet you, they pelt you with “Have a great ride!” “What a beautiful day!” (Exclamation points are mandatory; they are relentlessly cheerful.) But watch out for Music Man, who plays his beloved tunes while he bikes, selflessly foregoing earbuds so he can share his musical tastes with everyone. If you hoped to hear birds, the wind through the trees, a creek or the crinkle of leaves under your bike tires, you’re out of luck until you get out of range.

There are those who go both ways, cycling on the road and off. To attempt this with any seriousness requires two bikes, not to mention separate fashion ensembles. In addition to being a commuter, I am a mountain biker. I believe not excelling at either allows me to be adequate at both. But I could be wrong.

In addition to negotiating the biking cultures, there’s another complication I didn’t anticipate. Having two bikes and tending towards anthropomorphism, I always feel I’m cheating on one when I’m with the other. Because they have names, I perceive a sense of gender. One’s male and one’s female, making me a bi-cyclist. I keep them separated to minimize the hostility; one’s in the garage, and one’s in the shed in the backyard. I worry that they meet at night to taunt each other or talk trash about me. Every time I get on one of them, I feel its resentment, even as I murmur, “You’re the only one for me.” But the next morning, I walk by without a word and get in the car. I’m such a jerk.

The mountain bike’s name is Spica, after the brightest star in the Virgo constellation. She’s a flashy cobalt blue with some purple. Spica and I hit the trails once or twice a week. Sometimes we take weekend trips, while the road bike, Shadow, cools its wheels in the garage. Shadow is named for the protagonist in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Gray and steely blue, Shadow is very low-key and basic. Shadow mostly goes to work and runs errands.

Shadow was my first really nice bike. He brought me into the cycling lifestyle. But now he sits there in the garage while I’m out gallivanting with Spica all weekend long. He probably dismisses this as bi-cyclist experimentation.

When I’m ready for him to take me to work, he has a few things to say: “Uh huh, I knew you’d be back. Can’t stay in the mountains forever, can you? Someone’s gotta get you to work, and who’s that gonna be? Not mountain girl over there, I can tell ya that. There’s no dirt path to work; it’s all road, baby; hard, unforgiving pavement—no country for fat tires. You think trees are hard to dodge? Try cars.”

Sheepishly, I climb onto Shadow and hope he’s not so upset that he’s gonna make the steering wonky or lose a wheel when we’re going downhill. We make it safely to work and back. We always do.

Then, when the weekend comes and I take Spica out of the shed, she’s all like: “How come you never take me to work or downtown? Are you ashamed of me?”

The pressure is getting to me.

If you ever see a woman riding a fat-tire bike down Prince Avenue or see a road bike on a trail, it’ll be me, the bi-cyclist, trying to keep the domestic peace—and who knows? I may even have a shiny butt.