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The Great Outdoors

Spinning My Wheels

A bike rests by the waterfront in Queens, New York
Luis Paez-Pumar/Defector

I bought a bike last summer. It wasn’t an easy task, given that everyone in my general vicinity appeared to have also decided that a new bike was just what they needed. Biking around in the relative safety of the outdoors was a personal necessity as a beautiful summer under COVID-19 restrictions became a reality. After over a month of searching, I finally found one at a local shop near my now-former apartment, and bought my first bike since leaving Miami for college in 2007. 

I went all in. I got a subscription to an app that would track my rides, measuring speed and inclines and distance traveled. I bought some accessories, including a riding backpack that, in retrospect, I should not have bought. I even got the shorts with the butt padding. I was ready to become a bike person.

For a few glorious months, I did it. I was living alone for most of the summer and early fall of 2020—my old roommate was staying at his girlfriend’s—and getting out of the house was a vital activity. I rode my bike to the park to meet up with friends. I rode my bike to pick up my favorite arepas in New York. I rode my bike just to feel the wind over the Manhattan Bridge. I rode with friends a couple of times, but mostly I rode alone. The world was isolating me, but I wasn’t going to let it turn my solitude into the thing that defeated me.

I wasn’t fast and did not have the stamina—I blame vaping for my weak lung capacity—to do the endurance rides some of my friends were doing. It didn’t matter, though. I had found my thing, the way to get me moving and feeling wonderfully in tune with my own body, for maybe the first time since I played organized sports. When I tweaked my knee and had to take a two-week break, I was miserable. How dare my body betray me like this? But I got back on, and for one summer, I felt like I was a brand new person, at a time when everything else in my life had stagnated.

As always happens for me, a summer person, it got cold too quickly. Even though I have now lived in New York for 14 years, I still can’t really get a grasp on winters. Biking was about to be off the table entirely. Sure, there were winter outfits and tires and other pieces of gear that I could have bought to make it palatable to bike in freezing temperatures, but that was never going to happen. “I’ll just wait until it’s warm again.” That became my mantra, not just in life, but specifically for riding. Just a few months of lockdown, of 5:00 p.m. sunsets, of feeling isolation deep in my bones, and I would be back on the saddle, zooming around Prospect Park.

It didn’t happen. I got vaccinated in March, and suddenly the whole world felt, if not safe, then at least manageable. I went to outdoor happy hours, I visited friends’ rooftops, and I even did karaoke. I wasn’t isolated anymore, and biking dropped lower and lower on my list of priorities as I saw friends I hadn’t since the Before Times. I love New York City in the summer; it’s always been my favorite time and place. I wanted to soak up every moment of being able to take it all in, and to do it with other people. Biking had turned a season of loneliness into one of independence, but I wanted to depend on other people for once. 

By my rough count, I rode my bike just four times in the summer of 2021, and only once for fun and exercise. The other times, I had a goal in mind: to drop off a package, to retrieve something from a friend, and to buy Comrade Kelsey’s novel. I had lost the impetus to throw on my helmet and just zoom around Brooklyn, with no real path or destination in mind. My morning bike rides became non-existent; I’ve never been a morning person, and the idea of waking up an hour before I have to in order to bike before blogging was just a non-starter. My trusty steed sat where it had all winter, in the corner of my apartment, a forgotten relic not dissimilar from my yoga mat. 

A not-so-funny thing happened, though. The world became isolating again. Maybe it always was and I was deluding myself, but the Delta variant and the slow trickle of breakthrough infections in my friend group, almost all of them mild, made me reconsider my place in the world. Don’t get me wrong; I believe in the vaccines wholeheartedly—love to live in a world where that disclosure feels essential—and I have still been getting out into the world when I can. I’m going to an AEW show tonight, and I’ve been to bars and indoor dining as recently as this past weekend. 

The mood has changed. An uninhibited summer was something a lot of us clung to as the final snows and sub-40 temperatures swept away into a world gloriously full of possibilities once again. But then anxieties I had in April 2020 came roaring back, only this time I had tasted brief freedom. I was lethargic and annoyed, and probably meaner than I meant to be to a not-insignificant amount of people. (Sorry!) If anyone needed to shut the hell up and get on a bike, to stop thinking and just start pedaling, it was me.

I didn’t. I kept telling myself that I would. I live quite literally next to the park, and could have been on the big loop in mere moments. Hell, that was one of the reasons I moved where I did. I wanted to be able to ride without the palpable fear that comes from sharing a road with New York City drivers.

It’s so easy for me to believe in a version of myself that is not too different from the one I was last year, but it’s been near impossible to make that version come back. I’ve been grasping at the last straws of warm weather with such fervor, before what is sure to be another miserable winter, that I forgot that I don’t need to grasp at all. I have the tool to make myself feel better, one pedal at a time. Biking was something that I thought I would never truly do again before last year changed everything I believed about myself, in good ways and bad. I don’t mean to sound hopeless, but I truly don’t understand why I reverted.

Here’s the thing about biking, or cooking, or whatever other hobby people have picked up to cope with our ever-encroaching doom and gloom. You can always go back to it. I rode my bike on Tuesday morning, in that same time period before work that I previously said I would never commit to. It wasn’t a great ride; I made it four miles before my lungs and knees and calves all hurt like hell, and my speed was the worst it had ever been. I didn’t feel that moment of quiet placidity that accompanied so many of my rides last year.

I did, however, feel hopeful. That’s been in short supply over here for a few months now. I felt hopeful that I could find my way back to the start, back to when a day would be good or bad solely depending on whether I rode my bike. I could have a couple of months of biking ahead of me, if only I can find a way to convince myself it’s worth it. That it’s essential. Slowly, pedal by pedal, I can convince myself I am a better, happier person when I commit to this one simple thing. I’m a tough opponent in that battle, but it’s one that I don’t want to keep losing.