The cycling life (guest post)

Milisa Burke is a worker bee, a graduate student, a fencer, a cyclist, a lawn bowler, and a jaded raver. Not necessarily in that order.


I’ve been cycling for fun and transportation for about seven years now, so much so that it’s become an indisputable part of my identity.

I’m sort of at odds with myself about this. I really enjoy cycling, and it’s definitely something I nerd out on. However, I find it annoying when I show up somewhere without it, or its accoutrements and people ask me why that is. I guess it has to do with my basic attitude of, “Let me do what I want to do, and don’t dip into my business about it.”

People who have only known me for a few years are shocked to learn that I haven’t been into biking forever. I have my own obsessive compulsive tendencies, one of which is the hatred of inefficiency. The year 2004 brought the Democratic National Convention to Boston, which potentially meant all sorts of delays to public transportation. I owned a car, as all good Americans should, but I didn’t drive to work as I worked in downtown Boston, and what little bit of parking was available had a tendency to be very expensive. Parking garages in the area were often $30/a day. I took the MBTA to work from my home in South Boston.

But with the threat of public transportation going FUBAR, I decided I should try biking to work. I lived about three or four miles from my job, and one weekend I tested out the ride on a beach cruiser a cousin had given me years before. It was mostly not heavily traveled back roads between work and my home, so I felt safe and that it was doable during the week. And thus began my life as a cyclist.

Actually, that’s not true at all. As a little kid, I had liked bike riding. I’d ride around on the (closed) state hospital grounds near my home. I’d even taught myself to ride a bike when I got sick of my training wheels after seeing my older brother ride a big kid’s bike. One day I picked up his bike when he had laid it on the ground, hopped on and rode.

Years later, in one of my mom’s bids to force me to socialize with other girls my age, I had gone to Girl Scout Summer Camp, and was in a program where we rode bikes around Cape Cod. I was gifted with a twelve-speed for this endeavor, and eventually did a group ride of twenty miles. This is no longer a big deal to me, but at the age of ten, and having never ridden more than a mile or so, it was quite the accomplishment. Hell, I didn’t ride that kind of distance again for another fifteen years.

I became a bike nerd piece by piece. A bit later in 2004, I spent some time in Amsterdam. I, of course, rented a bike and rode around. It was a wonderful experience to see cycling as a big part of the infrastructure in a major city. I came home determined to make cycling a bigger part of my life than it had been. With money I had left over from my trip, I bought a used Peugeot mixte from a local shop. Mixtes look a bit like a traditional women’s bike, but have straight near 45 degree angle for a top tube, rather than the curved top tube of a step through bike. The lack of curve makes the bike stronger in terms of support and in case of impact.

If I knew then what I know now, I’d have never have touched the thing, but there’s a learning curve to these things. I fell in love with mixtes because of their angled top bars, and the bike was in my price range, $127. I had taken a basic bike mechanics course before my trip, and was looking forward to learning more about bikes from the ground up.

I got involved with Bikes Not Bombs to learn more about bike advocacy, and to get cheap parts, in exchange for a few hours of volunteer hours a week. I not only helped local kids learn about cycling, I also helped send out bikes and parts to other countries to help create their own sustainable economic development.

I had been commuting around town for about a year when I ended up helping to staff an outreach table at a local bike event. This is when I met up with SCUL, Boston’s local chopper bike gang.

I always have to do a long pause after that one, so whomever I’m talking to can react. I was in a bike gang. Which sounds way more rough and tumble than what it is. A bunch of people having fun on silly bikes, eating ice cream and riding around town, being goofy. I’m not sure what prompted me to want to join other than wanting something fun to do and being interested in learning more about these wacky bikes.

In a short amount of time I had met a bunch of new people, and was soon on my way to building my own chopper, as I got tired of having to borrow one from the loaner pile. Although I had a car, it seemed like cheating to drive it to go meet up with the gang.  Plus I was so into cycling I just didn’t use it much.

SCUL ended up becoming a major part of my life, especially after circumstances led me to moving a few blocks from the center of gang activity. In fact, my house used to be the former center, and one of my roommates ended up in SCUL (without my assistance). Enough members and friends lived by that I ended up riding my bike so much, the leg muscles I used for walking started to atrophy. I couldn’t walk a half block without being in severe pain.

By this time cycling was more than a hobby. I had a few bikes, and had started dabbling in local alleycats, which are bike races that mimic the daily work of a bike messenger. Racers go from checkpoint to checkpoint using only their knowledge of the city and their own speed to win. Dabbling because my ego has never been a good fit for bike races. I have the desire to win but not the ambition to train. Adding this to a poor sense of direction, and it’s a wonder I ever raced.

I rode year-round, because I saw no point in not doing so. Unless it was under 10 degrees, due to a little frostbite/near hypothermia incident. I started riding fixed because it was fun and exciting, and because my wheels didn’t freeze up in winter due to the constant motion. I started voluntarily wearing spandex on long rides so that I didn’t get crazy chafing. I lost the ability to walk past a parked bicycle without stopping to gaze at its aesthetics, or silently shake my head at whatever its owner had thought was acceptable, but I would never do. And that’s how I became one of those rare animals hardly seen in the wild, a woman who not only rides bikes, but can change her own flats.

Want to guest blog for Fit and Feminist?  Hit me up at saltonmyskin at gmail dot com.