26 January 2012


One of the nice things about being my age is that, if you're lucky, you can start to reconcile all kinds of things that seemed irreconcilable. If you're not lucky, they reconcile themselves, though perhaps not in the ways you'd intended--or one might destroy the other.

Where am I going with this?  Well, it's about cycling, but it also has to do with stuff you'd find on my other blog, if you read it.  So consider yourself forewarned.

You see, from the time I found out about John Rakowski, I wanted to do something like what he did.  He cycled around the world, turning his pedals on every continent except Antarctica.  (What would penguins think of some guy with a bike laden with full front and rear panniers, camping equipment and bottles of water anyplace they'd fit on the bike?)  He recounted his adventures in Bicycling! magazine during my teen years.

Rakowski was in his early 50's when he undertook his journey, which lasted three years, if I recall correctly.  As it turned out, he was living not far from where I lived, in New Jersey, at the time.  And, yes I met him, and he signed my magazines.  

Well, the fact that he lived nearby and did what he did would have been reason enough for me to take him as an inspiration, if not a role model.  But there was another reason--apart from the "local boy" and "cycling" aspects of the story--that meant so much to me at that time in my life.

However, as important as his feat was to me, I never talked about it with anybody.  For one thing, no one else in my family, or even in my circle of peers or the neighborhood in which I was living, shared my passion for cycling.   It was as if the so-called "bike boom" had passed them all by.  Everybody predicted that I would "grow out of" my obsession with cycling as soon as I got my driver's licence.  Then again, people said I would "grow out of" all sorts of other things, as if they were tops and shoes.

You may have figured out where this is going: something else I didn't "grow out of."  I'm talking, of course, about my wish to be able to wear bike jerseys and shorts with cleated shoes (in that place and time, almost no one had ever seen them), or skirts and blouses with heels, as a way of life.

The reason, of course, I didn't "grow out of" those desires is that there was more to them--which, of course, I didn't talk about with anybody.  Wearing the clothes wasn't the point for me; I wanted to be the person who was expected to wear them--or, at least, a person who wouldn't face opprobrium for doing so.  

That John Rakowski was a man, and most cyclists were men, was problematic.  How could I want to ride around the world and win the Tour de France and be a woman at the same time?

Today, of course, there are more female cyclists than there were in those days, and women's racing enjoyed a heyday during the late '80's and the '90's.  I could not understand why only men should race, tour or participate in most other sports.  Title IX had been enacted around that time; however, it would take time for women's sports to gain any momentum because the sorts of sports programs, like Little League and Pop Warner football, that existed for boys didn't exist for girls.  

It was a time when many people--including many women--thought sports were "unfeminine."  I recall one girl in my high school who was as an even better athlete than most of the boys.  Her family, which included three brothers who were athletes,  was supportive of her interests.  However, some of the teachers and other adults tried to discourage her, saying that no man would want to marry her.  I couldn't understand that:  She was a very attractive girl who had no difficulty getting dates.

Fortunately for her, she was able to play basketball and a couple of other sports in college.  Of course, I would have wanted to be like her.  Perhaps I could have been:  I played soccer in high school.  However, my real passion always lay with cycling, and only a few colleges had teams or even clubs for cycling.  To my knowledge, none were for women.

Although I repressed my desire to be a woman then, and for most of the next three decades, I always felt, deep down, that there was no contradiction between wanting to ride the world, and to race, on my bike--and being a woman.  What has always drawn me to cycling is the freedom I feel when I ride.  I feel as if my spirit is unchained, that--if you'll indulge me a cliche--I felt as free as the wind and as open as the air.  

And that, naturally, was what the woman in me wanted.  She wanted to be free from what I now realize were the same boundaries that seemed to contain me when I was off my bike.  When I say what I'm about to say, I don't mean to aggrandize myself:  To be a long-distance cyclist at an age after you were supposed to have a drivers license and a car, you had to be an independent spirit.  And, of course, it's impossible to be anything else if you want to live by the imperatives of your spirit rather than the dictates of your school, community and society.  That's doubly true if your subconscious or unconscious gender--the one you are when you're by yourself--is different from the one on your birth certificate, and for which you are being trained by your school, church and other institutions.

I wanted to be free--to be Justine, on a bike.  At least I lived long enough to know that those things weren't contradictory, and to meet people who understand that.  And, just as important,from my point of view, is that I've begun to develop a language to explain my complications, contradictions and complexities.  It makes sense to me, which means that I can also make it make sense to others--well, some other people anyway.  If they don't understand, or don't accept it, that is all right.  

I am Justine, and ride wherever and whenever my time and resources allow.  Hopefully, some day, I'll have more of both.  For now, living my life and riding my bikes are inseparable, and offer me so much.


  1. Wow. This is such a beautiful to all your ways of knowing, your journey, and the adventures yet to come. Congratulations on holding onto what is true for you.

  2. Cherilyn. You are an inspiration to me. Your writing reflects a spirit that is independent yet loving at the same time. Thank you!

  3. I too came of age in the mid 1970's and discovered cycling at the age of 14...still ride today.