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bike shame/bike joy/bike zen by. lev raphael

When my father taught me to ride a two-wheeler, I fell on my first outing and was mortified because friends were around us in Riverside Park with its spectacular view of the wide, barge-teeming Hudson River. I could have been sinking into those waters I was so ashamed.

Year later, before I could afford a car as a graduate student, I bought a bike and had better luck commuting to the sprawling, verdant Michigan State University campus: I never lost my balance. I sold it eventually, but that seems a lifetime ago, not just because of the pandemic.

Lockdown and fears of contagion made me put my gym membership on hold for well over a year now and any exercise I've done at home has been somewhat haphazard despite years of working with a trainer. Keeping a regular schedule away from the gym has been elusive—I just didn't have the motivation. I would rather be home, writing.

Exhausted by the wait for things to return to any kind of normal in Michigan after lockdown and masking, I was recently drawn into a gleaming Trek bike store minutes from my pre-war subdivision in a mid-Michigan suburb. It was hushed and intimidating, almost like a giant museum installation, with bikes and bike gear elegantly displayed on complicated black and silver racks.

Every staffer was young, fit, and more than half my age. Barging past my roiling feeling of shame, I had to admit that I had no idea what I was doing. But I did feel sure that to start out, I just wanted to ride around my neighborhood, which doesn't really have hills as much as inclines, despite its Indian Hills name.

One very laidback male clerk with shoulder-length auburn hair and long spatulate fingers pointed me to a "step-through" bike which eliminated the need to swing one leg over the back of the bike. That relaxed me instantly, since I'd had surgery some years ago on my right knee and was cautious about anything that could injure me again.

These bikes are misogynisticly still called "ladies' bikes" by many people, though I remember from my trips to Amsterdam that I saw everyone there commuting and shopping on just that style of bike. The price was right for this one, and the travel connection and the upgraded comfortable seat sealed the deal.

But once I got home to wait for the delivery in my size, I felt lost. I didn't remember anything about mounting and dismounting, braking, or what all the gears meant. I consulted a veteran cyclist friend but mostly spent days watching various videos on Google explaining the obvious and not-so-obvious points of cycling.

A week later, helmet and riding gloves on, I made my unsteady way home from the store with my spouse driving behind me just in case. I didn't fall then and didn't fall for weeks until one sunny afternoon when I braked too hard. I can be brutally self-critical at times, but righting myself and the bike, and inspecting us both for damage, I didn't feel anything like embarrassment. Instead, I suddenly, unexpectedly remembered how patient my dictatorial father had been teaching me how to ride. It was the perfect, supportive example.

He was a tough man with the look of Dana Andrews in Laura, the sad eyes of a Holocaust survivor, and not an easy father to grow up with. He said I was way too noisy as a kid, a vildeh chayah (Yiddish for wild beast), and he was always ready to spank me when I was defiant and mouthy. Looking back, I have the feeling that he must have fathered me the way he was fathered. This man was a micro-manager, could criticize my posture, the way I walked, and even how I emptied an ice tray. Seriously. Yet when it comes to bikes, all I remember is his patience, his running alongside while holding the bike and letting go with a shout of joy when I not only rode down a block but was able to turn and ride back.

The exercise and getting out of my house safely and enjoyably are what I hoped for when I visited the Trek store. But I never expected to reconnect to even brief happy times with my father, and when I take my bike out for a ride, I can feel his solid, quiet presence every time.

He's 102 now, wheelchair-bound, his bright copper hair long since gone white, and his memory is spotty, so telling him about bike riding didn't bring back anything for him. He doesn't remember. But I do, and it gives me joy.


I'm a queer writer who's been out in my work since the 1980s. My first book won a Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men's Debut. My essays and short fiction have been most recently published or accepted by The Smart Set, Passager Journal, Visible, Tablet Magazine, URevolution, Agape Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Earth and Altar, Recovering the Self, Braided Word, The Gay and Lesbian Review, The BK, Faith Hope & Fiction, Chaffin Review, Avalon Literary Review, Réapparition Journal, Wordgathering, Healthy Aging, Foreshadow, Halfway Down the Stairs, Forward, Literary Traveler, and the Rutgers University Press OutWrite anthology.

Painting by. Fukuōji Kazuhiko

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