Personal reflection at the close of the year.
Bodies and discomfort.
Competitive cycling is a sport that forces you to inhabit your body; to engage muscles for that opening snap of force in a sprint, or to make yourself breath while pushing through the lactic acid burn.
There is no place for dysphoria in bicycle racing. Testing that statement was a large part of my 2014 racing season – I would be caught off guard by a “ladies” or a misplaced catcall from the sidelines. And, in those few moments of ceasing to inhabit my body, the race was gone. I had missed the move. Struggling to bring myself back to the present, traveling at a speed of 20+ mph on two skinny tires, I would be left to contest a mid-pack finish.
Since the start of the 2014 season, my gut reaction to being called a “lady” has finally caught up to my academic and philosophic resolve to not correct people at bicycle races. It has gotten easier. I asked to race in the women’s field, and it has been one of the best (and, dare I say, transformative) experiences of my life. I do not wish for women’s racing to change to accommodate me. It is my place to be uneasy and incongruent.
It’s true. I don’t stand out in a field of women on bikes, where many have short hair and low enough body fat to not have much of a chest. And, these days, I’m finding that that’s alright. In life outside of bicycles, there are many things that I do that cause some gender confusion. The short hair, slightly gravely voice, plus added glitter nail polish alone sometimes has me read as an effeminate gay man, the BFF type you’d go get a manicure and talk about boys with (for the record, I’m always game for that). Eyeliner, worn when I’m feeling a bit vampy, dramatically pushes me out of “he” territory, far past the gender-confusion-hesitation checkpoint, and into the definitive “ma’am” category at the grocery store.
My identity discordance with racing in the women’s field is my discomfort to own, and I’ve come to embrace that itchy, squirm-inducing, surreal and often hilarious place of being an androgynous, female-bodied, guy racing in a women’s field. Not male, but one of the guys. Yet, a different kind of guy.
I won’t dwell here. Hurt, rage and negativity is not a healthy place to live.
Yet, just when I come to that place of embracing the discomfort of discordance, perhaps still basking in the joy of having pushed my physical limits in a race, I see the photo evidence. And, my body betrays me. Those are my hips and waist? I have curves? I might even look downright feminine. Sometimes I am shocked at what I look like in photographs, because it is so different from how I see myself in my own mind. Is that really me?
Oh, yes, it’s me. And, when I force myself to look harder, I see the tough, muscular legs of an athlete, as well as those hips that I can’t seem to abolish. So, I might as well start coming to terms with it.
Competitive cycling forces you to care for your body. You cannot train hard on a consistent basis without practicing sincere self-care: sleeping enough, eating to fuel your workouts, self massage and stretching of crunchy, tired and knotted muscles. If you neglect these things, your training will break you. You will become ill or incur a disabling injury. And, because of your self-neglect, you will fail to reach your potential. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, one must practice being emotionally kind to yourself and believing that you CAN do it, no matter what the “it” of the day is – those intervals that make me vomit every time, finishing strong on the hilliest of road races, or racing in a field shared with world champions.
In the genetic lottery, I am extraordinarily lucky to have been dealt a tremendously athletic body, one that CAN do it. I have always been muscular and fast. As a kid, I gleefully beat the boys in my class at foot races or push-up contests at school. Even at ten years old, I recognized that while I felt like one of the boys, I was different. That difference made the accomplishment all the more significant.
As I’ve come to accept this difference, it has become increasingly important to me to be seen as a female bodied person on a bicycle. To be seen otherwise, either in racing or just along for a ride, is to undervalue my strength, tenacity, talent (?), and countless hours of training. All is not equal in cycling. And, I don’t just mean social differences in the way racers are treated. Bodies matter. Anyone who claims the contrary has likely never experienced the challenges of being the only female bodied person on a training ride with similarly skilled and conditioned male racers. Remembering and re-accepting that I am physically different from the rest of the guys, that I am physiologically female, has helped me to come to a place of appreciation for my body and what it is: capable, powerful, and fast. To measure myself, and be measured by others, on the spectrum of female athletes allows me to appropriately value my effort in training and performance in racing.
I am kinder and fairer to myself now. I still choose to place extraordinarily high demands on myself physically. And, in all arenas of my life, have almost immeasurably high standards for my own performance. But, I take the time to massage the perpetual dull ache of training out of my legs, and I am thankful for the ability to ride a bicycle…. very, very fast.
It’s a process. Gender is mutable. Bodies may be uncomfortable places to live, but they matter.