I saved for years before buying my bike. I walked proudly into the “steel only” bike shop in Salt Lake City and told the infamous owner, Mark, that I wanted to buy a Surly Troll.
The Troll is a bike made for a life of variety. You can commute on it, go on long road tours without being uncomfortable, and if you are badass enough, mountain bike. While the versatility of the bike was a bonus for me, a poor graduate student who needed a bike that filled the role of an all-wheel drive car, the Troll and I were a match in ways that exceeded its practicality.
The Troll is fat. Not as fat as a “fat bike,” but it’s curvy. While other steel bikes have opted for thin tubes to cut back on weight, the Troll remains thick. The bike is short too, mostly because I am short, but it means we are both short and kind of fat. Flashy is one way to describe the Troll. It doesn’t shy away from the spotlight. The bike is bright teal, it has handlebars you have never seen before, the tires are white, the front wheel has a generator in the hub that powers the lights which shine with the power of a small motorcycle.
We’re flashy, we’re fun. I like to imagine people see me riding and don’t know whether to be more surprised by the Troll or the fat girl on the bike.
There is an allure to steel bikes, especially when burly men ride steel bikes on trails most carbon full-suspension bikers wouldn’t dare to venture. These bikes are heavier, stiffer, and harder to ride. Part of me hoped that in getting a steel bike I would become that even more elusive species of biker, badass steel-bike riding lady. Bikers know this person, the woman who can out bike a guy on a carbon road bike, who rides single track mountain bike trails while her bike is strapped down with 50 pounds of gear. A woman so cool that she bikes to work on a snow day. So I got the bike, and then I began to work on my badassness.
Six months after buying the troll, Eric and I woke up on the ground in Shenandoah, Iowa. The humid air stuck to our skin. Our morning chore of pulling tight spandex shorts over impossibly sticky legs was made worse only by the rain that had thoroughly soaked the tight material. My legs ached from the 50 miles we rode the day before. I smelled bad and was concerned that Eric might finally notice I didn’t look like the beautiful biker people who were beginning to emerge from their wet tents around us. We made eye contact and I sensed he was thinking less about my appearance and more about the satanic presence that inspired me to suggest we spend our annual one-week vacation at RAGBRAI, a bike ride across Iowa in the full humid heat of summer.
That morning, in the dewy tent, in southern Iowa, in July, I did not feel like a badass. I guess in some sadistic way, riding a 30-pound steel not-quite fat bike across Iowa is cool, but when you wake up in a rainy field surrounded by thousands of people with light road bikes and skinny bodies, the weight seems like a disadvantage.
We were the last to leave camp that morning, only two days in to a seven-day ride and we had not yet figured out how to pace ourselves. We started too late, around 7:30 in the morning. Five miles into the ride and I was thrilled with the flat terrain. We knew that southern Iowa would be hilly, we had trained by biking up steep canyons in Salt Lake City, Utah where we live. We assumed that biking up mountain roads at high elevation would prepare us for the worst. But nothing can train you for humidity and rolling hills other than humidity and rolling hills.
Around mile ten the hills began. Eric surged ahead. His tall and impossibly slender body paired with his tall and impossibly light carbon road bike were made for speed. Over the course of seven days he would try desperately to bike slowly by my side as I methodically shifted gears to climb up and put my weight behind each pedal stroke. But to add to our cartoonish juxtaposition, just as my bike and I are short, fat, and slow Eric and his are tall, skinny, and fast.
And so, as the rolling fields began to come one after another, I fell into a deep solitary pattern. From the top of a hill I would shift into my highest gear and pedal as fast and strong as I could, speeding past all of the light people on their light bikes. Momentum would carry my body and bike half way up the next incline, and smart shifting into my lightest gears would get me a little further, but eventually I would be out of lighter gears, all the way to the “granny gear” pedaling against almost no resistance. And then all of the bikers I zoomed past on the downhill would pass me. That’s when I felt the fattest.
I climbed up and sailed through rolling hills of corn. I grew up in fields, north in Illinois where hills are seldom. I resented how flat the land was, unnaturally level. A land so level most people could never see over the first row of six-foot-tall corn stalks.
I didn’t ride bikes then. Now, after six years in the Mountain West, I found myself back in the corn, on vacation. I had been away from the dewy air and blistering heat long enough to forget how miserable it feels. The dense air is inescapable. But six years was long enough for my resentment of endless fields and flat land to diffuse. Every time I made it to the top of one of those hills that made me feel fat, I couldn’t help but think about how magnificent the rolls looked. The constant curve of southern Iowa is unforgiving, unexpected, and stunning.
My first time in the Utah desert I sat on a rock looking out on an endless landscape of red rock and canyon. I was with a friend who grew up in the Midwest, and she mentioned how foreign wide open landscape was to kids like us.
I agreed. My life was flat, narrowly confined to what you can see from level ground. There was no perspective. The canyon country of Utah is elevated, and geometric angels can be seen in every direction. I had never been above the land enough to see how it rolled into the horizon. Southern Iowa has perspective too, not of steep canyon but of full curves and expanding fields.
Seventy miles in to the day, the sun was setting. I neared the top of the hill, or a hill, and Eric was waiting for me patiently. As I climbed the final feet I came across the top and got a glimpse of four fat rising hills ahead. I unclipped my feet, rested my head on my handlebars, and began to cry.
Rhythm. Bikers always speak of finding a pace and maintaining for long stretches of road. Full journeys completed in which the rider loses herself in the beat of a pedal stroke, only to look up and realize she reached her destination. At no point in my life have I ever carried out an endurance activity with this beat. I have never lost track of where I was and ended up at my destination, I’m moving far too slow for that.
I imagine Ralph finds rhythm. He’s the guy I’d seen earlier in the day on one of those old English bikes called a Penny Farthing, the one with the huge front wheel and the tiny back one, where the biker has to climb up on the bike using a ladder or a farmer’s mail box. There are tiny handlebars and a wide seat, but the old bike mostly looks uncomfortable. Ralph was one of those people who didn’t just make you feel fat when he passed you, he put you in your place.
If a guy on a bike made in the 1800s, with no gears, no brakes, and geometry made for a circus, can bike faster than you up a hill, you have a problem.
While I had high hopes that I would become the badass female steel biker chick, I was being surpassed by Ralph on his old Penny Farthing. And so when he biked up next to me to say that I had a cool bike, I naturally played it off and calmly responded “Thanks, you too.”
I asked him a question he’s been asked hundreds of times. “Why do you ride that thing?”
I figured he would have some profound wisdom about how the bike is actually more ergonomic or make some metaphorical statement about the world, but, instead, he said, “I like getting my picture taken.”
Far behind the crowds of bikers, Eric and I reached the second to last town of the day. The sun set, casting pink and orange across the still rolling corn. We had ten miles to go before we would reach Creston, where we could finally sleep. As the sun disappeared behind one particularly large hill, the temperature dropped 10 degrees. Still the humidity persisted. Eric and I rode with two friends who had grown up in the West, never been east of the Mississippi. Most of the day we all rode alone due to the variety of paces and stops for beer each of us had in us, but not at the end of this particularly long day. We rode in a tight group over the final miles of unrelenting hills.
As the day turned to night, my flashy front wheel with its built-in generator came in handy. Our peloton was riding in almost complete darkness through the fields, except for my one light. Then the twinkling began. Tiny yellow lights flashed across the now invisible corn fields. Thousands of fireflies are a treat for any Midwesterner, but for our two friends from the West, it was an alien landscape, as foreign as deep red rock canyons were to me. We stopped our bikes and stood staring.
By 10:00 we began to break down. When your body has been hunched over a bike for 14 hours, straightening limbs becomes difficult, and its hard to fathom remaining on the bike. It doesn’t matter if you are fat or skinny or if your bike is steel or carbon. Minds don’t work totally right, and between desperate exclamations into the flickering fields, we decided to try a short cut. We were still five miles from town; somehow the day had grown in length, 80 miles of hills so unforgiving I wouldn’t want to drive an old car along the route.
As the road gave way to gravel, Eric, who had remained patient and kind all day was beginning to crack under the pressure of another challenge.
The Troll was made for this. Its short fat body and wide tires constructed for gravel country roads made the bike truly shine. Eric’s carbon bike with thin tires, however, would have been difficult to maneuver through gravel for even the most professional biker in daylight. Eric had no light, so he traveled carefully through the rocky terrain using my conveniently bright headlight. The hills persisted, the blinking yellow lights sustained, my commitment to finishing becoming a rhythm of it’s own. My thick legs powering my fat bike through a curving landscape. Some find their calling on a dark, firefly speckled, gravel path in southern Iowa.