Harvey: Biking is a lot harder than I remember

Alli Harvey

I biked to work for the second time this season with tears in my eyes.

Yes, there was a lot to love. The morning air was crisp but held the promise of warmth. The pungent spring smell I love so much wafted from the trees. The sky was blue, but with just enough clouds to dapple shadows across the Chugach Mountains. It was my favorite kind of Anchorage day.

That's not why I was crying.

I was crying because I had ridden for the first time the day before, and -- how to put this delicately -- my butt was now in some serious pain. It was sore and tender all around, and the feeling of putting my butt back on the bike seat was terrible. For the first five minutes of riding I pedaled awkwardly, standing as much as possible to avoid sitting down. Eventually I got used to it. However, I began writing this in my head as my tears slowly dried and I cruised along Chester Creek.

There are some things that nobody else will step up and say, but here we are and I am going to say them.

First and foremost, just to get this out of the way: it's harder. Biking is a lot harder than I remember.

I blame advertising. In early spring the catalogues started pouring in and I headed to REI to spend my dividend. There, I found myself surrounded by floor to ceiling photos of active, happy, cyclist families. You know the photos: high resolution, sunny day on a tree-lined trail, camera angled from down low to really capture a sense of movement. The words "sun dappled" came to mind.

When I saw these photos, my memory of cycling smiled benignly at me from summers past. Biking times of yore promised picnic baskets, uphills that feel like downhills and the charming brrrrrring! brrrrring! of childrens' bells as they merrily pedal along the Coastal Trail.

In real life, cycling on the Coastal Trail is a lot like navigating a real life video game. I am expected to navigate curious zig zagging dogs, and sometimes their owners trailing behind on a leash. There are many small, out-of-control children. Sometimes these children ride pink bikes with streamers while heading straight toward me with daring grins on their toothy terrible faces. It's trite but a fact of Anchorage life that there are often moose on the trail.

There are very rarely picnics.

Uphills do not actually feel like downhills, under any circumstances. It is, by nature of the activity, difficult to push your legs down hard on pedals to coax wheels uphill. Granted, a part of the problem is that I've never figured out the shifting thing. Go ahead, laugh. Tell me "it's easy!" I've tried. I continue trying. Every time I end up in an inappropriately difficult gear anyway, awkwardly heaving my way up Fifth Avenue. I am too proud to get off the bike and walk.

There are cyclist superheroes among us whose job it is to whizz casually past me, up hills or down, creating a nice breeze in their wake. They do not wear capes, but can typically be identified by their sleek jerseys and ability to bomb up hills fast. Their thigh muscles are formidable, and I know this because their pants are really, really tight.

There are also some plains clothes biking superheroes, sometimes called "bike commuters." For these casual cyclists whose morning commute can include anything from hills, rain or winter, I have nothing but respect. They know how to shift properly. Maybe uphills feel like downhills to them. Most importantly, their butts never become sore, and you know why? All winter they never stop riding. This is just what they do. Biking is part of their way of life.

For the rest of us fair-weather commuters and enthusiasts, there is no reminder about the annual tradition of the sore butt. There is no PSA, flier under my door, or fine print on the tag when I pick up my bike from the shop (e.g. take this bicycle with plenty of water; call your local bike purveyor if unusual symptoms arise; some rear soreness is normal). Yes, for those that will ask, the soreness truly is inevitable. I have tried a wide range of seats, from the Cadillac granny seat (wide, squishy), to the cute, compact Toyota of seats (smaller, squishy) to my current standard-issue plastic wedge. The beginning of the season is painful in every case.

That said, the draw of being outside, especially this time of year, is more than enough to keep me on my bike. If I keep cycling, I'll forget I ever had a sore butt; forget I ever wrote this. That is what I strive for: The pure, 9:30 p.m. euphoria of cruising a sunny Coastal Trail with the tide in, warm air on my legs and the smell of bonfire on my way home.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage. Join Alli and many other bike commuters at Bike to Work Day on Wednesday, June 4. Check out bicycleanchorage.org for more info.

Alli Harvey