Uncommon Challenge: Shifting Gears

A change of location may change your mind about what to wear on a bike ride to work.

A version of this story appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Uncommon Path

My bike tottered. My screaming quads and rasping lungs made their opinion very clear: No gear was low enough for this hill.

I was biking through SeaTac, Washington, on my way from Seattle to REI Headquarters in Kent, where I’d started working earlier that year. The train I usually took to work, which cut a neat 15 miles out of my 21-mile bike commute, had been canceled, and when two coworkers offered to show me a different route, I accepted immediately. I didn’t know about the daunting hill until we were facing it. By then, I was already winded.

Thick clouds pinned a chill over the December morning, but sweat still pooled under my coat. Far ahead, my coworkers, chatting easily, pedaled uphill in their sleek wind jackets and flashy clip-in shoes. For a minute, I hated them.

Maybe I’m not cut out to be a cyclist after all, I thought.

I bought my first bike, a blue 10-speed Schwinn Traveler, in 2011 while attending college in Chicago. I had just started a new job, I couldn’t afford a car, and waking up before sunrise to catch the bus had gotten old.

On my inaugural 5-mile ride home, I could feel the wind on my face and hear the grit under the car tires as they passed within feet of me. I felt exposed. I felt vulnerable. I felt alive.

I biked to work every day for four years, rolling past brick houses shaded by ancient oaks in Chicago, and later down sunny bike paths in Los Angeles. There, I upgraded my bike to a red Specialized Sirrus but decided the rest of my gear was perfectly sufficient. Sometimes my sweat-soaked jeans and blouses earned double takes from my colleagues, but I wore them like badges of honor.

Then I moved to Seattle in 2015—and immediately noticed that I didn’t look like other cyclists. Amid Seattle’s thriving bike culture, people in aerodynamic helmets and spandex unitards zoomed past me on every ride. I stayed loyal to my jeans and Keds, but insecurity started to creep in. Growing up, I’d never been athletic. Was bike commuting just another sports team I didn’t belong on?

The question gnawed at me for years. Then, just a few months after starting my job at REI, I got caught in a classic Pacific Northwest downpour. My fenderless wheels sprayed me the whole ride. My shirt got soaked through my tattered raincoat. My sneakers slipped off the pedals. After a morning spent holding my dripping underwear and cotton leggings under a hair dryer in the office locker room, I decided my gear warranted an upgrade.

The following day, I bought a brand-new rain jacket and water-resistant leggings and started packing a dry change of clothes in my work bag.

Why did I wait so long to buy good gear? I thought. Within the next six months, I swapped my cotton tees for quick-dry Janji shirts and added waterproof Ortlieb panniers instead of a backpack. Eventually, I started researching cycling shoes.

A piece of me felt like I was giving up my rebel spirit. But over the years, cycling has become less about being different and more about staying active, getting outside and making time for myself before and after every workday. I could add little comforts without losing any of that.

I may never sign up for a race or be able to talk shop like a pro bike mechanic. Sometimes, when I get passed by triathletes on their carbon bikes, I still feel out of place, but I’m slowly gaining enough gear knowledge that soon, I’m going to have the perfect ride and kit for me. And the more comfortable my bike gets, the more I feel like I belong in the saddle. Mariah Behrens, as told to Corey Buhay

Find more gear recommendations from Uncommon Path.

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