I met Kimberly Menozzi back in early 2009 on the writers’ website Authonomy. I was instantly taken by her lyrical sentences and the emotional strength of her writing. It was a delight to get to meet her in person when she came to launch her book Ask Me If I’m Happy at the Oxford International Women’s Festival. Since then I’ve followed not only her writing but her fanatical interest in the world of cycling. And now that interest has moved from following the cycling world to taking part in it, who could be more perfect to contribute a piece on the subject for the series on creativity and extreme sports?
Right away I must admit that I was quite surprised when Dan asked me to write a little something about creativity and endurance sport – in my case, about cycling. You see, I’m no-one’s idea of an athlete by any stretch of the imagination. I’m just a forty-three- (well, almost) year-old woman of a decidedly rounded aspect, who gets somewhat winded after climbing three flights of stairs; therefore, it’s doubtful anyone is going to confuse me for Marianne Vos or Emma Pooley anytime soon. Or ever, for that matter.
But I’m fine with that. No, really, I am.
Nevertheless, where cycling is concerned, I suppose I rank in the realm of the ‘wanna-be’. I want to ride better than I used to. I want to ride farther than I used to. I want to enjoy riding as much now as I did when I was a child.
I’m still working on the first two, but the third one I’m doing on a regular basis. As my friends on Facebook and Twitter will know, I’ve recently acquired a new bike, along with many of the typical accoutrements one will associate with proper cyclists: the helmet, gloves, and shoes designed specifically for cycling, for example. Each visit to the bike shop has brought a sort of childlike joy – most enthusiastically expressed the night we brought the bike itself home, when I nearly cried with the joy of reaching this landmark achievement at last.
I had set myself a goal, and I had achieved it: I had decided to buy the bike, and I had done so with money I’d earned through my writing and editing skills. A long, steady slog if there ever was one.
That desire – to get a new, sportier bike – had grown over time, becoming more urgent when I began work on my second novel 27 Stages, which is set in the world of professional cycling. Writing about professional cyclists when I barely touched the bike I already owned – a modest ‘city’ bike with bell and basket, meant for shopping and errands more than for fitness – made me feel like a hypocrite.
Eventually, inspired by my characters and their hard work on their sleek racing machines, I began riding for more than just transportation. In time, I started riding to challenge myself, to see how far I could go, and how fast I could get there. It was surprisingly difficult for a long time, but even more surprisingly, I kept at it anyway.
You see, I’m not a go-getter by nature – far from it. I dislike competition and would really, really rather stay at home and read a book (if not write one) instead. But I soon found myself feeling better physically, creatively, and emotionally; I realized I was getting in touch with an aspect of myself I’d forgotten. Even though I write in solitude, that sort of solitude wasn’t enough for me to hear my own voice. I heard the voices of my characters, and I spent ages working with them, it seemed, but I was drowned out in the mix.
On the bike, I had to listen to myself. My body spoke out loud, in aches and pains and the heaviness of effort, until the aching subsided and I heard the smoothness of motion and felt the rush of pleasure (albeit a small one) that rewarded my exertions. Even in the cool air of autumn and spring, I would sweat until it dripped down my face and pooled in my sport bra. In time I understood that I loved the sweet burn of my muscles trying to do what I asked of them until I was able to climb the short, steep hills which had stopped me cold before.
Those first attempts, where I pushed harder and harder to do what I wanted on that heavy old city bike until it became almost routine, almost easy, felt a lot like when I started writing after a long and unintended break. I remembered the way it hurt to try, the way I had to make small, baby-step goals and allow myself to celebrate each one when I got there at last, was all-too-familiar.
But once I got into the groove, well… There was no stopping me.
Now I have a sleeker, sportier bike to ride. She’s (and yes, my bike is a ‘she’) light and quick and responsive and feels even more like a part of me after just a handful of rides on the cycle paths around town. She’s also practically silent, compared to my other bike, and she lets me go deeper inside myself than I ever did before. There’s just the roar of the wind in my ears, the shirr and clack of the shifting gears and my own breathing or my heart pounding when the ride gets more difficult.
Thanks to that ‘silence’, I now realize I am never more inside myself than when I am cycling. Even though I’m paying attention to everything around me – the sun, the wind, the lay of the path or road ahead of me, other riders (from old ladies in wool skirts to fit young roadies in spandex kits) and cars – I’m still in deep communication with myself, dredging up memories, story ideas and even strange little songs I haven’t heard in years (“I’ve got a brand new pair of roller skates/You’ve got a brand new key…”).
There is a strange sense of otherness that comes over me whenever I’m on the bike. While I feel my legs moving, while I’m aware of the need to keep pushing so I won’t stop dead in my tracks while going uphill, while I’m pushing to go farther and farther still – if only for that particular day, I tell myself – I’m contentedly observing it all from an afar that’s deep inside me.
I don’t ride very far, yet, but I hope to increase the distance each time I go out on the bike. I keep trying to find new roads, to make new observations and to find new stories to tell. I go out on the road and listen to the voice inside me, and I bring that voice home with me in the effort it takes to go further and feel stronger.
The stronger I am, the louder my voice becomes. In time, I won’t be the only one hearing it.