Körperkontrol by Bike

People may think of bicycling as a very individual sport, but actually there’s a lot to be said for teamwork to create a good ride, especially for safety reasons where one might be off the grid on back forest roads. So while one concept of body is the individual, as a group one becomes part of a collective body.

In groups and where bodies are concerned, there are always dynamics of control at play. Watching female Olympians reclaim control over their bodies and health has done much to put the concept of control of one’s body, one’s corporal experiences, and who gets to mediate those into the spotlight.

I’ve been generally very lucky in terms of meeting up with responsible, conscientious, respectful fellow bicycle riders, where our common enemies are the flag-flying pickup trucks in the countryside who gun their engines or brakes when passing or who even stop in a pullout just ahead of us to scream obscenities: “get off the roads, libtards!” Which has happened more often this past summer than prior summers. One appreciates safety in numbers, especially when biking with people of color and other women.

In a well-matched group, one skims along at a sustainable pace, taking turns in front to break the wind for the riders who can draft behind, with lots of communication about road conditions, any mechanical issues, and change of speed. When road conditions allow, we can sometimes ride side-by-side and have a conversation, and cheer each other on up the hills.

Early on in my recreational riding, I joined a bike group geared towards women. Great, I thought, still half-believing in the possibility of stumbling upon supportive, empowering feminisms. The group turned out to be the brainchild of a married couple, where the husband liked to do aggressive group rides his wife couldn’t or wasn’t interested in keeping up with and wanted a place for him and his buddies to direct their wives to train up as bike partners, but where they could also do “girl things.” The woman who was the group leader (though her husband retained control of the affiliated Facebook group) did a good job planning rides and leading, though everyone was pressured to buy and wear one of the matching jerseys she had printed and sold through her business, which sported her business name and logo, on each ride. However, most rides weren’t longer than 40 miles or so, capping the challenge level fairly low. In practical terms, this low mileage meant that the women could get home in time to do errands, childcare, and make dinner before the husbands returned from their longer rides. However, on some rides, her husband would show up on the roadside along the route unannounced or follow the group, and as an amateur photographer with fancy equipment, take pictures of all the women biking without warning or securing their permission in advance, then distributed and posted the images (with his watermark) wherever he wanted to, tagging the bikers in them all. Maybe he even sold them, I don’t know. As a supportive service, of course. To help advertise the group, not believing he was intruding on the body of the group in any way. At one point, I tried to talk to him about it and why it would be better to give warning or ask permission first, and he staunchly defended his right to photograph an outdoors athletic event, saying that if someone didn’t want their picture taken (ie if someone was in a witness protection program in the age of electronic facial recognition), they shouldn’t join the group rides or be biking outdoors at all, or that they could ask him to untag them in one of his pictures. So by default one was opted in rather than opted out. Because I seemed alone with this discomfort, and seeing this as just another way men try to control women’s bodies, intermediate experiences of women’s athleticism and bodies, (well, also the group went on longer trips which featured “shopping days,” which turned me off) I found other groups, which has been great.

Of course, in some mixed groups, there are some guys who feel compelled to share their unsolicited but “helpful tips,” to mansplain features along the way, and even one who made a comment to me about how much he’d like to grope my ass after tailing me for awhile. I outsped him. But in general the men I’ve biked with in groups have been respectful and considerate.

There are other, more subtle dynamics. In smaller groups of friends, it’s easy to negotiate ride location, pace, elevation in advance so all know what to expect, and this is what I increasingly prefer, especially now that I know the good areas and routes fairly well.

In larger group rides, there are sometimes people who sign up for a ride, and, in spite of the agreed parameters, want to “push the pace.” Interestingly, these have been more often women-identified riders in my experience. This is when one or more people are mismatched to the pace and ride faster up ahead of everyone else, and the rest of the group has to work much harder than desired to try to stay together, making the ride more stressful and demotivating than not, and by the end more than a few people usually hit the wall and “bonk,” barely able to make it to the end of the ride after having used up too much energy to try to keep up. The ride is only fun for the pace-pusher, at the expense of everyone else. So, also a form of Körperkontrol: keep up, or find yourself straggling way behind. In that circumstance, one remembers that one needs to “ride your own ride,” but this can string out a group over a long distance, which is not so safe especially if someone at the end gets a flat or accident.

To combat pace-pushing at a structural level, some group leaders like to plan intricate, convoluted routes with confusing turns or lots of stop lights that force everyone to ride at their slower pace, or miss a turn. Or they don’t even share the route with others in advance so they are the only ones who know where to go. Which is also not so fun, using up so much mental energy to navigate complicated directions or stop-go-stop-go and creating a dependency on the ride leader when one just wants to enjoy riding at a solid pace. Another form of Körperkontrol: align your body with what my body can do and what I tell you to do, or get lost or cold waiting.

There’s also the one guy who would co-opt a planned ride. He would change the group constituency by getting other faster people to sign up with him for a posted ride that was set at a lower pace than he want to go, but he didn’t want to put in the effort to plan a different ride, and also didn’t want to have to worry about keeping the group together. So rather than overtly pushing the pace, he would then gallantly offer to lead a “fast group,” thus making the bikers who signed for the ride as advertised into the “slow group,” and would not stop to wait for anyone who fell out of the fast group because they couldn’t keep up, knowing that the slow group would then come along and absorb the exhausted dropped bikers. Not so convivial.

I’ve both gone on slower rides where I could push the pace, faster rides where I bonked, and planned my own rides. Early season, there is a fair amount of shuffling around among groups one has to do to find where one fits compatibly in a given bike year, but so much of having a good ride experience is about observation and communication, and, at a basic level, respect for the body – both individual and collective. Like noticing that someone is having a harder time in the wind and teaming up with a couple of other bikers to create a wind block to shelter that rider and maintain a pace they can do, or allowing everyone to climb a hill at their own pace, and waiting at the top. Like everything else, more experience brings more freedom to choose and ability to adapt, and thus more pathways to joy.