Me and My Bike, A Love Story
As a kid with arthritis, I often traveled on people’s backs. My Dad would lift me up on long hikes during vacations, and my friends would give me a lift when I was lagging on long walks into town. I appreciated this because it helped me to still participate even if I was being helped along. But I always knew, without help, I’d be suffering a lot. My lack of physical prowess was glaringly obvious in those moments and it bothered me.
This lack followed me everywhere I went. Playing at friends’ house, doing dance moves, I would be in the back moving my body as best as I could while my friends were doing cartwheels around me. At recess, where I would kick the ball and hope it moved at least a little bit. In gym class, walking to the store after school for treats, during sleepovers, my physical frailty and lack of energy was always in the forefront of my mind.
Bike riding with rheumatoid arthritis
Until I got on my bike. I spray painted her gold, named her Goldy, and she was one of my best friends. Goldy took me places that my feet never could. I could go fast, I could feel the wind in my hair (oops, helmets were not very popular in the seventies!) And I could forget about my weakness. I never had to ask to stop and rest, or limp behind others; quite the opposite, I was confident on a bike, and I could lead the pack if I wanted to.
Biking at any chance I could get
My love affair with bike riding never stopped. I use biking as a barometer - I know a flare-up has gotten really bad when I stop envying bikers I see on the road. I’ve ridden in the MS 150 bike ride multiple times, I bring my bike when I travel, I get on it whenever I can. I spend the summer riding outside and the winter riding inside at the gym.
Surgery made it difficult to ride my bike
At least I used to be able to say this. Two years ago I had a neck fusion at the top of my spine and, for the first time in my life, biking became impossible for me. I’d been through intense periods where I couldn’t bike because of severely swollen joints that made it too painful and dangerous but, during those times, I always knew I’d get back on a bike eventually.
Surgery affected my biking posture
After this surgery, however, my posture has to be perfect - even as I’m writing this, I’m needing to adjust my position at times so I don’t look down too long. Bikers are strong in many ways, but posture isn’t one of them - the biking position puts my neck in extension, and my torso leaning forward which is the perfect recipe for sharply increasing my pain, and making my extremities numb.
How could I find a way to keep biking?
After I discovered this horrible news, I had people tell me, “Well, at least you can go to the gym and bike sitting up straight; that will keep you in shape.” As well-meaning as this sentiment is, they were missing the point. Biking isn’t a way for me to stay in shape, it’s so much more than that, and most importantly, it makes me feel joy, in a way that is unique and can’t be replicated in a gym. So, instead of closing that door completely I decided to figure out a solution. Plenty of people have “cruiser bikes”, bikes that usually have one speed and have handlebars that are higher so you sit pretty straight. The problem with single speed is my knees - without speeds, I would destroy my knees.
Finding a bike that worked for me
Trying a cruiser bike with multiple speeds
Luckily for me, I found a company that sells cruiser bikes with multiple speeds. I got on one and was overjoyed because it worked! My neck was fine! That is until I rode on gravel. The cruiser bike has no shock absorption. So unless I stuck to pavement, this wasn’t a complete solution, and since I live in a small town with more gravel roads than pavement without some shocks I’d have very little to ride on.
Getting my bike altered to my needs
I was scratching my head, and then I read an article in the local paper about my favorite bike shop altering a bike for a man who has one arm. I thought to myself - there it is, give 2ndAvenue Sports my mountain bike and see if they can adjust it for me: that way I’d have shock absorption and the right position. And the results were amazing: my friend Gail and I have been riding once a week together for the past few weeks and it’s been all smiles!
The moral of the story? RA doesn’t have to steal everything you love. With imagination and tenacity, you can still live the life you want.
Check-in: As we start a new year, how are you feeling?