The Strongest Woman I Know
It’s Saturday and race day is finally here. As I pull my team jersey off the hanger I look at the inscription on the inside of the collar. It says “I am the strongest woman I know”. Of course I am prepared, and hoping for a strong showing today, but as I ponder this affirmation, I know it isn’t really true.
The strongest woman I knew stood squarely on two feet and bravely fought an impossibly resourceful and relentless enemy for five years. The strongest woman I knew smiled at every triumph and gritted through every tribulation and NEVER, EVER gave up. The strongest woman I knew, my mom, lost her life to metastatic cancer almost five years ago and I miss her every single day.
I recall my own feelings of hopelessness and frustration as I watched a heartless disease slowly, methodically, and completely consume the vitality and mobility of the strongest woman that I knew. Cancer never consumed or defeated her spirit, however. Through nothing short of a living Hell on Earth, my mother never lost hope, faith, humility, or compassion. Even when I cried, she was strong for both of us.
It was in fact during my mom’s struggle with cancer that I began riding my bicycle. A friend suggested that I do the things I enjoyed most as a child to find temporary respite from the painful reality staring me in the face. And so I got on the 10-speed that my mom bought me when I was 16 years old and I rode. At first I could only go 10 miles, then 20, then 50. One summer I raised money and rode 100 kilometers for a research cancer hospital. Roswell Park Cancer Institute took a chance on Mom and performed “experimental” surgery that probably gave her two more years to fight.
As my heartache grew, I rode more often, much further, and always alone (riding alone, often in remote areas, is still a bad habit that I happily practice today). I don’t recall ever feeling strong during these rides. I just remember that it didn’t hurt as much when I pedaled. In a way I felt guilty, as if I had ran away for an hour, an afternoon, a day. I wished somehow that I could bottle up all the fresh air and sunshine that I soaked in and bring it home to her. But she always made me feel better when I checked in either by phone or at her bedside. “Mom?”, “Yes child…”, “I love you…”, “I love you too…” I would give up cycling in a heartbeat to spend one more day with the strongest woman i knew.
So, putting the bike in perspective…
When we think about strength on the bike, we throw out words like “power” and “speed”. We compare our accomplishments with one another, and even earn bragging rights through social media. “Wow, Jaime – you really lit up some Strava segments today!”, “Thanks!”
Personally, I think social media can be damaging to new cyclists. I often hear new (or just less speedy) cyclists quickly dismiss their own accomplishments when they compare themselves to other more seasoned riders. I hear things like “You wouldn’t want to ride with me Jaime, I would bore you.” or “I’m getting there, maybe in a few years I will be able to keep up with you.” These things make me both mad and sad, because I feel like I am missing out on great rides with really cool people who don’t feel “strong” enough to cycle with me. Seriously?!?
When I look at cyclists, I estimate their strength in terms of “commitment”, “endurance”, “perseverance”, “tenacity”. Sure, I admire speed and agility, but that isn’t true strength. Perhaps the true strength of cycling, or any activity you pursue in life is best measured in the satisfaction you derive from it. Quite simply, are you having fun? And equally important, are you helping to share your passion with others who want to learn?
In context, “strength” in cycling is not important. Strength in REAL life is what truly matters and this is all about character. It is about the respect we give, both to ourselves and others. Strength is found in acceptance, compassion, empathy, and love. Real strength is measured in our deeds; it is not reflected in wattage, speed, or distance.
Remember, the strongest woman that I knew didn’t ride a bicycle.