first learned to ride a bicycle around the age of 24 or so, alone in a parking lot in Helena, Montana. I tried to ask for help, but the shame of me not already knowing this common adult experience drove me to teach myself, with the aid of diagrams on my smartphone screen.
This was the same half-year of AmeriCorps service when I entered my first bar (the divey small-town Rialto), drank my first beer (something light and domestic), and resolved to lose my virginity to one of the good old boys around me. That last task was the only one I failed. Until the beginning of my Saturn Return roughly three years later, my body would be unknown to anyone but me, my curious young hands, and anything animate thing I straddled.
My bicycle knew me before anyone else. Maybe this delayed timeline is what has forever linked bikes and intimacy in my mind — even long after my prurient schoolgirlish purity has been sanded down and sated.
Long before Arianna Grande sang the saddlesore anthem of Side-To-Side, bikes have been associated with impurity for women. During the 1890s Bicycle Craze in the United States, it was a rebellious and feminist act to bike. The finest crank doctors of the time theorized that cycling would encourage masturbation in women, as its seat was so sensually-shaped — so close to profane and sensitive places. If you could stand to defy the conservative voices who thought bicycling immodest or too masculine, you would reap mobility, freedom, and fun. Women cyclists wore skirts at first, but “bloomer girls” gradually became less threatening to men and more common.
One of the most daring cyclists of the time was a tomboyish seamstress, a stunt bicyclist and oft-winning racer, the member of a Black cycling club and a White wheelman League — the mixed Black icon Kittie Knox. I’d like to think she’d be proud of me. I think she was probably queer. She passed away at 26, the age at which I was still an awkward biker still beginning to claim queerness for myself.
Kittie is one of my Ancestors, cheering me on as I learn to switch gears: her but also the all-Black Bicycle Corps ghost riding through Montana with me, also the “Black Cyclone” and world cycling champion Major Taylor; also Pharrell riding shirtless in the video for Provider, also Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean riding around California humming or drafting the tracks that’ll inspire me to keep trying.
I name my bikes, as I do all objects important to me. My animist impulses tell me any crucial possession that sparks consistent joy should be named. I learned to ride on Soren, an 80’s Schwinn, who is sky blue in my memory, royal blue in reality. We met at an antique shop, me walking him up and down the hills of Helena to a secluded spot to practice coasting.
It hurt at first; tired legs and sore soft spots, labored breath and fear at every hill — my body fearful and fumbling. My right hand was too weak to steady the bike while I signaled. Every stop was filled with panic it was too fast; every start was self-consciously unsteady. Accumulated trust and experience brought out the pleasure of riding. It took three days until I understood how to make our bodies as one, think of him as part of me, learn the right way to use my body.
My animist impulses tell me any crucial possession that sparks consistent joy should be named.
Hypatia, my second love, was a 90s Mt. Fury Roadmaster in purple to match her Minneapolitan origins. I was out of practice when I found her, out of shape and learning her body retaught me my own. I would pump my legs, heaving uphill, and then glide down in a full-body euphoria. I would call her my girlfriend when single, mentally listing the way in which she was more loyal than anyone who wanted to date me.
When I worked at a bar/theatre, anthropomorphizing her protected her from the loneliness of a thirty-minute night ride alone each day. She also distracted me from my fear of being stranded or assaulted; she liberated me as Kittie’s partner liberated her — she enabled me to work past the hours of the latest bus. With Hypatia, I outgrew the sidewalks and began to dare myself to ride into the streets, thin and deerl-ike in the herd of cars that roam downtown Minneapolis.
My newest partner, Diotima, is another reminder of my bisexuality, even if only to myself. A yellow 1970s Schwinn Varsity, she is a pretty girl who receives many compliments. We are both leggy, slender things. I met her in a used sale and had her tuned, cleaned — the full day-spa treatment — and had her seat adjusted to my height as my match. She is who brings forth the sweat that flows from me onto her. I rely on her, I need her, I love her. If I leave her anywhere but home overnight, I get separation anxiety: racing thoughts, worries that hurt my sleep. I wake up early or sneak out late to find her and bring her back so I can sleep well.
Sometimes I wonder at the line between my imagination and an objectophile. Could I become one of those women who so deeply avoid human relationships that they marry towers or cars or bridges? Didn’t I once joke that I would remain single unless and until androids were created? Is it just that I know I’m joking? That I no longer believe I will die alone and misunderstood? That I have built a strong enough community that I feel cleaned and oiled and well-adjusted?
I even cheated on Diotima recently.
No, I take that back. The fun of this play-relationship is that I don’t need to position things in line with the status quo. My body is largely hers and her body is largely mine, but we are both allowed to please others. Diotima is my senior in life, having known bodies before mine. And I have the freedom of a soul and softness. I carry, like a world turtle, a thriving biome that has adopted and borrowed hitchhiking microbes through kisses and exchanges both high and low. Sex evolved from the exchange of information, after all.
Diotima is part of the story of me, the origin story for my thighs, but my immune system has only taken notes from the bodies of human boys. There is nobody cheating: these are the rules for our happiness.
So I definitely take that back: I borrowed a friends’ bike for a group ride recently. Diotima waited in the bike rack behind a literary center as I tossed and caught the borrowed bike like a pas de deux, its body much lighter than those I was used to. The bike was, for years, personalized to suit this friend’s body — today it was adjusted to suit mine. Once seated on it, I find more I must adapt to — my arms angle differently for its handlebars, my hands grip tighter due to unease, its breaks have a different reaction time, my feet snug to its pedals differently.
Its quirks and unfamiliarity bring to light my body’s habits and expectations, and I can’t help but think of the ears of my human partner, his instinctive sounds as he discovers new sensitivities. I didn’t know my body could do that, I often think with lovers and bikes. I didn’t know you would respond like that. The brakes squeak in a different particular way. This ride will be a discovery.
My bicycle Diotima is part of the story of me, the origin story for my thighs.
Because I rarely ride in groups, biking remains secretive and intimate to me. The Maya who rides is the interstitial Maya, after she has left home, but before she reached the friends at her destination. The Maya who bikes is unwitnessed, visible only to strangers. The cars and I — the fellow bikers in their streamlined grab — are all sealed in a personal bubble of selfhood. Speaking is rare, the interruption of a kinetic daydream.
That night, I ride with friends: two local leaders, four visiting friends, and me. All of us are writers of color and the majority of us queer. The city at night feels like traveling within the same dream. The world rushes towards us in unreal speed, a blurred version of my current city that my friends are now privy to. We ride The Green Way, a former-railroad track turned lifeline. I can lead the pack now — yes, Kittie must be proud of me, all short shorts and bare arms gliding freely. We gulp air, pump legs, lean into and arc against our partners and everyone is partnered in this temporary utopia. There is an intimacy in the exertion, in every grunt or exhale.
I imagine us breaking through the color bar as if it were a physical thing, good ghosts leading the way with foxfire. And we’re beautiful. My friends on their bicycles are goddamn beautiful.