How Cycling for Health Will Change Your Life
Four years ago, I built a bike. And it changed my life.
It seems pretty melodramatic, right?
But considering that bikes are the most efficient machines ever invented, I argue they’re the most powerful tools for physical and mental transformation.
For me, riding a bike helped me break a crippling cycle of self-doubt and fear, find a new job, and move out of my parents’ house.
If you haven’t been on a bike in years, it’s time to get back in the saddle. It will not only make you happier and healthier—duh—but also more empowered, community-involved, and self-reliant.
Here’s how cycling for health changed everything for me:
How It Happened
For me, it happened on a rainy weekend in Tallahassee, Florida. At the time, I was living in Atlanta, Georgia, working a desk job and commuting 10 hours a week on smoggy interstates. One weekend my brother, Christopher, invited me to visit him in Tallahassee. When I arrived, he said,
“Hey, why don’t we build you a bike?”
I shrugged, “Uhh, sure.” (‘Cause what else is there to do in Tallahassee, amiright? JK, bro. But srsly.)
So, on a whim, we pulled open the garage doors at the Krank It Up! bike co-op and got to work. We sweated in the jungle humidity, digging through bins of rusty bolts and sooty brake pads.
In two days, my brother and I had built a new-to-me emerald green Trek. But it was more than that. As I shaved down bolts, threaded cables, and fitted shifters, I was rebuilding my own confidence as well. With my brother’s expert guidance, I saw myself learning, retaining, and succeeding at a whole new skill set.
“Come at me world, I can build a bike!” My finished product at the bike co-op.
When it was finished, I stood back, astonished and impressed with this Frankensteined masterpiece—and myself. Pedaling figure eights in the muddy parking lot, feeling the purr of the chain I’d just oiled, I squee’d: “Holy shit! I can build a bike!”
Which really felt like, “I can build anything!”
Why Bikes Are So Rad
The thing about bike mechanics is that, yes, it can be a little complicated (rear derailleurs still mystify me). But as my brother so patiently taught me, it’s not too complicated.
Unlike car maintenance, the components aren’t buried under the hood – they’re bolted right there to the frame. Bikes are beautiful in their simplicity, accessibility, and efficiency. I’d already done the hardest part at age five: removed my training wheels.
In a rush of muscle memory, I felt my thighs turn the pedals with a self-confidence I hadn’t felt in months. I was reminded of my own independence—which had been so crushed by daily commutes, student loan debt, and living with my parents. “I can build a bike!” felt like “I can do whatever I want, b*tches!”
I went on to organize an all-women’s bike gang to empower women to ride.
Check out this article about us here.
Six months later, I had changed jobs and moved to a more bike-friendly city (ATX, represent). I’ve since become a bike activist, organized an all-women’s bike advocacy group, and declared myself car-free.
This hunk of aluminum is wholly responsible for my current happiness, fitness, and mental health. So, I urge you…
Get On A Bike. For Real.
Car-free living might not be practical for many people. But, there are plenty of ways to incorporate cycling into your life without any sacrifices.
It’s so easy, and makes you so happy.
It’s worth trying, right?
Here are just a few ways to access the transformative power of cycling right now.
Volunteer at a Bike Co-Op
Not only does volunteering make you feel awesome about yourself, volunteering at a bike co-op teaches you even more about bike mechanics and hooks you up with other bike enthusiasts or newbies in your neighborhood.
Many co-ops offer earn-a-bike programs where each volunteer hour gives you “credit” toward a bike of your own. Get your fingers greasy and meet some other hot bikers. It’s a win-win.
Learn to Change A Tire
You may not have time to log hours as a volunteer, and that’s okay. Instead, consider taking a bike workshop, offered all over the city at co-ops and cycle shops.
Learning how to change your own tire or adjust your brakes feels so empowering, and also enables you to do roadside repairs yourself.
Try the bicycle anatomy class at BFF Bikes.
Hop On A Divvy
You don’t have to invest in a carbon fiber frame or spandex leggings to get started. Go for a joyride on a rideshare bike.
See a list of bike share programs across America here.
The Ultimate Efficiency Machine
“Many [errand] trips are easily bikeable—or walkable—even on roads designed without bicycles or pedestrians in mind. A bicyclist can easily cover a mile in four minutes, a pedestrian in 15. Short car trips are, naturally, the easiest to replace with a bike (or even walking) trip. Mile for mile, they are also the most polluting.” –Sightline
“A bicycle can be up to 5 times more efficient than walking. If we compare the amount of calories burned in bicycling to the number of calories an automobile burns, the difference is astounding. One hundred calories can power a cyclist for three miles, but it would only power a car 280 feet (85 meters)!”
Bike to Work
This is not practical for everyone, I know. But a lot of people don’t realize that riding a bike to work can actually be faster than driving.
Consider all the traffic and parking space hunting (and parking tickets) involved in commuting by car. Plus, those endorphins!
That rush of natural opiates is the only way to start the day. The lung-deepening, heart-rate-raising pedal strokes are the best things you can do for your mood, energy level, and office productivity. You’ll feel sexier, more accomplished, and more motivated.
You’ll feel like you earned it. Whatever “it” is: that hot cup of coffee, feelings of superiority…etc.
Dollah Dollah Billz
Biking also saves you some hella cash. Let’s do the math on how much your car is costing you:
Take a Spin Class
Biking in traffic isn’t your thing? Then try pedaling at the gym.
Granted, stationary bikes can get real boring. Thankfully, a recent spin class renaissance has seen a surge in high-intensity, super-fun classes that will give you all the benefits of outdoor cycling, without the traffic hazards.
Join a Social Ride
Biking with other people is one of my all-time favorite activities, and has introduced me to some of my closest friends.
Social rides are casual biking meet ups, where you take a cruise around town and usually end at a neighborhood cafe or pub for a post-ride libation. It’s a great way to meet people, discover new bike routes, and build confidence on the road.
Chicago has a ton! Check them out.
Stick It to the Man
Want to indulge your inner dissident? Biking is an act of protest in so many ways.
Whether you ride for health, economics, or environmentalism, raise your voice and your heart rate with a protest ride!
- Participate in a monthly Critical Mass bike ride. There’s even an app!
- Take off your pants and raise awareness at the annual Naked Ride.
- Protest the Auto Show anti-auto movement.
- Join Break the Gridlock, dedicated to reducing auto dependence.
Dare to Winter Bike
We can all agree that snow and ice aren’t exactly ideal biking conditions. But in a city with reliable snow ploughs and salting, winter biking is absolutely possible, and (depending on your level of self determination) totally exhilarating.
In a fantastic article in Chicago Mag, editor Whet Moser relates how winter biking not only helped him beat seasonal depression, but even find pleasure in the those joyless gray months:
“There’s science to this—to being outdoors, to seeing nature, to cycling itself, as it relates to mental state. Cycling happened to be the most convenient way for me to combine all three into about an hour a day; it’s faster than the bus, at least for me, and warmer than walking. But there was also something less quantifiable, less grounded in research, about meeting the winter on its own terms, living with the cold rather than against it.“
For me, cobbling together a fork, frame, and crank with my brother restored my faith in my ability to learn, overcome, and push my limits. Biking continues to transform me every day with tiny acts of gratitude, grace, and triumph.
I hope so much that you’ll take a chance, find two wheels of your own, and make cycling for health an important part of your life.
*Special thanks to my brother Christopher Hill for his bike expertise, patience, and unconditional love. You’re such an inspiration.*
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