“The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.” – Gloria Steinem
“Asshole” is the word I mutter to myself most while biking. I say it quietly, at least three times a day, to cars who cut me off on my commute to work. I say it to giant trucks who crop dust me as they shuttle to the top of Elden Lookout or Schultz Creek Road. I growl it during races to the guys who insist on passing in the midst of a bottleneck, and I howl it (usually inside my head) to the hypoxic dudes who–upon hearing a woman’s voice–decide it would emasculate them to let me pass so instead either pick up the pace until they crash or force me to sprint through cactus, sand, and sharp desert shrubs just to get by.
I have yet to call another woman on a bike an asshole.
I’m not an angry cyclist. “Asshole” is simply my mantra. I use it to diffuse the tension I sometimes feel while navigating objects bigger than me. Sometimes I even call myself an asshole. But then I wonder, was I really being an asshole, or just acting in self-defense while riding in an aggressive pack?
I define “asshole” by way of a spectrum. The car who sees me in the crosswalk of the urban trail, but guns it through his right on red anyway, is at one end of the spectrum. A recent incident at the Lumberjack 100, an NUE race in Michigan, helped me further define the extreme asshole end of the spectrum.
I was chatting with the first place woman (she’d kicked my butt by two minutes!) when two men sprinted to the finish line (yes, a 100-foot sprint at the end of a 100-mile race). They somehow collided. The man who landed on top–the man whose fall was cushioned by the other racer–threw his bike in the air and began pummelling the other guy in the face. The man on the ground shielded himself with his arm. The crowd was silent but I reared my head, “asshole! Disqualify him! Disqualify him,” I yelled.
My face flushed with anger. The incident had nothing to do with me and yet I was furious. The men were two midpack racers who, at the very most, had a 5th place medal for their category on the line. Though I doubt they were even fast enough for that. I had ridden with the man doing the pummeling for a bit during the race. He wasn’t friendly, and he made my move to pass more difficult than it needed to be. In my head I’d song “asshole” at him and then moved on my merry way.
The incident sent my hackles into a furry partly because I’d been such a good girl during the race. Now I wondered if I should have been more aggressive. I kindly scrubbed my speed and let every man who wanted to pass in a shitty spot pass. I passed them back with a smile and a “good job” one or two miles later without holding a grudge. The one time my hackles shot up I smothered them. It was at the start of the race. Two miles of pavement lead to a sharp left turn and a giant sandpit. Panting, red-faced dudes ate shit on all sides of me but I managed to pull off a track stand and then thread the needle through the carnage. A mile of double track lead to another sharp left turn onto singletrack and another sandpit. The guy in front of me lost his balance and started running with his bike. “If you’re off your bike get off the track!” I yelled as testosterone piled up behind me and threatened to run me over. But then I forced my maternal instincts to the surface and apologized, encouraged, and patiently waited: “Sorry, it’s cool, you got it, we have over 90 miles to sort it out.” Two guys got around us. Another one knocked into me, causing my handlebars to clip a tree. I took a deep breath and just kept pedaling.
I’d made a pact with myself to leave my alpha wolf aggression behind in order to steer clear of the asshole spectrum at the Lumberjack 100. Two weeks ago I hadn’t kept my behavior in check and Karma had bitten me in the ass. But now I doubted good girl behavior was the best tactic when racing against midpack, middle-aged men whose testosterone was on the brink of exploding into the pummeling of another racer.
Maybe it’s wrong to blame the entitlement of the patriarchy for my confusion about asshole behavior while racing bikes. Maybe I brought the thick fog of negative energy on myself when I showed up two weeks prior to the Mohican 100, an NUE race in Ohio, grumpy and with a growing chip on my shoulder toward all men.
My dad had rented a Mustang convertible–with Texas plates–for us to drive from Flagstaff to Ohio for the race. He talked a bit about my “psycho” mom on the drive. He’d referred to her as that when they were married, so I told myself I was used to it. He also shared details about his ex-girlfriends, and how he’d tried to help them, but they were all liars. I usually agree with my dad about most things, but this prickled my feminist skin.
I hadn’t seen him in several years, so I put a smile on my face and embraced the experience. But by the time we got to Ohio my shoulders were tense up to my ears and I felt like my inner she-wolf was about to burst. My plan was to win the Mohican and then get the hell out of Ohio.
My first outburst happened just a few miles into the start of the race. I came around a corner and was abruptly stopped by a long line of men walking their bikes uphill. I was forced to get off my bike too. “Really! This is how you ride bikes in the midwest!” I yelled. I was annoyed because I had easily ridden up the hill the day before while checking out the start. The men ignored my comment. I was beginning to feel claustrophobic and my disgust for anything without a vagina was palpable. I knew these feelings toward my fellow racers were unmerited but I didn’t care. That was only the beginning of the abyss of negative energy I was about to hurl myself into.
Shortly after the hike-a-bike the course turned to singletrack by way of a sharp right turn, a narrow bridge, and a steep climb. It was a bottleneck, with no gaps in sight, and yet the men who had been riding behind me for the last 15 minutes suddenly had to get onto that bridge before me as if all their reserves of testosterone depended on it. I was pushed to the inside of the corner, cut off, and forced to spin slowly behind panting men while muttering “jesus fucking christ” under my breath. Seconds later we were on the steep climb. The track was narrow but men were still trying to pass me despite the fact that my nose was practically up the ass of the man in front of me, and his up the ass of the one in front of him. “No fucking way,” I said to one of them. Then, when two hypoxic men who had cut me off at the bridge put a foot down in front of me, I decided I’d had enough. “Track!” I yelled. One of them scurried to the side and the other one started running with his bike. “If you’re off your bike get off of the track!” I yelled, spinning slowly in his wake but maintaining my balance. He yielded, and I pedaled confidently up and over a tree root past him.
After another 20 minutes of riding in a conga line, combined with more unpleasant jockeying for position, I finally found myself among several racers who were my kind of people. They were quick to make jokes, quick to compliment, and quick to offer information about the course. When one of them wanted to pass he made it clear it was because he’d ridden the course before and he knew the next techy section well. He called out the line to me as I followed. Chivalry is fun in small doses.
But then he stuck his foot in his mouth and my hackles flared back up. “You know, the men up front trying to win are not having this much fun. They aren’t making jokes. They have the cash purse on the line.” As the lead woman, I also had a cash purse on the line. I rolled my neck from side to side to keep my frustration from building up. Then he really fumbled. “I mean, you do too, but I guess that’s different.” I think he realized my fur was beginning to bristle and quickly added, “different because there isn’t another woman in sight.”
My emotional poles began to spin. I wasn’t angry at him, but I was angry at the situation of being a woman. Riding in first place meant I was the female alpha wolf. Alpha wolves earn their positions through acts of aggression. I should be riding more aggressively. I should be the one calling the shots.
We came around a fast, sharp corner and into a steep hill. “On your right!” I yelled, but I wasn’t ready for it. I was in the wrong gear. I tried to power through it. With an abrupt snap, my bike and I went flying forward off the trail and into a patch of briars. My chain landed in the singletrack. Rider after rider ran it over until I was able to retrieve it.
It took me 38 minutes to fix my chain. I’ll spare you the pathetic details of being a spatially and mechanically challenged English teacher. I watched rider after rider fly by. Only one of them noticed me. It was Linda Shin, the women’s open winner from the year before. She asked me if I was okay.
38 minutes is a lot of time to lose, but I was pretty sure if I rode hard I could make my way back up to the top three. The problem was now miles and miles of slow men who did not want to let a woman’s voice pass were ahead of me. Several women didn’t want to let me by either, but I don’t blame them. I was their competition, and these slightly more aggressive women evened the score for the rest of the gals who jumped off their bikes and out of the way as soon as they heard someone approaching from behind.
In a flat, open, grassy section of singletrack–an ideal place to pass–I told some guy moving at a snail’s pace that I’d like to pass on the left. He didn’t respond. “I’m passing on your left!” I said and powered through the grass. He told me I should have waited for a better spot. “That was a good spot!” I yelled back at him all the while chanting “asshole” in my head.
It kept happening. I kept trying to explain that I had been in first place but my chain had broken. Please, I’d like to sneak by, I kept saying. The men would not budge. I’d ride through bushes, give them wider birth’s than any man had given me during the race, and still they would act completely put out.
And then came an unnecessary hike-a-bike in the mud and I pushed my teetering Karma off a cliff. The men walking their bikes wouldn’t move out of the way. I was forced off my bike. At the top, when I was finally back on my bike, I started yelling “track!” and my classic line “if you’re off your bike get out of the track!”. I hit one muddy water bar after another. On the third one, I flew over the handlebars.
One by one all the men I had just yelled at to get out of the way passed me. I waited until the next road section to pass again. I pedaled hard. I was making up time. I was flying. I felt good. And then on the next segment of singletrack it was game over. My chain snapped again and I went catapulting forward, landing face first in the middle of the trail.
I guess I deserve this, I thought as I walked my bike toward the nearest road.
I had to report to the finish line as a DNF. I kept my head down. In the parking lot, I tried to ignore comments about the Mustang. Two men wouldn’t let up. “Texas, huh?” one of them said. I ignored him. “These hills must have been hard for you coming from Texas.”
“I’m not from Texas,” I said and got the hell out of there.
I’d attributed my DNF at the Mohican to my bad attitude, my lack of fostering camaraderie, and my overly aggressive desire to win. Watching one man punch another rider at the finish line of the Lumberjack made me wonder why I had connected good behavior and good Karma with good results and strong races. As a little girl I had been told winning, just like everything else in life, was something you either deserved or didn’t deserve. At age 31, riding my bike was probing me to question what it meant to deserve something from the patriarchy.
Taking gender out of the question makes it easier to ask. Where on the asshole spectrum does healthy competition end and entitlement, aggression and poor sportswomanship begin? But gender is difficult to ignore when 480 people registered for a race are men and only 20 are women.
I’d love to not feel like a wolf bitch while asserting my position in a male dominated pack. I’d love for my first reaction after a crash, or a mechanical, to not be, “well, I guess I deserve this.” If you tell me this is all in my head, that I’m reading too much into the interpersonal dynamics of mountain bike racing, I’m going to ask you to do a little research into an element of feminist rhetoric called gaslighting. I might also offer you an apple, and ask you to recall that biblical myth blaming women for original sin. If you tell me it’s up to me to set a standard of good sportswomanship, even when it feels like I’m being pummeled by testosterone, I’m going to agree with you but then plead for a bit of compassion. It’s a bit unfair for the institution to ask the minority to set the example, don’t ya think? If you say to me, “hey, girl, we aren’t in Kansas anymore, this is mountain bike racing,” I’m going to navigate this conversation right back to where it started.