How weekly bike rides with a group of supportive women showed me a path to joy | Cycling
I always thought of amusement rides as slashing cars and taking them for a spin, often while drunk. That’s what some of the wayward guys did on the Chingford Hall council estate where I grew up. So I was surprised when the Waltham Forest newsletter pointed out another kind of ride: a free cycling group, for women, that lends bikes to members who need them. It has grown since its inception, but Joy Riders started right here in my borough where we have an infrastructure of 27 km of cycle paths, known as Mini Holland.
London was coming out of the last lockdown and one of the most isolated years we’ve ever had when I discovered the band. I had returned to my roots after living in California in hopes that this country would be kinder to my youngest son. He had bounced around the mental health system in the United States for nearly a decade, where the “cure” had been worse than the diagnosis. But the pandemic got in the way of my plan. When my son was once again admitted to a mental hospital, only here rather than in America, I knew I needed a better roadmap to find my way through the pain.
I hadn’t ridden a bike in ages, but had loved it since learning to pedal around the podium, a large concrete slab that surrounded our estate. I felt safe with the two small extra wheels Mom had mounted somewhat unevenly on my bike, even though they leaned me to one side, more like a Hells Angel passenger on a Harley than a five-year-old girl. years on a Raleigh Chipper.
When it was time to ride without the stabilizers, mum ran behind me shouting, “Pedal, pedal! then she gave me an almighty nudge into a world where it was just me and my bike. It was her way of doing most things, trusting that I would find my way.
Mom is long gone from this land. I am the eldest now. I feel it in my joints, I see it on my face in the car rear view mirror as I drive to Jubilee Park in Leyton for my first excursion with the JoyRiders. I hope I can hold on. I hope it won’t hurt my back. I have already sent a message to Mariam, the co-director of the group, to tell her that I am 1m70 tall and that I am heavy. She’s leading the morning run today and I want to make sure the bike I’m borrowing will support my weight. In retrospect, my rating is redundant. It’s a rugged hybrid Raleigh I’ll be using, not a miniature pony.
Jubilee Park wakes up runners and dog walkers, and it smells of freshly cut grass. I head to the container where the council’s stock of bikes is kept. Mariam has a soft accent – a mix of her Dutch and German heritage – and a no-frills sense of leadership. She reassures me that my body will remember what to do. “Muscle memory,” she insists. I know there are other things my body takes into account. The trauma of watching my son struggle over the years. I’m not saying anything about it, though, nor am I saying I’m gay and Jewish. It doesn’t seem relevant until the other women start arriving, many of whom are wearing traditional Islamic clothing. Will it matter to them, I wonder? Is this the right group for me? Will I fit in?
Mariam welcomes everyone and work diligently to adjust my saddle so that I can touch the ground with my tiptoes. She walks us through an ABCD checklist for our bikes: Air; brakes; Chain; Direction. Soraya speaks first, introducing herself and reminding me of how the gears work. She also borrows a bicycle. I watch her put on her jilbab over a wide belt and place two bike clips around her pants. Her hijab is tucked neatly under her bicycle helmet. Some of the other women also wear jilbabs and hijabs. There are no padded bike shorts here. No titanium road bikes either. As the women chat and fish in their backpacks for their phones, their purses, their water bottles, I feel like this group is a community and not a competition, a pleasure and not a rhythm , but I still don’t know if it’s for me.
We finally leave with Mariam at the front and a volunteer in a high visibility vest who takes the back. They have the route mapped out on their phones, which are mounted on their handlebars. Where the streets are wide and quiet, we are asked to overtake, take a priority position, ride near the center of the road where we can be seen more easily. Shazia is my partner. She tells me that she hasn’t been riding for that long, but that once her baby was old enough to be entrusted to her mother-in-law, she took the initiation to cycling course and then moved on to these intermediate rides. His smile is contagious and I feel satisfied that we managed to stay aligned without crashing.
There are 10 of us on this carousel and as we pedal to the entrance of the Olympic Park, an area I’ve never seen before even though it’s at my doorstep, a child points at us and says, “Look mum, so many .” I bravely pull a hand off the handlebars to wave at him, feeling a slight wobble in my frame.
Inside the park, we inadvertently spread out in a V-shape. Like a flock of birds, we swarm across the wide bridge. A pedestrian sees how much fun we have. “Who are you? Can I join?” she shouts behind our backs.
“Joy Riders. You can find us online,” the volunteer replies.
Something about our chatter and our laughter, the billowing of our clothes in the breeze reminds me The sound of music and the von Trapp family cycling scene. It reminds me of my favorite things: family, my sons, the youngest I wish could experience this kind of freedom.
Even though there is still a knot of sadness in my chest, I can feel it starting to loosen. After struggling for so long to get support and services, it’s important to have a chance to just sit in the saddle and be guided, to be told when to turn left or right, to not not have to be so hypervigilant.
We pass the London Aquatics Centre, an impressive venue designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, then stop at a cafe for coffee. One of the women in the group is doing a PhD on female cyclists, how we still outnumber men, and why. She asks us questions while we sip our drinks.
On the way home, I talk to Shabnam, a family doctor. She tells me how difficult it has been for her during the pandemic and it strikes me how little we know each other, how many assumptions we make and the danger of stereotypes. As if that weren’t enough to make you think, as we pedal down the greenway, it’s not a rider’s long jilbab that gets caught in the chain of her bicycle and immobilizes us all, but rather me. My jacket, which I had attached – somewhat haphazardly – around my waist, is sucked into the spokes of my rear wheel. All women are waiting for me to be untangled. No JoyRider left behind.
When I come back home, I’m tired in a good way, in a way that will help me sleep. I know Tuesday mornings will be mine now. Weekends too, occasionally. I invite my friend of over three decades to join the group. On each ride, we stop and pose for a group photo with our bikes. I get the photos on our WhatsApp group, and the messages say things like, “Hey sisters, well done, great ride today.
My favorite ride with the group is at Brick Lane. Amid the colorful graffiti, the women show me where to buy the best samosas. I point out where my grandmother used to come for pickled herring, then we talk about me getting my own bike. Mariam and some of the sisters give advice. I want a hybrid. Gears are important, and a comfortable saddle. I tell the sisters how happy I am to be back in my neighborhood. What I know to be most important, however, is the change in my inner landscape, the opportunity to put the brakes on, to lean on the community and to ride towards joy.
Tanya Frank writes about the intersection of motherhood and mental health. His first memoir Zig Zag Boy: Motherhood, Madness and Letting Go will be published by HarperCollins in February 2023