Wearing tight jerseys announcing their most recent cycling event conquest, six petite women straddle their shiny carbon-framed bikes and cluster together inside a meager circle of sunlight in front of the Pink Box bakery in Santa Rosa. They are the Hilly Jillies cycling club gathering on a chilly Saturday morning for their monthly beginning level bike tour through Sonoma County’s pot-holed wine roads. But the women’s pricy equipment and tight-lipped welcome leave me skeptical that this is the route for a novice athlete. Having started late in life, leisure cycling is a weekend sport I’ve grappled with for years, trying to find the right balance between leisure and cycling.
But the Hilly Jillies are serious, lean, and driven, and I am about to discover how they got their name.
With little ceremony or chitchat, the Jillies and I embark on a 37-mile trip east to Sonoma Valley. I quickly fall to the back of the queue, huffing and puffing just to keep up with the group that is easily flying up the first grade. Our terrain is renowned: Sonoma County is one of the top five bicycling destinations in the world, and cycling is the number two tourist draw. To me this morning the landscapes are indistinct. I’m so focused on keeping up that I barely see the new growth on the vines, and so intent on taking deep breaths that I don’t hear the robust grunts of the wild turkeys flushed out of oak groves. Already, before we even get to the steep grades that will summit this route, I’m getting discouraged as I see the entire pack of Jillies disappear around the bend.
According to the local transit authority, only 21 percent of Sonoma County cyclists are women, and this brisk weekend morning I begin to understand why. I began cycling to challenge myself with a rigorous outdoor sport that is kind to my knees and includes camaraderie. I’ve been frustrated, unable to find other riders who are not so engrossed in the pursuit that they can’t laugh at themselves, or so driven that they can’t wait for the last contender to catch up.
Just as I start cursing myself, Lydia rides up behind me on her recumbent bike, unmistakable with an orange flag flying, a “share the road” sign strapped to the bike seat, and a bright yellow saddleback to the side. Lydia’s T-shirt and baggy pants are unlike the skintight norm. Lydia isn’t only colorful: she is loud, too. “I’m Lydia,” she yells, “Sorry I’m late, yeah they love me being the at the back-of-the pack because I’m so loud. When I call out ‘car back’, they hear the warning! Hi, what’s your name?”
I’ve always thought that recumbent bicyclists were the outliers in the cycling world. Older riders often convert from the upright to the reclining posture to get rid of chronic pain. The recumbent bicycle’s low-to-the ground reclining posture looks laid-back, almost comfortable, and I’ve joked that I’d be on a recumbent at age 80. Nevertheless, recumbent bikes have an impressive history as outliers. At the Paris Velodrome in the 1930s, a recumbent shattered cycling speed records and the model was forever banned from traditional bike races.
Sitting up, her legs stretched forward, Lydia looks relaxed, confident and jolly, not at all embarrassed to bring up the rear. She clues me in on hills and traffic hazards ahead and I find my pace aligns with hers. I also become gentler on myself and enjoy this place at the back. Lydia and I finally catch up with a couple of the Jillies, at a roadside coffee kiosk near the town of Sonoma, as they prepare to take off for the last big hill climb. Lydia suggests that the two of us take an alternate route back – one that favors “rollers” over vertical hills, and detours through a quaint ranchlands where families of grazing sheep share the greenery with a cranky old llama.
Back at the Pink Box, I am spent, though not as unsatisfied as I’ve been on past group rides. Lydia asks, “Will you ride with us again? You’re the fastest slow rider I know.”