I woke up early and scrambled out of my tent to get on the road for the century day of the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. It was misty and the sun was barely rising as I clipped my shoes into my pedals and stretched my legs with each downward push, still sore from the ride the day before. I wanted to get on the road early knowing I had 100+ miles ahead of me.
On the ride between the overnight town and the town about 15 miles out, I wove in and out of other cyclists and realized I could go fast and climb hills and that I was in better cycling shape than I’d anticipated. Today would be a good day.
In the first town of the day a fire station was hosting a pancake breakfast (and also selling pie, which I did not eat). I was by myself and enjoying the sunrise and the coolness in the time before the midday heat as I stood in line.
I sat next to a group of middle-aged men and they began chatting with me. We talked about where we were from and how RAGBRAI was going. The 100 miles that day were partly optional– without the extra Karras Loop it was an 80-ish mile day, so “are you doing the century?” was a question everyone was asking. When they asked me, I said confidently “yes!”
It turned out they were too and they offered we might ride together. Worried about their speed, I said that sounded good, but that I might drop off at some point. The furthest I’d ridden in a single day was earlier that week, after all. We saddled up and were off. I was nervous joining my first draft line as we got into formation, but my fears of crossing tires with someone were subdued when I discovered how natural and in control I felt. It was glorious.
We biked for several miles speeding past everyone else. We flew up hills like a knife against unrefrigerated butter and wind was no match for the rotation of large men in front of me in the draft line.
I felt part of something; there’s something beautiful about the naturalness of cycling, especially when drafting in groups. You start to feel like a fish in a school swarming gracefully around a few feet below the water.
Before I knew it, I was at the front of the draft line, suddenly unprotected from the wind I’d been sheltered from before. I looked down at our pace– 24 mph with a big hill coming up. No sweat, I thought. I can do anything. My time at the front ended as quickly as it started when a man in the back shouted “Come to the back!”
I checked my bike computer again– I hadn’t lost any speed, but I began to feel silly for believing I was capable in the first place. I tried to breathe out the knot in my stomach as I dropped off and re-joined at the back. I realized some other men had joined us, so I found myself behind around 12 middle-aged men.
How foolish of me to believe I was good enough, I thought. How silly to think that these men actually thought we were capable of the same things. My heart sunk a little deeper each time it rapidly pounded.
I ended up riding the entire day with the men I’d met at the pancake breakfast, and when I started trailing off in the blazing 1 PM sun, they stopped with me while I scarfed down a pulled pork sandwich (this was before I stopped eating meat :). They cheered with me when we passed the 100-mile mark. The following day, when most of my team rode a bus to the next town after waking up to pouring rain and 40 mph winds, I was huddled and shivering in a gas station enclave when one of the men saw me– he offered to let me draft off of him for the remaining 15 miles, which was a true godsend. Somewhere there’s footage of me on a Cedar Rapids news station reflecting on that day’s ride… “The rain felt like knives going into my skin,” I say with a laugh, my cheeks puffy and rosy from the wind burns.
This is all to say, the men from the pancake breakfast were wonderful and kind and fun to ride with, but the minute someone shouted for me to come to the back of the draft line I realized the dynamic was not me as a member of a group of people who shared a love of cycling. Instead, it was a more paternalistic one, an opportunity for these men to be kind to me.
In college, upon realizing my love for computer science, I found an abundance of exciting opportunities. Several, including internships and scholarships, were tied directly to my identity as a woman. I am beyond grateful for these opportunities, particularly given the way they helped me and my family socioeconomically when we really needed it.
There were many moments, however, when I found myself in a position I was genuinely unqualified for, like when I was interviewed for a video about the future of artificial intelligence. I told some friends about the request and they said “fake it till you make it” and “you’re as much as an expert as some guy in CS”, but the reality was (and still is) I’m not an expert (in fact, I’m 100% in the “AI is over-hyped” boat).
It’s been interesting post-college to feel the emptiness of some of these experiences in a more pronounced way. Being in a video opining about artificial intelligence (and other things like it) definitely hasn’t done anything for me professionally. But I feel like now that I am qualified in many areas, there’s a certain refusal by well-intentioned peers and co-workers to acknowledge those qualifications. It feels like what I experienced in college was as a result of folks in similar positions wanting to feel like they were helping without actually fully acknowledging me as a capable equal. (and though I’m not an expert, it also draws into question the frequency we uplift women of well-represented racial/ethnic identities relative to women of underrepresented racial/ethnic identities).
What I don’t like about it is the feeling that in college it was always on someone else’s terms. Like I could only enter their world when invited, and if I proved I was deserving of entry based on my skills alone, those in power lost the satisfaction of benevolence.
I’ve been helping take care of my parents’ dogs recently and one of them, a sweet and oblivious German Shepherd named Tres, is a voracious eater. When I’m about to set her dog bowl down she lunges towards it, prepared to start eating from it before it touches the ground.
I asked my step-dad how to get her to calm down before she eats (my many ‘sit’ commands weren’t working) and he said something along the lines of “you have to make sure she knows you are in control of the food before you give it to her; she’s not entitled to it.” “No,” I said… “I guess she’s not.”
“…she was capable of producing an insufferable feminine importunity whenever she was dealing with an affair of entire respectability.”
-Musil, The Man Without Qualities