Women Bike PHL
From Commuting to Cross Country
Kirin McElwain is a cellist who lives in Philadelphia and has even cycled across the country one summer.
Tell me about your bike history.
I grew up in Bucks County and rode a bike as a kid. I took some time off before going to college, and I decided I was going to get a bike to ride to and from my job. So I bought myself a $200 hybrid and got around on that. The summer before I went to college I somehow got into my head that I wanted to be a bike messenger, so I worked as a bike messenger for about four months in Philadelphia. I was probably one of maybe two female bike messengers in the city at the time, and I was terrible at it. I did that for a few months and then I went to college and brought my bike up but I never rode. When I moved back to Philly for graduate school I was like, I’m going to be in the city again, I’m going to need a bike. So I had a beater 90’s mountain bike that belonged to my dad and was just getting around on that until I graduated to a nicer Fuji Cross Comp. And then last year my boyfriend and I decided to bike across the country. Last spring all in the space of a month I got a touring bike, learned how to use clipless pedals, and then we left in May and biked to San Francisco this past summer.
You certainly have gone through quite the transformation from being a bike messenger to being a commuter to biking across the country! So what’s the next step with cycling?
I’ve been enjoying riding this year casually. I’m training for my first triathlon and two of my friends have gotten into cycling in different ways. My friend Richard is working on my swim technique with me, and I’m helping him with cycling, since we’re doing a triathlon together. My friend Emily, who was always a very hardcore commuter, is training for a four-day ride to Harrisburg, so we’ve been doing some riding together as well. My boyfriend and a lot of his friends are competitive mountain bikers and they do road racing and cyclocross. I’ve had my eye on cyclocross for a few years, so my goal is to spend the summer getting my skill set up to speed to try a few cross races in the fall.
Could you tell me a bit more about cyclocross? What got you interested in it?
In cyclocross, you ride on a loop that is approximately two miles in length. Since you ride multiple laps around the loop, it’s very spectator-friendly. There’s mud and sand that you have to ride (or run) through, but it’s not as technical as say, downhill mountain biking. But the tricky thing about cross is that there are barriers, so you have to get off your bike and leap over the barriers with your bicycle, and sometimes parts of the course are unrideable, so you’re allowed to shoulder your bike and run with it. I get the impression that it is like running a 5k for 45 minutes, very high intensity. I love spectating cross races, they are so much fun to watch, and the crowd is always really friendly. Actually, I think people who ride bikes are pretty awesome in general.
I think many people don’t know that Philadelphia’s huge bicycle community has many small pockets: there’s cross, road cyclists, people who commute, etc. So how did you hook up with that group?
I wish I had a better “introduction to cycling story,” but when I first moved back to Philadelphia I was living in a house with Ellis (who is now my boyfriend of almost three years) and he has seven bikes and is really into cycling, and because he was so into it and introduced the idea of biking cross country I was like, yeah, let’s do it! So I feel kind of lame saying, oh my boyfriend got me into cycling, but it’s been really helpful to have a cycling mentor who is as knowledgeable and experienced as he is.
Now that you’re more into it, are you getting competitive?
I can be a really competitive person with running. However, I do have a lot of anxiety about racing cyclocross: it’s definitely rough compared to playing the cello! That said, I do think cross is a lot safer than road racing: if you fall, you’re going at a reasonably slow speed and you’re most likely landing on grass or mud. So if I can get over that anticipatory anxiety by actually trying a race or two and gaining more experience (and enjoying it, of course!), I can definitely see myself getting competitive.
I think a lot of people who cycle find their niche within cycling and kind of stick to it, but you’ve really run the gamut. How many types of bikes do you have at this point?
I only have two! I have my primary commuting bike and touring bike, which is my Salsa Vaiya. It’s a big clunky bike, it was built to last, and I love it. I have front and rear racks, and a Brooks B17S saddle, which I think is the best saddle ever. My other bike is a Raleigh RX1, it’s a cross bike with an aluminum frame and carbon fork. Right now I have road tires on it and that’s what I’m going to do the triathlon on. Later this summer I’ll put cross tires back on it.
I also have my wish list of all the other bikes that I want to get. I used to think that bike people were crazy. Why do you need 10 bikes? Now on my wish list would be a road bike or a triathlon bike if I get really into triathlons. My other dream is to get a folding bike. I would want it so that I could ride it with my cello. The problem with my cello case is that it’s so big that the rear wheel gets in the way on a regular bike, a problem that could be easily solved with the small wheels on a folding bike. A tandem would be fun, too. But of course more bikes requires more storage space, which I don’t have right now!
I want to know more about each culture that goes with these different cycling experiences. We talked a bit about being a bike messenger; what was it like being one of the only women in a very male-dominated profession?
I didn’t really feel like I was a part of that community at the time, due in part to my age and my gender, but mostly because I didn’t really know what I was doing! I knew nothing about bikes, I was just riding around town on my junky bike. Messengering was more of a random experience that happened to involve cycling rather than a formative cycling experience for me.
It sounds like it was really the cross country tour that changed everything.
The first two weeks of the trip I was completely miserable and totally terrified; I was in way over my head. I had run a bunch of marathons and ultramarathons, so I thought, “Running is the only way to stay in shape, cycling’s not difficult, cycling across the country is going to be so easy and so fun!” And then we started and I realized, this is way harder than running, ouch. But it ended up being not only this big adventure but also a really transformative experience for how I saw myself and how I viewed cycling, which had always just been this thing that other people did. I would ride my bike to the grocery store but I never considered myself a cyclist. I now have so much respect for cycling as a sport and mode of transportation. And I now consider myself a cyclist.
What was the biggest difference between the first two weeks when you were miserable and by the end? Lessons learned along the way?
Before the trip, I hadn’t really done many long rides, except for a handful of weekend trips. Since I had had surgery the winter before the trip, I wasn’t in the best physical shape, and I wasn’t used to carrying a heavy load and how that changes the handling of the bike. My bike weighed about 65 pounds fully loaded. I cannot tell you the level of anxiety that I had upon leaving Philadelphia. I was so scared and was severely lacking any confidence. The lack of confidence was really what made me miserable more than anything. Plus the terrain. Biking across western Pennsylvania was harder than biking across the Rockies. In the Rockies, you might have a 23 mile climb, so you might be climbing for a few hours and you’re dealing with an oxygen deficit, but the grade is going to be much easier. Whereas in Western Pennsylvania you’ll have very short stretches that have grades in the high teens and low 20’s. To go up that on a fully loaded touring bicycle and not be in great cycling shape is terrifying. And then you get to the top and you see five more hills exactly like the one you just climbed. The real turning point of the trip came when we made it to Chicago. I’d never been to Chicago before, and it was a place that was sufficiently far away that I was like, oh! I biked to Chicago! I’ve never been here! It’s far away! And once I realized that, things got easier.
By the time we got to the Oregon/California coast, which has a lot of the really really short and really steep stuff too, I was strong enough to handle it without freaking out. I mean, there were definitely things that were difficult and tested my anaerobic limit, but there wasn’t the freakout element. We reached the Pacific in Oregon – I’d never seen the Pacific Ocean before. Just to get to the end of the road and see the ocean, it was the most incredible feeling, it was like oh my God, I can’t believe we did that. It was almost more momentous than getting to the Golden Gate Bridge at the end of the trip.
Did you meet any other people who were also riding cross-country?
We did. I remember being in a small eastern Oregon town, and it was me, Ellis, and all these guys in their 50’s and 60’s. Here I was, the only woman, Ellis and I were the youngest ones there by several decades, hanging out with total strangers from completely different parts of the country, and everyone was just having the best time. We were all drinking beer and eating Oreos, and I remember being very aware at that moment that, despite the gender, age, and geographical differences, that it didn’t matter because we were all on our own cross country bike tours.
Would you do it again? Will you?
I hope so! We’ve been talking about doing a week cycling trip somewhere this summer. I think in the next five years or so we are planning on doing another extended tour, maybe a month in Korea or Japan. For a long extended tour I think it would be really cool to do the route between Alaska and the tip of Argentina, and that takes about nine months or so. But that’s a very long-term goal. I’d love to bike cross country again, maybe in my 50’s or 60’s and I think it would be a different experience. Most of the people we met on the trip were older and it speaks to what a great activity cycling is. You can ride when you’re 50, 60, we even met some guys out touring who were 75. I hope I am half as cool as they are when I’m that age.
Interview by Claudia Setubal