They weren't ready for her, so they ignored her. She showed up uninvited, unannounced. And she followed their bikes in the simple calm that biking had always offered them. None of them were ready to address her as they maneuvered their bikes on the long and wide roads. Health might be expensive, but it’s there for anyone who dares pay for it.
At first, she lagged far behind. On the first week, long after they had arrived and were chatting around the finish line, she finally caught up with them. She didn't stop or even look at them. She swished past their spot, to where a car was waiting for her. She packed her gear and got into the car. They thought it was just a one time thing. But she showed up again the next week. And the weeks after that. Sometimes she even arrived on the meeting spot before any of them did, ready in gear and warmed up. She might have biked there from where she lived, they guessed. Alone. Her cycling outfit was like a hiked-up thobe. When she got off the bike, the hem slid down into a modest baltu, or ladies' coat. She wore long leggings underneath, reaching to the edges of her shoes. She never met their eyes, and never spoke. All they heard was the steady sound of their breaths and the swishing zift.
Naturally, the road had always been theirs. Men drove and walked in that country by default, as the women had no access to such mobility lest under some generous allowance by one of the men. So when they saw her doing exactly what they publicly promoted while at the same time demanding what was unnaturally hers, they couldn't make up their minds.
They thought if they kept ignoring her, the silent embarrassment will eventually force her to quit. Heck, the force of their routine was enough to edge some of the men out. Week by week, they kept up their masculine speed. Week by week, she gained on them. Until she came to a steady pace averaging theirs and began to take some advantage of their drafting. Still keeping their distance, and she unimposing, they cycled in a smooth paceline.
One day one of them was driving to work and saw her cycling alone. On her back was a huge backpack, clearly loaded to increase weight and add resistance. The mountain bike's gears were set at the heaviest. That's how, he understood, she had finally learned to catch speed with them. It was stupid but it worked. She trained even when they weren't around.
They didn’t talk about her until it was too late and comfortably safe to talk. And when they did, it was in uncertain whispers. The ice did not break until their chivalry was tested. But when the ice broke it broke in huge blocks.
They were cycling along their usual route. They knew that she was behind them but within the last cyclist's hindsight. Out of habit, the last cyclist looked back and saw that there was a car paralleling her stride. Its window rolled down, the man beside the driver reaching out a hand to touch her. He alarmed the one ahead of him. And they both slowed down to her side, creating a double barrier between her and the troublesome car. The cyclists slowly enlarged the space between them until the car was pushed to the farthest lane of the road, the male cyclists in the second and third, and she on the lane by the sidewalk.
Eventually the car left off. The two cyclists stayed near her in paceline until they reached the finish line. When they reached the end of the route, she packed her gears and left. But the ice broke behind her. The two cyclists were questioned. The first time is always the loudest. Some blamed her for the trouble she might cause them. The others remembered that she was there for the same reasons as they.
Sometimes, when things were good, it got awesome. But even when things weren’t so good, they biked anyway. As far as the bike took them, as long as the weather and their bodies allowed them. Between their legs was the saddle. Under their legs the black zift. Above them, the indifferent endlessness.
I won't tell you what people thought and said. That’s all going to pass and it’s been repeated many times over. I’m just going to say that someone mentioned something somewhere. The whispers rustled across the medias. How society reacted you might as well imagine.
The pressure of attention on them increased. Of course it caused ripples of discussions. And ripples turned into waves. And waves into tsunamis. And nobody would argue when the force becomes that huge. Not when things are still too physically comfortable to necessitate counter change.
And publicity backfired on their cause. They were hashtagged. More women bought bicycles and cycled around town. And the authorities became more and more attentive. Like the driving thing, the women were arrested and were given the choice to either sign pledges for public misdemeanor or stay in jail.
One of the good things about change is that it doesn’t happen so often, because when it does it’s irrevocable. One day the conservative member stopped his bike in front of hers. She broke and slipped off saddle. Her eyes and feet fixed on the ground, her back straightened. He shook her off her bike. She fell on the pavement. He started kicking her bike. His fellow riders came back and restrained him. Nobody touched her, but the leader pulled the bike away from his teammate’s violent kicks and propped it up.
"There is a place for women and it's not here."
"The road belongs to all."
There. Some of the cyclists changed route. Some didn't come back at all. The ones who kept biking were the ones who couldn’t ignore her anymore.
After a particularly hard session, the leader went to the waiting car, as she was still catching up behind. She didn’t take long, but by the time she reached her car, the leader was already screaming at the top of his voice.
Nobody remembered what he actually said or if it was even worth screaming. It might have been stupid but it worked and they never saw her again. Though they never lost sight of her. Every time a woman spoke plainly or held her tongue untimely. Every time they looked at their placid, obese women at home. Every time they confronted their private opinions, the opinions that even they don't dare to say to themselves in secret. Every time they heard of a woman's plight for a walk, a drive, or glimpse of the setting sun that they took for granted every day.
They kept looking behind them and thought they might see her again. They wondered if they could have done things differently. They wondered if she might have been their chance to fortify the change they had wished for and if they should have been less afraid and bit more brave.
Whenever they saw a woman compete or perform in public, they wondered if she might have been their chance to prove what sort of men they were made of in private.
*Zift: Asphalt **Aib: Shame (Ar.)