I'VE ALWAYS NAMED my most valuable possessions. My beloved high school pen was named Fern. My first car: Chuggy. Even my favorite pillow bears the distinctive moniker Harvey, which makes the nameless entity that is my bike all the sadder. We've never bonded. I use my silver Trek commuter almost every day in the sunny months, traveling countless miles, slowly huffing up hills and back down again.
She deserves a name. Hell, she deserves to be liked. I turn to Gladys Bikes for help.
At the welcoming, women-focused bike shop on NE Alberta, they, too, name things. The printer's name is Betty. These are my people. The shop's own name pays tribute to a women's suffragist's bicycle. Frances E. Willard named her liberating mode of transport "Gladys" back in the 1890s, when as a 53-year-old woman in old-timey clothes she learned to ride. "Gladys was no more a mystery: I had learned all her kinks, had put a bridle in her teeth, and touched her smartly with the whip of victory." Go, Frances!
I bring ol' nameless into Gladys Bikes to meet with Natalie Ramsland for a bike fitting. She's an expert fit specialist and builds bikes at her company, Sweetpea Bicycles. In the back room, the fitting zone, Ramsland mounts my bike on a stationary pedaling station while I puzzle over paperwork. I feel like I'm filling out an online dating application. "Overall bike happiness"? One for hate, 10 for love. This Trek was a surprise birthday present from my parents more than a decade ago, so I'm filled with ambivalence about the silver steed. She gets me places—ever so slowly—but I never had a say in our relationship and she does a number on my neck. I mark a five on the scale.
Ramsland asks me a bunch of questions: How do I use my bike? Where, and for what purpose? Do I commute all year long? What do I do for activities? Do I have a dog? What about injuries, weird body idiosyncrasies? Frankly, it's a longer consultation and more in-depth than many, many health care professionals I've seen... refreshingly so. She wants to get this right.
Next up, Ramsland runs me through a series of mobility tests. On a yoga mat, she tests my hamstrings and internal and external hip extension and flexion. I strip off my shoes and socks so she can analyze my standing posture (kinda crooked), sacrum tilt, and standing squat. My hamstrings are tight, but according to Katy Bowman, a biomechanist I've been reading, almost every living human on the planet who wears shoes and works at an office job has tight hammies these days. We just don't use them anymore. (Bowman also has some choice things to say about bike riding, but I'll leave that for another time.)
Ramsland has me skip the core-strength section—not because I'm a lost cause, but because my commuter bike doesn't require much of a forward bend. She likens the position on a lot of road bikes to doing a plank while riding.
Then she has me climb onto my bike and pedal like I just don't care. Round and round I go. Ramsland takes notes on my leg, shoulder, and arm positions. At one point, she gets out a plumb-bob doohickey to check if my knees are too far over my pedals. They are. And now I stand back and watch her do her magic while we chat.
I didn't realize that I'd spoken with Ramsland before. It was years ago, when I'd interviewed her over the phone about how she trained her dog to ride in a bike trailer (answer: cheese bribes). In person, she's friendly, competent, thoughtful, and prone to taking home Allen wrenches in her pockets. Nowadays, her dog, Greta, commutes from home on the couch. But Ramsland's still bike-hauling writhing lifeforms in the form of her two young children. So now riding up Alameda Ridge "feels like riding Germantown," she says. I feel her pain. Every ascent feels like that Forest Park murder hill on my pokey ride.
Ramsland tells me that oftentimes people will feel a lot more love for their bike after a custom bike fitting. It's starting to seem possible for me. She moves my bike seat back as far as it will go, which gives my legs more space to pedal without compromising my knees. If she had her druthers, she'd upgrade my seat so that it could move even farther back, but says this setup should be okay for the short rides that I take. At Gladys, you have six months to come back and make further adjustments after a bike fitting. If I feel like buying a new seat, they'll reconfigure my fitting.
She also gets my permission to cut two centimeters off each side of my handlebars. Chop away! This, along with a new shorter and less angled handlebar stem, brings my gear shifts and brakes in closer, and eliminates much of the shoulder and neck strain I've been feeling after only 10 minutes of riding. Ramsland lets me lop off one side of my handlebars. I'm helping!
I climb back onboard after all of Ramsland's modifications. My bike feels good. My torso-to-hip angle went from 45 degrees to 60, and my shoulder angle decreased by 10 degrees. Both changes feel much better. My bike even looks better with those shorter handlebars—more like how it should look.
Could it be? Am I starting to feel affection? Only time will tell, but now I find myself giving my bike admiring glances.
This is progress, people. By the end of summer, slow silver might have even earned herself a name.
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