I like to ride my bicycle.  But I am not a long distance rider, and I am certainly not fast.  I like to ride around my little neighborhood, and occasionally I like to participate in an event.  But even at that, I am not an accomplished rider.  What I am is a joyful bicycle rider.

It was once so easy

My first form of freedom as a boy was riding my bicycle.  On it, I could explore my entire city.  I would ride almost daily on the local bike trail that weaved its way from where I lived all the way to the main park where I could sit and enjoy the cool shade offered by the canopy of trees at the top of a stone staircase that was in need of repair.

Sitting on those steps, I would think of my life as it was and what it might someday become.  Things like school next year, a girl I had a crush on, the changing face of my neighborhood or the local weather. It did not matter to me what the subject; it was simply necessary to sit and think things over in my special place.  Later I added music to my bicycle ride, and I rode through the center of downtown I heard the march of the modern songs of 1967 and beyond.

In many ways, it was an idyllic worldview, but for me, it was freeing. With my parents working and me mostly on my own, I worked hard to see how far I could go and some days how fast I could do it.  I still remember leaning my bicycle on the edge of its tires as I raced home to beat the street light (my check-in curfew).

Fast-forward to adulthood

My wife Sheryl and I would often take our bicycles for rides with the children in their seats on the back.  The kids wobbling as we pushed down the road was a different kind of free.  It felt so good to be part of a little family unit of four striking out to see what we could find, even if what we found was the same thing every time since we rode the same route.

But as time went on I forgot about that joy. Our sons grew up and traveling with two little bicycles at our side was more difficult.  So gradually we gave up the habit of riding our bicycles after work and on weekends.

Then a few years ago after being diagnosed with RA, I wondered; could I regain that pleasant feeling of riding my bicycle?  Was it possible to take small bike rides and once again enjoy the freedom that a bicycle might give?  So I bought a bike (I named her Blue Bell), and I started.

It wasn’t easy

I was so slow and so limited in the distance that I thought it was not worthwhile to ride my bicycle.   I am sure at least in the beginning it was not. My short little rides seemed too inconsequential for anything but minor amusement.

However, I did one small thing that made a whole world of difference. When I bought my bicycle, I had the bike shop add an odometer.  I found that today these things come with sort of fancy gadgets and features.  But I had little use for those. What I wanted was the mileage count. The first year I rode around 150 miles. That seemed so small. As a boy, there were times I would ride 100+ miles in a day.  I saw that many people online were far more advanced than I. They were riding their bicycles 2,000+ miles in a season, and I was envious.

But I kept going.

Each day my little 2-4 miles was a victory. Then I was routinely accomplishing 5 miles a day.  The second year I rode my bicycle for 300+ miles and the following year I was able to get to 500+ miles. I never traveled more than 10 miles a day and always in the same little well-defined neighborhood route.

Since I was barely walking some days riding my bicycle was a challenge, but it was also, once again, freeing. I kept plugging along.  Some days I would come home and collapse into a deep, long sleep. Some days it seemed like I was expending all my energy riding my bike, yet I was traveling almost no distance.

A bump in the road

In 2012 I had a hip replacement and had to use a three-wheel -gulp- tri-cycle.  I nicknamed my tricycle the Silver Streak.  I went from 500+ miles a season to 250+ miles as I rode around the neighborhood. More than once, the neighborhood children would laugh at the grown man on his tricycle; but I kept going.

Last season, my orthopedic doctor signed off on me once again riding a two-wheel bicycle.  The words had no more than left his mouth than I was at the bicycle store. This time, as a test, I bought a used bicycle and once again fell in love with bicycle riding. Midseason, I purchased a new bike and named her the gray goblin (our grandchildren named her). My patience paid off because last season I was able to accomplish about 400 miles and this season I am on track to do the same.  I still ride the neighborhood route, and those same kids no longer call me names as I peddle by.

I keep pushing on that bicycle.

Not because it is good for me. Rather because I love the feeling of freedom it provides. Riding my bicycle brings some relief from RA pain, my doctor tells me it is good for me, but I do not ride it because of that. I ride my bicycle because I get that same feeling of freedom that I felt when I was nine years old. I am not free from my house or boredom (I have other diversions). What I get is freedom to be me. Freedom to prove I can, and freedom to feel the pure joy of going somewhere even if somewhere is the same little 8-mile route I rode yesterday and the day before that.  With RA, doing small things can sometimes bring the greatest joy.

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Read next: 

Losing Weight with RA

How Exercise Benefits your Mental Health

Getting Unstuck through Exercise (Linda’s story)

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