I realized that I never really explained the point of this whole blog – although you probably get the idea already. Bikes, bikes, and more bikes. I wanted to start this blog to share my experience and adventures in the world of bikes, and my experiences as a 2013 Specialized Women’s Amassador.
Let me introduce myself. My name is Stephanie Kaplan! My blog is named GRITSinNYC, as that is exacly what I am – a Girl Raised in the South who now lives in NYC. Not that long ago I was GRITS2BF – a Girl Raised in the South in Burkina Faso. Life is definitely an adventure, and I sure have had my share. Bikes weren’t always a large part of my life, but it was during my time as “GRITS2BF” that my respect and love of bikes was rekindled.
Like all kids I rode bikes around our neighborhood on a fairly frequent basis. I remember the first time my mom let my brother and I pedal our bikes out of the neighborhood 2 miles away to the local Chinese restaurant so that we could act like ‘adults’ and get lunch for ourselves. What an adventure that was…even if it just meant riding along on the sidewalk and eating from the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet. I had other sports endeavors though, so the bike never took front row. In college at the College of Charleston, I brought my trusty old bike with me, only to have it stolen within the first week of living there. I never even bothered to replace it as my car seemed to get the job done.
After college I moved to the BIG APPLE! I had always been drawn there and never really knew why. I got a job working in television production at an ad agency and my sedentary life began. After two years of living in New York I realized something that was hard to accept and admit…I was unhappy. Unhappy with this life I thought I wanted, unhappy with the debt I was racking up in the city, and honestly, unhappy with life in NYC. So, on a whim I filled out the online application for the US Peace Corps. In my mind, what better way to escape NYC than go halfway across the world, right? It was COMPLETLEY against my character…and took my boyfriend of almost 2 years by quite the surprise. My mind was set though, and after a lengthy application process I was boarding a flight with 30+ other crazy individuals to a country I didn’t even know existed – Burkina Faso.
Every volunteer is issued a mountain bike that is your ‘baby’ for your two years of service. This bike is your mode of transportation and your lifeline sometimes to the outside world (especially in the rainy season!). My village, Banzon, was about 65 kilometers (40 miles) to the nearest city – Bobo-Dioulasso – and transportation was not always the most reliable. Here are a few pictures from my village/house to give you an idea of my surroundings:
That’s right…I had hippos!
The neighborhood kids LOVED hanging out outside of my door. This was my daily greeting.
My host brother, Ali, and I post run. My bike is resting under my hangar, and my awesome cat, Gateau, is hanging out in the picture. And…YES…he went running 3 miles in jelly sandals.
Here I am hauling my water from the well. I filled up this trashcan 1x each week and wheeled it back to my house. My arms were STRONG by the end.
A view of the river that was literally across the road from my house…you walked through mango groves to get there! Oh, the mangos were amazing!
Bikes were a big part of life in Burkina and in ALL of Africa as people TRULY rely on them to survive. It was something that I learned early on and has been impactful to me as I see the amazing work of organizations like World Bicycle Relief, who not only supply bicycles to people in Africa who desperately need them, but PRODUCE the bikes overseas in Africa, thereby creating local jobs. This is an organization you really should check out.
This was my friend Maimouna’s daughter. She poses with her bike. You can see my bike propped up in the back with the 10 lb wooden box I used as a “trunk” — man that was heavy!
Anyway, back to my story, hah. My mountain bike became one of my main modes of transportation. Whether that was to ride into Bobo to re-charge, take a hot shower – there was NO electricity or running water in my village, so YAY bucket baths! – or send some emails. My bike took me all over the country visiting surrounding villages, riding into market on market day, or hauling heavy loads – you would be amazed (and sometimes disgusted) by what people can fit on their bikes.
Here is a picture of my bike propped on top of the car that’s leaving for my village. I didn’t feel like riding home that day. Where did I go in that car? Oh…in bed of the truck with 15 other people.
One day I rode into town and saw the street roped off, and I had no idea what was going on. Well, evidently there was a village-wide bike race scheduled that day that was drawing the BEST of the BEST from all over the region. What an adventure it was watching these guys zoom around the village on vintage Peugot bikes that I actually saw crack in half on several occasions during the race. The villages came out in the thousands to cheer them on!
Here comes the sprint finish!
The intensity of the sprint finish was UNBELIEVEABLE! Look at those guys leaning into each other! I had never seen anything like it, and to the people in this town…it was the Tour de France. My Burkinabe family used to joke as I went out for a run that the Kenyans…they run…the Burkinabe…they ride bikes. Running was a foreign concept to them, unless they were running FROM someone or something. Every time I set out for a run I always got asked, “Hey, who are you running from? Why are you doing that?” But on my bike? It was a normal occurrence for the Burkinabe to ride their old bikes 40-50 miles piled with 50 lbs of hay into town. It was a sight to see.
During my stay in Burkina Faso, I didn’t just learn to LOVE biking again. I learned to appreciate it for what it means to people in developing countries. For us in the states, a bike means freedom. Freedom to explore new places, to have fun, and yes, sometimes to get from point A to point B. Rarely, in the US does a bike equal survival. In Africa though, the bike TRULY changes lives. It allows a farmer to get to his fields faster, it allows his children to ride that 5 – 10 km to school rather than walking, it allows the mother to get her wares to market to sell. It can be the difference between surviving or not, and that is a pretty amazing thing to see first hand. I TRULY grew an appreciation for the bike during my time here…in all aspects.
When I got back to New York my amazing boyfriend now husband (that’s right…we stayed together and then got married!) was there to greet me, and see me through my awkward transition back into the developed world. I knew that a bicycle had to continue to be a part of my life, as it was in Burkina. So, I went out to the nearest bike shop and bought myself a Specialized Dolce and started riding.
NYC is a GREAT place to bike, and there is no better club in the US (I would argue) than the NYCC (New York Cycle Club). Each summer they offer SIG (Special Interest Group) clinics that last for 6-8 weeks and teach everyone from the newbie like me who has never used clip in pedals, to the racer, how to ride their bike. For 6 weeks I rode over the bridge into uncharted territory — New Jersey. I learned how to change a flat, how to clip in and out of pedals, how to ride in a paceline, how to carry my bike on the train. All thanks to my generous, dedicated and selfless leaders. This program changed the way I thought about biking in NYC. I was no longer chained to the idea of riding in the park. I even joined a triathlon club to see what I could do in ‘competition.’
I realized fairly quickly, however, that I hated swimming…I was a rock in the water. So, when my triathlon team, Asphalt Green, announced that they were starting a cycling team I jumped in head first! Once again, we were taken under the wing of generous and dedicated teachers, and me along with 6 other unexperienced girls, learned the art of bike racing. It was (and still is) the most thrilling, frustrating, demoralizing, uplifting and challenging sport I have ever done.
Is it dangerous? Hell yes it is! I have crashed on more than one occasion. Is it worth it? Hell yes it is!
I have pushed myself beyond every limit I thought was possible, gone to places I never thought I would (especially Specialized Headquarters) and met some of the most amazing friends I will probably ever have. My teammates are my best friends, my confidantes, my riding buddies, my shrinks (shout out to my Asphalt Green Cycling Team ladies!)…I never thought I would have friends this close after college, but it happened. Cycling has TRULY changed my life…and I think it’s for the better.
And, I don’t just race my bike…I use it to get around too. For over 1 1/2 years I have been forgoing those $100+/monthly MetroCards and riding my bike to work everyday. Honestly, it’s one of the best parts of my day. As I pop in to Central Park and ride around on my way to work, I can close my eyes and imagine that I’m not even headed to work…that I’m just out for a ride. I wish more people knew that joy and freedom of the morning commute by bike!
My wish, my true wish, is for other women to realize the beauty, freedom, joy, friendships, and community that can come from getting on two-wheels. For too long fear kept me from even buying a bicycle — how do you ride in traffic?? how can I ride to work?? — but as soon as I let go of my fear and got on my bike…it has taken me to some pretty spectacular places.
I have to give a HUGE thanks to Specialized and Specialized Women for selecting me for the Specialized Women’s Ambassador program. I hope that if you are reading this…and you made it this far…that maybe you decide to pull out your dusty bike, or go buy a new one…and get out and explore!
Thanks for following along…stay tuned for more updates and adventures as I ride and race in NYC.