Diana: From 'the Projects' to the Bike Path

“I’m no bad ass,” wrote Diana, in the first email she ever sent me. “Just someone who grew up in the projects and worked for my first bike only to have it stolen three weeks later. I had to keep my bike rides simple as a single parent: always riding with a child attached to the bike.”

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What part of this ISN’T badass? I thought, reading on. Diana explained that when her last child got their driver’s license four years ago, she “traded in her mom bike for a road bike and began trying to keep up with a group.” Then she decided to try a multi day bike ride ...and realized that she needed a touring bike. “Hearing other women’s stories inspires me to keep going, even though I may be the only Hispanic female rider out there, lol ... you should hear what my family thinks of me.”

I replied: “Diana, you’re a total badass. And yes, I’d like to hear what your family thinks of you. And a lot more.”

So here, for your Mother’s-Day-themed blog post of the month, is Diana’s story about overcoming a lifetime of struggle to become the loving mother and adventurous cyclist that she is today. 

Where did you grow up? Did you ride a bicycle there?

I grew up in the South Bronx , in New York City. South Bronx had plenty of challenges, from poorly funded schools to poverty and safety issues. Growing up there was limiting in many ways; too much traffic, no safe place to ride, no safe place - period. No money for a bike, no place to store one if you did have one. Growing up in the projects, the only way to protect the children was to limit their exposure to the outside world. I grew up in a concrete jungle, the sun never shown on my block as the tall building always cast a shadow and my recollection was that there was no grass or trees around us. Children did however play in the street and rode their bikes on the block.

Life in the projects sound really rough. 

Yes. I was born in a welfare hotel, where they put pregnant moms who have no stable housing, and for the next 16 years we moved from project to project running from an alcoholic father, while dealing with a brother who was a sociopath and a mother who was bipolar. The corner I lived on was infamous for drive-by shootings. The neighbors offered refuge whenever I needed to run, but no one ever thought of calling CPS (Child Protective Services). You know how it is: folks mind their own business.

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"I was born in a welfare hotel, and for the next 16 years we moved from project to project, running from an alcoholic father while dealing with a brother who was a sociopath and a mother who was bipolar."

By the time I was 16 , my mother had taken a leave of absence as she felt she could not handle my father anymore, and I was left to my own devices. I doubled up on classes finish HS 6 months earlier, went to work, got married, all by the time I was 17. No need to feel sorry for me; Perseverance builds character, and Character builds hope. I were a semi-colon pendant around my neck to remind myself that my story isn’t over yet. God has great plans for me.

What role does your bicycle currently play in your life?

My bikes are an extension of me, of who I grew up to be. They are my way of getting exercise and my way of  un-stressing. They also are my way of having a good time. When I see my collection of bikes, backpacks, and kayaks hanging in my gear cave, I smile. I like the person I have become.

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"My bikes are an extension of me, of who I grew up to be... When I see my collection of bikes, backpacks, and kayaks hanging in my gear cave, I smile. I like the person I have become."

What inspired you to buy your first bike?

I bought my first bike when I was 14 years old. I worked all summer to save for that bike. It was an Orange 10 speed. Back then, if you had a 10 speed you were “the shit.” That bike was stolen 2 weeks later when my brother borrowed it and left it unattended while he went into the “bodega” to buy something.  It was never replaced. Many years later I would purchase another one after I was married but it was nothing to talk about: it barely got ridden as I had my 2nd child by the time I was 23. Married to a traditional Hispanic man, he never changed a diaper or fed a child in his life. So it was full-time mom, part-time employee, and full time student. My plate was full for many years.

What surprised you about bicycling? What was challenging or rewarding?

It was always a challenge to find time to ride, and to make the children come along. “The boy” always fell asleep in his chair, and even when he transitioned to the tandem attachment I remember always hearing Kim say, “Gabby, you have to pedal too.”

The rewards are huge: those children have incredible stories about all the novice mistakes I made  while exploring parks and trails with them. They sit around the dinner table on Ladies’ Night and “complain” about my trips. They have riding stories, camping stories, kayaking stories, and hiking stories. The thing is that if you don’t know about existing groups (and the web was not available  back then like it is now), then you’re bound to be lost and confused. To me it was always an adventure. I now hear them talking to their children about their adventures, and there is no better reward in life for me.

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"It was always a challenge to find time to ride, and to make the children come along."

How did you make time for biking as a single working mother?

Here is how it started: when I had my son, my girls were 13 and 10, and able to ride their bikes for several miles without protesting. At that time my husband of 15 years left me for his pregnant girlfriend. I then met this man who loved to ride bikes on the trails in Northern Virginia, so I outfitted my bike with a child seat and off were went. We didn’t date long, but he inspired me to keep riding, and so I did.

I’m a great multi tasker and never sit still, so my chores are done by the weekend. I’ve always worked two jobs but somehow managed to get out and have fun on the weekends. I didn’t get to go out as often while the children were growing up, but any few hours were spent outside doing fun activities.

Did you treat yourself to a new bicycle to celebrate your freedom after the kids grew up?

Yes I did! I bought my first road bike.  I didn’t expect to have it feel so much different than my granny bike. I thought I’d made a mistake, actually. Then I joined RABA  (Richmond Area Bicycle Association), and after nine months of riding with them someone pointed out that I needed to open the tire valve in order to get air to actually go into the tire. My daughter felt that this was justice served, as I made her ride with a flat tire ten years ago (Lord, that girl can’t let anything drop. LOL)

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"After nine months of riding with the group, someone pointed out that I needed to open the tire valve in order to actually get air into the tire..."

What did you learn about yourself by biking?

That I am more capable than I thought, that I can go the distance. The harder something is, the more determined I am to make it; and I’m slow (lol, 13 miles per hour is all I got on the touring bike). I also learned that the prospect of eating ice cream and pizza, guilt-free, will encourage me to keep riding on long trips… I ride with a purpose !!!!!!!!!

You mentioned you get to bike more these days, now that your child has a driver’s license. How does it feel to be “back in the saddle”?

For a short time I had freedom to ride more often and longer multi day rides. I rode the C&O Canal Trail and the GAP trails, which lead me to buy a touring bike with the hopes of one day riding across America.  I now have custody of my niece since the storm hit Puerto Rico. She has no school to go back to, and for several months I also had my disabled parents. That’s slowed me down again, but it is what it is, no use being mad about it.

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"My nickname with my family in Puerto Rico is 'la Loca,' the crazy one."

What do your family/friends think of your cycling habits?

They think I’m nuts. My nickname with my family in Puerto Rico is “la Loca,” the crazy one. You see, I defy conventional traditions. I’m supposed to be at home taking care of my family and my mother. I sure as hell was not supposed to chase two husbands away, LOL.

When people express concern/fear for what you were doing, how does it affect you?

I feel that they are projecting their fears on to me. I never feel unsafe. Hell, after growing up like I did, it’s all safe to me. So I might get hit by a car, so what! I could have that happen as I’m crossing the street at home. You can’t live your life worrying about “what ifs.” Life’s too short for that. I’m sure they are well-intentioned, but it irritates me.

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"I never feel unsafe. Hell, after growing up like I did, it’s all safe to me."

What activity, besides cycling, helps you be a better cyclist?

I started backpacking and mountain hiking the year I did the Creeper trail. It was on that bike ride that I stumble along a sign pointing to a footpath in the woods. That was the AT. It was that day that I told Kim, "Take a picture of me here because next year I’m going to hike on the AT".

I began researching this footpath as soon as we got back. I spent the children’s inheritance at REI and bought all the gear I needed to backpack and convince 3 other clueless persons to join me on 64 mile adventure on the AT.

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"I spent the children’s inheritance at REI and bought all the gear I needed... Now you know why I need a second job!"

I also kayak, my daughter worked all summer when she was 16 to buy me a kayak and surprise me for my birthday. Not knowing how to swim has never stopped me from my love of kayaking. I make sure my life vest is on, always. I currently have 6 kayaks, and six bikes in my gear garage. Now you know why I need a second job, LOL.  I also work out regularly at the gym and jog 1-3 times per month so to keep all parts of me in shape.

What advice would you offer to other single moms who want to try bicycling, but don’t feel like they have time/resources?

I’m living proof that you do not need an expensive bike to ride and  you can attach the kids to your bike. I have two double carts to carry the children in, both were bought used (barely) for 50 bucks. When I am with the grandchildren, I take them along on bike rides.

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Diana was born in the South Bronx in NYC. She now lives in Virginia, where she is a substance abuse counselor for the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority (among other things... like being a part time DJ at weddings???). You can read some of her favorite memories of biking with her kids in this previous post: "Mom's Aren't Perfect."

To all the mamas reading this: Happy Mother's Day


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