Spread Your Wings

In modern life, many of us spend our days predominantly behind a steering wheel or in front of a screen. It is something that does us a world of no-good. It isn’t just that our bodies aren’t active in the way they need to be to stay healthy. Spending time in boxes also breaks our connection to the natural world. As a result, we can end up feeling both sick and sad. Cycling can offer a solution to both these problems. But it is a solution that is both easy and hard.

In modern life, many of us spend our days predominantly behind a steering wheel or in front of a screen. It is something that does us a world of no-good. It isn’t just that our bodies aren’t active in the way they need to be to stay healthy. Spending time in boxes also breaks our connection to the natural world. As a result, we can end up feeling both sick and sad.

Cycling can offer a solution to both these problems. But it is a solution that is both easy and hard.

The easy part is this: in Australia, more than half of households already own a bicycle. And most of us have local streets that are flat enough and safe enough to ride on even as a novice. Beginning to ride can be as simple as pulling the bicycle out of the shed, pumping up the tyres and heading out. You could pedal for a kilometre or so, past the newsagent at the end of the street, around the block and home again. Success! You are now officially a cyclist.

Now the hard part. That ride was okay. It may even have awakened positive childhood memories of riding bikes. But as a grown woman, you feel faintly ridiculous on a bicycle. And to be honest, exerting yourself is not pleasant. There is a whole-body discomfort in riding a hill, feeling the strain on your muscles, breathing hard and sweating. Staying home on the couch still holds some appeal. If you are going to keep on riding a bike, you will need more motivation.

For some people, that motivation comes in group riding. You might find a local riding group and start to head out with them. You could pick up a few tips on cycling and start to be distracted from the discomfort of exercise. And you all get to have a coffee when the ride is done. But if group riding is not a live option, there is something else you can try. Start to engage with the environment around you. Let the trees, the birds and even the weather bring you out of yourself. Notice, if nothing else, the butterflies.

Butterflies you might see in eastern or northern Australia. Common crow, varied eggfly (male), monarch.

Like bicycles, butterflies might be something you haven’t thought about since you were a child. (And as with bikes, you will start to see them everywhere once you pay attention). There are over four hundred different types of butterfly in Australia, each with its own habitat and range. Some are widespread: the common crow butterfly lives all across eastern and northern Australia. The varied eggfly is found outside Australia too, across Asia and as far away as Madagascar. The monarch is not native here, but was brought from North America. All three are large, beautiful and easy to see. If you are so inclined, you can use them as gifts for the pleasure and mindfulness of your riding.

If you come across butterflies while riding, you might be surprised at how fast they can fly. Like you, they appreciate a tail wind. But even without that, they can be hard to keep up with. Some skippers, like the painted lady, can fly at almost 60 kilometres per hour. Some travel long distances: blue tiger butterflies migrate every summer from North Queensland to as far south as Victoria. In Australia, unlike in America, monarch butterflies don’t migrate. But they can cluster in groups so dense, it may be impossible to keep riding if you come across them in the bush.

With a little effort, you could start to note the details of the butterflies you see, and match them to local species for your area. How big was the butterfly you saw? What was the wing patterning and colour? Did it fly fast or slow? Some species, like the monarch, accumulate toxins from the plants they feed on, and glide slowly, their bright colours in full view. Australian birds have learned that they aren’t good to eat, so leave them alone. Other butterflies lack this type of protection and fly quickly, constantly changing direction. They can be more of a challenge to identify.

An orchard swallowtail caterpillar, left, and a female butterfly, right.

Some of the most beautiful butterflies you will see are the swallowtails. The orchard swallowtail is a large butterfly that occurs continuously across eastern Australia, as well in a few inland sites like Alice Springs. Before European settlement, its caterpillars fed on native plants like boronia. But with the introduction of cultivated citrus, the species found a new host plant. It now thrives on orange, lemon and mandarin trees. Some gardeners, and most orchard owners, view this butterfly as a pest. Some motorists see cyclists as a pest, too. This is something you will have to learn to manage, as you pursue your journey on two wheels.

One option that some cyclists choose in dealing with driver hostility is riding off-road. If you are fortunate enough to be able to ride in the bush, you will see even more types of butterfly. In South East Queensland you might encounter chequered swallowtails, scarlet Jezebels, clearwings or lesser wanderers. These species aren’t common in suburbia because of a lack of food plants for the caterpillars. The breathtaking Richmond birdwing butterfly is no longer found in Brisbane at all because of vegetation change, although efforts have been made to reintroduce the vines it lays eggs on.

The life cycle of the common crow butterfly: growing caterpillars and a chrysalis almost ready to open.

One thing you will notice is that there are many butterflies in summer, but few during the rest of the year. Adult butterflies can live up to a few months, but population survival depends on the few individuals that develop late in the season and persist through winter. When spring comes, these adults lay eggs on young leaves of suitable host plants—citrus for orchard swallowtails, milkweed for monarchs, oleander or fig for common crows. The caterpillars hatch out in a few days, and grow quickly, shedding their skins up to five times up to the point where they form a chrysalis. Inside the casing, they reshape themselves, reworking their body to make wings, antennae and long fine legs. Just before hatching, the casing turns transparent and the colours of the adult can be seen through it. After breaking open the chrysalis, the new butterfly hangs upside down for an hour or so while it straightens and hardens its wings, before setting out on its journey.

You are reshaped from the inside too, when you ride. If you exercise regularly, your blood vessels widen to accommodate greater flow, and this helps protect against heart attack and stroke. Your muscles increase their fuel-burning ability, which makes it easier to find energy for daily activities. And there are changes in how you process nutrients, making it less likely that you will accumulate damaging fat on your liver. Your level of whole-body inflammation drops, and your risk of diabetes goes down. Exercise even prompts your brain to forge new connections, helping to guard against incapacity as you get older.

Something else changes too, when you start riding. And it is like something that happens with a butterfly.

Developing caterpillars only have very simple sight. They can sense light and dark, but as they don’t move far, there is no need for them to have an image of their surroundings. The caterpillars feed where the egg was laid, and if the host plant was chosen correctly, they will grow, pupate and hatch out as winged adults. But adult butterflies have different needs. They have to see the world in more detail if they are to thrive. In contrast to caterpillars, many butterflies have exquisite vision, including an ability to detect ultraviolet or polarized light. Some possess fifteen different types of colour-detecting cell in their eyes, where humans only have three.

Being a cyclist changes your vision too. When you ride, you start to notice the pollution and danger from cars, in a way that you don’t if you are only ever behind the wheel of one. You begin to be aware of how limited the cycling and walking paths are in your neighbourhood, and how hard it is for children to get to school safely without being driven. It may bother you more if forest is cleared or wetland drained near one of your favourite weekend riding routes.

Your perception of yourself may change, too. Taking on something difficult or scary, like riding in traffic or on a challenging mountain bike trail, can affect how you view yourself. You may start to think of yourself as capable and strong, if you did not already. If you were a brave enough woman to do that big charity ride, you might also find you are courageous enough to make changes in a relationship or in your work context. You might get a little political, or you might take someone under your wing, realizing you have something to teach about cycling, as well as something to learn. In the process, you might find you have started down your own path of metamorphosis.

What has happened for you as a woman since you spread your wings and took up riding? Share your stories in the comments.

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