Cyclist of the Month – Val Stephens

When I first met Val (who uses they/them pronouns) I was pretty sure I’d met the real life Aquaman. Val is tall, powerful, and has long wavy hair—all that’s missing is a trident and posse of dolphins. As I’ve gotten to know them a little, Val also reminds me of Paddington in the most charming way possible. They are gentle, kind, and willing to laugh at just about anything.

I caught up with Val at Wheelhouse Junipero, where they work renting bicycles and roller skates and teaching people how to ride them. We had a great conversation discussing the intersection of bicycles, roller skates, and community.

Aaron Rickel Jones – First off, what’s your favorite ice cream?

Val Stephens – Black Walnut from Tower Grove Creamery in St. Louis, Missouri.

[Editor’s Note: The ice cream question is usually intended to simply get people talking, but Val responded so quickly and assuredly I felt it needed to be included. “When you hear wine enthusiasts talking about the notes in a particular bottle,” they explained. “That’s what I experienced. It was a whole journey of flavors. It had depth.” Add it to your list to check out next time you’re in St. Louis.]

ARJ – What is your earliest memory of riding a bike?

VS – My dad taught me how to ride a bike without training wheels when I was five, maybe six years old. I actually have a really vivid memory of it. He said “if you feel like you’re going to fall one way, turn your handlebars the other way.” So I pushed off and started to tilt one way and swung the handlebars the other direction, which caused me to swoop super low to the ground. So I turn the other way, and I’m doing these crazy dips over and over again, and he’s running alongside me trying to make sure I don’t smash my face into the ground.

After that he was like okay, don’t turn so hard. I don’t remember the next try quite as vividly, probably because it actually resembled riding a bike.

ARJ – When would you say you picked cycling up as an adult?

VS – I really got into cycling as a hobby when I worked at Ikea in St. Louis. One of my managers knew I was walking to work every day and had an old Trek he wasn’t using anymore, so he gave that to me. That was my first real adult bike I’d say. It had the bullhorn style bars and old school friction shifters. I liked the aggressive position of riding that bike. It became my commuting bike for the next five years. It was such a joy getting to experience the city that way.

I mean, a car is just like a little spaceship that’s meant to insulate you from the outside world. Doing public transit is like you’re an oxygen molecule on the blood cell of your city.

I had taken the bus for a long time before that, and had driven (and totaled) a car. I got to experience all these different lenses of what it’s like to transport myself through the city. Hated the car commute. The bus was really cool because I got to sit and look around at the people I was living in the city with, seeing buildings I’d never gotten to look at before. The bike was just another layer into that. Having direct contact with my environment was so life affirming.

ARJ – What about your first memory of roller skating?

VS – I have three older siblings, and they were all trying to teach me how to skate at the same time. Out on the street in front of the house, actually before learning how to ride a bike. I had these Little Tikes brand plastic skates and I remember my sister trying to help me get it. She was telling me to stomp around like a dinosaur (I dunno, she was a kid too) so it really wasn’t the best instructions.

ARJ – What keeps you skating and riding bikes now, into adulthood?

VS – Both cycling and roller skating have enjoyed this resurgence lately in my life, especially since moving to Long Beach. I really wasn’t even a roller skater before then. I’d gone to a rink a few times when I lived in St. Louis, and always got excited about it. I’d see people who skated all the time and envied the way that they looked—I wanted to feel that way too.

ARJ – Are learning how to skate and learning how to ride a bike similar?

VS – I think learning to skate was scarier somehow. I don’t know, maybe it’s not for everyone. For me, riding a bike just made more sense. Like once you learn how to lean into your turns and balance on a bike, the bike just naturally wants to stay up. But on roller skates, your feet have to learn it in a completely different way. It’s similar in that there’s wheels… but they are pretty different learning experiences.

ARJ – How do bikes and skates facilitate community?

VS – You have to do them outside, and you kinda can’t do them by yourself. It’s why I never got into skateboarding. I would go out in my driveway by myself to try to get the hang of it, but I would fall and nobody was around me to tell me to get back up and try again or push me. So it didn’t grab onto me.

Having people watch your progress and give you tips and affirmation, and help you figure it out… it’s kind of crucial. Going outside at all gets you closer to other people and engaging with your community.

Even once you get the hang of it, it turns out it’s just not as much fun by yourself. I mean of course everyone needs alone time and there’s something to be said for skating down the beach with your headphones in and being in your own world. But skating with other people is just such a positive experience.

ARJ – What do you get out of it? What’s your reason for being a part of these communities?

VS – It’s one of my favorite ways to socialize anymore. Between work and getting around and trying to be an adult I really cherish the time I get to sit down and not do anything. But when I do need socializing, I know there are regular community bike rides I can go to. It’s awesome to know those people are there, and know that they’re totally willing to have me just come drop into their ride. I didn’t know about anything like that happening before I moved here.

ARJ – What can these communities do better?

VS – I’m honestly not sure how to answer that. I’m more just really impressed with the people who are putting themselves out there and organizing this community. Leading this group ride, or leading a roller derby team. It’s not to be underplayed that those people are taking time out of their own lives to provide something to the people around them. It’s so easy to keep to ourselves. It’s so much harder to put yourself out there and try to make something. There’s so much adversity to it, no matter how small that thing is. I’m just amazed that people out there are doing it. This shit’s gonna change the world.

ARJ – What would you say to someone who’s on the fence of joining a community ride or rollout?

VS – I feel the need to speak to the people who are going to be physically scared of getting on a bike or putting on a pair of skates. These are physically threatening activities. There’s an amount of skill required; there’s a degree of risk. To those people, I’d say just lean into your fear because on the other side of it you’re flying. It’s so worth it to push through the fear and see yourself on the other side looking glorious. It’s the best thing I’ve ever experienced.

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