"I grew up in a bike shop."

This article first appeared as the Cyclist of the Month column in the December 2011 issue of the Cascade Courier, our membership newsletter.

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Cyclist of the Month: MILLIE MAGNER
Age: 64
Wheels: Cannondale RW 800
Occupation: Freelance writer, retired

“I grew up in a bike shop,” Millie Magner told me with a grin. And it’s true. Her dad owned a franchise with Schwinn and Harley Davidson in the 1950s, combining his two hobbies by surrounding himself with both bicycles and motorcycles.

It’s clear that this apple didn’t fall too far from that tree. Millie showed up for our interview rosy-cheeked from the cold, wearing a bike jacket in high-visibility orange with lots of reflective tape, helmet still on her head.

Before I even asked, Millie was out of the gate, telling me about her earliest memory on a bike.

“I vividly remember being taught to ride by two older neighbor boys. They put me on a balloon-tired 26-inch bike, and I couldn’t reach the pedals or sit on the seat. I had to bob down on either side of the bike to pedal. I remember them running alongside me shouting, ‘Pedal, Millie, pedal!’”

Since her first ride on that ill-fitting bike, she’s moved on to a succession of others. She took a three-speed Schwinn Traveler on a two-week tour in the hot humidity of central Missouri. This was in the 1960s, when there were few women bicyclists. A decade later, she toured Nova Scotia in cut-off jeans for a month. There have been gaps in her bicycling history, but, she told me, “I’ve always had a bike.” She added with a smile, “I just haven’t always ridden.”

These days, she’s a “utilitarian cyclist,” a habit she picked up when she moved to Seattle in the mid-eighties. She was teaching in Bremerton and realized that she could bike from the ferry. “When I started riding again, I remember riding through Myrtle Edwards Park toward Magnolia, thinking, ‘Dad! I’m here! I’m on a bike!’ I felt a connection to him.”

“But my bike was a 1972 Chitane, which I had had since 1972,” she said. So when she got a job at Group Health and started bike commuting daily, she invested in a brand-new silver Marin hybrid. And she rode to work nearly every day for as long as she worked there.

At the time, bicycle commuters were few and far between. So I asked what kept her going. “Health, the environment and saving money are the benefits you tell other people,” she said. “But the real reason I ride is because it feels good.

“A lot of people ride bikes as kids,” she continued. “The bicycle gives you a sense of freedom, and reconnects you to those positive emotions. Then you have to learn some of the other issues.”

Millie has spent a lot of time thinking about those “other issues.” During her time at Group Health, she dispensed bike-commuting advice to colleagues across departments. “People came to me for help because I was the only one they knew who bike commuted year-round.”

It was a role that came naturally to her, and she helped several of her coworkers become regular bike commuters.

“I told them to wear gear what they were comfortable riding in, whether it’s Spandex or jeans,” she said. “And I talked to them about bikes.”

She made a point of telling them that it doesn’t matter what brand of bike you have. Rather, she said, “It comes down to how you feel about the bike. You’ve got to want to get on it. If aesthetics is part of it, that’s great.”

For Millie, it’s really important that people – especially women – have access to expert advice that doesn’t talk down to them. “I went into a bike shop when I first came to Seattle and was told, ‘This is what you need.’ That attitude is false and unfair.”

She also recognizes that, for women, the barriers are different for recreational riding and commuting.

“Recreationally, there’s less concern about how you look afterward. There’s a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way. They’re worried that wearing a helmet will mess up their hair.” But, she concedes, we’ve come a long way: “When I was a kid, women didn’t do anything fun.”

These days, Millie is retired. But she’s still spreading her knowledge about bicycle-powered transportation whenever she can. She’s been a dedicated volunteer for Cascade Bicycle Club Education Foundation, helping fit helmets at our helmet sales. She also writes about bicycling for transportation in Seattle at www.examiner.com. And she still rides a bike as much as she can.

After all, she told me, “Thinking about my hair isn’t number one.”