May is National Bike Month in the States. As an American living in Spain and working for an Australian based website, I find myself in the lucky position of getting to choose which holidays and days and months to celebrate and honour across three continents. And this year – I choose to make National Bike Month a thing. My thing.
When I first landed this job as editor of Ella, I wrote an introductory letter explaining how I accidentally fell into cycling and what the sport and its community came to mean to me. I told you about the centuries I rode that first summer and my introduction to the world of women’s professional cycling. I told you about the sense of belonging and connection the bike gave me – right from the start.
And while it’s all true – it’s not the whole truth. The whole truth is that as the sport and my profession became more and more intertwined, my personal relationship with riding has steadily declined. I didn’t ride once last year. Not a single time.
I could give you a million reasons to explain why and how it all happened, but none of them are legitimate barriers. It started when I moved to Boulder. I had a new (demanding) job in a new (hilly, windy) city. My friends were all mostly professional cyclists, and I felt weirdly intimidated by looking outside my circle for riding buddies. I had done it once (way back when I first started out), so I have no clue why it was such a barrier to do it again.
I would ride, but when I did ride, I would ride alone. And without goals to chase or events to target or training plans to follow, I realized that I didn’t like riding alone very much. Without personal objectives, I needed the social aspect to get me out the door. Not surprisingly, the less I rode, the less likely I was to make time to ride. It’s start to feel like a bit of production when it’s no longer routine – at least for me anyway.
And then I discovered hiking – and I loved it. A lot. I started hiking like crazy. Because that’s how I tend to do things – like crazy. And I hiked all the time and my bike sat on the enclosed back porch gathering dust.
I gave my road bike to a middle-school kid who had recently signed up for a friend’s cycling club when I moved to Spain. I put my mountain bike in storage. I had been told I could get a bike and kit through the team I had been working with when I made the move overseas. It took six months for that to happen. Six more months without riding.
I finally got my hands a new (used) bike in early June last year. I had to round up pedals, shoes, helmet and kit. It takes a bit more effort to do just about everything in Spain than it does in the States, and this was no exception – but I did. I had the intention to ride or I wouldn’t have bothered. And yet…
…I still didn’t ride.
I finally rode again when I was in Melbourne early this month. Specialized loaned me an Amira and gifted me their (beautiful) ambassador kit. I had brought along my pedals, shoes and helmets. I had everything I needed. I was ride-ready. Except I wasn’t.
Because I was a little bit terrified.
I told myself it was because the brakes were ‘backwards’ and I was riding on the ‘wrong side’ of the road. I said it was because I was on an unfamiliar bike with unfamiliar components. I explained it away with tangible, easy to name factors.
And while that was all true – it wasn’t the whole truth. Really, I was scared because I thought people had expectations of me that I wouldn’t meet. I was scared of letting people see me suffer. I was scared that I wouldn’t have fun because I wasn’t fit. I was scared that I would slow people down and make silly mistakes.
And all those things happened when I rode. Every single one of them. Those six weeks were an exercise in humility. I crashed when I couldn’t get my brand new shoe out of my brand new pedal. I got dropped on the Rapha women’s ride – and had to take a slightly different (less hilly) route than the rest of the group. I cross-chained, dropped my chain and ended up with only one gear. I pulled the plug on the St. Kilda’s Club ride when I started leaving gaps in their paceline.
My new friend Anna, who I had met only a few weeks earlier, insisted on riding me back to Café Racer, where the group would meet post-ride. She let me set the pace as we headed back toward St. Kilda on Beach Road. It’s the sort of ride that would have done wonders for my head if I hadn’t already felt discouraged.
I was on the ride on assignment for Ella, tasked with gathering feedback about the newly launched site from the St. Kilda Club women, so I couldn’t head straight home, which was my inclination. I had to stick around. It somehow felt wrong to act like I was a voice of authority on anything women’s cycling related to a group with which I could not hang. I can’t explain (at all) why I felt that way. I just know that I did.
It was my last ride in Australia. I flew back to Spain two days later. I told myself that I would ride every day when I got back to Girona – if for no other reason than so I could spare myself the embarrassment that was my Australian summer of riding when I’m back for round two at the end of this year. I truly envisioned myself following through on this intention.
Yet I didn’t.
Last weekend, I spent an hour on the phone with the nine women out of Philadelphia we featured in this “Fit for the Fight” story. The group consists of seven women who came together to tackle the challenge of their first road race under the guidance of two more experienced racers. I had called them to ask them to tell me what they had learned during the past four months of the program they had successfully completed.
They laughed and they cried as they shared the lessons they would carry with them. While they all had something different to contribute to the conversation, there were common themes, too.
“Just show up.”
“Everyone starts somewhere.”
“If you wait until you’re fitter or faster or skinny enough to like how you look in lycra, you’re never going to begin.”
I was completely clueless when I first started riding eight years ago, and I know now how lucky I was that my start was with a nurturing and diverse group of cyclists all working toward a common goal. The barriers that most women describe when they first start riding – those didn’t exist for me or if they did, I was totally oblivious to them.
I had incredible group ride leaders, weekend riding partners and coaches. I had a fantastic experience the first time I set foot in my neighborhood bike shop. When I was ready to learn how to ride in a bunch, a women’s cycling club eagerly welcomed me into their fold. When I decided to race the following year, I had more resources than I could use to help me make the leap from rider to racer.
As I listened to these women from Philly talk about showing up and starting somewhere and coming just as you are, I realised it hadn’t really occurred to me that I was struggling with beginning. Because I had already begun ten years earlier. So I didn’t recognise this as the beginning it is.
And this beginning is harder for me than the first beginning. I know more. I know what it feels like to feel fit and fast and strong, so I’m well-aware that I’m none of these things. I know what it looks like to handle your bike well, and I know that my skills are rusty. I know the etiquette best practised on a group ride, and I know that I lack the ability to follow this etiquette the way I once did. I might leave gaps open. I can’t take a pull. I don’t know if I’ll feel confident enough to let go of my bars to signal. I understand being intimated by the unknown – but for me, right now, it’s the known that are intimidating.
I also know that this sport can be so welcoming to beginners if you seek out the right people. That all that embarrassment I felt in Australia was of my own creation. No one expected anything of me but me.
And I know all of the incredible ways riding a bike adds value to my life. While my place in this cycling community is fairly firmly cemented at this point regardless of my relationship (or lack thereof) with my bike, I know that I’m missing out on all the personal joy that comes with riding my bike.
Which brings me back to National Bike Month.
In the spirit of this entire month dedicated to my favourite sport in the world, I’m committed to riding ten times in May. Which is ten times more than I rode in April. My typically MO is to go all-in and say that I’m going to ride every single day. And then miss a day and declare the whole thing an epic failure. (Please tell someone else does this, too). So even my approach to all this is new – measured and achievable and not so all or nothing.
I mean, I can’t keep telling all of you how great riding is when I’m not out there doing it myself. And it is great. I know that. I just need to get past these (imaginary) barriers I’ve created.
I’m starting somewhere. I’m showing up. I’m not waiting until I’m fit or fast or feel awesome in lycra to tackle my challenge. I’m doing it now even though beginning again scares me a little. Maybe especially because beginning again scares me a little.
Anyone else in?
The feature image was taken in June 2009 at one of the rest stops on “American’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride” – a century ride around Lake Tahoe with an out and back to Truckee to get riders up to the full 100 miles (161km). I had started riding a year previous with Team in Training, completing my first century ride while raising funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma society. Some of these roads from this century ride will be used on the first stage of the new Amgen Tour of California women’s race that begins next week.