It only took a few weeks but I finally got my bike fitted and my shoes cleated and everything ready for me to take Felicia, as I have christened my new Felt tri bike, out for her maiden voyage this past Saturday. It was my first time wearing clipless pedals and, as you have probably already gathered from the title of this post, it did not go all that well.
I had actually written up a whole post about the experience of my first – and my second – low-speed crash but I’ll save you the boredom of reading the details and just tell you that in both instances, I clipped out with my right foot and then, oops, leaned to the left. My left foot was still clipped to my bike, so it was unable to do as it has spent the last three decades doing – that is, pop out and save me from certain injury at the last second – and I landed hard on my left side.
Actually, the first time I fell, I mostly landed on Brian’s bike, which, while unpleasant, wasn’t terrible. I wound up with some grease marks and a couple of pebbles stuck to my skin, but nothing I couldn’t deal with. The second crash, though…that was a doozy. The first point of impact was the heel of my palm, which hurt so badly I briefly thought I might have broken my wrist, and then before I knew it, I was on the ground with my limbs all tangled up in my bike and my damned left foot still stuck to my pedal.
I had a brief cry in which I shed about four tears, then I got back on my bike and spent the ride home in a state of barely sublimated terror, forcing myself to practice clipping in, riding for two minutes, then clipping out, over and over again. By the time I got home, I had burned through my adrenaline stores for the day and could barely do more than drop myself into the bathtub for a hot soak, where I proceeded to pick pieces of asphalt from my palm and knee.
I was in a lot of pain for a couple of days, pain that affected almost every part of the left side of my body. The front of my left leg – where my shin meets my foot – was all bruised and scraped and swollen, and have a rather massive bruise blooming in the inside of my left knee. The worst thing, thought, was that I actually had nightmares that night, and for the next day or two, every time I thought about my bike I had heart palpitations. What kind of freaking triathlete – who hasn’t even had a real crash, mind you – has heart palpitations whenever she thinks about her bike? Ugh, I felt so much layered shame when I thought about the reaction to falling off my bike.
On Tuesday, I spent some more time practicing on my bike (which again, was still incredibly scary for me) and I’ve also spent some time reading and processing this shit, because I’ve come to understand that, for me, a big part of being an athlete is not just the training I do for my body, but also the training I do for my mind. Whether it’s working on building mental toughness or confronting fears head-on, the psychological work I do is just as important as the time I spend in the water or on the trail.
So these are the things I’ve figured out that are going to help me continue to do the work necessary to get my ass on that bike with something approaching confidence:
1. Everyone who makes the transition to clipless pedals has a low-speed crash at first. Everyone.
It seems like everyone has a story like mine and that every blog post I read about this learning curve includes the inevitable “and then I fell” part. In many cases, a lot of those people did exactly what I did: clipped out with one foot, then fell to the opposite side. That I fell is not evidence of my inherent suckiness at riding with clipless pedals or proof that I shouldn’t even bother. It’s just part of the process of learning to master what is objectively a rather challenging skill. (By the way, thanks to Brian, Sam at Fit, Feminist and (Almost) Fifty for her advice, and to many of the ladies who commented on this blog’s Facebook page with advice and encouragement. I <3 you all.)
2. Everyone who rides with clipless pedals says they are worth it.
I am trusting everyone who says they are worth it and that they do become a lot easier with time and practice. This is a lot of faith I am putting in people, most of whom I have never met, but I’m doing it anyway because I figure that if so many people swear by them, that not all of those people can possibly be lying about this. I mean, I suppose they could be and they all just feel peer-pressured into saying they like them, much the way I’m sure a lot of people are like “Oh, yeah, Infinite Jest is the greatest book ever!” despite never making it past the first chapter, but I doubt that’s what’s actually happening.
3. If men in their seventies can figure this out, there is no reason why I can’t.
The couple of times I’ve taken my old road bike out since my fall, I’ve found myself looking at all of the cyclists who go past me with clipless pedals and thinking that all of those people had probably fallen and now look at them, riding along like it ain’t no thing. In fact, at one point I passed a guy who I swear must have been in his seventies on the Cross Bayou bridge and he was cycling along with clipless pedals, and I actually said out loud to myself, “Oh for fuck’s sake, girl, you have to figure this out.” Now, granted, Clipless Pepaw was also wearing an Ironman cycling jersey so he could probably wipe a cycling course with my chamois-clad butt, but still. My point remains. If people who are older and less physically resilient than I am can do this, so can I.
4. The pain wasn’t what scared me most about the fall.
I’m an endurance athlete, which means I’m pretty comfortable with the experience of pain and discomfort, as paradoxical as that sounds. Learning how to do pole tricks is another painful thing I willingly do. (Seriously, try to squeeze a metal pole between your bare thighs and tell me that it doesn’t hurt like the fire of a thousand suns.) I also like getting color injected into my skin with clusters of tiny needles and I regularly pay estheticians to rip hair out of my face with hot wax. I can deal with pain. Hell, sometimes I embrace it. The pain wasn’t the scary part about falling for me. Instead, it was the complete lack of control I felt. The sense of falling and not being able to stop it is the stuff of which nightmares are made of, but unlike my nightmares, I am not falling from a 2,000-story building. I am falling four feet off a bike. Yes, no one likes falling, but hey, at least the end of the fall comes a lot sooner when it happens with a bike.
5. Other people willingly subject themselves to pain and the possibility of injury for the sake of their sport.
I’m reading “The Sweetest Thing” by Mischa Merz, which is about women’s boxing, right now, and it struck me a couple of nights ago that I was all traumatized over a couple of accidental bruises on my legs. Meanwhile there are people in the world who climb into rings knowing full well that they are about to be punched in the head. Hell, I was reading this post at a roller derby blog yesterday – specifically this: “most people can’t skate when they first start, almost everyone falls on their ass a million times” – and I realized that I am not a special little snowflake here, that falling and hurting yourself is a part of a lot of sports. In fact, a scraped palm and a bruised knee are minor compared to what other athletes go through for the sake of their sport. Basically, I need to SUCK IT UP, BUTTERCUP.
6. I’ve conquered all kinds of scary shit already. Why is this any different?
Brian, bless his heart, has reminded me of the myriad of things that I’ve done despite the fact that they scared the crap out of me: running Big Sur even though I had anxiety over the two-mile hill leading up to Hurricane Point, forcing myself to become comfortable with open water swimming so I could compete in triathlon, even learning to ride my road bike with its skinny tires. He reminded me the first time I went for a ride on it, how I wobbled around the parking lot and kept looking at him with wide-open terrified eyes.
And it’s not just sports things, either. I have always been afraid of public speaking, and I deal with it by speaking on panels, reporting on live TV and doing live interviews on the radio. I hate rejection, but I pitch story ideas and essays to publications anyway, in hopes of seeing my byline in print. I traveled to Chicago by myself and stayed with people I’d never met in person before, all because I wanted to meet my zine friends and take part in a zine fest. I drove across the state and spent the night alone in a hotel room – for the first time in my entire life – because I really, really, really wanted to report on a shuttle launch. Hell, I left an abusive relationship with three garbage bags full of stuff and a handful of dollars to my name. Learning to ride a bike? Pffft, that’s child’s play compared to some of the shit I’ve survived.
The story I tell about myself is not that I am fearless, but rather that I no longer allow fear to deter me from the things I want in life. And in this case, what I want to do is learn how to ride that fucking bike, and I will, even though it scares the crap out of me.