Note: At the beginning of the year I set three athletic goals for myself: to qualify for Boston, to break six hours in the half-ironman and to ride a century. I’ve accomplished one of those goals and written about the other. Here’s my thoughts on the third.
I’ve learned a lot about myself ever since I started workin’ on my fitness, and one of the most important things is that for me, the key to consistency with a particular activity is to find something about it that I love, and then hang on to that something for all I can. I’ve heard people talk about me as if I have some sort of eternal wellspring of discipline, which, as much as I hate to disabuse anyone of that notion, isn’t actually all that true. In my view, discipline is having the fortitude to keep doing something even though you’d rather do anything else. On the contrary, I generally enjoy my training. To me, it’s basically like getting to play. I’m anything but disciplined. I’m a total fuckin’ hedonist.
Here’s the other thing I’ve learned, which is that when I love something, I want to do it a lot, and when I do it a lot, I tend to get better at it. In the context of triathlon – which, I will be honest, occupies a lot of my mental real estate these days – I’ve found a direct correlation between my love of a particular discipline and my abilities in said discipline. I’m a strong runner in large part because I love to run. Likewise swimming – as I’ve grown to love swimming, I’ve found that I’ve become a better swimmer.
But the bike? Eh…that hasn’t been quite so straight-forward.
I wrote a couple of years ago about how challenging I found the experience of learning to use clipless pedals, to the point that I would actually have nightmares about cycling the night before I was scheduled to ride. And then even once I got clipped in, the act of cycling never felt particularly comfortable to me because I was either stressing about trying to keep up with Brian (who is not only a strong cyclist but also a somewhat aggressive one) or I was losing my mind over all of the various obstacles that presented themselves, everything from suicidal squirrels to dogs on retractable leashes to all of the jerks who think it’s okay to text while riding their bikes. And this was without even adding cars into the equation!
So my point is that cycling was kind of a big source of anxiety for me for a while. There was one solution that was pretty simple, which would have been to stop riding. But there was a complicating factor, which is that I loved to race on my bike. If you put me in a race situation with my bike, all the anxiety about clipping in and clipping out and avoiding squirrels and navigating traffic – that all fell away. The part of my brain that is a raging competitive beast would take over the controls, and I’d become, like, this fearless machine. It’s a glorious feeling, which probably explains why I like racing so much.
But because I wasn’t actually training on my bike as much as I should have, I’d find myself in this frustrating situation where I would get passed by women who I’d outswam, and then I’d have to go run them down after we got on the bike. Plus, my lack of bike fitness was affecting my ability to run, and I knew – and still know, in fact – that I could produce faster run splits. (Also, I knew that if I was ever going to do an Ironman – and I hope to, at Louisville in 2016 – I was going to have to deal with this.)
So I decided I was going to deal with this by basically throwing myself face-first into the volcano. I was going to train for a century ride.
My thinking was that by setting myself up with this goal, I would have to train a lot for it, and that over the course of training for it, I would eventually find that little shining nugget of love that I could hang on to with all my might. After all, it’s not like I started out loving running or swimming. On the contrary, I found both sports very difficult and painful – and in the case of swimming, downright terrifying – at first, and it was only through time, persistence and dedication that I found myself falling in deep, silly love with each of them. I hoped that would be the case with cycling.
I started out by deciding to prioritize cycling in this half-Ironman training. If I had to drop a workout or two each week, it would be a run or a swim, but rarely a bike ride. And if that meant riding on the indoor trainer until 9 p.m. or getting up at 5 a.m. so I could squeeze in an hour ride, so be it. One of the key principles of becoming a better cycling is TITS – Time In The Saddle. (Get your mind out of the gutter.) That’s what I’ve been doing – spending lots and lots of time in the saddle.
And I have the various and sundry issues to prove it, everything from ingrown hairs to saddle sores to once, appallingly, a UTI. I’ve found that the combination of Coeur Sports‘ seamless tri shorts + a Cobb saddle with a cutout right where my lady junk goes has really helped alleviate those issues. (BTW I don’t fangirl often for brands but I make an exception for Coeur Sports. My love for that company and their products is deserving of its own post, but srsly, I have a lot of feelings for Coeur Sports. A LOT.)
I also went out for a couple of group rides with my teammates, but I’m not going to lie to you, I still find this hard as hell. I’m the kind of person who, when driving on the highway, feels comfortable as long as I can have at least three car lengths between me and the driver ahead of me. Riding a bike right behind someone else is just…ugh, I feel like vomiting just thinking about it. Maybe in another year or so, I’ll be okay with it, but for now, I need my space.
Ironically, though, it was on a group ride that I finally found that aforementioned nugget of love. Brian and I joined up with Park, who manages our team, and Tom, who is the sponsor of our team, for a ride in Clermont, which is about an hour and a half away and is known as a Mecca of sorts for triathletes and cyclists. (It’s one of the few places in Florida with actual hills.) We did a 38-mile loop that included some of the toughest climbs I’ve ever encountered, and we were riding on rural roads that were basically taken over by cyclists.
I still remember the exact moment where it all clicked for me. We had just climbed up one of the smaller hills and we were descending down a curvy road that passed through fields and forests. I let go of my brakes, stood up on my pedals and let myself be pulled down the hill by gravity, leaning into the curves and feeling as smooth and elegant as a ballet dancer, or perhaps like a bird. It was magnificent. It was like, So this is what everyone loves about cycling. I was smitten.
Since then I’ve found it a lot easier to go out on my bike, because instead of death-gripping my way through the miles, I actually relax and enjoy myself, because I trust myself to be able to handle my bike. That confidence is why I was able to go downhill riding earlier this month in Park City, which is a thing that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago.
What also would have been unthinkable was the ride Brian and I did this past weekend. It was my longest ever, 70 miles through Pinellas County. During that ride, we spent some time on city streets riding with traffic, we faced busy intersections, and a couple of times I had to stop quickly to deal with drivers who had no intention of stopping for me. Never once, though, did I feel out of control or unsafe. I just made an effort to be as predictable as possible, to hold a steady line at all times and to ride defensively. The most difficult thing came towards the end, when my body was tied up in knots of WTF ARE YOU MAKING US DO RIGHT NOW AND WHY WON’T YOU LET US STOP?! Other than that, it was fine. I just paced myself, kept a steady flow of Tailwind and water going into my body, and tried to make the most efficient use of my gears.
I’m signed up to do an official century ride next month, and my goal is to get at least an 80-mile ride in before tackling that distance. I’m confident that it will be hard but totally doable. Best of all, I fully expect to enjoy myself, which is the most important thing, right? Right.
I have a small list of resources that have been really useful in helping me figure out how to ride, because while putting in the TITS was the most important thing I could do, I’m also the kind of person who intellectualizes the shit out of everything. I’ve found the following books and websites to be extremely helpful with this whole process of turning me into the kind of woman who feels no shame about clicking around in cycling shoes while clad entirely in skin-tight Lycra.
The Big Book of Cycling for Beginners – Full disclosure: Rodale sent me a copy of this for free last year. And because I suck as a blogger, I’m only just now getting around to mentioning it. Anyways, this book is for absolute beginners and when I read it, I wasn’t that much of a beginner, as I had already learned how to clip in and out. What I did find to be extremely helpful was reading about the basic physics of cycling, which went a very long way towards helping me trust my bike not to fail me when I did things like descend a hill or take a sharp turn. I really recommend this for someone who is just getting into cycling, especially if the last bike you rode had streamers coming from the handlebars.
Every Woman’s Guide to Cycling by Selene Yeager – This is another book that’s really great for beginners, plus it contains a couple of basic training plans for 40K time trails and century rides. (I’ve loosely incorporated the century-ride training plan into my HIM training.) What I like best about this, though, is that it’s written by Selene Yeager, who is perhaps better known as Bicycling magazine’s Fit Chick. She’s knowledgeable, smart and a total badass, and she has a breezy writing style that feels more like a conversation with a friend and less like an instruction manual. I’m a big fan of her writing, so of course I have to recommend this book for anyone getting into the sport.
Saddle, Sore by Molly Hurford – This book really helped me get a handle on all of the issues I was experiencing in my saddle area, which, as I mentioned, there were manifold. Molly talks to coaches, saddle designers, gynecologists, even estheticians in her quest to put together a resource to address the specific issues faced by those of us who want to ride bikes and who also want to take good care of our holiest of holies. And if you don’t want to shell out the whopping $6 for the book – which, btw, I think you should because c’mon, $6 – her site is still a treasure trove of good information.
Currently I’m reading Downhill: The Life Story of a Gravity Goddess by Marla Streb and have plans to read Rusch to Glory by Rebecca Rusch, who is also known as the Queen of Pain because she dominates at mountain bike endurance races that are borderline psychotic (and thus totally appealing to me). And every day I scope out Total Women’s Cycling, both for practical information and for inspiration. Plus I also love reading posts about cycling from Sam at Fit is a Feminist Issue, who has been one of my biggest cheerleaders in my journey to shape myself into a cyclist.
If you have any suggestions for good cycling websites, movies or books, leave them in the comments below!