I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with my road bike, giving it a little too much emotional weight and not enough exercise. We initially hit it off and things escalated quickly. Within months, I was practicing with the clip-in shoes, riding up to 20-25 miles easily, and eventually commuting to work via bike. But then I had the (inevitable) first crash. I couldn’t unclip my shoe from the pedal, lost momentum and was on the ground before I knew what was happening. Physically I was fine, but mentally? Ego: bruised. The second crash was a little bit more intense, searing the skin off my shoulder and knee. After that, I had little faith in the bike, or more accurately, my ability to operate it.
But last month, our Spright team was provided a few entries to The Jensie Gran Fondo — a cycling event created by former professional cyclist Jens Voigt — courtesy of Morgan from Smack Media. Even if I were in town that weekend (which I wasn’t planning to be), there was no part of my brain that entertained the possibility of my bike taking one of those slots, so I passed the offer along to the cycling contingent. The usual up-for-anything crew chimed in and signed up for The Breakaway route, a 40-mile ride on the roads of Marin. But then it turned out I was going to be in town. It took less coaxing than I expected for me to say “Okay, FINE. I’m in.” Never mind the fact that I hadn’t been on my bike in more than a year and I hadn’t used clip-in pedals in more than three. Never mind the fact that the practice/training ride before the event didn’t happen. Never mind that I was essentially wholly unprepared for this. Suddenly I was in the car with my convincers en route to the start line at Stafford Lake. I felt nauseated.
We arrived a little later than anticipated, then rushed over to grab our numbered bibs and place them appropriately with Morgan’s help. Jens’s voice boomed loudly over the speaker as he pumped everyone up for the day. We lined up at the very back of the group and slowly cruised over the starting line, most riders well ahead of us, allowing some space to develop between us and the crowd. Safety first!
Here’s what I learned over the course of 40 miles:
Behind every skill is confidence, so practice! When that confidence wavers, you may literally fall. When it’s strong, so are you. I tried to calm my nerves by immediately clipping my right foot in and out a few times, proving to myself that I could in fact do it. In, out, in out — okay, so far so good! Any time I felt our momentum slow or anticipated a stop, I unclipped far in advance to make sure I didn’t get anxious. If you try to unclip while panicking, it won’t work!
Focus on the ride, not the finish line. I had a GPS watch strapped to my handlebars, but I rarely looked at it. We weren’t totally sure where the rest stops were stationed, so when they showed up it was a pleasant surprise! In between, I enjoyed the scenery and how natural it felt to be back on the bike. The flats were great, but I had forgotten how much fun it can be to climb hills and then fly down the other side. The miles in between the start line and the finish line reminded me how much I actually enjoy this sport.
Don’t forget what you already know. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel stressed by what you don’t know or aren’t good at: how to change a flat tube, how to comfortably fly down the descents, how to stop gracefully, how to use the appropriate hand signals, etc. But overall, I was shocked that after a year away, I still remembered (kind of) how to work a bike. I lucked out with tires that stayed intact, but plenty of other mishaps are within your control and I remembered to control them. Lean into turns, only change gears before or after the climb (not during!), pull your knees up instead of just pushing your feet down (for an efficient pedal stroke), pump the brakes instead of clenching them, and keep your eyes on the road ahead!
Fuel often and early! Once your body is in an energy or hydration hole, it’s hard to reverse it. Taking in electrolytes and sugar in some form is key. Doing so in 30-40 minute intervals helps stabilize blood sugar going to the brain and the muscles and keeps key systems functioning on a high level. We enjoyed plenty of Nutella-banana rolls, fresh fruit, OSMO, and even some free iced coffee. (Someone in the group enjoyed ice cream at the second rest stop, which didn’t turn out particularly well for him.)
Break down the distance. If I had set out and immediately thought, “One mile down, 39 to go,” I would have exhausted my mental strength way too early. Rather, we thought about the rest stops and broke up the ride by the chunks in between, which felt totally doable. After we left the second stop, we knew we only had about 12 miles to go and pushed it home. I remember climbing and being proud of my legs for still having some juice. I remember feeling a little fatigued, but far from the expected exhaustion. Most of all, I remember the pride that comes with knowing you faced your fears and came out victorious. I also remember hanging out at the finisher’s expo enjoying the endorphin rush that only comes from doing something you thought you couldn’t. (And with a great crew that enjoys a refreshing IPA just as much as I do!)
If you never try, you’ll never know. Forty miles may not seem like much to some, but it was a gateway accomplishment for me. All you need to know is that even when you’re not 100% sure you can, you will anyway. Dear bike: I’m back!