Two Bike Cultures: Weighing the Pros and Cons

Women riding as a group. Image credit: carbon addiction

Women riding as a group.
Image credit: carbon addiction

I’m new to the bike, as regular readers will know. Being less than a year into it, I haven’t really settled into any particular ‘culture’ yet. So I need to qualify my comments a bit. I’ve only done a little bit of riding with road cyclists and a little bit of bike training with triathletes.

And I’ve been struggling with the bike over my few months of riding. First it was the clipless pedals. Then there was the issue knowing what a comfortable distance should be and by what increments to increase it (note: doubling previous furthest distance is too extreme for me).

And lately it’s been the demoralizing feeling that I’ll never get faster. And I’ve also got some toe numbness that sets in at about 20km.

And I should add that I’ve got persistent fears of my safety on the road. I don’t fully trust drivers. And though convinced riding in groups is safer than riding alone, I also know that one of the worst bike accidents in our community involved a very experienced cycling group getting taken out by a pick-up truck on a Sunday ride. See the CBC coverage of the death of London artist Greg Curnoe in 1992. Two of my colleagues in the philosophy department were also involved in this accident.

I never feel fully relaxed only bike except when I’m on a bike path (which is a rare occurrence on the road bike) or in a race with closed off or carefully controlled roads. And even on the bike path, there is a high level of unpredictability from pedestrians, skateboarders, other cyclists, dogs, and even geese. See this news report: “Goose attack leaves Ottawa cyclist shaken and scarred.

And finally, my commuter bike makes me feel like a happy kid all over again. I take it at a leisurely pace and enjoy the scenery. The road bike brings out a different kid in me.

On the road bike I often feel like a whiney, difficult child who cannot be reasoned with. I sulk, curse silently to myself, wish I were doing something else , and feel generally inadequate to the task. I have to remind myself that mummy and daddy are not making me do this. It’s not like those blasted tennis lessons when I was twelve. No. I chose this.

Okay. That having been said…

Sam is part of an informal group of road cyclists who go out regularly. She always invites me along. When I do accept, I’m never all that keen. But I know that the only way to get comfortable with something is to do it.

Road cycling culture is all about the group ride, as far as I can tell.  Riding as a group is safer because mostly you’re more visible to drivers. You’re also safer because if anything does happen, you’re not out there all by yourself.  It’s more fun because you can chat with the others as you ride along. I haven’t much gotten into the spirit of this because I’m usually too focused on keeping up, but I have had brief moments of seeing how it could be a thing.

Road cycling also makes it possible to go faster because of drafting. Drafting is that thing where the people in front block the wind for the people in back.  See this Wiki How page. When you’re riding as a group, drafting makes it easier on the people at the back, harder on those at the front. Other things being equal, you rotate responsibilities–people take turns being in front or behind.

I’ve had mixed success being the draftee because in order to really benefit from it, you need to ride quite close to the rear wheel of the person ahead of you. And that scares me. You also need to be able to keep up or feel comfortable telling them when to ease up.  I find both hard to do. I struggle to keep up, and that means I would almost constantly need to ask people to ease up.  This frustrates me.

Road cyclists are more than happy to share their experience and tips.  I’ve learned lots about gear-changing, safety, hill-climbing, even drafting, from riding with Sam and friends.  And they LOVE going out on the bike. This is what they live for, it seems. It’s hard not to get a little bit caught up in their passion for riding, even if I’m not equally passionate about it.

They want you to love it too.  And so generally I’ve found road cyclists to be understanding and encouraging. Sam is the best at this. She is quick to remind me that someone always has to be at the back of the pack. And it used to be her. And it won’t be me forever.  She likes to ask me what would make me like it more. And she consistently offers to ride with me.  She is a big believer that it’s not always necessary to go all out. See her post about fast and slow riding. And her other post It Takes All Kinds.  Thank you, Sam.

But road cyclists are also an in-group, and they have a legendary list of rules that, if not followed, signal you as an outsider.  Here are The Rules. They cover the gamut, from whether the arms of your glasses should go on the outside or inside of your helmet straps (on the outside) to the proper cultivation of tan lines (keep them sharp) to the proper color of bike shorts (black).  There are 100 rules.

So that’s road cycling culture as far as I know it.  My experience of it is kind of mixed, largely because I am riding with a much more experienced group and I am the only new rider. So I feel extremely aware of my newbie-ness.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but it has pushed me well outside of my comfort zone. Again, that’s not always a bad thing, but there is a happy medium, I’m sure.

After the epic ride to Port Stanley a few weeks ago, I was ready to pack in these group rides with road cyclists for awhile because they felt demoralizing to me.  This is when Sam started to talk to me about safety. Try riding with the triathletes, she said, then report back.  Her main complaint is that she doesn’t think they train safely.

I’ve trained with the triathletes three times now, and I tend to agree.  The main reason is that they don’t ride together.

I showed up for my first swim-bike-run training session with the triathlon group a couple of weeks ago.  We swam together with the coach telling us what to do. Since I’m training for the Olympic distance, I was with the group who had to do some extra swimming. By the time I got to my bike, almost everyone was gone.  They weren’t gone together. They were gone separately.

Triathletes ride alone.  I was new to the course, so a very kind Iron distance triathlete named Sarah offered to ride with me. And she did.  For the first 25 or so km she rode alongside me or just a little ahead of me. But this isn’t the way they usually ride. We were on rural roads that had very little traffic. But not NO traffic. And the traffic there was traveled swiftly, at between 80-100km per hour.

For a lot of the last part of the 40 km route, including one harrowing stretch along a busier road where, in Sarah’s words, “drivers along here are stupid,” she rode well ahead of me, waiting for me at the marked route turns.  There is no paved shoulder and very little asphalt to the right of the white line. So whenever a car or transport (!!) whizzed past I just held on.

For these training rides, a support car does drive around the route for the whole time we’re out there, making sure everyone is okay.  But other than Sarah, the only other people I saw from the group were just blurs as they sped past me on their tri-bikes.

The same thing happened to me on the Thursday, when I went for bike-run repeats. I totally get that this is the type of training required for triathlon and the group ride is a different kind of thing. But again I didn’t feel especially safe on the bike course.  The country roads are not heavily trafficked, but the cars on them travel fast.

If for some reason they lost sight of you because the sun was in their eyes, or they swerved over a bit because they were texting or fiddling with the radio, you’d have little chance of surviving the collision.  Being alone just increases the probability of not being seen.

But the triathletes I’ve ridden “with” are in training mode. They’re training to get faster.  Road cyclists aren’t always trying to be as fast as they can and are not always “training.”

In fact, I’ve heard not one but two different road cyclists tell me they don’t train, they “just ride.”

Not just that they’re in training mode, and not just that they don’t ride together. In fact they kind of can’t ride together. Drafting is not allowed in race day. And tri bikes are best when going straight and fast. They don’t handle well in tight corners or situations that call for a sudden turn. Most road cyclist groups won’t let people ride with them on tri bikes because of safety concerns. The aero position is kind of like being on cruise control with your hands off the wheel. Just not the best position from which to respond.

On my third outing with the triathletes, I started out with someone and then, again because she was always waiting for me and it seemed pointless since we weren’t riding together in any way that would make me feel safer and more visible, I released her from that obligation.  There was less traffic than before and, being more familiar with the route, I relaxed into it (which I guess isn’t really the point — it’s not a leisure ride!).

Remember I started out the season with a fear of hills? Well, riding with the roadies has helped a lot with this. My first time on the bike course with the triathletes, a few people mentioned a “nasty hill near the end.”  Because of my bike computer, I knew when I was approaching the last 5 km of the ride. Whenever I came to the top of a hill, I said to myself, “is this the nasty hill they were talking about?”  None of the hills seemed particularly nasty to me.

And when I went to a different location for the bike-run repeats, I took a total wrong turn for two reasons. One, I was not riding with anyone, so no one familiar with the course was there to guide me. And two, the coach said that I was supposed to turn “at the top of the hill.”  I saw no hill at all.  Like I mean nothing I would call a hill.

This made me think back to that other horrible ride in November, when I looked at a hill and said to one of the guys, “I don’t think I can make it up that hill.” And he said, “sure you can. In fact, in time you’ll see that it’s not even a hill.”  Well, that non-hill did defeat me that day. But it’s kind of exciting to be at a place where I can’t tell the nasty hill because none seem nasty, and I miss a turn because I missed the hill that preceded it.

I’ll do some training rides with the triathletes (I now own a reflective vest to wear if I feel unsafe with them). But I’ve decided that I do want to keep riding with the road cyclists.  They have lots to offer, even if I’m not sure I’ll ever truly be “one of them.”

Here’s a primer for triathletes who want to venture out for group rides with road cyclists.

Men: It isn’t junk, Women: Stop saying you don’t need to see that

man thong

I’m an idealist. But I strongly suspect the egalitarian world of which I’d dreamed is not the world we’re getting. I wanted a world in which young women got an equal share of the body comfort I’ve observed in the men of my generation. Instead I fear we are getting a world in which we’re levelling down. It’s more equal in some ways but that’s because young men are facing pressures to conform to standards of body normativity and are feeling the kind of shame I’d thought mostly belonged to young women.

My first taste of this came when my own sons were very young. I had started swimming with the UWO triathlon club and got to spend time with young men, in their speedos, on the pool deck. They weren’t a happy lot. They worked hard on their bodies and viewed them as works in progress. They all wanted well defined abs. They also all removed lots of body hair, better to display the muscle definition. Gone were the forgiving furry male bellies of my generation. And don’t get me started on hairless backs. My point here is that the young men’s attitudes to very fit athletic bodies was much closer to that of the women I know, all of ages, than it was to my generation of men.

I started thinking about men’s bodies and our odd attitudes towards them when the following story came across my newsfeed dozens of times, Asymmetric Man-Thongs Are The Most Insane Thing A Man Can Wear This Summer. Follow the link for photo gallery and product reviews.

But the thing is that almost everyone who shared the link did so with disapproving commentary, usually with some snarky comment about “who wants to see that?”

Then “maybe if they’re young and fit.” Then story after story about some old, fat guy who happily parades around the beach or pool in their Speedo. “You can’t unsee that.” Or, “it burns, it burns.”

I hear this from women who I know are sensitive to criticism of women’s bodies. They would speak up if someone said that about an older woman in a bikini. What is it about men’s bodies that makes some people so uncomfortable? Is it so wrong to like a diverse range of male bodies?

And what is it with those knee length baggy swim shorts that lots of men of all ages wear? I miss Australia where men wear “budgie smugglers” (as they say) and New Zealand where men wear short shorts.

And you know what? I love those old fat wrinkly guys in their speedos. Why? I feel completely free to wear my bikini. If they can do it, so can I.

My least favourite expression comes from men themselves. “Who wants to see some guy’s junk?” Stop calling it “junk.” Please.





Friends for Life Bike Rally Day One

Toronto to Port Hope
106 km

Police escort through Toronto and then lots of kilometers on the Great Waterfront Trail. 

Perfect weather, rolling hills,  great company, and most importantly donations keep pouring in for Toronto People with Aids Foundation.  Our team goal is $50,000 by the end of the rally. You can sponsor me here.

There are hundreds of amazing volunteers making this ride possible. Thank you!







Guest Post: Tri-ing something new! (Toronto Triathlon Festival race report)

2014-07-13 08.58.00


The night before a race, I usually pin my bib number to my shirt and set out everything else I need so that I don’t have to think about anything in the morning. This is easy enough for a running race: shoes, socks, run shorts, sports bra, GPS watch, and maybe a running cap and a small bottle of water.

Adding two more sports on to that was a bit more stressful! I gathered my swimming things: wetsuit, swim cap, goggles, and put them with things I would need in the morning: BodyGlide (to lube up before jumping into the wetsuit) and plastic bags (they go over my hands/feet and make getting into the wetsuit easier).

Next up, the things I would need in transition: cycling shoes, running shoes, socks, GPS watch, water bottle, sport towel, plastic bags to protect from the rain. Oh yes, the rain – I’d been neurotically refreshing the weather page for days, hoping that prediction for “thunderstorms” on race morning would magically disappear – alas, they did not! Thinking about the rain, I grabbed my running cap as well. My partner, Kevin, suggested I put it on under my helmet for the cycling portion as well – professional cyclists do it all the time, he said. Good idea, I thought. More on that later.

We then went to remove the rear rack from my bike. It turns out that the rack was affixed by screws on the interior of the seat stays, and we had to remove the rear wheel to get at them. The V-brakes on my bike were unusually tight and difficult to release, turning a simple task into a frustrating endeavor. When I saw that it wasn’t going to be as simple as it should have, I wanted to say, “forget it,” and leave the rack on. I had wanted it off for two reasons: 1) I didn’t know how heavy it was, and it would be nice to have the bike as light as possible in case I needed to carry it up/down the hill to the mount line, and 2) I thought I’d look a little silly with a bike rack at a triathlon. But I also really didn’t want to mess with the bike the night before the race, especially because I just had it tuned up.

Anyways, Kevin said he could do it, so we persisted. We got the rack off but in the process messed up the brake alignment. Nothing too bad, but cue an increase in already-high levels of race anxiety.

Race day

I’ve learned by now that while I definitely need coffee to be considered a functional human being, drinking too much of it before a race is NOT kind on my nervous stomach, so I only had a tiny cup of coffee. Transition opened at 8am for the sprint distance, and I was going to meet my friend Megan there at 8:15. At 7:55 we got our bikes and headed off. As luck would have it, we actually ran into Megan on the ride to the race area – a good start to the day!

We set our transition areas up. Run cap and helmet went on the handle of my bike and everything else inside a plastic bag on top of my towel, which was on top of another plastic bag. It had already been raining in the morning, though thankfully it had stopped in time for our set up (the Olympic distance competitors were not so lucky).

We waited a lot longer to put our wetsuits on than most of the people around us. I realized that was perhaps a bad idea when it was close to my wave’s starting time and I wasn’t zipped up yet! Eeek! Megan quickly shoehorned my shoulders in and zipped me up, then bade me farewell – she was in the wave behind me.

2014-07-13 11.50.29


I’m not sure what the water temperature actually was – I think they said around 15-17 degrees? – but I knew from trying out part of the swim course the day before that it was going to be frigid. I was not wrong. It was COLD. And due to the nature of the course, we didn’t have any opportunity to warm up. Into the water, and a minute later our horn goes off. Oof.

I positioned myself to the side and back, letting the stronger swimmers go out first. I quickly realized that many around me had the same idea. Most of them seemed as uncomfortable in the water as I felt. I tried to do front crawl, but every time I stuck my face in the water, I wanted to take it right back out again. I also had trouble exhaling. It’s funny because the whole time, I *knew* what the problem was. “Breathe out,” I’d think to myself, but for some reason I couldn’t make myself do it.

I later discovered that there might be a physiological explanation for this. It’s called “Mammalian Diving Reflex.” In a nutshell, when you stick your face into cold water, your heart rate drops and blood flow gets diverted from your extremities. Your body enters a state where it tries to conserve oxygen. Don’t breathe out, my body said! You need that! It was hard to fight.

So I ended up doing a true medley of strokes: front crawl, back crawl, breast stroke, elementary back stroke, and side stroke. I used literally every stroke I knew to propel myself through the water. I kept trying front crawl, hoping I would settle into a rhythm. I found it very difficult whenever there was someone remotely near me (in front, behind, or to the side). I kept thinking, “I hope I’m not going too slow for the person behind me,” and “I hope I don’t crash into the person in front of me.” It’s a race, I know, but I’m just not used to swimming with so many people, especially with no lane ropes!

By the last buoy, I had finally discovered some semblance of a rhythm with my front crawl stroke. I honestly think that if I had 15 minutes to warm up in the water, my swim would have gone much more smoothly. Maybe if I do another tri, I’ll pick one where I can have a warm up.

Time for swim – 21:14


Well, this could have gone more smoothly! My time was the third slowest in my age group for the transition. I had difficulty getting my wetsuit off (I’ve never NOT had that difficulty, though, so…). I also took a couple of moments to ensure that I had everything in order, then un-racked my bike.

Cue race official. “Can you re-rack your bike please?”

Oh no oh no oh no what have I done wrong?!

“You have to take off your hat. It’s a safety issue.”

I honestly wasn’t aware that wearing a running cap under my helmet could be unsafe, but I certainly wasn’t about to argue with the race official. I took off my hat, then grabbed my bike again and set off to run up the ramp to the mounting line.

Time for T1 – 4:46


The bike course started on a pedestrian bridge that took us into Exhibition Grounds. I knew that the bridge was a “no passing” zone, but I wasn’t sure at which point the “no passing” ended. There was a man in front of me going awfully slowly, and I just wanted to pass him and get going!

Shortly after getting on the Gardiner (we got to bike on the Gardiner!!), Megan passed me. I wasn’t surprised – although her wave was four minutes after mine, she’s an extremely strong swimmer. I had actually expected her to pass me during the swim!

I settled into a pace that I felt I could keep for 20km. I don’t have very much experience with being able to bike for 20km without stopping for traffic lights or small children dashing in front of me on the trail, so I didn’t exactly have a benchmark for what my speed ‘ought’ to be, and decided to do it by effort.

My rear brakes started rubbing somewhere just before we got on the Gardiner, and for the first half of the bike course I was woefully regretting removing the rear rack. They sorted themselves out just before the first turnaround point, which was a fairly sharp U-turn.

It felt like I was hitting a brick wall when I turned. It was only then that I realized we had had a fairly substantial tailwind on the way out – and now we faced a fairly substantial headwind. Grr, argh.

I wished at that point that I had a real road bike. The hybrid commuter that I ride is a very nice bike (on loan to me indefinitely from my uncle, after mine got stolen last summer). It’s pretty light and I’ve been told the specs are comparable to an entry-level road bike. But a road bike it is not, and I was envious of all the people around me who could get down low and alleviate some of the wind resistance. Maybe next year!

With about 6km to go, the skies just opened up. Now we had a headwind and a torrential downpour! Yikes! There was a second U-turn that we had to make before coming back onto Exhibition grounds, and I had the sense to brake well ahead of time to avoid hydroplaning or skidding in the turn. I was seriously wishing that hats were allowed, because with so much rain, I could barely see through my glasses. Definitely quite the weather for my first tri!

Time for bike – 43:38


We had to run down a ramp into transition with our bikes, and I remembered the advice that my friend Al gave me. He told me to take off my cleats before going down the ramp, especially if it was raining, to avoid falling. Good advice! My feet were so wet anyways that it didn’t matter that I was running in just my socks.

The second transition was much easier. I put on my running shoes and off I went. Forgot my running cap, though – and again regretted it, as I could still barely see through the rain. Megan was a minute or so ahead of me. “Come catch me,” she said as she took off.

Time for T2 – 1:58


I wanted to catch Megan. I really did. My legs felt so dead, though. Despite my brick workouts, I wasn’t quite used to the feeling of coming off of 20km straight cycling, at a speed faster that what I usually ride at. I was also just feeling generally exhausted by this point. I stopped to walk a couple of times throughout the run, seeing Megan get further and further away.

A woman ran up beside me when I was slowing to a walk and said, “I remember you from the bike course – we played leap frog a couple of times. Come on, it’s only 1.5km left, we can do this.” It was exactly what I needed to hear at the time. I asked her name. “Julie,” she said. Well – thank you, Julie. With her encouragement, I ran the rest of the way without stopping.

Time for run – 27:59


At the finish line, I felt so many things at once. Pride that I finished. Relief that it was over. I may have teared up a bit. Okay I definitely did.

Megan finished a few minutes ahead of me and was waiting to hug me at the finish line. She had a great race, smashing her time from last year. I’m so proud of her, and very grateful to have been able to train and race with such a fun, strong, and inspiring person.

My family asked me at the finish line if I would do it again. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to say. Now that I’ve had time to process, I think the answer is yes. I might like to do one where I have time to warm up before the swim, though! Although overall I’m proud of my finishing time, it’s very clear that there’s room for improvement in all of the events. And that’s okay by me – it just gives me something to work towards for next year.

Total time: 1:39:34


Stephanie is a PhD candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. She is also a runner, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and a newly minted triathlete.

Riding slow and riding fast

I was out on a bike with a friend recently. It was a gorgeous morning. There was beautiful scenery. We talked about philosophy, about friends, about cycling, and about family. Perfect. At least that’s what I remembered about our ride.

But when we next meet she asked, “Were you riding at that speed for me?” She was anxious that I’d slowed down to ride with her, that I’d been moderating my speed on her behalf.

I’ve encountered that worry a few times and I want to say a few things in response.

First, and most notably, it almost always come from women. Now part of the reason for that is that when I help out beginning cyclists they’re often women, but not always. And men might start out slower than me but in my experience that stage doesn’t last very long. (I’m going to blog about riding with men in another post. If you’re a fast woman cyclist, you’ll spend lots of time riding with the guys. It’s interesting and challenging.) But women also seem more apologetic right from the start.

Second, it almost always comes from beginners. When you start any activity, it’s hard to grasp “slow” and “fast.” There’s just one speed you run/ride at and it’s the speed you can run/ride at. It’s like when I started running and I thought idea of speed work and recovery runs was incomprehensible. All runs at that stage were all out.

Third, what does the question mean? Could I have ridden faster? Sure. And still talked? Yes.
It’s true it wasn’t my race pace but I don’t often ride at race pace. It wasn’t a race. How about was I happy riding at that speed? Yes!

Fourth, most cyclists like riding with others. Riding alone, unless I’m doing training drills, feels both dull and dangerous to me. Generally speaking, I don’t do it. I’m flexible because I want to ride with others.

Fifth, it’s great to ride with people of different speeds. You can have a hard, fast day with one group of friends and slow, social day with another set. I like that. It’s like heart rate training without the monitor! Sometimes I’m the fastest and sometimes I’m the slowest, here’s my advice about etiquette at each of the spectrum.

I’ve written before about things you learn working out with others.

See also It takes all kinds.

I recommend riding with other people. You learn a lot. You should always ride with the fastest people willing to have you along. And to pay it back, you should be willing to ride with beginning cyclists some of the time. People come in lots of different speeds and sizes. Get to know them all.


The Sports Bra Dilemma


Under Armor Sports bra.

Lately I’ve been looking for something very specific in a sports bra: something that fits comfortably without chafing, provides adequate support, and dries quickly.  I have been fortunate in the first two categories, probably because I’m not all that busty anyway.  I find the under armor sports bras I’ve been wearing are just about right for me.  They come in different cup sizes and they have three different hook settings.

They have padding, which some of us object to. See Sam’s post on nipple phobia and padded sports bras. But I don’t object to a bit of padding. Except that it doesn’t dry really quickly. And after the triathlon swim, it’s not all that comfortable to do the bike then the run with a wet bra.

So I tried my other favourite, the Champion compression-style sports bra, in my last triathlon. I got a two-pack of these at Costco for under $20, and I I have found them surprisingly comfortable for my home workouts. They don’t have padding, but the compression gives enough support for me.  But when I swam with it in Kincardine, it didn’t even come close to drying.  In fact, I think the Under Armor bra does better on that front except for the padding.

But my bra woes are just a fraction of the complaints that are out there, and minor by comparison. An article this week says that 75% of women marathoners report problems with sports bra fit!  The top complaints are about chafing and discomfort from shoulder straps.

According to the article:

In a survey of women at the 2012 London Marathon, three-quarters said they have issues with how their sports bra fit.

In the new data from the survey, of the 1,285 women who responded, three-quarters reported problems with how their sports bras fit. Chafing and shoulder straps digging in were the most common complaints, with larger-breasted women more likely to report problems.

In the previous study, which we reported on last April, lead researcher Nicola Brown, Ph.D., and colleagues found that the incidence of breast pain among the women marathoners was high even though 91% of them regularly ran in a sports bra. Brown told Runner’s World Newswire that sport bras don’t offer enough options in shape and construction to match the variety of everyday bras.

“Bra manufacturers need to do more research and work closely with scientists and women to design bras which allow women of all shapes and sizes to lead active and healthy lifestyles,” Brown said.

This is a really demoralizing report.  As Sam asks on our FB page, do you think if 75% of men had a complaint about some basic piece of running gear there would not be a solution yet?

Someone commented on our FB page that it’s not surprising, given that most women wear poorly fitting bras most of the time. There just are limits to how comfortable a bra can be.  And when you want comfort in an everyday bra, you need to pay for it.

But for the most part, sports bras are not cheap. Though the Champion two-pack was a bargain for sure, the Under Armor bras that I use most of the time when I run are almost $70 each. If you look at what’s on offer in most running stores, you’ll find that most sports bras that come in cup sizes and are good quality are at least $60 and often more than that.

It’s sad to think that lack of adequate breast support could be something that drives women away from pursuing the activities they enjoy.  When 75% of marathoners are reporting problems, this signals that manufacturers of sports clothing need to pay more attention to the needs of women athletes.

If you have found a sports bra that is excellent and comfortable, especially for women who need more support, please share about it in the comments. Also, if it has these features and dries quickly, even better!

Last Flight of the Murder – a Roller Derby Love Story (Guest Post)

On Saturday, July 19, 2014, at the ripe old age of 43, I skated my last game as a roller derby competitor.

Rainbow Dragon and Wicked Pissah team up to slow down, Photo courtesy of Joe Mac, Midnight Matinee Photography.

JoeMac-RainbowWicked caption: Rainbow Dragon and Wicked Pissah team up to slow down Highland Dames jammer Viola Streak. Photo courtesy of Joe Mac, Midnight Matinee Photography.

I blogged last year about my early experiences with roller derby, from lacing up my skates and donning protective gear for my first practice to working with my league mates at Crow City Roller Girls to present the first ever roller derby game in Chatham, Ontario. These were good times in my life. I loved skating with Crow City, and my life was enriched greatly by the experience. But alas, the old adage proved to be true of my favourite sport: roller derby is a harsh mistress.

Training to play this sport is a huge commitment. Add to this the large amount of work—all of it voluntary—required to run a successful league and many skaters are forced to conclude there is not room enough in their life for roller derby. In a league the size of Crow City, with so few shoulders available to carry the load, this problem is magnified.

As other skaters left us, I took on more and more of the work of running the league. Nobody forced me to do this. I accepted every new responsibility willingly because I loved the sport and loved my league and wanted it to succeed. I took on too much. I soon discovered I was sacrificing far, far too much of the rest of my life to play roller derby. And I could not continue to make those sacrifices. I needed to make a change.

That change came on October 31, 2013 when I resigned my membership in Crow City Roller Girls. It was a difficult, painful step to take, knowing that in walking away I was hurting people I loved and exacerbating the very problem which had driven me out. It was a step I took with a heavy heart and only because it was my only viable choice.

Not wanting to give up roller derby entirely, I then transferred my membership to a much larger league in London, Ontario: Forest City Derby Girls.

I loved training with Forest City. I loved being able to simply show up to practice and participate in drills prepared by other people, no longer required to plan and lead the practices myself. I loved training with a league so large we were able to scrimmage in practice almost every week. And I loved training under the guidance of Forest City’s excellent trainers who gave freely of their own time and expertise to help me improve my game.

I remained diligent in my efforts to keep my participation in the work of running my new league under control. Many hands make light work, and the size of Forest City enabled me to succeed in this regard. Commuting over 100km to attend twice weekly practices, however, proved to be too costly for me in both money and time (and this before I factored in the costs of travelling to away games). Six months after my transfer to Forest City Derby Girls I once again found myself searching for a new way to keep my involvement in roller derby alive.

Several members of the derby community had suggested refereeing to me in the past. They thought I would make a good “zebra” because I’ve always had a strong understanding of the many and often complex rules of our sport and I certainly possess the endurance required for the role. (Referees skate every jam.) I’d rejected these suggestions in the past because I was under no delusions that the role of roller derby referee is easy. It’s one thing to know the rules. It’s another entirely to be able to see them in action and read points and penalties on the fly as a fast-moving pack of skaters jockey for position on the track. I was already giving everything I could to the task of learning to be a better roller derby player. I knew I could not excel at both playing and reffing. But if I gave up playing roller derby? Could I develop the skills necessary to become a great referee then? Once again I needed to make a change. So I exchanged my rainbow stripes for black & white and decided to give it a try.

Southern Ontario is a great place to be a roller derby referee. We have many leagues who need officials for their games and many experienced and talented refs already in the area, willing and able to help train the next generation of zebras. I made the decision to join the zebra dazzle on May 3rd and reffed my first game on the 24th of the same month. Since that date, my officiating schedule quickly filled up, giving me opportunities to skate with many fine ref crews while still maintaining a travel schedule I could afford. My decision to join team zebra enabled me to keep skating, remain involved in a sport I love, and find that elusive but much-needed derby/life balance. It also sent me back to The Fresh and the Furious.

The Fresh and the Furious is a tournament for new skaters hosted by the GTA Rollergirls in Toronto, Ontario. I competed in The Fresh and the Furious IV in 2013 as part of Crow City Roller Girls’ tiny team of seven skaters. People thought we were crazy to skate with such a small roster, but my first year at Fresh was a wonderful experience I will always cherish.

Skaters may only compete in The Fresh and the Furious once, but my switch to team zebra enabled me to return to the tournament this year, skating once again on a crew of seven but this time as part of the much larger team of skating and non-skating officials required to oversee a full-day, two-track tournament.

Fresh V took place on July 12, 2014—2 years to the day since I participated in my first ever roller derby practice. I could not have hoped for a better “derbyversary” gift. It was a privilege to be chosen to officiate this tournament and a joy to work with such a talented crew, skating six games together over the course of the day.

Rainbow Dragon celebrates her 2-year derbyversary with The Meatgrinders officiating crew at The Fresh and the Furious V.

Rainbow Dragon celebrates her 2-year derbyversary with The Meatgrinders officiating crew at The Fresh and the Furious V.

The Fresh and the Furious is designed primarily to provide tournament play experience and learning opportunities to first year skaters, but I learned a lot my second year at Fresh, both about my new role in roller derby and about myself. Most importantly: I learned that I love refereeing every bit as much as I loved playing roller derby. Two years into my roller derby career the zebra’s stripes are feeling comfortable on this dragon’s skin and my future looks bright. Roller derby may be a harsh mistress, but I love her still.

Which brings us back to this past weekend and my final game as a roller derby competitor.

When I made the decision to become a referee I contacted the roller derby leagues closest to me to let them know I am reffing now and to ask them to keep me in mind when staffing their skating official crews. Of course my contact list included the league which birthed me into the world of roller derby: Crow City Roller Girls.

Alas, when I contacted Crow City they informed me that I would not have the opportunity to ref any CCRG home games. The remaining members of the league had been forced into the same decision I’d had to make last October: they could no longer sustain such a tiny league. Crow City would have no more home games. The league was folding. They did, however, have one final away game to play. Crow City Roller Girls invited me to join them for that final game, not as an official, but for one final time as a member of the team.

The location was far away. The timing was bad for some very big reasons. And I’d given up playing roller derby. I was a ref now. But how could I refuse to skate in the last flight of the murder?

Crow City’s final game would feature my former teammates Wicked Pissah and Abstract LabRat—derby sisters who’d gone through fresh meat training with me—as well as, of course, Greta Garbage—Crow City’s founder and the woman who introduced us all to roller derby. Skating alongside them would be Kara Scene—my own fresh meat who I’d helped train back when I was still leading practices for CCRG—and guest skater Ginsane Bruiser—the woman responsible for introducing Greta to roller derby. Four generations of skaters all on the track together, and I’d been invited to be a part of it!

Of course I said yes. Of course I, once again, asked everything else in my life to make sacrifices so I could play roller derby. Of course I joined additional guest skaters from Tri-City and Los Coños: Stacie Jones, REZISTA, Lalie Deadman, Reckless Rabbit and Amy Feral Foul-Her in filling out the Crow City ranks. Of course I made the trek to Alliston with this team, our bench staff Sweet Mother of Quad and Cruella DeKill—another freshie I’d helped to train—and Kozmic Khaos—yet another of my freshies, passed her minimums but sadly sidelined with a (non-derby) injury—who came to cheer us on from the suicide seats.

As much as Fresh V was a wonderful derbyversary gift, Crow City’s final game was an even greater retirement party. Everything about this game, from the coming together of our own team to the skill and sportswomanship of our opponents, Grey Bruce Roller Derby’s Highland Dames, from the hospitality of our hosts, Misfit Militia to the dedication of the referees, NSO’s, paramedics, announcers, photographers and bout production volunteers who worked a long night to make our game possible epitomized the very best of what roller derby can be.

Last Flight of the Murder: Crow City Roller Girls vs. Grey Bruce Highland Dames, Alliston Memorial Arena.  Photo courtesy of Joe Mac, Mignight Matinee Photography.

Last Flight of the Murder: Crow City Roller Girls vs. Grey Bruce Highland Dames, Alliston Memorial Arena. Photo courtesy of Joe Mac, Midnight Matinee Photography.

We had so much fun Saturday night, even the rain decided to get in on the action. By halftime the roof was leaking—right over the jammer line—forcing our NSO’s to run out onto the track before every jam to mop up the water and keep the track safe for us. It seemed a fitting send off for a league which trained outside in a parking lot.

I am so thankful for the opportunity to have been a part of Crow City Roller Girls’ final game. I skated every other jam, slapped the old star target on my helmet several times, and yet made it through the game without injury and (my new zebra teammates will be glad to know) without a penalty. I think, however, my proudest moment in the game came when I was blocking for rookie jammer Kara Scene. I managed to make a hole for her right at the jam start whistle, and Kara saw it, took it and earned a fast lead. Watch out derby world. You’ll be seeing a lot of Kara Scene’s backside as she blazes through your packs in the years ahead.

Alas, all things must come to an end, and the final whistle blew on the last flight of the murder all too soon. I weep at having to say goodbye a second and now final time to a league which gave so much to me and to which I gave so much of myself. But my sorrow is tempered with pride for everything the league accomplished in its two short years and comfort in the knowledge that Crow City’s legacy lives on. It lives on in every game I officiate. It lives on in the future derby careers of former league-mates who will move on to skate for new leagues. I think too it lives on in the lives of those who flew with us for a short while but ultimately decided there was not room in their lives, at least for now, for roller derby. This sport affects everyone it touches in ways big and small, and there are many—including myself—who might never have known the wonders of roller derby if not for Crow City Roller Girls.

All my love, respect and gratitude to the best murder of crows ever. We did good my friends. We did damned good.

The very best murder of crows: Crow City Roller Girls.

The very best murder of crows: Crow City Roller Girls.

Laura Rainbow Dragon writes, dances, cooks, runs, and makes wine–amongst other pursuits–in a way-too-small town in Southwestern Ontario. She skates with the zebra dazzle and officiates roller derby games throughout Southern Ontario. Laura has moved house far too often but found a home she loves in the roller derby community.