Facing Fears of the Group Ride—One Cyclist’s Saga (Guest post)

Last weekend I went on my first long group bike ride in more than a year.  This is odd because I’m an avid cyclist, in a Boston cycling club (Northeast Bike Club), have raced on road, cyclocross and mountain bikes, own very many bikes (the exact number is available on a need-to-know basis), and am pathologically sociable (in a good way).   So why haven’t I been riding with groups?  Here’s why:

Fear sucks.  Fear sucks the joy out of activity.  Fear sucks away our energy.  Fear causes us to question ourselves.  Fear keeps us from doing what we want, what we can, and what we ought to do.  Fear kept me from group riding in the past year.  What was I afraid of?

1) I’m too slow to ride with other people

Cyclists think they are too slow in the same way that academics think that their articles/books/dissertations are crap.  Everyone thinks it, but it’s not based in reality.  Of course, maybe that paper really does need a major revision, and maybe you haven’t been riding much or you’re recovering from an injury or a period of overwork or a family crisis.  That’s not the point.  The point is this:  even though it’s painful to hand over that draft to someone for comments, it is one of the best ways to improve it.  Riding with others does reveal your strengths and weaknesses, but it is a great way to get feedback, support, fun, and a workout. Fear of being too slow is not a reason not to ride with others, it is a reason TO ride with others.

2) I simply won’t be able to do it

In this frame of mind, I think to myself… What?  I’ll be stuck crying on the side of the road? I’ll spontaneously combust? (insert your favorite irrational worry here.)  The activity at hand (50-mile road ride, 3–4 hour mountain bike ride, day-long tourist vacation bike jaunt) can seem too big or too hard to manage.  Again, academics often have this problem at the start of a project.  Keeping the focus narrow, breaking things down into manageable chunks, thinking about pedaling to the signpost at the crest of the hill in front of you— these are ways to stay in the moment.  And in the moment, nothing much is happening other than turning those cranks, which is sometimes heavenly, sometimes hard, and sometimes ho-hum (like life).

3) What will happen if everyone is way faster than me?

This is easy—one of two things will happen:  1) people will slow down to accommodate the slowest rider.  Agreeing to a “no-drop” ride or regrouping at the top of hills is common in social and even training rides.  2) I might get dropped.  This is only really bad if I don’t know how to get back home.  GPS or an old-fashioned cue sheet can solve this problem.  And yes, it feels embarrassing, but happens to everyone.  It can even be a badge of honor (of sorts).

With these fears in mind but also with steely resolve (sort of), I drove out to western Massachusetts with my boyfriend Dan (also a cyclist), to meet bike racer friends Rachel and Ethan for two days of country-road, sometimes-hilly cycling.  We rode 50 miles the first day and 27 miles the second day.  It was fun, hard, sweaty, exhilarating, familiar, and intensely satisfying.  Here is what happened when I faced my fears.

1) In fact I was not too slow to ride with others.  True, I was the slowest rider of the group, but it was not a race—it was fun rides with friends.  I did experience frustration going up a few hard hills, but also the thrill of screaming downhill past my friends (yay gravity!).

2) The 50-mile ride was hard at times—although we didn’t take the hilliest route, there were some climbs.  One unfortunate climb was up a super-steep road that we had to do from a dead stop.  I ended up having to get off the bike and walk because I ran out of steam.  I had company on the walk up—a swarm of mosquitoes, happy that I was going slow, joined me along the way.  This was not a fun moment, but it passed.

About eight miles from the end of the first ride, I asked if we could stop for some iced tea; I was tired and wanted a little break before the last leg.  Guess what happened?  We stopped!  And it was the best iced tea ever—a mix of Earl Grey and black currant teas with an infusion of strawberries and blueberries.  Refreshed, the last miles were not bad at all.

The second day was harder because I was a bit tired from the previous day’s ride, and fear number two was looming large.  But I realized that I can ride when tired.  I’m strong, I love this sport, I enjoy being out with friends, and more fresh iced tea is never too far away (in this case, at a nice café in Easthampton, MA).

3) Everyone on that ride was faster than I am.  Sometimes I was last in line, sometimes we all rode together, and sometimes we split into two groups and the faster group waited for the slower one.  No biggie.

So how do I feel now?  Excited, still nervous about group rides, but filled with plans for more of them.  Last Tuesday I went on my bike club’s weekly Women’s Ride.  I was a ride leader for one of the beginner groups (12—15mph average for a 20-mile ride).  It was great to be back in a group of women in motion and feel that sense of belonging, of athletic identity.  I feel more like a cyclist than I have in a year.

Hmmm– maybe I should buy another bike…

Catherine Womack is a professor of philosophy at Bridgewater State University, south of Boston.  She works on issues at the intersection of ethics and epistemology, focusing on public health, food, choice, and public policy.  She has many bikes and loves to ride them.  She also plays squash when she can get a court and a partner.

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