Epic Ride and Some Reflections on Learning to Like the Bike

Regular readers of the blog will know that I LOVE triathlon. I find challenge in the variety offered by swim, bike, run events.  But I don’t like all parts equally. I’m strongest in the swim and I always feel good in the water.  My running has shown steady improvement and I like the feeling of exertion I get from running.

The bike. Not so much. I’m over the whole fear of clipless pedals thing.  That was last year. This year, it’s different. First, I’m much slower than average on the bike. Despite my riding friends telling me I’ll one day be fast (because I’m so small, apparently), I’m not getting any faster.

To be fair, this is because I’m not getting out a lot on the road bike.  And I’m not getting out a lot on the road bike because…well…I really don’t enjoy it all that much. Take this past Sunday as an example.

Sam rides with a group of close friends a lot and often invites me to join the on rides. For this or that reason, I haven’t been able to go very often this summer.  But when she said they were riding to Port Stanley on Sunday, I reluctantly accepted.

I felt reluctant because (1) I had just raced on Saturday, (2) Port Stanley is a long way from London and (3) all of the people going are very experienced cyclists.  I decided to go because (1) the race on Saturday was short — I finished in just over an hour, (2) Samantha estimated 45 km in each direction and her friend, David, said that he’d worried the same on his first trip to PS and after they stopped there for lunch he felt fresh as a daisy, ready for the ride back, and (3) who better to learn from than experienced cyclists.

But the fourth reason I accepted is that I felt I should.  What that means is that in fact I didn’t really want to.  The morning of the ride I hoped for rain.  At breakfast, I told Renald that I wished I hadn’t agreed to go.  The furthest I’d ever ridden in one day before was 55 km and it just about did me in. See my post about suffering for an account of that November ride. 90 km seemed awfully ambitious.

But I jumped on the bike and rode down to Sam’s place for our 11 a.m. meeting time (pushed from 10 to 11 because of the weather forecast). We were riding with her partner Jeff (fresh off of their cycling vacation around Manitoulin), randonneur extraordanaire Dave (who just recently completed Devil’s Week), and her touring friend David (who is doing the Friends for Life rally from Toronto to Montreal with Sam later this month).  And me–furthest ride ever: 55 km and hated 30 km of it.

So off we went. The weather stayed warm and dry all day, so at least we didn’t have rain to contend with. It’s windy around here as a rule, so there were some headwinds, cross breezes, and tailwinds, but nothing too dramatic.

Jeff was most committed to getting me to ride close to them and learn to take advantage of drafting.  I managed to find the zone a few times that day, especially on the way home when we did the ‘chariot’ thing, where two of them rode in front with me just behind them, Jeff just to my one side, and Sam just behind. For about half an hour, or maybe an hour, on the way home, with that arrangement, I got a sense of what might be attractive about road biking in groups as we talked and rode and the time passed effortlessly.

The way to Port Stanley takes us through lots of rural areas with good roads and almost no traffic.  At one point, we rounded a corner into a tail wind and they all encouraged me to go into the big gear on the front and back and try to hit 40 km per hour. My first attempt I made it to 36 and then pulled back, saying “I can’t!” Then (and I guess this is what it means to ride with the boys) they sort of shamed me into trying again.  I did, and I did it! Yes, it felt good.

At one point, about 45 km into the trip, Sam said we were just about 3 km from Port Stanley. This was good because I felt tired, ready to rest, tired of holding everyone up, unable to keep up with the group. I had been told to holler “ease up” when I felt myself falling  behind. But since that feeling was more or less constant, I didn’t do it every single time.

Shortly after everyone said we were “almost there,” I saw a sign saying “Port Stanley 9 km.”  At that point my heart kind of sank and I felt totally demoralized.  But what are you going to do when you’re out on the road and not there yet? I kept pedaling. Never had I been so happy to see the town of Port Stanley, a lovely little place on the shore of Lake Erie. In the end, the way there was 55 km.

We stopped at Roxy’s for lunch, taking about an hour to eat and regroup.  I truly wished I had a car waiting for me to take me back home.  The thought of riding 55 km back to London was sort of emotionally crushing already at that point, but I didn’t see the merits of sharing that attitude with anyone at the time.

The more immediate thing to deal with was a steep winding hill that we needed to climb to get out of town. They all shot up it and disappeared over the crest while I bottomed out to my lowest gear and then recited “you can do it, you can do it” over and over again, grinding my way to the top at 5 km per hour.  Made it.

The way home was hard. The chariot, when it held, was excellent. But for the most part I had difficulty keeping up with the group. By the halfway point I could hardly keep pedaling. I just wanted to stop at the side of the road and crawl into a field of corn and rest. Later, Sam said that everyone has felt like that at some point — like they wished for a support van to swoop them up and take them home.

Dave told me the next day of a story (legend?) where a guy stopped in a used car lot, bought a vehicle, and threw his bike in the back and drove off.

A few times on the way home we stopped under the shade of trees at the side of the road to rest and drink water and eat some food.  But they all seemed so refreshed after that! And I could hardly face the bike.

Anyway, as both Davids reminded me throughout the day: after this you’ll be able to say “I did it!”

Though it’s true there is no one better to learn from than experienced cyclists, it’s also true that there is no way to feel more inadequate than to be the one everyone is waiting for for the entire day.  I was last up every hill (though I did make it up all of them). I didn’t want to reach for water because it would slow me down. While everyone else seemed to be a on a leisurely ride, biking alongside each other and chatting away about all sorts of things, I had to keep all my energy on the riding itself. On the way home, there were those times when I absolutely had to stop and they could have kept going, no problem.

As Sam said, there are no perfect groups. Jeff wanted us to ride closer together. Dave of Devil’s Week would have liked to go further. David would have liked to ride faster. Sam is the most flexible, and also the one who cares the most (no offence against the guys) that I start to enjoy riding.

I’m going to train with the triathlon group for the rest of the summer and see how that goes. Triathletes don’t ride as close together (because you’re not allowed to draft) and the strategy might be different (I’m not sure–haven’t trained with them yet).  So the contrast will be interesting.

Meanwhile, I think I can safely say that I’m not in love with road biking.  It stresses me out and makes me feel as if I’d rather be doing something else.  I agree that I need to log the kilometres to gain comfort and speed.  And at the same time, I feel as if perhaps increasing my mileage too dramatically at once (by double) might not be the best approach.  I would rather enjoy what I’m doing while I’m doing it than enjoy “having done” it.

But, Port Stanley and back (110 km):  I did it!  I have surpassed the “metric century” milestone.


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