Will Tracy Find a Healthy Balance between Bike Fear and Debilitating Anxiety?

We’re just a few months away from on the road bike season, where I need to venture out of the safe cocoon of basement training sessions onto the actual road. Yes, the road that defeated me last summer when debilitating fear kept me off the bike pretty much all season except during actual races.

Since I’m totally public about my bike fear, I get a lot of people trying to help me with it in different kinds of ways (mostly pep talks). Sam sent me this link the other day, to an article that’s an interview with cyclist Evelyn Stevens, where she talks about anxiety versus fear. Hers comes up when she’s doing a fast descent in a peloton, so it’s not quite the same as mine, but here’s what she says:

You need fear, but not anxiety. For example, if you’re on a hike, and you see a rattlesnake come out at you, you need fear to get out of the way. But you don’t need anxiety to tell you ‘I’m not going to walk in the woods ever again’.

I think it’s safe to say: I have both. It’s normal to have a healthy fear of cars (I think). I had it when I rode a motorcycle for a few years and they teach you to keep it with you. It makes you stay alert, practice your handling skills and safety habits (shoulder check!), and ride defensively. I get that. I have applied a similar strategy to road biking.

It’s the anxiety that gets to me though. My motorbike anxiety was just starting to subside when, riding together with a group on a road trip in the US, my brother-in-law had a horrible accident just outside of Lake Placid. I remember being in shock as we waited to see if he would live. And we had to ride our bikes from one hospital to another over an hour away in the pouring rain.

Anxiety kicked in after that trip. I basically didn’t want to ride anymore.

So with cycling, as soon as I start to think, “maybe I can do this,” I hear about something awful. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to the radio one morning as I always do, and they interviewed a young woman from Blythe who was a former triathlete who was now paralyzed because she got hit by a car when she was training on her bike on country roads.

Accidents do happen. And you don’t know who they’re going to happen to, right? I feel like every trip out on a country road is playing the odds. I think that’s anxiety, not fear, right? I mean, you could say the same about driving, but I don’t let it stop me. Or about walking (Sam likes to point out to me the stats about pedestrian deaths).

I don’t know what the summer is going to bring. Right now, I want to try. But I wanted to try last year this time as well. In the end, it didn’t happen. I rode to work on my commuter bike most days, but I struggled with mounting panic every time I thought about going out on the road bike.

Here is my dream bike path – stretch of highway in Germany that’s dedicated to bike traffic only. Look Ma, no cars!


I’m open to pep talks! If you have overcome bike anxiety and have a strategy to share with me, fire away!

33 thoughts on “Will Tracy Find a Healthy Balance between Bike Fear and Debilitating Anxiety?

  1. GAH. I hear you. I’ve just decided that my anxiety is going to be part of my cycling. It’s not part of running or swimming or walking.
    I’ve given myself permission to freak out a bit. I figure if I keep letting the feelings out they will eventually subside. Also we should ride together so I can cry on the side of the road with company 😉

    1. Yes to riding together and yes to crying together by the side of the road. I don’t understand why people don’t do more of that.

      1. Beside cycling doesn’t make me want to cry? But yes, cry all the tears if you need to, if it helps.

  2. When I first returned to cycling after my concussion accident last year…it was 6 months before I remounted on bike. It wasn’t even fear, it was balance matters. But I did prefer not to cycle with pedestrians and other cyclists around me. I’m still abit like this.

    I’ve designed a lot of my regular routes about 75% or more in separated bike lanes, bike-ped paths and signed bike routes for the 3 different cities where I’ve lived. I have fallen …9 times off bike..on ice on a bike path and 2 of those times on quiet residential street with no car around.

    I’m a bit puzzled why one needs to measure cycling competence by being on a road bike which presumably is dropped handlebars. I haven’t cycled on dropped handlebars…and I’ve been cycling, including cycle touring with my stuffed panniers for past few decades.

    I suppose it’s with other cycling friends and to keep up with them?

    My greatest fears is actually distracted car drivers with their cellphones, etc.

    Don’t blame yourself otherwise it doesn’t help enjoy cycling. Enjoying cycling is absolutely the first priority and do anything to sustain this.

    1. Thanks for this Jean. I’m very comfortable on the commuter bike but if I want to keep doing triathlon then I need to train faster, for longer distances. Hence the road bike.

      1. My best wishes Tracy, for good cycling that’s enjoyable and good workout. I’ve never competed and have no interest, so am different. I’ve had some cyclists pass by me, less than 6 inches away from me within the last 4 months in a separated bike lane. To me, that’s not pleasant. So I could never ride in a peleton or do drafting.

  3. I have a weird form of anxiety that kicks in when I’m tired on a ride that I won’t be able to unclick and that I will fall in front of a truck and die. It is such a profound fear that there are times in the end of a longer training ride where I am 100% fixated on it and I keep cycling the catastrophic image over and over. It contributes sometimes to stupid practices, like loosening the connection on my right pedal to the point where it actually becomes dangerous.

    I say all of that because I’ve been able to actually just step in and be okay with it. Remembering that the times I have fallen because of clips it’s just been a bruise or embarrassment. Remembering that I actually know how to do this. It’s maybe the most intense mental discipline I have on the bike — more than hard uphills or focused downhills — forcing myself to envision ease of movement, graceful drafting, being in tandem with the cars and trucks that don’t honour bikes. I envision myself a fish in a school, effortlessly moving in and around obstacles and always floating.

    That sounds insane to type it out but it calms me down.

    1. It’s interesting that we all have different things we fixate on. I don’t worry too much about clipping out but I can’t let go of the thought that I’ll be hit from behind.

  4. Also I did a 5 day trip on that road in Germany two years ago on a loaded rented crap bike with about 5 gears. I didn’t even wear a helmet most of the time. It was absolute bliss.

  5. When I was learning to ride a road bike, I fell down a lot. I never really got hurt, but it did HURT, and I managed to work up a good head of anxiety/fear around cycling and falling. I felt really bad about it, and tried to “get over it”. To force myself to confront the fear and “push through it.” (These were the most common suggestions I got.)

    Eventually a triathlete friend said something that was actually useful. He suggested that instead of worrying about getting over the fear, that I examine the fear and re-brand it. Let’s say I’m descending, and I start to think I’m going too fast, and I could fall, and get hurt. Traditional logic says keep going, push through the fear, and I’ll get used to it and next time won’t be so scary. He pointed out that fear can be irrational, or totally rational. Fear can be the voice or your instinct saying “Hey, I lack the experience or ability to descend this fast. Slow down until I’ve got more skills.”

    Once I started thinking of the fear as the voice of my instinct – and respecting what it was telling me, things got better quickly. I slowed down. I didn’t try to keep up with other people. I didn’t corner the way they did. Sometimes I braked all the way down a hill. Other times I walked up them. I built skills, and what made me anxious as a cyclist changed. (I’m still sort of neurotic, but… well. That’s just me. Why fight it?)

    1. Sounds sensible. I haven’t really touched on the anxiety of ‘keeping up,’ which I also experience. This is super helpful. Thank you.

  6. I wish I had more of a pep talk for you other than saying that I feel like your anxiety is justified. There are a lot of people out there who don’t care about cyclists and think we shouldn’t be on the road. I try to use the mindset that it’s their problem and not mine.

    Last summer my car was broken down on “library day”. So as not to disappoint my kids, I loaded them up in the bike trailer and made the trek to the library. There is one small stretch of our trip where I had to ride on a main road (about 2 blocks distance), but I was okay with it. I was using the mountain bike to pull them and that meant I could ride partly off the road. My kids were not scared until our ride home when we got off the road at a stop light and waited to cross. A pick up truck pulled up and a man got out and started yelling at me for endangering my children and how I had no sense to be pulling them behind me in this town. He got up next to me waving his arms and shouting about me being a bad mother and crazy and the lot. His problem…..not mine. If he were a courteous driver and conscious of cyclists on the road, if there were more people paying attention to the fact that we are allowed to share the road, then maybe we wouldn’t have fear nor anxiety about riding.

    Honestly, he was the worst part of the ride for me….and my children. Thank goodness for green lights and powerful legs. I stood up on that bike and rode my visibly terrified children right out of there.

  7. You know I totally feel you on this like a million percent, and I can’t blame you for having anxiety about it! I do most of my outdoor riding on recreational trails instead of roads, although that will likely change in the coming year as I get into training for my ironman and I know I’ll be disinclined to ride up and down the same 30-mile stretch over and over again.

    ANYWAY, something I keep in mind is that driving is a thing most of us do on a regular basis that can maim or kill us. We all know someone who has been injured or killed in a car crash – I myself know several. Yet we do it every day. We take precautions to limit the risk, things like not texting while driving, driving defensively, exercising greater caution during inclement weather, etc., but the fact remains that there’s always a risk, as we can’t control for everything, like drunk or distracted drivers or maybe even an error in judgment. (One of the things I do every day is write news reports about fatal crashes using official crash reports from the FHP, and it is sobering to see how many of them result from a momentary lapse in judgment.) And yet despite all this, we do it anyway. Why? Because we’ve decided it’s worth the risk, and we feel confident in the measures we’ve taken to mitigate the risk.

    And here’s the other thing – and I made this point to a coworker yesterday who was fretting about sending her baby to daycare after reading a story about a daycare worker charged with abuse – the stories that make the news are making the news precisely because they are out of the ordinary. For every triathlete who is paralyzed by a bike crash, there are hundreds – if not thousands – who ride their bikes all the time without anything worse than a zero-speed spill. But no one wants to read about that! This is one of the things that I inherently dislike about my industry, which is that by its very nature portrays a skewed version of the world that amplifies dangers and risks in a way that is out of proportion to ACTUAL dangers and risks. Its why you get people who are terrified of dying in a terrorist attack but don’t seem to think twice about smoking cigarettes or texting while driving.

    A lot of other people have mentioned some good tips in the comments, but I figured I’d offer my perspective as a triathlete who works in news media.

    1. What a horrible experience. The ability to share the road is what I find so great about Europe. So much more bike friendly because bikes aren’t unusual.

    2. Your perspective as a journalist makes sense. I know I risk my life daily driving and don’t feel debilitating fear. Just today I spent a few hours on the highway and the thought of flying transport tires just crossed my mind a couple of times. I’m not at all a nervous driver. I like your point about the media focus on disasters. Obviously we can’t avoid everything, but the vast majority of people live through car trips and bike rides and walking on the side walk. But not everyone. We had a student walking on the sidewalk on campus killed by a drunk driver in the fall. But people (including me) still walk on the sidewalk without being in a fit of panic. So no one can promise that I’ll be fine, but the odds are in my (and everyone’s) favour.

      1. I wish I could promise everyone would be fine, but shit does happen. I just think it’s good to make an effort to not be paralyzed by that fact, especially since even hermetically sealing yourself in your house doesn’t prevent all risk. Just ask all the people who’ve died after falling down stairs. 🙁

        Of course that doesn’t mean you have to ride bikes. I just think it’s, like, a good general rule of thumb for life.

  8. Sometimes the car strategy works the other way for me! I’m much more nervous in the car than I am on my bike.

    1. I get pretty nervous in the car too. I just can’t believe how casually so many people take driving. Whenever I see someone with their phone in front of their face as they drive, I always want to take their phones from them and throw them at their heads.

      1. Well and we’ve had a bunch of high way deaths here from flying tires coming across the divider and schmucking people. There’s nothing you can do to prevent that. But I still drive. I’m just not very relaxed or happy about it.

  9. Well, I honestly mostly try not to think about it. But one thing that somewhat helps is that only 20% of vehicle-bicycle accidents happen because a car comes up behind a bike and hits them. Generally they all happen in intersections.

    Also, I try to remember that per km traveled, a bike is usually safer than a car. I think it’s just that our mortality is much more apparent on a bike than in a 1500lb (or whatever) car.

    I also certainly feel safer in a group than solo (even though most of my training has to be done solo for effectiveness). So I’d be focusing on big group rides. Car accidents in group rides are extremely rare.

    1. This is true. We unfortunately had a very horrible accident here where a truck hit a group of cyclists and killed one of them, seriously injured several. It happened shortly after I got to London 23 years ago and two of my colleagues were involved. So that hasn’t helped!

  10. I felt so much better in an “i’m not alone’ kind of way reading this… I am a beginner triathlete (from a runner) and I can’t get my head to love cycling… I WANT to love it, but I just don’t get to ever relax and enjoy it like I do when I’m running. Funnily enough I have been hit by a car when running but it’s only that one intersection that makes me anxious!

  11. I just read a terrific passage in Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Big Magic that might help — she acknowledges her fears and anxiety and has a little “talk” with them when she’s starting out on something. She says something like, “Hey, my goals and I are going for a ride and we know you’ll come along. We all have a job to do and you do yours really well, but here’s the deal: you are welcome to come, but you don’t make any of the decisions, you don’t decide where and how we go, or what we do…but come along, we know you will.”

    Sounds trite, I know, but I actually think that addressing anxiety (literally!) helps keep it in proportion. Worth a try anyway…

    Great blog, thank you for sharing!

  12. I’ve been off line all day but wow! Thank you everyone for your comments, encouragement, and reassurances that I’m not alone!

  13. Hi Tracy; I also have fears of being hit by a car. They are not unfounded fears. In our London Centennial Wheelers club, we have had 3 cyclists hit by cars from behind and killed. In the most recent accident, the pack was hit, and other riders also suffered life changing injuries. I was an active cyclist in my teens and twenties, then got busy with life. Two of those collisions happened during the period while I was not riding.

    When I decided that I wanted to start doing duathlons in my 40s, I had to address my fears. I do so by mitigating the risk by doing the following (in no particular order). Even during the summer, I still do at least one ride per week indoors on my trainer. I never ride on busy city roads like Oxford or Richmond, as some do. Where there are bike paths alongside busy roads, such as Wonderland, I use them (not everyone will). When I want to do an outdoor 1.5 hr ride easy-ish ride, I will start in NW London and ride the paths all the way to Meadowlilly in Pond Mills and back (again, not everyone will ride on these paths as you have to slow down in the crowded parts downtown). If I am doing a group ride, I find out where they are riding. If it includes stretches on busy country highways, I will not go on that ride, despite prodding. I will only ride with groups I trust to ride in straight lines, on country roads I am comfortable on. I will not ride later in the day when the sun is at a steep angle, making me less visible to drivers. I try to always ride in high visibility colours. During the summer, one of my training rides is usually a time trial. The drivers will see all of us strung out along the road, which I feel gives them a heads-up to watch out for us. I feel pretty safe on those, despite one of our club members being hit by a car pulling out from a stop sign several summers ago. That is one occurrence in over 45 years of club time trials.

    Finally, there is a bit of a need to embrace the love of cycling more than the fear of being hit. I have my will and my power of attorneys in place. I know that my teens are well on their way in life and I know people would step in to help my husband raise them if I were not around. Same with my relatives for whom I have caregiving responsibility.

    I was very nervous the first year I resumed riding, but the more I rode, the less I feared…. the concept of walking towards the thing you fear, as opposed to avoiding it.

    1. Thanks, Cathy. I love these concrete suggestions. I am well aware of the LCW deaths and injuries, which is part of my problem. I appreciate your input and I hope incorporating some of these into my summer training will help.

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