Self-guided cycle touring:  10 Practical Tips

Yesterday I posted a bit of a summary about the 7 day bike trip I did last week from Riga to Tallinn, in Latvia/Estonia. Sam also posted my updates from every day on the trip as I did it. Today I wanted to just capture a few practical aspects of doing a self-guided, pre-planned trip on your own, based on my experiences and the way I personally like to travel.

1. Decide if you want to bring your bike or rent one. I don’t have the perfect bike for touring, so I have always rented. This takes care of the “what to do with the bike after you’re done riding” question, but also means you’re on a bit of an unknown quantity. I alleviate some of that by bringing my own seat, pedal and helmet.

2. Decide if you are willing to camp or not. Camping gives you more options for sleeping, but of course is its own logistical ball of worms. I’ve done it, but not alone. If you aren’t going to camp, consider booking accommodations in advance, especially in rural or busy areas. I had the company I rented the bike from book my accommodation, and I was very glad of it — there were at least two nights I wouldn’t have had a place to stay, otherwise. And even in places where there are more options, I personally don’t love arriving in a place at 3 or 4 in the afternoon and beginning the search for a place to sleep.

3. Get comfortable with basic bike mechanics. I am not great at bike repair, and that’s been one of the biggest reasons I have limited my cycle touring in the past. I did a fantastic one day hands on tutorial back in April, and I felt so much more relaxed because of it. I also brought my own tools. I didn’t end up having to use any of my knowledge except to slightly adjust my gear cable but I felt much better knowing I COULD if I had to. (I also did a wilderness first aid course, and ended up helping a woman in the airport who fell and hurt herself as I left). So yeah, prepared!

4. Test your panniers out at home. I bought new MEC 20L Aquanot panniers for this trip because I’d had trouble with the mounting hooks the last time I’d used my older ones for a longer trip. The mounts on these were super easy, and worked well. I chose these because they were also waterproof, but they didn’t squish down quite as much as I wanted them to. I would probably look for slightly smaller panniers next time to reduce the possibility of carrying too much. Which brings me to…

5. Seriously think through what you want to carry with you. I had more than I really wanted, especially shoes, because I had another week in Tallinn and St. Petersburg at the end of the trip. I also had a super heavy lock they gave me with the bike, and wished I’d brought my own lighter lock instead especially since I was in rural areas and almost every hotel had a place to leave my bike inside. I was too compliant to refuse this one when I got the bike, but wish I had — I also lost the only key, so it was a useless piece of heavy hardware in the end. I also chose to travel without any camera except my phone for the first time in 10 years, and it was freeing.

6. Assume it will be cold, and be pleasantly surprised. For someone who travels a lot, I have a weird inability to predict what clothes I’ll want when I’m packing. Layers are my friend. I start with cycling jerseys and shorts and work around that. This time I also had a tank jersey with a built in bra, a winter running shirt, a cycling waterproof coat, a wind jacket and a quilted vest. I wore every layer but the tank at various points. I also had a pair of soft pyjama-like yoga pants and my trusty keens sandals for off the bike and these have become my new traveling uniform.

7. Have access to data. I use the “roam like home” feature on my phone that gives me access to my home data plan while I’m in Europe or Asia for $10/day. This is invaluable to me for staying connected to people when I’m traveling alone and more important, for google maps. Which I needed almost every day at least once, especially to find hotels in cities.

8 Be willing to get a little lost. The bike tour company gave me really good, clear trip notes, along with good maps. There are cycling routes (though not designated cycling trails) all across the Baltics, and they are reasonably well signed. But landmarks and roads and construction change, and pretty much every day I ended up using a combination of the trip notes, paper maps and google maps to find my way. It was particularly important for me to let go of the idea that the mileage number on my bike computer should be completely aligned with the trip notes, because there were variances. I had to let go of feeling like I was following the instructions “step by step” and learn to look around, figure out directions, and get a sense of where I was. (This was hardest in the towns!)

9. Let go of pre-conceived notions of speed. When I’m on my road bike, I average about 25 km/hour, more on a good day. A lot of the time with the weighted cross bike in a headwind, I was looking at something like 13 to 15 km/hour. This can play head games with me and I feel like I’m falling behind or push myself too hard. I needed the computer to be able to roughly match up distance with maps, but I stopped paying attention to anything but indicators of how far I was in my day’s journey.

10. Clipping in helps. I’ve documented many times before how I’ve stupidly tried to use my road bike cleats on tours (spoiler alert: they don’t work for rough terrain when you need to be able to pedal unclipped sometimes), and I finally invested in a not-pricey pair of mountain biking shoes with spd clips. I have two sets of spd pedals that flip to flat sides, and I tested out both before I left. I had some anxiety about clipping in with a loaded bike, and I find spds harder to scoot in and out of than my cleats, but they worked great. On the third day, I lost a screw out of one of the spds, and happened to be in one of the only towns where I could replace them. I liked the new ones so much better that I replaced the other one as well. I was very grateful for the way the weight transfers with clipped in shoes, especially in the wind.

Finally — and I can’t stress this enough — cheese sandwiches are your friend. Most of the places I was cycling, there was literally no place for lunch and rarely a food store. Most breakfasts were continental style, so I got in the habit of making a cheese sandwich on the EXCELLENT (I cannot stress enough how excellent) Baltic bread every day, and eating this at about the 30 km point in my ride, with dried apricots I’d brought from home. The food on my trip was fantastic, but lunch was not reliably available. I also brought some powerbar type snack thingies but something that felt like a real “lunch” was an important motivator for me.

So that’s my survival guide… what things do you find most helpful when cycle touring?


From Riga to Tallinn: Why I Chose a Self-Guided Cycle Tour

I just rode my bike from Riga (the truly lovely capital of Latvia) to Tallinn (the equally enchanting capital of Estonia). You can read about my actual journey last week (three links here, here and here) for all the emotional and experiential aspects of riding more than 500 km across the Baltics. It was a fantastic trip for me, challenging but just the right amount.

Following my trip, Catherine posted about how mine inspired her to do some touring of her own. Kim has also just finished riding her bike up and down many hills in Yorkshire and other parts of England. Sam, Sarah, Catherine and Joh are about to embark on the Friends for Life Bike Rally again. Jean and others have posted in the comments about their experiences cycle touring. These different conversations made me think about all of the different ways to ride bikes far, and why we do it.

There are dozens of different ways to do cycle touring, and different approaches fit different people, different climates and different countries. Over time, I’ve figured out that a hybrid of guided and hardcore improv is right for me.

I’m not the truly hardcore person who gets on bike in, say, Bangkok, with a tent, no plan and a couple of maps and rides for weeks. I’ve met those people — I admire those people — but I’m not one of them. But the more cycling I’ve done, the less inclined I am to also do a fully supported trip. I’ve done those in Vietnam, Laos and Sri Lanka, and had wonderful experiences — but these trips tend to have a bit more of a cultural aspect to them than I strictly want. That means, for example, there will be a visit to an historic site that means a 3 hour bus ride and little time on the bike that day, or they really want you to experience cities A and B so they build in a 2 hour bus transfer. Or suddenly you’ll find yourself in a cricket farm with a plateful of crickets and shots of rice wine. At 10 am. Not the mid-morning snack I want. On those trips, I also had a bit of an experience where the riders liked riding more than the guides did, which meant we were sometimes arguing for more time on the bike — which was odd for a cycling trip.

For me, guided trips are great for countries that are hard to navigate linguistically or in terms of terrain — and I’m sure I’ll do them again. I have my eye on a trip to Mongolia. But for places where maps and cycling trails are plenty and many people speak some English, I lean more and more to self-guided.

A few years ago, I did a completely unplanned trip in Bavaria with a couple of friends. We had one map, a few euros, a couple of tents and hired bicycles. Because one of my friends was living in Germany at the time and understood both the etiquette of camping there and could speak German, I felt comfortable pitching tents in random fields as needed, though I preferred campgrounds or guest houses for the showers. We had no plans, and no real destination — just five days to cycle. We took a train from Frankfurt to somewhere random to start, and at the end, got on another train. It was great.

I’ve realized that I really like the sensation of traveling fully from a set point to another point, seeing both the glorious and the mundane. My second last night on this recent trip was in a weary working town with only one utilitarian guesthouse hidding at the back of a soviet-era apartment block behind a steel door. I enjoyed this as much as the flourishing resort town the night before.

For this trip, I wanted something between the totally improv option and the thoroughly guided. I wanted a narrative-friendly route – a distinct from A to B that had some heft to it, I wanted to go to a couple of countries I’ve always wanted to see, and I wanted a trip with some weight to it that would make me feel like I’d had both an experience of seeing new places and also accomplishing something significant.

Enter Baltic Bike Tours. They do tons of guided trips, but also offer this self-guided option where they give you a decent bike, a route and a bunch of maps, and book places for you to stay. This was important to me, because Latvia and Estonia are very rural outside Riga and Tallinn, and I didn’t want to camp. It was important to me to have a destination I could predict with a bed at the end of it.

They offered the option of transferring my bags from place to place for me, noting the bags would be there by 5 or 6 every day, but I declined that for two reasons. I’ve done that before on point to point hiking trip, and I found it frustrating to not always have my bags there right when I arrived, especially if it was rainy and cold. (This also happened at the end of the Bike Rally last year, when I was running around an old convent in a towel looking for my bags).

More important, though, I wanted the sensation of having transported myself and all my necessary things fully on my own across more than 500 km. There is something really spiritually gratifying to me to be able to say that at 52, I have the capacity, the strength, the fortitude to propel myself and a loaded bike across a significant distance, by myself. Since I got on my first bike at the age of 8 and it became the way for me to explore by myself the towns near the one we lived in in Germany, my bike has been the most grounding place for me, the way to feel in harmony with the world around me. Sam posted a story the other day about a long-distance cyclist and why she likes to ride alone, and there were many echoes with what riding alone for me does. And for this trip, that meant being fully self-supported.

As I wrote in my daily posts, the ride was sometimes challenging, particularly with the wind and occasionally, with rain and confusing navigation. But it also brought me right to the edge of the sea, and past the intimate spaces of rural lanes, and the rhythms of mornings in small towns, and the kindness of people to fieldpoppies by the side of the road. And every day as I pulled into that night’s home, I felt a huge sense of myself at my best, the kind of inner affirmation that goes past words. Just me, exploring, finding, reaching.

Tomorrow I’ll post a bit about the practical side of doing this kind of trip.


Lies cyclists tell ourselves

Last Saturday’s ride was wet. Also plagued by flats, three of them, and I forgot to charge my electronic shifting so I spent the last 25 km in a single gear.

Luckily the shifters are designed to dump you into a nice middle of the road gear before giving out completely.

The ride was, however, completely redeemed by the wonderful company of Joh and Sarah. I love riding with Joh and Sarah.

Here we are!

Anyway, during the ride I got to thinking about cyclists and lies. Not the lies we tell non cyclists but rather the lies we tell ourselves.

The lies cyclists tell are rather notorious. See The lies cyclists tell in Canadian Cycling Magazine.

Here’s some that seem relevant to today’s ride:

The ride must start at 9

Reasoned completely a priori thusly. There’s an early start and a later start for bike rally rides. Long rides start early. It must be 9 and 10 am because that makes sense. So this is 103 km so we need to be there at 9. Except no. It’s 8 and 9 am. We need to be there at 8. It’s a half hour drive to the start. Whee! Zoom!

We’ll be back by noon

Every single group of cyclists has someone along who believes this. It doesn’t matter how far we’re riding or when we leave, we’ll be back by noon. Except it’s 103 km. At the sweeping pace that’s 5 hours riding. Plus stops for lunch etc. Leaving at 830 after the last rider. That’s never seen noon, as my father might say. More like mid-afternoon. More like 3 pm when everything is said and done.

It won’t rain on us

Yes there’s rain in the radar, all day, everywhere, but it’ll miss us. We won’t get wet. It felt good to say that, to think it. But it wasn’t true.

The wind will turn in our favour

We have a wicked wonderful tailwind on the trip out. I scored a bunch of personal bests on Strava segments I’d ridden before. None of it was my doing. Thank you wind. Sarah said she thought, or hoped, that the wind might turn and follow us home. But it never does. Or rather it only ever does if you have a headwind on the way out. Then the wind might turn and give you a headwind both ways.

Anyway, really it was a pretty good ride. Wind and rain and mechanical issues aside.

You can sponsor me in the bike rally here:

body image · cycling · fitness · holidays · traveling

Kim’s Tour de Yorkshire*

*… in which Kim is bested by some outrageous hills, but not broken in spirit.


(A mosaic of images from West Yorkshire: Kim’s bike, saddle first, with the moors in the distance; a road sign that says “that was so Hebden Bridge”; Kim and her bike in front of a stone wall that says “lane end”.)

Remember how I always go on about hills? How I like them and am good at them?

Into each one’s life…


(A road sign that says “Cragg Vale: longest continuous gradient in England. Rises 970 feet (295m) over five and a half miles (9km)”)

I spent the first 10 days of July in the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, famously home of the Bronte sisters, and the 2015 Tour de France Grand Depart, depending on your fetish. (Mine involves both – swoon.) There is tonnes to do in the pretty market town of Hebden Bridge, but my bike was with me so my first priority was the riding.

Here’s the thing about Yorkshire, though: it is a cycling Mecca (for mountain as much as for road riders) because the fine folk who built the lanes don’t believe in switchbacks.

If you’re going to do a road ride in the Calder, you need to be prepared to climb. Doesn’t matter what you do: there is ascent to be faced. I wanted, in particular, to partake of the fine views over the moors that make this part of the British Isles justly famous; that meant I really needed to be ready to get up off the saddle, early and often.

No problem! I thought. After all, I might not be a tiny cycling whippet, but I’m really good at that shit.

On my first day out, I chose a route (from the several on offer at the excellent Calder Valley Cycling website) that included a long, snaking climb with most gradients in the 5-10% range. That’s my preferred kind of climbing: you can sit and grind, and if, like me, your strengths lie with endurance sports, you’ll not max out and will really enjoy the challenge and the views. Although I won’t lie, I was nervous to start, I felt great throughout that climb as the sun broke through the clouds, and I was rewarded with some sloping descents and then a short punch up into the farm lanes above Sowerby and Mytholmroyd.


(Kim, in white cap and green helmet, smiles into the camera with green, sloping farmland in the background.)

As soon as I hit the lanes, though, I got my first taste of what was to come the rest of the week: narrow roads that don’t look like much to start, but wow, do they pack a punch, and sometimes when you least expect it.

Still, with the gorgeous views all around me and the happy feelings from the winding climb still in my arms and legs, I shoved my worry to the back of my brain. I took the set route’s lovely descent through Cragg Vale, the longest continuous climb in England, down toward Hebden, and then thought to myself: it’s cheating to go down but not up. So I turned around and did the climb (another happy, winding, mid-grade number), just to know that I could.

All in all, then, day one was terrific. But I knew it wouldn’t last.

My second ride out proved my rude awakening, though in a way I found really instructive: I learned a lot about myself as a cyclist that day.

I left in the early afternoon, and chose a short route with a big challenge: Cross Stone Road leaving Todmorden for more gorgeous views over the moors. The information online said the climb included a short punch of less than 1km followed by a longer, flat stretch, and then a steep but shortish kick up to the top. I reasoned that the word “short”, repeated a couple of times, meant I’d be fine.

Yup. Nope.

After missing my turn on the way into Todmorden and having to backtrack, I found myself on a steep but manageable residential road. I made the mistake of standing and pushing hard at this point, taking the “short” thing literally. Mistake number one! I found soon the road was not levelling, and I had to sit and push hard, breathing at my threshold, for a good 500m before the flat began. I heaved through the growing heat (Yorkshire is not hot, but sun plus no wind plus exertion is what it is), and prayed the second bit would hurt less.

Then the second bit heaved into view.

To say I was slow would be an understatement. The walker I clocked about 200m ahead of me as I began the punch ultimately beat me up the hill – though in my defence I had to stop twice: once to negotiate the single lane with a grocery van, and once just because I needed to cry a bit and ask god to save me. (I also needed to catch my breath: you can’t ride at VO2 max for as long as I was taking to get to the top, and not risk puking, which I did not want to do in full view of the confused sheep around me.) But I made it on two wheels: crying and praying or none, I refuse to walk any hill I’ve started on the bike.

I’m vain like that.

The rest of the ride was hard: I was spent from the climb. I got back to Todmorden, snapped some photos of the start of the climb to remind myself of the pain I’d endured, and home I went to eat.


(Kim’s grey and orange bike against a stone wall, with a prominent white road sign that says “cross stone road”.)

The rest of my Calder rides varied between these two poles: long, picturesque climbs I’d ride again and again, and short, painful bursts of 18-22% gradients that I was convinced I had to do in order to prove I could, but that made me hate myself, my bike, and the world for the 5-10 minutes required to finish them.

Over the week, I began to think I had hold of the wrong end of the saddle, so to speak.

My first clue came from Strava. I’m a Strava junkie, and I uploaded my rides immediately upon each return. The long climbs were full of riders, many of them pro or semi pro. (My proudest moment: learning I was 32 on the leader board for the climb up to Oxenhope, with the British cycling star Emma Pooley at number 6. Squee!)

But hardly anyone did the crazy steep climbs: I’d be among 300-400 riders on the winds, but maybe one of 20 on the punches. I scored 8th overall on the climb where I stopped twice, for heaven’s sake! I think there were 11 or 12 of us in all.

Then there was the part where I felt joyous and free on the winding climbs, but sick and demoralised on the punches. Where I wanted to climb more on the winds, but I wanted to stop, cry, and turn around on the punches.

I wouldn’t let myself stop, though, because I thought stopping meant failing. It hadn’t occurred to me that, since punching is not my strong suit, maybe I shouldn’t have attempted those routes. Maybe they were not fun – not even a fun challenge, just a terrible, unhappy slog.

I’m a big proponent of challenging myself in sport, but the challenge needs to be both challenging and, ultimately, rewarding. I did not feel rewarded on any of those little punches; I was just grumpy and out of breath. What good is that?

On the train back to London I thought about this. Why did I really want to conquer the brutal little hills, when I train best, get stronger faster, and feel more satisfied on longer climbs? Why did I care about 500m at 20%, when as a cyclist I’m best suited to 5km at 5-7%?

Sure, you could say all climbing is learning, and all learning good training.

Except: the more I pondered it, the more I realised it actually, for me, had to do with body image.

I am not small: I am 174cm tall and I weigh 77kg. It doesn’t matter much that my fat to muscle ratio is such that I’m technically athletic; that’s still a huge amount of weight to haul up the side of a cliff, on the vertical.

My strength profile means I can kill a shallow climb, but my body weight puts me at a significant disadvantage the steeper you get. And that’s fine: there are climbers and sprinters and all-rounders in the world of cycling as a norm.

But for a girl alive and well under patriarchy, being too heavy to climb a steep hill easily has other reverberations; it smacks of the whole body-mass-index culture that tells us to be teeny, already, or hate ourselves forever.

And readers of this blog all know where that kind of thinking leads.

(My body mass index makes me technically overweight, just as my muscle ratio makes me technically athletic. Thanks, stupid and ineffective measures!)

Through one lens, you could say I learned in Yorkshire that I’m too heavy to punch, and should admit defeat and move on.

Through another, you could say I learned that I’m fit and strong enough to rate in the top 10% or better on iconic climbs that the pros even find challenging.

That punching is not what I’m good at, and so I need not worry about punching just for the heck of it when I could be winding up a mountainside, happily, instead.

And that, hey: if the walker beats you to the top, maybe you should just walk, already, and save the bike for another stretch of road.



Dancing for your steps (and other ways to make up steps at the end of the day)

I’m on the sailboat visiting Renald this week and that means one of two things on any given day. Possibility 1: I’m out and about on land, covering lots of ground and hitting my step challenge target (if you’re wondering why I’ve got a target for daily steps, here’s the story of how FOMO got me to commit to another 100-day step challenge). Possibility 2: I’m boat bound (which is not always a bad thing in a general sense) and it’s tough even to get 5000 steps because everything I need is fewer than 20 steps away).

Sometimes there’s a mix of these two, where we go to shore but we park really close to where we plan to go. In any case, the upshot is this: it’s easy to get to the end of the day and fall short of my 13500 target (which I made a conscious choice to keep at this relatively low daily goal precisely because of the amount of time I spend on the boat each summer).

There are lots of ways to make up steps as the day comes to a close when you’re at home. You can go for a walk or a run later at night, for starters. I know quite a few people who do that. At the condo, I can even zip down to the treadmill if I like.

But my favourite way these days is to dance for those steps. It’s fun, easy to do anywhere (the other night I danced around my hotel room in Syracuse where I overnighted on my drive to Newport), and amazingly efficient at clocking up steps with the Pulse counter that I use (I’m not sure whether other gadgets count dancing).

Last night after Renald and I got back from the Jaws Summer Party (a live band followed by a screening of the original Jaws — so much fun), I was short a couple of thousand steps. “Let’s dance!” I said. And so for the next half an hour or so we took turns picking songs from Spotify and had a dance on board. It was a fun way to close out the night, dance with my partner who I don’t get to see all that often, and hit my step target.

At home I rarely have this issue. I’ve got my routines down and they include more than enough walking to surpass my daily goal, usually way before the end of the day. No last minute scrambles (or dances or walks around the block) needed.

As I said in response to Sam’s post yesterday about “Completism,” I lean in the “completist” direction. If I have a goal or target, I like to hit it. Like if we’re going running and we set out to do 10K, and we somehow get back to our starting point and we’re 0.3K short or something, I’ll drag you around the block. If my daily step target is 13500, I am not satisfied to go to bed with 13247.  So I like having ways of making up for missed steps before bedtime and dancing is a fabulous way.

How do you (or do you?) make up for shortfalls in your daily target at the end of the day?

fitness · You Ask

You Ask, Fit Feminists Answer: How do I learn to use clipless pedals?

This is the third in a new series where we answer readers’ questions. If you have questions send them our way, using the “contact us” form on the left hand side of the blog. I’ll forward them to the appropriate blogger. We’re not experts by any means but we do have a wealth of real world experience with many, many physical activities.

How do you learn to ride with clipless pedals? What’s your advice for someone switching from toe clips to clipless pedals and who is scared of falling? How did you learn? What worked? What didn’t?

Catherine: For me it was a three-fold process: I had to get comfortable clipping in and out, and then I did a little trial and error with different brand pedals. Finally, I learned how to set my pedals so that I could adjust the tension for easier clipping out (or more tightness when clipped in– these are useful under different conditions). Oh, and I did fall over a few times. It was mainly embarrassing, not painful or dangerous. It happens, and then it stops happening. Now I really enjoy the feeling of being clipped in, as it makes me pay more attention to my pedal stroke and I feel more one with the bike. Give it a try!

Tracy: I wrote a whole post about the painful way and the easy way (the easy way is: Ask Sam to teach you!):, p.s. the absolute key for me was learning to pedal with one foot and not to hurry. Once I had that, I could take my time and not panic. Note that after my first failed attempt to try it on my own I donned my armoured motorcycle jacket for my next attempt. Having the protection helped me not worry about falling. And in the end I didn’t fall anyway.

Kim: Like Tracy, I advocate the one foot approach. First, straddle your bike and practice clipping and unclipping with your dominant foot. Get the feel for the peddle: clipping in becomes muscle memory that way. Then roll along gently, getting purchase on the other pedal but not applying pressure; slow and steady is best. Don’t try to clip it in yet. When you feel comfortable, look down so you can see the peddle and clip. Push it right side up if needed with your foot, and feel around for the clip. Work on manoeuvring in, then out again. Repeat for a while. You will fall but you won’t hurt yourself if you are prepared! Long sleeves. Helmet. Move slowly, but not at a crawl.

Cate: Also ride someplace without a lot of traffic or stoplights while you practice so your stopping / starting is not filled with pressure. And make sure the bike isn’t too big or the seat set too high — my biggest crash was putting my own pedals that I was comfortable with on a rented bike and when I tried it out the seat was too high and I couldn’t easily unclip.

Sarah: As a notorious klutz and someone who usually takes much longer than the average person to learn new physical movements (dance? yoga? disaster!), I was really intimidated by “clipless” pedals – even the name seemed counterintuitive. So when I bought my sister’s old road bike during a knee-imposed hiatus from jogging, I knew I had to learn how to clip in and out before venturing onto Toronto’s busy streets. So, off I went to my apartment building’s parking garage.

First the DON’T. There is only one:

1) Don’t clip and unclip a couple of times on the flat, decide you’ve got the hang of it, and then try to bike up the super-steep parking garage ramp in high gear (more disaster!). Fortunately the only thing I hurt was my pride.

There a lots of DOs. They are more fun :

1) Figure out what kind of pedals you have and get the correct style of cleats installed on your bike shoes. Your local bike shop or knowledgeable friends should help with this! Look at your cleats : if they are a small metal thing (SPD), you clip in by stomping (on the correct side) of the pedal, if they are a larger plastic thing with a little tongue at the front (one of the “road bike” systems), that tongue hooks under the loop at the front of the pedal before you stomp down. Either way you twist your foot to the side to unclip.

2) Loosen the tension on the clipping mechanism on the pedals all the way, to make it as easy as possible to clip in and out. You can always tighten them later if you find that you are inadvertently popping out.

3) Find a flat paved space with few obstacles or traffic for your early attempts at clipping in and out.

4) While standing still, clip one foot onto a pedal. When I stop on my bike, my right foot is usually on the ground, so I clip in my left foot.

5) Practice pedalling with just one foot to get used to the push-pull motion that will get you moving and keep you moving.

6) Once you’ve mastered starting, keep rolling, and practice clipping your second foot in and out, in and out.

7) Next, practice starting, clipping in, peddling, coasting, unclipping, and then slowing to a stop. Over and over until it feels kinda automatic. Don’t forget to always lean toward your unclipped foot.

8) You’re ready to venture out onto the streets. Remember that any time you’re reaching for your brake to slow down, whether it’s for a stop sign or a squirrel running across the road, unclip. Even if you end up not stopping and just clip back in, it’s a good habit to get into.

9) Finally, go find some hills of increasing steepness. First, marvel at how that push-pull clipped in action powers you easily up challenging hills. Now, practice stopping on the hill. We naturally tend to turn across steep hills when we stop, to avoid the feeling of rolling backwards. We also tend to lean uphill. So it’s important to practice turning away from your unclipped foot so that it will be on the uphill side when you stop.


Beyond the language of injury and healing: Thinking about knees and aging

If there’s one thing that I have a hard time to coming to terms with that limits my fitness goals and aspirations you might think it would be my weight. But you’d be wrong. Instead it’s my knees.

I’ve blogged lots of about my knees. See On not having the bee’s knees and saying goodbye to soccer. See Physio promises and running dreams. See Injured but not out.

I was back in knee physio this spring and for the first half of summer. I chatted lots with the wonderful physio guy, Brian, about aging and exercise and “why doesn’t everyone over 50 just see a physiotherapist regularly?” It’s income of course, and benefits. But he says even among those with benefits and income, it’s also attitude. Lots of people think of pain as normal aging. If a thing hurts and you’re getting older, just stop doing that thing. And in some cases stopping doing that thing might be called for (me and soccer, too much twisting and turning and torque on joints with insufficient cartilage)

Athletes, by the way, don’t think that way. They’ve had a career of injuries and see physio as part of training. How do we get more people to think like everyday athletes?

Because the point is in lots of cases you don’t have to stop doing that thing. Running isn’t hurting my knees. I’m assured the kind of distances I run aren’t making things worse. I’m not wearing out my joints. I’ve learned a lot of stretches and exercises that help with knee pain.

There’s nothing that alarming or unusual going on with my knees, just boring old osteoarthritis. Severe grade cartilage degradation, the report from the MRI says. I have a knee surgeon. I have a physio dude. I’ve given up soccer. I worry about Aikido. All that kneeling.

So mostly I’m feeling good about physio but a friend posted something the other day that was like a slap on the face. It was a quote, a meme, a thing about not going back to activity X until you’ve fully healed an injury. Good advice, right? But I realized reading that that I’ve stopped thinking about my knees as “injured.” It’s more like, that’s how my knees are. They aren’t going to get better.

If I keep doing physio, all of the time for the rest of my life, I might be able to ward off knee replacement surgery. My knees are nowhere near that yet.

Watch this again. But it’s worse after 50 because multiple body parts!

And running, according to physio dude, as long as it doesn’t hurt, won’t make them worse.

So it’s not an injury so what is it, a chronic condition? Normal aging? It’s just the way my knees are. I can maintain a pain free state if I keep my running distances down, don’t play soccer, forgo kneeling at Aikido and do a half hour of physio a day. That feels like a lot. I’m going to go back to the list of things I can give up. I’ll see if there’s more there that I can ditch besides flossing!

My knees have got me thinking about what is possible, what’s normal, and getting used to what my body can and can’t do. It’s an issue connected to the how we think about the range of human abilities. It’s also connected to aging. Tracy blogged recently about aging as a choice. While it’s true that some aspects of aging are optional, I don’t feel I had much choice about my knees and cartiledge degradation.

But I’m still running, still riding my bike, and still pretty active even with my creaky knees.