On Sunday, I finally got out onto my road bike again. My bike has been reclining dustily on the hooks I installed on my office wall last fall, untouched until I got my tall niece to help me take it down. I knew last Sunday was going to be warm — FINALLY! — and I’d mentally bookmarked Sunday for a possible ride.
I didn’t have a plan. I’m super-booked with work stuff these days, and tired from all the cross-fit, and I’m highly resistant to *plan* or commit to anything else. It makes me elusive and annoying (ask my mother about my reluctance to pick up the phone), but it’s my way of creating the blank space I need to reset. So I made no plans with anyone else, and when I woke up at 7 am on Sunday, I squinted at the time, read for a little bit and let that blissful second sleep overtake me. I woke up when my cat Emmylou came and hit me in the head at 10 am, fed up with waiting politely for breakfast.
It was beautiful out, but I didn’t hop on the bike right away. I fretted about undone work, then made some french toast, and did the dishes, and farted around with a few work emails, and then realized that while I’d brought the bike down from the wall, the tires were flat, it was dusty, I hadn’t looked at my cleats in months and didn’t know where they were, blah blah blahbiddidy blah. Then I couldn’t find my garmin, or my good riding gloves, or my sunglasses, or any decent water bottles — it’s like I had Marie Kondo’ed my house but only left the joyless crap.
I knew I should just pump the tires and get on the stupid bike and ride east right from my door and tackle the Brimley road hill that is my ongoing barometer of seasonal fitness. But I was determined to compound my procrastination by driving north out of the city to ride. I had work to do, and it was already afternoon, but for I stubbornly insisted to myself I needed to add an hour or two of unpredictable traffic to the whole enterprise.
As I went back to my condo for a third time after getting the bike in the car (who knows for what — snacks? my fitbit? change my shirt?) I realized the procrastination and inability to find anything was actually an approach avoidance kind of anxiety. Because here’s the thing: I am super comfortable on my bike. I ride a lot. I don’t race, and I don’t ride when it’s snowing, and I’m no Kim — but I certainly identify as a cyclist. The kind of person who rides a bike in foreign lands, on purpose. The kind who will happily decide for NO GOOD REASON to ride 150 km on Canada150, or do an imperial century in PEI just because I can. But — every time I go to get on my road bike for the first time — this same beloved bike I’ve had for a dozen years now — I have fear. Real, in my cells, fear.
Now, I love the click of cleats-meeting-pedal. If they made ASMR videos of pedal clicks and jam jar lids popping as they seal, it would be the best aural soundtrack to soothe me to sleep. (Well, that and the sound of skates on ice — but I digress. #canadian). But it’s a paradox. The sound soothes me — but the experience of riding with my feet clicked in can trigger a powerful fear that as soon as I click in and get on the road, I’ll somehow manage to spill off the bike and right under a truck that would kill me dead.
I’m not alone in this. Tracy has written a lot about her cycling anxiety, and I know a lot of other people who are extremely reluctant to ride on the road. It’s different for me, though — I *like* to ride on the road. I’ve logged a lot of riding in cleats, in the city and beyond. I’ve ridden from Toronto to Montreal, on roads in Vietnam, Laos, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Australia, Germany, Latvia, Estonia — and learned to ignore trucks roaring up behind me with huge loud horns, roadside chickens and butchered pigs, cows on the bike path, sudden downpours.
And I love my bike. I feel completely, gracefully at one with it, the wheels an extension of the part of my soul that sings. BUT. I still have this weird drumbeat of anxiety — especially when I hit the low blood sugar part of a long ride — that the pedal/clip situation is going to trap me somehow, and if something Dramatic Occurs, I won’t be able to scoot quickly. (It’s even worse with SPD style pedals, which I use when I do bike touring — I rode the whole way down a Bhutanese mountain with one foot unclipped Just in Case).
With my head, I know I can navigate streetcar tracks and potholes, and that my feet easily pop out of the pedals. I know this. I have done this many times. And even more importantly, I have crashed off my bike many times, once, spectacularly, right in a blind curve as I came face to face with a Sri Lankan ambulance (who didn’t stop, by the way). And — I can’t stress this enough — I was fine. A few scabs and scars here and there, but I’m fine. Road rash is part of riding.
Those things are facts — mostly I don’t fall off, and when I do, I get a little bruised but get back up. Like I taught my niece to be comfortable putting her head under the water when she was 3 — you go underneath, you come back up.
But the inner lying voice of fear is powerful — and sneaky. I didn’t locate it at first hiding in all of that procrastination.
I’ve been doing some work in my coaching practice with the concept of our “saboteurs” — the inner stories that show up to remind us we aren’t good enough, or loved enough, or capable. It’s similar to what other people tell me they get from self-help voices like Brene Brown. As I (finally) clicked into the pedals last weekend, I tried to make friends with that inner story. What could I actually learn from this now-old story? How could I shift it so it can be part of what I pay attention to when I’m riding — a reasonable question about safety — and not a tripwire?
I wasn’t super confident when I got on the road on Sunday. It was the first warm day, and there was a lot of traffic at the lake where I parked. Right away, there were swoopy fast cars whipping past me, and the edge of the first road was a trap of broken tarmac, unpicked-up winter crap, little stones. A good chunk of my favourite sideroad was completely potholed, cracked, mocking me with the possibility of a blown tire if I hit a hole too quickly. The sun was beautiful, but the wind whipped at my face, and my eyes streamed, making me slow down even more to try to see the holes coming.
But as I started riding, I started focusing on feeling the bike respond to me, started to feel myself respond to the road. The roads WERE a mess — I wished for a mountain bike. But I navigated slowly when I had to, and finagled around, and climbed a few hills. The confidence returned to my calves and hands. I got off and surveyed the land, adjusted my brakes. Found my rhythm. Ended up doing two lengths of a road I always enjoy, a long gentle up for about 8 km, a safe smooth down.
There were cars, and wind, and ruts, and holes. I wasn’t flying along, still cautious about what I might not see under my tires. But it was my bike, and it was me, and I remembered me, remembered me on my bike. Rode around 40km, and would have done more if I’d had more time. And as I rode, I savoured that anxiety, turning it into a reminder to pay attention, be present. Cautious, not fearful.
There’s no formula for me to overcome this kind of fear. But I’m glad I recognized it, let myself sit in it without it pushing me around. Reminded myself that yes, riding alone on a country road 20 km from your car is a risk — but I’m also the kind of person who can embrace that risk, find the pure joy in it.
Next time, I’ll leave earlier. And get out my gear the night before.
What do you do to confront your fears?
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and rides in Toronto.