Riding safely in the big city

I’m currently spending five weeks working and visiting friends in and around London, UK – the “other” London, as we know it in southwestern Ontario. This is where I began my road cycling career 5 years ago, believe it or not, and it’s a place where I lived, worked, and commuted by bicycle for 26 months between 2012 and 2014.

London roads are full to bursting with cyclists these days, and it’s one of the reasons why the big, blue, bicycle “superhighways” that were introduced by former mayor Ken Livingstone are now undergoing a series of much-needed upgrades.

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(Two images showing wide blue cycle lanes in London, England. One is a close-up shot on a quiet road, and the other a view from above of the lanes on a wide, busy street.)

When I commuted via “CS7” and “CS2” between my home in Tooting, south London, and my job in Mile End, east London, back in the day, the blue paint on the road was mostly for show: taxis, motorbikes, and double decker buses all crowded into our lanes, and I (famously, to me) got side-swiped by a Stansted Airport Express coach on CS2 outside Aldgate East station on Valentine’s Day in 2013. Why do I remember this in such detail? Because it hurt. And because the police did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about it.

I rode along CS2 yesterday, after a trip out to Surrey to play in the hills on my new road bike, Freddie. (My bikes travel with me everywhere. Your question: how much does that cost??!! My answer: not a penny. But I do tend to fly with established carriers, not budget carriers. Your mileage may vary.)

Were there changes to the lanes in the time since my commuting days? Oh my, so many! The route is now fully segregated in the high-traffic zone between the City and Whitechapel, by a mix of pole barriers and concrete, poured barriers. The bikes also now have their own traffic lights, meaning if you obey them and cross only when it’s safe to do so, you no longer have fight with turning vehicles not looking for you.

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(An image of London’s Cycle Superhighway 2, with a concrete barrier separating cyclists from traffic. This segregation is now the norm on what was once the deadliest road for cyclists in the capital.)

As I rode past The Spot Where I Got Hit four years ago, I thought to myself: that accident could not happen now. Or, if it did, it’d mean that the bus had jumped the barrier, which would also mean the cops could not just ignore it.

These much-needed improvements got me thinking a lot about how to be safe on the roads, especially in very busy, big cities. Lots more people now – in London, in Toronto, in New York, even in little London, Ontario – are commuting by bike, and bike lanes (and green bike boxes!) are more common in North America than ever before.

But I also know lots of people who won’t commute by bike, or ride on the road for exercise (Tracy is one), because they fear (very reasonably) the dangers that accrue to riding a pedal bike on roads built primarily for car traffic.

Which, of course, got me thinking that I should blog about how I have learned to ride safely in large cities, with the hopes that some of you who fear the roads now might use these top tips to give it a try.

1. Take up space.

This is my #1 tip by far. Beginner cyclists find the whole thing daunting with good reason: the majority of traffic on city streets is going 20-30kph (12-22mph) faster than you are. Gut instinct is often to cleave to the gutter, riding as close to the curb as possible. This is a mistake, though, because it gives traffic the impression that it can and should ignore you.

Basically, not taking up space gives cars license to not pay attention to you in the decisions they make as they pass you. This is good for nobody. It also means that you might hit stuff that’s been tossed into the gutter, possibly producing a fall. Trust me: there’s a lot of shit in the gutter.

What’s the alternative? Ride in the middle right (or left, depending on your national context) of your lane. That is: maybe don’t ride right in the middle (although there are times you can and should do this, and it’s legal!), but ride prominently in the middle of your “side” of the lane. That says to drivers: “I am here. I am riding safely, keeping about a metre between me and the curb. Go around me safely.”

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(An image, from the U.S., of safe riding in the lane to avoid what the image calls “The Door Zone”. It shoes a woman on the edge of a wide, marked bike lane and two riders in the middle of it. The image encourages safe mid-lane riding to make you visible and help you avoid being hit by motorists as they open doors.)

Sure, some drivers will whip by and curse you, because they are jerks – or maybe because they don’t know any better. Most, however, will pass you respectfully.

When they do, smile and wave or give them a thumbs-up to encourage them to keep that practice up.

2. Ride assertively (which is to say, with confidence)

That accident I had in 2013 on CS2 would not have happened if I’d been riding with my usual assertion, taking up space and maintaining a consistent speed in the face of traffic dodging around me. I wasn’t being assertive, though, because I was having a hip joint issue and struggling to produce power with my left leg. So I went gutter-side, slowed a bit, and the bus chose to ignore me (or maybe didn’t actually see me?…) as it veered left. WHAM.

It may take some practice in your neighbourhood, on quiet streets, or with trusted friends to build your confidence, but do it. Do it so you know your bike and your reflexes. Get friends to join you and ride very close to you so you know what that feels like. Get another friend to hop in a car and pass you in different ways so you know what that feels like.

Nope, you cannot simulate crazy traffic, I know – but you CAN simulate your responses to different kinds of driver actions. And that’s important.

Riding assertively means riding like you have every right to be there and to be moving at your preferred pace on the road. Drivers do it all the time; so can you. Take the time to get comfortable with both your bike and that feeling of belonging. You’ll feel stronger in every way once you do.

3. Don’t use routes you don’t like

Some routes to your final destination are more direct than others, and they probably involve high-traffic roads. If you aren’t comfortable riding on them, don’t use them. There are lots of alternatives. Get an app like Citymapper or Cyclemetre to help you find one, or use Google Maps to plot the best routes to and from preferred destinations. (And: use the “street view” function to be sure those routes have appropriate road surfacing for your bike. If you commute on a road bike you don’t want a gravel road: trust me.)

Over time, as your confidence builds, your willingness to use busier routes will increase naturally. Let that happen; there’s no rush. I may ride some of the busiest roads in London when I’m here, but back in LonON, I commute primarily on the bicycle paths, going at a much more leisurely speed. There’s no shame in that; in fact, it’s often the smartest route for me to work.

4. Drivers will get mad at you. Don’t engage.

I get yelled at. A lot. It’s probably the fancy bike and the lycra, plus the fact that I take up space and always move to the front of a line of traffic when we are waiting at a stop light – whether or not there’s a bike box. (Why? I want everyone at the top of the queue to see me and know I am there. They may hate it, but I know they would hate hitting me more.) Anyway, pretty much once a ride I get a drive-by “fuck you! Get off the road!”

Why do drivers do this?

Sometimes because cyclists are being jerks. (Some cyclists are jerks, just like some motorists are.) Sometimes they yell because they are having a super bad day and you are in their way. Or they are in a rush.

Or, they yell because they have been conditioned (by, you know, media outlets that are maybe not always sympathetic to the cycle commuter) to believe cyclists are all arrant rogues in flashy pants who deserve all the *#&$^% they get.

You might not ride like me, which means you might not get yelled at as much as I do. But you will get yelled at, guaranteed. When that happens, I urge you to let it go. Assume the motorist is being ignorant, not malicious. Assume it’s not really about you.

Remember that you do not know that motorist as a human being, and that motorist similarly does not know you.

Of course sometimes you’ll yell back. Of course you will use hand gestures from time to time. We are all human. Just remember that it’s not actually about you and the person in the car. It’s about a system that encourages us to see roads as car “territory” and bikes as interlopers. Until that changes, altercations are inevitable.

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(A cartoon image that encourages creative responses to car-cycle altercations on the road. My preferred response to the yellers? I smile, wave, and blow them a showy kiss. A kiss that says “I’m not fazed by you.” It’s disarming, and thought-provoking.)

5. Wear. A. Helmet. (Always.)

The bus collision in 2013 is not my worst ever bike accident. My worst ever bike accident happened 1.2km from my house in London, Ontario, in a parking lot at my local outdoor pool. I hit a speed bump, went over my handlebars, and hit the deck.

I had decided it was too short a distance to bother wearing my helmet.

Luckily, I landed on my chin. I had a big bruise but my head was OK. The first aiders from the pool were kind, but when I went back later to get my bike (I was taken to a hospital in an ambulance, for fear of broken limbs, but was discharged later the same day) they reminded me that helmets save lives.

Now I always wear one, even if I’m going just down the street.

You will fall. You will; it’s normal. Just be prepared.

Know that chances are the fall will be minor. Know that helmets are excellent protection against serious brain injury. Know that proper cycling clothes protect skin! (I have awesome road rash from that parking lot crash. I was wearing a swim suit and flip flops! Better idea: cover up for the ride, and wear proper shoes to ride, too. Closed toe – protect those small bones!)

Practicing how to fall is also a good idea, by the way. Choose a path near grass. Bring a friend.

***

That’s it. In sum:

Practice until you feel confident with and on your bike. Then, on the road, own some assertiveness. Take up space. Let drivers pass you, and if they yell, don’t engage angrily. Find routes that work for you. Wear protective gear to keep yourself as safe as is reasonably possible. Then: relax and have some fun.

Oh, and if you have any energy left over, get involved in cycling advocacy! See a route that needs improving? Call your local representatives. See an intersection that needs a bike box? Ditto.

Like I said above: safety for cyclists is tied to systemic assumptions about road ownership. Let’s change that system, one commute at a time.

 

New bike, new attitude

At the end of my last post I left all y’all with a teaser – photos of my smashing new grey and orange bike, Freddie. I’ve been waiting for a new bike for a long time, and this was the year the stars aligned: I’d saved up, I knew I was at a point with my strength and fitness that my old bike was working against me more than anything else, and my club friend L had been surreptitiously sleuthing around one of our top local bike shops with my list in hand: racier than my beloved Roubaix, mostly orange.

(Two photos of the bar tape and top bar of my new bike, Freddie. The orange tape and highlights will feature prominently in the following post!)

So one day in April, after term ended, L and I headed for TO Wheels and had a nose around together.

It took a good while for me to settle on the right bike with the right group set and the other bits and pieces you don’t think about until you’re actively shopping for a new bike. But once I had done all my fussing and reading and testing and more fussing, I ended up with the best bike I’ve ever had, and I’m not just thrilled – I’m faster.

No, really.

So, this is my “top five things I learned in my first month with Freddie” post; it’s mostly about how to buy the best bike you’ve ever had, too.

Spoiler alert: it ends really well, with me loving every minute on this great new machine.

1. Buying an expensive road bike is a big deal! Take your time, do your research, insist on helpful and supportive service.

I know lots of folks who turn up at club rides, or at the office, or in the bedroom (!! *eyeroll*), to say, “hey! I just bought a new bike! It’s got $$$$$$$$ on it and cost a million dollars!”

But that’s not me. I’d thought long and hard about a new bike since returning to Canada from the UK in 2014, and I set my budget at $3000 all in, or as close as I could get (given Ontario’s somewhat onerous 13% HST). I planned the spend and knew I could afford it this spring. I chose TO Wheels, our (I think) top local indie shop, because I knew the folks there (it’s owned by a woman, yo!) and knew they’d be helpful, supportive, and would match me to the best bike I could afford without up-selling.

When L and I got there one busy Saturday afternoon, the lovely and talented Andrew was awash in stuff to do, but still he took almost an hour to talk me through options, look at my bike fit data, put me on the Retül jig (see below!), set it up to my bike fit spec, and then we tweaked it together. We worked out that I’d fit the Cervélo R2, or the Liv Envie, almost exactly. (A pro bike fit – see below – is fantastic, and works especially well if you are having a bike custom built exactly to your spec. That’s really pricey, though, and beyond me at this point. Maybe next time.) I took that info, plus the new jig data Andrew had generated for me, away to do research on my own. I told him I’d be back, but he was not fussed; for him, an hour helping a customer discover important information about her bike needs, sale or no sale, was an hour well spent.

At home I read around the net to learn more about the bikes on offer. The R2 – the bottom of the line item from one of the best manufacturers in the world, sort of the cycling equivalent of the least impressive house on the best street – got superb reviews and sounded like a really ideal buy for me. The Liv, as a woman-specific frame, interests me, but truthfully I’m tall, stocky, and weigh as much as a fit guy my height, so that detail mattered less to me physiologically. While researching I also read a bit about Felt, a fantastic race bike series from the US; I got in touch with local dealers in nearby Dundas, Ontario and they chatted with me about custom group set options over Facebook.

In other words: I took my time. About a week, to be precise. Then I headed back to Andrew, and asked to take the R2 for a test drive.

2. Buying an expensive road bike is a big deal! Take it for a test ride. Take it for two test rides, in fact: one that mimics your commute, and one that mimics a training ride.

My first spin on the R2 was along the cycle paths that line the river between my house and my office. They are often busy with pedestrians, and they have some short, sharp hills that are great fun to punch. It was another sunny Saturday when I took the floor model R2 out onto the path and spent maybe 20 minutes in a commute-like doddle. I ended up having to portage around a small flood, to fight off some angry Canada geese, and then I punched the hill at the private school that leads back up to downtown and to the bike shop.

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(A shot of a sunlit bike path in London, Ontario, with a yellow line dividing traffic and trees on either side. Think this, but more geese.)

I loved the feel of the bike on the hill; the compact cassette gave me all kinds of power, even in the big ring, and I knew this bike was a fab climber. But I found the reach awkward; I wasn’t sure the fit was as it was meant to be, based on the jig work we did in the shop. I queried Andrew; he dropped the handlebars further and I went out again. Again, it felt great. Again, the reach worried me.

I told him I needed to think a bit more and that I’d be back.

Our next club ride saw me spend some time in the peloton with the always lovely and helpful Paul and Allan, who reminded me that to know a bike is YOUR bike you need to really test it – take it out for 40, 50, 60km at least. Don’t rely on a commute test run, they said; take it for a proper spin. So, shortly after, L and I did just that. I grabbed the R2 from Andrew and we headed North-West out of town. The ride was hard into the wind, but fantastic on the way back. I was still having reach issues, but L assured me I was both looking much more comfortable on this bike than on my Ruby, and that I was obviously accelerating faster and more smoothly. This came to pay dirt on our local “heartbreak” hill, where I accelerated up past L and held him on my wheel until the summit. Normally, he’d be off like a flash past me; he’s four inches taller than me, and rides with a substantial drop, making him a very quick puncheur.

The next business day at the shop I told Andrew about the reach issue; he didn’t need to hear it, in fact, because he’d already talked to L and had a plan. We set the jig again, and he showed me what a difference a shorter stem would make; it felt great. We then ordered the bike: the colours I wanted (groovy grey and orange highlights!), the group set I preferred (the Shimano 105 – basic but solid, and it will allow me to upgrade as I wish, to whatever brand I wish, in a couple of years), a 90mm stem, ORANGE BAR TAPE (OMG!), and a gorgeous black Shimano crank. I paid, hugged Andrew wildly, and prepared for my new road adventures to begin.

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(Time from first shop to arrival of bike: 3 weeks, all well spent. I left secure in my decision, and delighted with my new friend. Shown here: Freddie, complete, at the shop on the day I took her home.)

3. A new bike should fit like a glove. Take the time to get yourself a bike fit.

Remember above when I mentioned this thing called the “Retül jig”?

This is a Retül jig:

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(Image of a black bike fit machine, with tall central saddle, handlebar jig, rear tire and chain set. Sort of like what they might ride in The Matrix…)

It’s a tool bike shops use to help you figure out the very best position for you on a bike – and thus the ideal specifications for any bike you buy. A custom bike fit can be expensive, but it’s worth it. Good bike shops like TO Wheels will put you on their jig and help you find an ideal, comfortable position with good power, but a custom fit is more involved: it’s usually up to 2 hours with a pro or two, and it’s designed to assess your current power output, position, and comfort level on your existing bike, and then it compares that against ideals.

I did my custom fit in March 2014 at Le Beau Velo in Shoreditch, London with Mal Pires and Jo McRae; they took loads of photos of me on my bike, on the jig, and in different positions, and afterward set my existing bike up as close to the ideal measurements they’d taken as possible. Then they sent me five pages of photos and data to use when purchasing a new bike.

This is the data Andrew used to set me up on the jig and tweak things for Freddie, and it’s the reason why my new bike is perfectly fitted to my body and to the ways I produce power. I’ve got a much, much more significant drop on this bike (drop = vertical distance from top of saddle to top of handlebars), my quads are positioned more vertically in relation to the pedal stroke, and the top tube of this bike is flatter, meaning my reach when I hold the hoods (the very top part of the handlebars, where you access the brakes) is shorter and easier on my mid-back and shoulder blades. When I stand to climb I can get up in one smooth movement, without having to heave up onto my quads, and I sit equally smoothly in one swift movement. I feel powerful and yet also easy and free on Freddie, and I move visibly more quickly compared to what I could do on Ruby. All thanks to custom data and a careful fit at purchase time.

4. A new bike should make you feel good in your heart. Pick the accessories you want so you can admire it!

ORANGE BAR TAPE. I asked, Andrew delivered. I love orange; it makes me happy on the greyest day. I knew I wanted orange, but it’s not the easiest colour in the world to get hold of for a frame; when I was cruising the options at TO Wheels it wasn’t lost on me, even before we talked data and options, that the R2 was available in a grey-orange combo.

Would I have turned the R2 down, after all that research, if I couldn’t have had the orange? Probably not. But the nice part is I didn’t have to worry; I realized I could accessorize the bike the way I wanted, adding colour at will. Andrew found me the gorgeous bar tape (EVERYONE compliments Freddie on her bar tape!), the mat black crank and water bottle cages for complementary styling, and now I am in the market for shiny orange bike shoes. When I climb onto Freddie with my Foxy Moxy gear on, lime green helmet, and orange vest, I feel terrific: stylish and fast and strong. That feeling carries over onto the hills and the flats, and I love it.

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(Orange Giro cycling shoes with black accents. WANT.)

5. A new bike may give you the mental boost you need to say: yes, I CAN go faster. Embrace that!

My first club ride on Freddie was a windy, grey May Saturday, but wow did she attract attention! My pal Sue, the only other woman in the club who is a regular on Saturday tours, grabbed me and said, let’s go with the fast guys. Come on.

I said: ummm……

Freddie said: let’s do it!

So we did. Hard work into the wind on the way out but I did my turns at the front and hung on when at the back. At St Mary’s, we grabbed a quick bite and took right off again. Then it was tail winds the whole way home, and that’s when the fast guys opened it right up. Time for anxiety.

Brad, my Tuesday night ride friend, took care to make sure Sue and I were riding efficiently, drafting a lot and surging only when needed; Sue and I found it was not nearly as hard as we thought to stay with the guys. We made it the whole 95km, our average speed well above 30kph – a new record for me. And one I repeated two weeks later, when we barnstormed with the speedy dudes home from Ingersoll, riding an average of 40kph on the back 35km.

I KNOW. Like, insane fast.

What can I say? Freddie made me do it! Or, rather, Freddie showed me I had it in me all the time.

All I needed was a bike that was properly fitted to my frame and power profile, a heady new attitude, and the all important orange bar tape.

 

 

 

Working it on the hoof

I woke up this morning with the running tally of all the stuff on my plate scurrying through my brain: a PhD dissertation to read, a journal issue to get out the door, other graduate student work to assess, a manuscript to read and evaluate for an academic press, plus, oh, you know: my own research, writing, and teaching…

AAGGHH!!!!!!!

Every April this happens: term ends and I think to myself, with no more prep and students to deal with I’ll have SO MUCH TIME! The problem is that, way back in January, I had the same magical thoughts. And that’s when I said yes to a bunch of extra stuff, due in April, that I haven’t got the time to do now because I said YES! to so much stuff that’s due in April.

Cue office chaos.

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Then there’s the OTHER problem with April: the weather has turned fine! So I want to get out on my bike, out on the lake, just be outside. Marking outside is ok, sure, but playing outside is much better. Finding the work-life balance is more imperative than ever when it’s 23C and sunny, with minimal wind.

This past year I’ve been undertaking an experiment: I’ve tried hard not to work on weekends (single mid-career academics like me succumb to the work-every-day temptation too much entirely; it’s bad for your health and sucks for your brain). I’ve also made a point of putting my own self first, even if it seems like I might be back-burner-ing some important work things in the process. (As my therapist says: no academic deadline is a hard deadline. Nobody will die if you take until next Tuesday.)

So that means, this year, if it’s a competition between reading that manuscript chapter and riding my bike on a perfect afternoon, the bike wins. I might go back to the chapter in the evening; or, it might wait until morning.

Nobody dies; more importantly, I return to the work refreshed and in a better mood, which means I’m more inclined to evaluate it fairly and comment supportively as I prepare my review.

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I want to stop here and check my privilege: I know that getting out on my bike or into the boat when I choose is something I am able to do because my caring responsibilities to other humans are currently minimal, and because I am fully physically able. But I also want to acknowledge the many different kinds of bodies – parent and child bodies, paraplegic bodies, cognitively different bodies – I see out on the trails and in the sunshine when I’m bopping around town and along the country lanes.

Getting outside, instead of sitting inside at our desks stewing about how nice it is outside, is better for all of us long-term. Let’s just do it – even if it’s just for half an hour here or there. Your body and your brain deserve it!

Kim

PS: I treated myself to a new bike, after five years on my dear old Ruby. She’s orange and grey and makes me feel as sprightly as a summer day. She will feature in my next post; meanwhile, though, here she is. The bar tape is my favourite bit! (She’s called Freddie, btw.)

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A love letter to my bike, and others

Sam gave it away on Facebook this week: today’s post is about my time at bike camp in Table Rock State Park, South Carolina. We got back a week ago today, and man, do I ever wish I was still there.

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A view of the southern Appalachians from the top of Caesar’s Head in South Carolina. The skies are unsettled, cloudy and grey; the mountains are blue-grey. There is a lookout and a tree in the near right distance.

The riding was really hard and really fun, and as I predicted in my post last month, I was ready and managed some (for me) good finishes. I’ve got goals for next year, and absolutely, I’m already planning to head back (maybe even in the fall, by myself… stay tuned).

Susan reminded us recently, though, that the bunch of us who contribute regularly in this space have a tendency to toot the old horn. Not that this is a problem – women, own your awesomeness, PLEASE! – but it is sometimes, I suspect, a bit much. Maybe a little bit smug. Because fitness and athletics is all about failure, as well as success. You can’t have one without the other.

I didn’t have any epic fails at camp, but I did have a few moments when I got hit, hard, with the reminder that being on my bike is not about anything more than being on my bike. That’s enough. And women, is it ever glorious and powerful! Just to be able to do this wonderful thing called riding my bike when I want to.

I wanted to share three of these small, but precious, moments with you.

On our first day, my group (“B”) rode up Paris mountain, near Traveller’s Rest (a groovy suburb of Greenville. GOOD COFFEE!). It was my first mountain ride in a while – even though by mountain standards Paris is a bit small (20 minutes to the top, give or take). But on this day, the snow had fallen early in the morning, and it was still clinging to the branches at the upper elevations as I rode into the clouds. Blossoms and snow… it reminded me of time I spent in Japan, and felt quiet and magical as I moved through it. I stopped breathing heavily; I slowed my pace a bit so my heart rate could catch up with the scenery. I wished I could stop to take a photo but was pretty sure that would mean I couldn’t start up again… so I just drank it in. That was, I think, the right call – even though we didn’t get the chance for snaps at the top because The Law was chasing us down… apparently, at the summit, we were trespassing on state property!

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This photo shows the sun shining through evergreens, which sport snow on their branches. It’s from Paris Mountain, but I did not take it. 

On day three, we all did the Caesar’s Head climb. Caesar’s is the big challenge in the area, and I was geared up for it. My time was 48:02 according to Strava – maybe a little slower than I’d dreamed, but better than I’d hoped. We stopped for photos at the top this time (state park! Public access!), and enjoyed the accomplishment and the view.

That evening, I got a text from my ex husband and still very close friend, J. His step-mom had died while we were climbing. We were prepared for this, but the timing was a painful gift. As I was celebrating my strength – my love of my bike, and all the things I can do with my powerfully-aging, middle-aged body – she was slipping away.

I knew then that I needed to enjoy every minute on my bike from now on, and love it more than ever.

On our last day we climbed to the eastern continental divide, before getting packed up and heading home. I was, I confess, anxious to get on the road; we had 12+ hours of driving ahead of us and I really, really wanted to get back for Saturday, to clean the house, shop for groceries… Until I started climbing and swooping past the small communities on our way.

This was another magical climb: through clusters of trailers, shacks, and other makeshift spaces built into the mountains and valleys, every inch cozy homes. I slowed to enjoy them. I sped up to catch the others in my group. Then I slowed again, just taking the stillness, the loveliness, all in. Eventually Amy, one of my occasional riding friends from LonON, caught up to me; she’s a stellar athlete and climber. We chatted; I then pulled ahead to catch another rider, Derek, who was driving home with me. When we reached the divide, I was sure I’d posted a solid time.

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This photo shows me next to the sign that reads “Eastern Continental Divide: elevation 2694 feet”. I am wearing a pink Castelli riding cap, my riding glasses, and my green helmet. I am sort-of-smiling; when I take selfies I always think I am smiling but that’s not always actually true.

I was wrong. My continental divide climb was objectively terrible; I was near the bottom, on Strava, on all the segments. UGH!

But subjectively – for me – it was glorious. Some of it hurt, but mostly it was magical (like Paris), a ride through a dream of quiet, utterly spellbinding landscapes. So I’ve decided not to care at all that Strava tells me I did shit on this particular ride. Because what I felt on this ride Strava cannot capture. And because what I did on this ride was not for Strava, anyway.

It was for Norma, god bless her, and her loving family.

It was for Ruby, my beloved bike and constant companion.

It was for me.

Peace,

Kim

Three gorgeous days, three fabulous rides

Winter has lifted! Temporary reprieve, maybe, but Southern Ontario basked in sunshine and double-digit (celsius) temperatures this past (long) weekend, allowing previously S.A.D. friends, neighbours, and sport aficionados to come out of their dens, stretch their arms into the sky, and see light at the end of the seasonal tunnel.

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[This photo shows a group of my students from Western University playing and jumping in the leaves. In the foreground are a young woman and a young man, arms and legs in the air, smiling in a happy, goofy way. The woman is wearing a turquoise top and a black skirt and boots; the man is wearing a striped jumper, jeans and loafers.]

As soon as I saw the forecast, I knew what was coming: a text from my riding friend Sue, copied to many of the hard-core touring members of my cycling club (the London Centennial Wheelers), to plan unofficial weekend club rides. In the end we did three: two very well attended tours Saturday and Monday mornings, and a smaller, even more hard-core, long ride north on Sunday for the keenest of the keeners. I decided to join Saturday and Monday, and Sunday I rode on my own in order to get a more controlled workout in.

Now, I’m not normally the kind of person who rides three days in a row. Unlike some of my club mates, I’m a voraciously eclectic sportsperson, and in addition to riding I row, I swim, I train, and I do yoga. I also walk a lot with my companion animal, Emma, and frequently that produces spontaneous hikes with friends in the back country around London and the GTHA. So typically I’ll do one club ride on a (spring, summer, or fall) weekend, sure – but one is enough. There’s lots of other outdoor activity to cram in!

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[This photo shows me and my cycling club friend Suzanne in a close-up; we are wearing winter riding gear and I am covered in mud. We are both smiling into the camera; our clothing is reflective neon and Suzanne wears her cycling glasses. It was taken last winter on a (messy!) unofficial club ride.]

Not this weekend, though. First of all, the weather was, put simply, a gift. We hadn’t seen sun in so long that I was starting to think the heavens were as sad as I was about recent events in the U.S. and around the world! When the sun came up and the temperature rose on Saturday morning, I just could not resist the thought of getting out on my bike over and over again. After several months of sitting in a basement on a trainer, well – what a blessed change!

Beyond the lure of spring, though, was the looming pressure of something else: in three weeks’ time I’ll be in South Carolina, at Table Rock state park, riding for six days straight with friends connected to Sam’s cycling coach, Chris. We will be doing 70-100km a day, and there will be a lot of climbing (mountains!). I’ve done multi-day cycle trips before and I know what it feels like to ride hard, eat, sleep, wake up, and ride hard again: it’s, well, HARD. It requires some preparation on the routine and endurance front, regardless of how much base fitness I’ve amassed over the winter on my trainer and rollers. So I knew getting out all three days this weekend would be essential preparation for that journey.

How were the actual rides, then? Glorious, warming, instructive – though they were not easy, I know now that I am where I need to be fitness-wise and will be fine in South Carolina.

Here’s a quick play-by-play of what we did and what I learned.

DAY ONE: Saturday 18 February. There were probably 20 of us at the regular club meet-up  point in downtown London at 9am; I saw friends I’d missed all winter, as well as a few I didn’t expect to see (including Cheryl, who will be with me at Table Rock!). Although the ride was unofficial, our tour director, Jeff, had a loose plan: the wind dictated we would go south and west. We set off as a bunch, but by the one-third point it was becoming clear who had been keeping fit over winter and who had not spent as much time on the trainer; some were struggling to keep up, and others were keen to push the pace. As we sailed south of the highway and west of the indigenous Oneida community nearby, we were starting to break up; one group member, a very keen, fast racer, was making things harder for the slowest in the group as he sought to pull beyond 30kph.

So, like, I was holding on, but still: that’s not ok. As many of us noted, it’s February! Nobody should be racing – or pushing a race pace – right now! When Jeff started to really press the rogue racer to slow down, we tacitly agreed to let him go off on his own. The rest of us regrouped and happily stopped for a snack and a coffee in Delaware, a little town just west of London. Then we did the short, sharp hill out of town, followed by “heartbreak hill”, our local long climb with the trick ending. A few punched it; Cheryl and I decided that slow and steady wins the race – and better prepares us for the climbs in Table Rock too. After all was said and done I’d logged 72km and 351 metres of climbing, and was feeling absolutely fine the rest of the day. A great start to the weekend’s riding.

DAY TWO: Sunday 19 February. Today I decided to skip the group ride and do my own thing. I got my period overnight, and was feeling crampy and groggy in the morning; I slept in rather than jumping out of bed at 7am, and when the sun reached its peak I pulled on some shorts (SHORTS! IN FEBRUARY!) and a light winter jersey and went south to the town of Belmont. The wind was brisk from the west – aka the opposite direction – but I decided not to care; again, it’s February. I’m not looking for personal bests, and I don’t so much care when I ride into the wind as long as I don’t let my heart rate spike too high when I do.

Plus, I felt the siren song of riding straight into the warm, welcoming sunshine.

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[This image shows a water tower with the word “Belmont” in blue letters at its top, to the right of a two story yellow brick farm house. The sky is blue with a few clouds. The Belmont Strava segment is ironically – maybe? – called “city of wonder, city of light”.]

The tailwind blew me into Belmont. I worked at a low aerobic pace for most of the first half of the ride, and STILL managed to steal the QOM from Sam (sorry, Sam!); I paid for it on the way back, though, with the headwind holding me at around 24kph. I used that as an excuse to just stay aerobic; I tried to ignore my bike computer and stay low on the hoods and in the drops, enjoying the sunshine and feeling the mid-range work in my legs. At the end of it all I’d done 52km, and finally held a nice 27.5kph average, even with the headwind for the back 25km. A nice day’s work, and a welcome chance to be out in the sun, alone with my thoughts.

DAY THREE: Monday 20 February. Another big, unofficial LCW group met at 9am, and this time we rode east into the wind, to the town of Thamesford. The group was a bit more evenly matched than it had been on Saturday, and we worked pretty well together all the way to the coffee stop. After two days of riding, and 124km (a good amount for February, after a winter in the basement, I think!), I was still feeling happy, keen and strong; I took a lot of turns voluntarily at the front of the pack.

I have to stress that, usually, with my club, I’m a mid-range rider and just as happy to get off the front: I’m not the strongest and not the weakest. On today’s ride I could really tell my trainer and ergometer fitness was solid, though; I was feeling the benefits of some real endurance over the weekend and I was holding the front of the peloton longer than some of my usually stronger club-mates. I know by mid-season they will have overtaken me again, but right now I think I’m in a great place, fitness-wise, and am happy about that and looking forward to South Carolina!

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[This image shows four Ontario alpacas in a farm field; the two on the left are white, and the two on the right are brown. One of each colour is a baby. The adult brown animal has its head down, grazing; the baby brown animal is looking into the back distance. The sun is shining although the sky is not blue.]

After today’s coffee stop I veered off course with my friend Leif, and we headed down a side road to visit one of our local alpaca farms. So wonderful to see the animals out and enjoying the sunshine! We gossiped and talked politics, gear, and cycling fashion. It was a really nice end to three glorious stolen days of riding.

Wherever you are, I hope it’s sunny and warm! Happy riding!

Kim

Girlfriend Therapy

My last post was about my online dating travails; it tells the story of me learning to cope with the badness of online dating, while finding the goodness in online dating (including the freedom to be many versions of my sexual self – exciting and healthy, though also quite daunting at times).

This post is going to be about something related but very different: finding the time and the space to make new female friends in middle age.

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Friends in middle age: Sam, me, and Susan – with a couple of terrific guys on the Three Ports Tour 2016.

Now, before we go any further, I want to be clear: for me, this issue is intimately related (just like the online dating issue) to my health and wellness, as well as to my fitness. When I think about how I might be fit for purpose in this world – able to carry on in my job, to carry on caring for my parents and my dog, to carry on managing the expectations placed on me by all the stakeholders in my world, and ALSO, FIRST, to carry on taking good care of ME – I think about a lot more than riding my bike or rowing or yoga. All those things matter. But so much more matters, too.

This past weekend was the Women’s March all over the world, and especially in Washington. My colleague (and sometime-contributor here) Alison went to Washington; she filled me in and I was filled with envy. Catherine blogged on the weekend about not going; like her, I made an alternative choice. It wasn’t without conflict, but it was absolutely for me about self-care. I realised I couldn’t march, because I wasn’t in a place to give that much at that moment. So instead I made a joyously selfish and entirely feminist choice: to take care of myself, by reaching out to another, wonderful woman in my life.

I was incredibly moved by Susan’s last post here on the blog, about her daughter and their recent experience shopping for clothes. I decided, after reading it, to send Susan an email thanking her for it and describing how I’d connected to it. Susan and I have been riding a few times before, thanks to Sam, but we’ve not hung out. A few times I have wished we could: Susan’s canoe trips sound TDF, and her dog Shelby is a sweetheart. So this time I was bold: I told Susan what her post had meant to me, and I asked if we could maybe hang out some time.

Susan wrote the kindest email back. In it, she said (and I’m going to take a chance here and say she would not mind me quoting this to you!):

This is just the loveliest thing. I mean, how often do middle age women get emails from other women saying “I want to be your friend?” Possibly never until right now.

And you know, she’s right. We hit a certain age (for me it was my early 20s) and realise that we’re growing apart from the community of young women we’ve (if we are lucky – and I know not all of us are) become attached to and reliant on. Some of us get long-term boyfriends or girlfriends, and our dynamics shift. Then we go to college or uni, sometimes far from one another. Babies come. Or careers blossom. We move around, away. We connect online a bit, see each other sometimes. In the process, of course, we make other friends, but if we are in long-term relationships or have families at home to care for, it becomes harder and less of a priority to connect with those close friends from our past, or even those new friends around the corner. Nuclear family-think sets in – another word for (hetero)normativity.

When I left Canada for a new job in England in 2012, I left a clutch of wonderful female friends behind. I missed them like hell! And when I came back, in late 2014, I left an equally fabulous posse of wonderful women once more. I ache with the loss of them in my daily life. We connect on Skype, but it’s not the same. Even with my best girls just up the highway in Toronto now, it’s hard to stay connected. There are loads of demands on our time, many children now among us, and a two hour drive is a two hour drive…

Last Sunday, I made that drive – to meet up with Susan and walk our dogs along the glorious trails near her house on the Niagara escarpment. We shared a bit about our pasts – partners, experiences, losses – that we didn’t know about one another before. We talked about work and kids. We talked about mental health struggles. We talked about the fog, the sumac, the gorgeous spaces all around us. We shared the pleasures of ambulatory, sensory therapy. We kept on top of the dogs! We got home and Susan gave me a cup of green tea in the most hilarious mug I have ever seen. Then Shelby did some genuinely wicked canine tricks for me.

We agreed we needed to do it again.

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This is not the mug Susan offered me. Hers is substantially funnier.

I’ve realised recently that I’ve been in the process, for 18 months or so now, of remaking my life. Returning from abroad to an old job and a much-loved house but a very new living and working situation has been at turns familiar and shattering. I’ve not got my bearings yet. I’m still figuring stuff out: who I want to be in the second half of my life; who I’d like to have around me as I grow old; what I want to give my body now, and what I want it to give me in return; who I’d like to have sex with, and who I’d like to spend my nights with; where I want to live – REALLY live. At a distance from some of the people and places that have deeply mattered to me thus far in my life, I’ve at times felt helpless and bereft in the face of these questions.

But I don’t need to be. Because there are so many amazing, strong, compassionate, loving – and did I mention STRONG? – women around me. Like Susan.

Thank god for us all!

Kim

Wellness tips for women online

Almost two years ago I split up with my husband. We had been together for over 15 years, and had been living in England for two, when I made the difficult decision to return to Canada (partly for work, partly to help support my ailing mother). After six months of draining and expensive transatlantic commuting, he left me. Or, rather, the relationship fell painfully apart, as distance, time, and sheer exhaustion broke its back.

Losing my long-term partner was hard for loads of reasons, but perhaps the worst of all was knowing I’d need to get back to dating again. I wasn’t done being in love, being cared for, or having sex – but to be honest, I barely remembered how to get myself these things.

I was an awkward kid with some body dysmorphia issues, and through my teens I was fat. I hated when people looked at me, and I did not like putting myself on the line for fear of teasing, bullying, humiliation – all the stuff I’d been trained in middle school to expect when I allowed my vulnerabilities to show. How I managed to date at all, let alone find a loving partner of many years, still seems slightly miraculous to me.

Almost a year on from the break-up, I met somebody. He seemed wonderful and at first I was over the moon. But it was short lived: he had lots of mental health issues, and they intervened before we could really get started. Needless to say I was disappointed; quite apart from the fact that I genuinely fancied him, I also thought I might have had a narrow escape!

I thought I might be able to avoid online dating.

Naive, I know. What do you do when you’re over 40, a smart professional woman with a bunch of impressive degrees, a nice house and a proper salary? If you’re lucky you live in a big city and have the chance to meet folks at great bars, restaurants, or local cafes. Or maybe there are lots of prospective partners at your gym/in your cycling club/amongst your friends’ friends.

Maybe you’re one of those people who routinely gets lucky on public transit.

Nope, me neither.

I live in a small city where the majority of the population is a) my colleagues, largely partnered; b) my students, and therefore off limits; c) folks who generally don’t share my values. (My university, and the town it’s in, are both pretty darn conservative. I am not.) Which means the in-person decks were stacked against me from the start.

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Having dating issues? Phoebe Waller-Bridge (as Fleabag) will help.

This is the story of what happened when I decided to embrace the inevitable and head online. It is not meant to be a “use this site, but not this site!” how-to guide by any means; rather, it’s about self-care during the online dating process, especially for women.

Because holy cow, does online dating ever require self care.

STEP ONE: Match me. No, really.

I started with Match on the advice of a friend. It’s relationship-friendly, so that was good; I’m more into relationships than hookups. It wanted a lot of information from me, so I gamely gave details. I tried to include fun, flirty photos and information, but let’s face it: I’m a brainy geek with a cycling habit. It’s all relative, and, relatively speaking, my profile probably made me a niche product at best.

Result? Crickets.

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Note: searching for memes for this post is among the most fun I’ve ever had online.

The site kept prompting me to “like” and “wink” at men’s profiles (I am straight, and shopped for men only), and it kept encouraging me to send messages to them to boost the chances of a reply. I did that – a lot. I got nothing – literally NOTHING – in return. I started to wonder what was wrong with me. Did these men get my messages, look at my profile, think “ew! brainy cycling geek! RUN!” and do just that? With no positive feedback (heck, no feedback of any kind), plus the irksome website constantly prompting me to make my profile more seductive and my images more enticing, I grew more and more sure (despite, once more, I repeat, no actual, real-world evidence) that I was simply the most undesireable woman on earth, and was just going to have to accept that.

Result? I felt like utter shit. Every single day.

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How’d I get through this? Well, for one thing, I sought the help of friends. This might sound like an obvious strategy, but it didn’t seem obvious in the moment.

Let me reiterate here that my experience online thus far had been entirely isolating and a painful trigger for every ugly fear I’d ever nourished as a young woman about my physical inadequacy. No number of degrees, salary points, or QOM victories in my pockets could make up for the way Match’s structure encouraged me to locate my self-worth in being “liked” or “winked at” by random guys on the internet.

I’ve not hit a lot of glass ceilings in my life, but every morning when I woke up to check my empty message box I felt the painful banging.

Because, as I think we all know by now, the patriarchy is alive and well and breeding like rabbits on the web.

So reaching out to friends was tough – not obvious, but essential. I felt like I was admitting failure, but Sarah and Hillary, to whom I turned for support, sat me down and walked me through the ways in which the site was designed to infantilize users and create unreasonable, heteronormative expectations.

We talked about strategies for creating super-cute winky-winky profile images, sexy but not too OTT; we worked on profile language that would be clever and inviting but not confusing or intimidating for guys not in on the geek culture that feeds me. We talked about the pros and cons of listing/not listing my doctoral degree, or my salary. (Match asks for info on education and salary. Thanks, Match.) Most importantly, we talked about all of this as a strategy, not as reality. We talked about the problems inherent in the structure of the online game, but also about why we were playing it – what results we wanted it, for better or worse, to yield. We talked about the difference between the perceptions we were creating, the reality we were living, and the injustice of the two not being able to match, and still earn a Match.

In other words, we had a genuinely feminist conversation (over killer burgers and fries, y’all – because internet dating requires sustenance), and that conversation really buoyed me, lifted me up out of the sense of despair and identity confusion the online experience had been germinating for me.

The changes Sarah and Hillary helped me make to my profile did not improve results, but the time we spent together helped to improve my attitude tenfold: I was reminded I could remain firmly feminist, my whole, powerful self, and still do this, if this was a route to a relationship and a relationship was what I wanted. So when my paid three months on Match.com expired, I decided to take a risk and head for Tinder.

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My genuine apologies to the two men in this photo, but: WORD.

STEP TWO: is that a dick pic I see before me?

My goodness, yes it is. I was in theory prepared for the onslaught of purely sexual interest I knew would arrive with Tinder, but I wasn’t prepared for how bad it would make me feel. Once again, I was hit in the gut: a year ago I’d never have believed that an excess of interest in my body would feel as wrenching as *no* interest in my body, but there it was. Being asked for sexual favours, for photos of breasts or “pussy”… let’s just say Donald Trump was simply citing the zeitgeist, not saying anything particularly shocking.

The result? God, I felt degraded. SO. DEGRADED.

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Not because I don’t love my body, but because I unabashedly do! Because my body is so much more than its parts, isolated and fetishised; it is rich, dense, historical terrain. It is the sum of my achievements, written in its scars, in my (I think really sexy) laugh lines, and in all the ways the sun and the light and the rain colour my skin so I need not wear makeup (which makes me itchy – I’ve never liked it).

This problem was trickier to solve than the one Match had thrown me. Being asked to forget that my body is MY body and nobody else’s, being encouraged to turn it into free, animated porn on demand was possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face head-on (sorry). I was socialised as a “good girl”; I’ve been programmed to please everybody all the time. But I couldn’t do this. I did not want this.

On Tinder, I had to face the shocking disjuncture between two versions of “good”: the “good” girl who tries to please the men around her, and the “good” girl who wants to take proper care of herself.

And then, of course, there was the spectre of the OTHER girl inside me: the girl who knows “good” is total bullshit, one of a million ways our culture tries to keep us from our most powerful selves, and our most powerful desires.

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Thank you, Mata Hari. Check her out on DocZone at CBC.CA.

Ironically, I came to terms with Tinder when I realised that nope, I didn’t want to be anybody’s pussy shot – but likewise, yup, I really did want to have some hot, random sex, and that there was nothing not “good”, not healthy, not wonderful about that.

So I swiped with abandon. I chose to be as direct and clear as I could be once a conversation started. No, I won’t invite you over if we’ve not met yet. Yes, I’m up for lots of things but safety comes first, including having an in-person conversation with you, and insisting on condoms every time. If you get demanding I’ll be leaving; I far prefer to share. Honesty is rule #1.

I’m not entirely sure how I got to this place; it’s in many ways the opposite of where I started. I began with Match in the firm belief I wanted a relationship, and felt instantly like I was back in junior high school, alone in the hall with my baggy clothes and self-loathing. I had, then, to find my way back to myself; I did that by reaching out to my network of feminist comrades. Next I lived through the experience of being sexualised and objectified, then realised with a fair bit of humility that I wasn’t going through anything that MOST women haven’t been through, pretty much daily, for, um, thousands of years. I remembered that together we’ve grown much, much stronger – and that I, too, am strong, proud of my beautiful body, and excited to honour it whenever I can.

That, I think, is when I realized that I can honour and celebrate my body by owning my sexual desire, and by asserting both my desire as well as my body’s human rights in equal measure online. The web dating world looks at first glance like either a grammar-school gym or a pussy-grabbing free for all, depending on your particular patriarchal filter, but it doesn’t actually need to be either.

Because man, are there ever a lot of strong women out there on the internet! Let’s own our needs, lusts, and urges, ladies, and not be afraid to assert our hard-earned power.

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