cycling · Uncategorized

Two Bike Cultures: Weighing the Pros and Cons

Women riding as a group. Image credit: carbon addiction
Women riding as a group.
Image credit: carbon addiction

I’m new to the bike, as regular readers will know. Being less than a year into it, I haven’t really settled into any particular ‘culture’ yet. So I need to qualify my comments a bit. I’ve only done a little bit of riding with road cyclists and a little bit of bike training with triathletes.

And I’ve been struggling with the bike over my few months of riding. First it was the clipless pedals. Then there was the issue knowing what a comfortable distance should be and by what increments to increase it (note: doubling previous furthest distance is too extreme for me).

And lately it’s been the demoralizing feeling that I’ll never get faster. And I’ve also got some toe numbness that sets in at about 20km.

And I should add that I’ve got persistent fears of my safety on the road. I don’t fully trust drivers. And though convinced riding in groups is safer than riding alone, I also know that one of the worst bike accidents in our community involved a very experienced cycling group getting taken out by a pick-up truck on a Sunday ride. See the CBC coverage of the death of London artist Greg Curnoe in 1992. Two of my colleagues in the philosophy department were also involved in this accident.

I never feel fully relaxed only bike except when I’m on a bike path (which is a rare occurrence on the road bike) or in a race with closed off or carefully controlled roads. And even on the bike path, there is a high level of unpredictability from pedestrians, skateboarders, other cyclists, dogs, and even geese. See this news report: “Goose attack leaves Ottawa cyclist shaken and scarred.

And finally, my commuter bike makes me feel like a happy kid all over again. I take it at a leisurely pace and enjoy the scenery. The road bike brings out a different kid in me.

On the road bike I often feel like a whiney, difficult child who cannot be reasoned with. I sulk, curse silently to myself, wish I were doing something else , and feel generally inadequate to the task. I have to remind myself that mummy and daddy are not making me do this. It’s not like those blasted tennis lessons when I was twelve. No. I chose this.

Okay. That having been said…

Sam is part of an informal group of road cyclists who go out regularly. She always invites me along. When I do accept, I’m never all that keen. But I know that the only way to get comfortable with something is to do it.

Road cycling culture is all about the group ride, as far as I can tell.  Riding as a group is safer because mostly you’re more visible to drivers. You’re also safer because if anything does happen, you’re not out there all by yourself.  It’s more fun because you can chat with the others as you ride along. I haven’t much gotten into the spirit of this because I’m usually too focused on keeping up, but I have had brief moments of seeing how it could be a thing.

Road cycling also makes it possible to go faster because of drafting. Drafting is that thing where the people in front block the wind for the people in back.  See this Wiki How page. When you’re riding as a group, drafting makes it easier on the people at the back, harder on those at the front. Other things being equal, you rotate responsibilities–people take turns being in front or behind.

I’ve had mixed success being the draftee because in order to really benefit from it, you need to ride quite close to the rear wheel of the person ahead of you. And that scares me. You also need to be able to keep up or feel comfortable telling them when to ease up.  I find both hard to do. I struggle to keep up, and that means I would almost constantly need to ask people to ease up.  This frustrates me.

Road cyclists are more than happy to share their experience and tips.  I’ve learned lots about gear-changing, safety, hill-climbing, even drafting, from riding with Sam and friends.  And they LOVE going out on the bike. This is what they live for, it seems. It’s hard not to get a little bit caught up in their passion for riding, even if I’m not equally passionate about it.

They want you to love it too.  And so generally I’ve found road cyclists to be understanding and encouraging. Sam is the best at this. She is quick to remind me that someone always has to be at the back of the pack. And it used to be her. And it won’t be me forever.  She likes to ask me what would make me like it more. And she consistently offers to ride with me.  She is a big believer that it’s not always necessary to go all out. See her post about fast and slow riding. And her other post It Takes All Kinds.  Thank you, Sam.

But road cyclists are also an in-group, and they have a legendary list of rules that, if not followed, signal you as an outsider.  Here are The Rules. They cover the gamut, from whether the arms of your glasses should go on the outside or inside of your helmet straps (on the outside) to the proper cultivation of tan lines (keep them sharp) to the proper color of bike shorts (black).  There are 100 rules.

So that’s road cycling culture as far as I know it.  My experience of it is kind of mixed, largely because I am riding with a much more experienced group and I am the only new rider. So I feel extremely aware of my newbie-ness.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but it has pushed me well outside of my comfort zone. Again, that’s not always a bad thing, but there is a happy medium, I’m sure.

After the epic ride to Port Stanley a few weeks ago, I was ready to pack in these group rides with road cyclists for awhile because they felt demoralizing to me.  This is when Sam started to talk to me about safety. Try riding with the triathletes, she said, then report back.  Her main complaint is that she doesn’t think they train safely.

I’ve trained with the triathletes three times now, and I tend to agree.  The main reason is that they don’t ride together.

I showed up for my first swim-bike-run training session with the triathlon group a couple of weeks ago.  We swam together with the coach telling us what to do. Since I’m training for the Olympic distance, I was with the group who had to do some extra swimming. By the time I got to my bike, almost everyone was gone.  They weren’t gone together. They were gone separately.

Triathletes ride alone.  I was new to the course, so a very kind Iron distance triathlete named Sarah offered to ride with me. And she did.  For the first 25 or so km she rode alongside me or just a little ahead of me. But this isn’t the way they usually ride. We were on rural roads that had very little traffic. But not NO traffic. And the traffic there was traveled swiftly, at between 80-100km per hour.

For a lot of the last part of the 40 km route, including one harrowing stretch along a busier road where, in Sarah’s words, “drivers along here are stupid,” she rode well ahead of me, waiting for me at the marked route turns.  There is no paved shoulder and very little asphalt to the right of the white line. So whenever a car or transport (!!) whizzed past I just held on.

For these training rides, a support car does drive around the route for the whole time we’re out there, making sure everyone is okay.  But other than Sarah, the only other people I saw from the group were just blurs as they sped past me on their tri-bikes.

The same thing happened to me on the Thursday, when I went for bike-run repeats. I totally get that this is the type of training required for triathlon and the group ride is a different kind of thing. But again I didn’t feel especially safe on the bike course.  The country roads are not heavily trafficked, but the cars on them travel fast.

If for some reason they lost sight of you because the sun was in their eyes, or they swerved over a bit because they were texting or fiddling with the radio, you’d have little chance of surviving the collision.  Being alone just increases the probability of not being seen.

But the triathletes I’ve ridden “with” are in training mode. They’re training to get faster.  Road cyclists aren’t always trying to be as fast as they can and are not always “training.”

In fact, I’ve heard not one but two different road cyclists tell me they don’t train, they “just ride.”

Not just that they’re in training mode, and not just that they don’t ride together. In fact they kind of can’t ride together. Drafting is not allowed in race day. And tri bikes are best when going straight and fast. They don’t handle well in tight corners or situations that call for a sudden turn. Most road cyclist groups won’t let people ride with them on tri bikes because of safety concerns. The aero position is kind of like being on cruise control with your hands off the wheel. Just not the best position from which to respond.

On my third outing with the triathletes, I started out with someone and then, again because she was always waiting for me and it seemed pointless since we weren’t riding together in any way that would make me feel safer and more visible, I released her from that obligation.  There was less traffic than before and, being more familiar with the route, I relaxed into it (which I guess isn’t really the point — it’s not a leisure ride!).

Remember I started out the season with a fear of hills? Well, riding with the roadies has helped a lot with this. My first time on the bike course with the triathletes, a few people mentioned a “nasty hill near the end.”  Because of my bike computer, I knew when I was approaching the last 5 km of the ride. Whenever I came to the top of a hill, I said to myself, “is this the nasty hill they were talking about?”  None of the hills seemed particularly nasty to me.

And when I went to a different location for the bike-run repeats, I took a total wrong turn for two reasons. One, I was not riding with anyone, so no one familiar with the course was there to guide me. And two, the coach said that I was supposed to turn “at the top of the hill.”  I saw no hill at all.  Like I mean nothing I would call a hill.

This made me think back to that other horrible ride in November, when I looked at a hill and said to one of the guys, “I don’t think I can make it up that hill.” And he said, “sure you can. In fact, in time you’ll see that it’s not even a hill.”  Well, that non-hill did defeat me that day. But it’s kind of exciting to be at a place where I can’t tell the nasty hill because none seem nasty, and I miss a turn because I missed the hill that preceded it.

I’ll do some training rides with the triathletes (I now own a reflective vest to wear if I feel unsafe with them). But I’ve decided that I do want to keep riding with the road cyclists.  They have lots to offer, even if I’m not sure I’ll ever truly be “one of them.”

Here’s a primer for triathletes who want to venture out for group rides with road cyclists.