Things I Have Learned While Cycling–A Newbie’s Chronicles

How I began cycling as part of a family of non-cyclists, and handling not being amongst the elite after years of competing with the best athletes around:
I was an avid athlete growing up.  My parents gave me opportunities as a child to pursue various interests, and I tended to be good at endeavors I put my mind to. I’m not bragging, this is just how it was. I was actively involved in both music and athletics by the time I was in fifth grade, and as a 10-year old, there isn’t much vying for your time and attention outside of school except for playtime and hobbies.  I began playing piano when I was in either second or third grade, softball in third grade, trumpet in fifth grade, and basketball in fifth grade.  I was good at recognizing and playing melodies simply by sound on both piano and trumpet, and found a niche on both the basketball court and softball diamond.  When, as I was entering 7th grade, I was absolutely forced to choose athletics or the creative arts (Dad left the choice up to me), it was a somewhat difficult decision, but I opted to choose organized athletics.  The piano I could do for fun, and trumpet was still an option due to concert band being offered as a class in my high school, but sports weren’t something I could develop fundamental skills in without instruction.  They were such a great outlet for my competitive, perfectionist side.
I only had a few close friends growing up and was never really outgoing, so excelling athletically allowed me to get in the spotlight every once in a while.  I loved the pressure, and worked very diligently in the fundamental skills, fine-tuning them and progressing them to become the best athlete I could be.  Eventually, due to circumstances I could not have orchestrated better, I began playing club (tournament) fastpitch softball with some of the best players in Western NY, and to make a long story short, I ended up with a college scholarship to play NCAA Division I Softball at Liberty University.  My competitive side got to live on for another four years.  I never really gave a thought to what I would do after that, and enjoyed the time I had there (I use the term “enjoyed” sort of loosely.  Division I athletics is very difficult on the mind and body, with the day-in and day-out physical demands of training and competing, as well as the mental stress of competition and balancing school and what was essentially my job for four years).  When it ended, I returned to Lynchburg and went for a celebratory long, slow run, that evening which set the course for my next competitive endeavor: running.  That lasted a couple of years, and I did everything from short, 5k road races to half-marathons, to 20+ mile trail runs.  I typically did well, usually placing in the top 3 in my age bracket.  When I moved back to NY, the running was sidelined due to living, social, and work situations.
It really is interesting how who I’ve been surrounded by has impacted my choices of hobbies.  While I tend to be a nonconformist, I also dislike being alone, especially if I’m going to be doing something that is going to kick my tail–I prefer to have someone with me who is experiencing the same torturous greatness. 🙂  In Lynchburg, I had a lot of friends who were runners.  In NY, I had only a few friends and family, and I can’t think of one who enjoys running.  After the 53-mile ride yesterday, I was giving a brief discourse to my sister, and all she could say was that she would have made it a quarter mile and quit.  She and I are so different in our interests, it kind of surprises people.  That being said, don’t try to fit the mold of someone else–you have been created with a unique purpose and unique personality traits and quirks for that purpose.  It might be weird to people (as I’m sure my interests and quirks are to some of you), but they’re unique to you!
How I acquired a bike, since I was dirt poor and could barely afford gas and insurance for my car:
I had wanted to begin cycling, but couldn’t afford a decent bike.  No way was I going to ride a Wal*Mart bike up and down the road.  I had mentioned to a  my childhood best friend’s mother that I’d wanted to begin road riding, as she had just gotten a mountain bike and was beginning to ride, and she knew a gentleman in her church who may be able to set me up with one. She got me in touch with the gentleman who lends out bikes as a ministry, and he fitted me for one.  I soon had a bike for recreational use on both trails and roads (a hybrid). This recreational use became necessity as my car’s brakes quit functioning about two days before I acquired the bike.  My option for getting to work became riding my bike up and down the hills of Wyoming County.
I soon discovered that I quite enjoyed riding, and the stress on my joints was significantly less than that which was imposed by running; this is what helps to make it a viable, beneficial, lifelong activity.
Eventually I got my car fixed and riding to work became a less-frequent occurrence.  The same gentleman lent me the same bike this summer, and I had met some road cyclists through the Y I am working at, and decided that I wanted to begin riding with them.  I have only been able to do group rides about once per week, but they have incorporated some decent hills that I thought had gotten me into decent shape–I haven’t died yet, and to quote the great philosopher Kelly Clarkson, “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
I decided recently that I wanted to try my hand at the racing circuit.  I knew I wouldn’t be competitive with avid road cyclists for two reasons: 1) I haven’t been riding enough this season, nor lifetime (only my second year riding), and 2) I have a hybrid bike with much bigger tires and a heavier frame than any road bike I will face, but I wanted to give it a shot anyways.  There is a ride called “Tour de Per-rY” that has taken place in my hometown since 2008, and I figured this would be a combination of multiple good things: it’s in my hometown, I know the roads, my siblings will be around, and…it’s in my hometown.  Logically, there was no sentimentally better ride to begin with.  I registered, knowing there would be a few tough hills, but had NO idea what I was in for.  Roads look a little different comparatively when you are driving as opposed to riding a bicycle.  What someone considers the “top of a hill” while driving may not truly be the top of a hill.  For a cyclist, the top of a hill is where the incline becomes a flat or downhill.
As a newbie cyclist, I am learning a lot through trial and error, but it seems like ignorance and error.  I’m not sure if any of you are considering taking up cycling, but I’m going to compile a list of some lessons I had the privilege to learn the hard way. I am not claiming to be an expert, but these are some mistakes I have made physically and mentally that I would prefer to not repeat or continue in.
1) SHIFT EARLY AS YOU APPROACH HILLS (i.e. before you actually need to be in the smaller ring.  You can shift the more fine-tuned gears as you climb).  Shifting to a smaller ring (your middle or smallest) in the middle of a hill is extremely difficult and has led to me having to hop off my bike and spin my pedals by hand to get it to shift down, and losing whatever momentum I had going.  This has also often resulted in me almost falling off of my bike as I get started again due to the drastic decrease in resistance.  I’m quite positive it’s an entertaining sight.
2) INVEST IN A GOOD SEAT AND A GOOD PAIR OF CYCLING SHORTS.  You have five points of contact with the bicycle: two hands, two feet, and your patookis.  You bear most of your bodyweight on your butt, which is resting upon your seat, so it’s a major pressure point as well as a site that a lot of chafing is likely to occur due to the repetitive movement of pedaling. While your standard cycling shorts that you can purchase at a sporting goods store may be okay for a sub-20 mile ride (if that), as distances increase, so will the amount of chafing. By mile 15 today, with all of the hills, I was standing up more than I should have been (and ceasing to pedal) just for reprieve for my tush and inner thighs.  This slowed me down tremendously and killed momentum. A wide seat is not ideal for the reason of chafing–the less rubbing your working legs have to endure, the more comfortable your ride will be.  I spent four-and-a-half hours on my seat today, and after the first hour, was standing at any point possible simply to alleviate the chafing and pressure. That made three-and-a-half hours of inefficiency.
3) THE LOCATION OF YOUR WATER BOTTLE HOLDER IS IMPORTANT. If you want to be efficient with your riding and not have to stop every time you need water (thus killing momentum, but sometimes giving needed rest), place your water bottle holder in front of you–it is much more easily accessible while riding.  I have a hydrapak, and I like it because it holds just about anything I could need AND water, but it’s inconvenient to always have to stop and turn my hydrapak hose on if I need a drink (it leaks if it’s in the “on” position and I’m not drinking from it.
4) ALWAYS HAVE EXTRA TIRE TUBES HANDY.  I learned this the hard way.  I ride with road cyclists, and sometimes two guys who ride mountain bikes.  There are no hybrid bikes/bikes with hybrid tires that ride with our group,  so when I got a flat a few weeks back, a road tire tube would not fit the bill.  I had no tube and nothing to inflate it, even if I did.  I ended up riding into town with a gentleman in a truck that the biggest guys in our group flagged down.  If he wasn’t good-hearted and willing to help a bunch of big men, he wouldn’t have stopped.  Yes, I was risky in doing this and do not recommend it, but under-preparedness can get you into dire/risky situations.  It is better to be over-prepared.  I now ride with two extra tubes, CO2 cartridges, and tire irons in case this happens again.
5) FUEL BEFORE YOU NEED IT, AND WITH A LITTLE MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU WILL NEED IF YOU DO NOT KNOW THE COURSE.  Today, during the 53-mile hill adventure, I didn’t fuel up until I was on empty.  Granted, my stomach doesn’t handle anything except water well during athletic competition, especially high-intensity competition, but I should have eaten more Jelly Belly jellybeans at the stop, or at least finished my banana.  I felt them kick in and had a good run until about mile 45.  Suddenly my legs were not wanting to pedal uphill any more.  I spent an awful lot of time in “granny gears” and literally had to stop in the middle of all but two hills over the last eight miles.
6) IF YOU ARE TAKING ON A LONGER RIDE THAN YOU ARE USED TO, RIDE WITH SOMEONE CONVERSATIONALLY-GIFTED.  If they are in better shape than you, they can talk a lot more and help take your mind off of the fact that your legs are burning and no longer want to pedal. It’s nice to have someone to ride with, and though it may be frustrating that they’re carrying on a monologue while you are on the verge of hyperventilating (happened to me today after a stretch of hills in Letchworth.  We got to the top and I started wheezing and hyperventilating. This hasn’t happened since college, and when I was at Liberty, that only happened because I got so mentally worked up and mad (usually myself or my strength coaches because of a particularly tough conditioning workout)).  There was absolutely no anger involved today–this was pure effort-induced. Needless to say, having someone with me who was patient and encouraging was tremendous in helping me finish.  Taking a shorter route back was extremely tempting from mile 3 through the end of Letchworth (approximately mile 43 or 44), but having the sweeper riding with me was an added level of accountability.
7) JUST KEEP GOING. You will not be riding forever–even a slow progression is still progression, and eventually you will finish!  As with any endurance event, it is not a sprint.  I know my maximum speed on a flat, without drafting, is around 23-24mph. No way I was going to be at that pace for 53 miles, let alone 1 mile.  When I began trail running, I was shocked at how slowly people ran.  After 16+ miles, I found out why.  You can keep going much easier moving at a slower speed than if you’re running at PR mile-pace. Don’t just go slow to make it easy, but really pace yourself and put yourself in a good position to FINISH. If you need to slow down or rest, slow down or rest. Just make sure every movement is in the direction of the finish, not away from it. You will get there! To quote a beloved professor in the elite ultramarathoning (and now elite mountain biking) world, “IT NEVER ALWAYS GETS WORSE!” 🙂 No matter how bad you feel, if you keep working at what you’re doing and can keep moving, eventually things will improve, or you’ll finish.
8) DEAD-LAST IS BETTER THAN NOT-AT-ALL OR DOING LESS THAN PUSHING YOURSELF. You will not get better without challenging yourself–you will simply plateau or digress.  I know I could have done well on the 17-mile course, but that wouldn’t have been what I consider to be enough of a challenge. I can easily ride 17 miles; I’ve never ridden longer than 35 miles, and wanted to prove I can do it, as well as be stronger for my rides with my Cycling Club group.  The guys kick my tail, and it is beyond frustrating.  For someone who has been a dominating athletic presence in any athletic endeavor I have been involved in, being dead-last is a humbling experience to say the least.  Dead-last means you finished, and for me that meant finishing something I never imagined doing–that in itself is a success.
9) PUSH YOURSELF BEYOND WHAT YOU THINK TO BE YOUR LIMITATIONS. A tough ride, especially the first ride, is mentally difficult to overcome if you do not do well or keep up with everyone else.  From a conditioning perspective, it gets better.  Your body will adapt to the increased challenge and become stronger and more efficient.  I know I could have done well in the 17-mile ride, but 17-miles would not have been the challenge I needed to get beyond where I am in mental and physical toughness.  The longer, more hilly route presented a greater challenge and a greater sense of accomplishment.
10) STAY VISIBLE AND DO WHAT YOU CAN TO NOT GET HIT BY OTHER MOVING VEHICLES. There were many roads I had considered riding that are included in the course, but I never was able to work up the gall to ride them by myself, out of fear of being struck by a car.  This happening to a friend recently did not alleviate the fear, despite her winning the battle and destroying the car’s mirror, but it was a major reality check–ALWAYS be visible and do what you can to protect yourself.  Wear a helmet, wear brightly colored clothing, hug the white line unless a paved shoulder or bike lane is present.
11) ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE.  You will be crossing paths with people you may not ever see except in competition.  Enjoy the company and enjoy the scenery.  The combination of these factors will make for an unmatched, great all-around experience and chance to develop new friendships.  Even if you only see these people at cycling events, it will give you more to look forward to than just the ride. I was surprised to see a few people I know from my hometown and from my Cycling Club at the ride today.  It is kind of a surreal experience to have both worlds together in one grand experience, but I so enjoyed it!

As a rule, if it makes you inefficient, avoid it; if it makes you efficient, go for it.

If there is anything else you think  I should include on this list based on your experience with running, cycling, competition in general, PLEASE share!! Your experiences will benefit others, so don’t keep them to yourself! Someone may need to read what you have learned!!

The ride this morning started at 8am, with sunny skies and temperatures comfortably in the 60’s. I parked my car behind the house I grew up in for nostalgia’s sake.  After taking my bike out of my car, I rode over to the registration table.  Knowing almost nothing about the course led to the lady doing registration to assume I was not local; little did she know I was 100yds local. I had a few friends riding today, but after the start did not see a single one. I fell into the middle/back of the pack somewhat quickly, and this is where I stayed.  I never truly realized how hilly Wyoming County is until today.  I’ve driven every single one of the roads we rode on, but never paid much attention to the terrain. After the first hill (which was more challenging than I had anticipated), we hit a bit of a flat/rolling hill section with a beautiful view of Silver Lake and the valley for a few miles, only to catch some hills on a few back roads, and catch some much longer hills once we reached Route 19.  By the time I had gotten to Route 19, I was almost last, with the exception of a rider or two. Those hills were tough, and though I was not planning to stop and get water until Pike, I succumbed with about 5 miles to go before the aid station.
Upon reaching the aid station (and being extremely grateful to not have to ride the hill up out of Pike), I signed in, got some water and jellybeans, and made a bathroom stop.  My legs were already feeling the ride, and not even being halfway, I refused to think about how they would feel by the end of the ride. I spent about 10 minutes at the aid station, and took off on my merry way after some directions from the race director.  I didn’t hit much of a flat section until Lamont Road, which was about 22-23 miles into the ride.  This ride was much different from the ones I’d done in Allegany County, with flats in the beginning and some big hills in the middle/end.  The Letchworth Loop had a lot of back-to-back hills, and they were short and steep, not long and gradual like in the Southern Tier.
Letchworth was essentially the rebirthing of the hills on the course, but by then my legs had recovered enough to tackle them. I was already giving my tush some reprieve at this point, so my pace had slowed a bit due to bouts of standing and not pedaling.  By the time I’d entered the park, the sweeper (Dan) had caught me, so we were riding together.  On one of the tougher climbs in the park, I “chicked” him–this is a new term to me.  Apparently if a guy is beat by a girl on a hill, he has been “chicked” and has a negative effect on street cred in the cycling community.
The race director showed up about 3/4 of the way through the park, at the top of the toughest hill we faced in the park and  just after a hill I had begun to hyperventilate at the peak of in response to the intense effort required to complete it, which was just in time to refill my water because mine was warm and I needed something cool and rehydrating. From there, we only had a few miles and a few hills left to climb in the park.  After exiting the park, I stopped halfway up the majority of hills due to fatigue or being in the wrong gear and not being able to shift without almost falling off my bike.  I should have refueled when I refilled my water, but didn’t, so with about 5 miles left, he made me stop and refuel with my Jelly Belly Jellybeans. Be careful which jellybeans you use in combination.  🙂
I never realized that Water Street Road (yes, that is its official name) has quite a nasty incline, especially after 50 miles, but that hill almost did me in.  The final kicker was Watrous Ave, which is about 100yds of a steep incline.  It’s not too bad for the first half, but the second half leaves you with a lot of muscular burning and breathing really heavily.  Thankfully from the top to downtown, it’s all downhill.  I was met by the race director close to the end with a high-five, as well as people at the finish with high-fives, water, and encouragement.  After four-and-a-half hours on my bike seat, a lot of lessons were learned, ideas mulled over, beauty appreciated, sweat excreted, sunshine enjoyed, and experience under my belt.
Next year, I will be doing this race again…with a legitimate road bike.  It will be an even playing field.
🙂

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One comment

  1. Jo Ann · · Reply

    I feel famous being mentioned in you blog! Lol! Keep riding.

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