In honor of my one year anniversary at Trek, it’s only fitting that I blog about bikes, specifically my experience getting myself back on the bike and learning to enjoy cycling again after a nasty crash this winter. I know that I get encouragement from others who share how they were afraid and managed to move ahead anyway, so I hope someone stumbles across this post via Google someday and gets a boost back onto their own bike.
Thanksgiving morning 2012 was unusually warm for Wisconsin, a gentle fall day of uncommonly kind temps for November. I decided to take a ride on my new Trek 7.6 FX WSD before heading out to family gatherings for days of gluttony. There was no traffic on the roads of my little town. “How fantastic, I can finally take the lane out here! No longer banished to the sidewalk on the north side!”, I thought. And then, just in front of Culvers, a rapid succession of “Cement crack…going diagonally? Oh, this is going to suck…*WHOMP!* No, you can’t lay here and moan, this is a road, there are cars, get up!” My front tire – a mere 25mm wide at that time – was sucked into an expansion crack in the road and we flipped end over end. Years of falling off horses taught me how to roll through a fall, but concrete has no bounce, so technique only gets you so far. I hobbled over to my bike, pulled it off the road, and sat on the sidewalk to call a taxi to pick us up. I did my best not to snivel or whimper too much on the ride home, but after I got out of the shower I realized my right shoulder and elbow had no intention of helping me get dressed again. My bravery began to crack. It was clearly a soft tissue injury, but my dominant arm was now out of commission. Happy Thanksgiving?
I avoided the doctor’s office until after the Thanksgiving holiday, grumbling that I’d be damned if I was going to sit in a waiting room for hours only for them to tell me to do what I’d already been doing: ice, NSAID’s, ace bandage, and not using the arm. The last part wasn’t hard to remember, as my right side alternated between being breathtakingly painful and feeling unnervingly unstable. My family cared for me over that weekend, but I finally gave in and went to the doctor the week after. Diagnosis: a sub-luxed collarbone (a dislocation that snaps back) and a bang to my right elbow that left the joint filled with fluid. I began months of physical therapy, which slowly brought my right arm back, though the pain took longer to recede than I expected. However, I was a horse owner – we know how long those cursed soft tissue lameness issues take to resolve, and at least I didn’t have to be on stall rest. By early April, I was able to open doors normally and heft a feed bag onto my shoulder – now we were getting somewhere! I set my bike – no worse for wear after a checkup at my local bike shop – on a trainer in the basement to start strengthening myself for that posture again. Winter was reluctant to release its grip on Wisconsin, so I had plenty of time to get ready to ride outside again. Piece of cake…right?
What Physical Therapy Didn’t Address: Calcified Fear
I expected that I’d be a little nervous the first time I got back on my bike. I didn’t expect the crippling panic that seized me once I pedaled out of my neighborhood. I hadn’t been able to “get back on the horse” right after the accident, and in the ensuing months my lizard brain had stored away its assessment of the danger and judged the whole experience as something to be prevented at all costs. I returned to my house in tears. Where had the “whee!” gone? Thinking that I needed to change the feel if the ride to remove the fear trigger, I researched wider tires. It was an education in itself, and I stared at product images, read vehement forum arguments about just how wide a tire my wheel could accommodate, and pestered colleagues and a few bike shops for their opinion. I settled on Bontrager LT-1 35’s for their combination of a little extra grip yet also smooth road handling. With ten extra millimeters of width and some gnarly knobs on the sides, I set out on my bike again. The ride was worse than the last attempt. Every bump, crack, and tar line seemed to flash with neon intensity. The klaxons sounded in my head, “BODY IN DANGER! BODY IN DANGER! ABORT! ABORT! RETURN TO SAFETY IMMEDIATELY!!!” I worked for a bike company, and I was terrified to ride a bike. Problem squared! What was I to do? I was hyper-sensitive to every flaw in the road, every stick, every sidewalk crack, every car. I didn’t want to be miserable on my bike. I wanted the “whee!” back.
To be honest, I found very little for practical support online for my dilemma. Sure, you could go on a bike forum and maybe get a *hugs!* from a stranger, but that wasn’t going to be enough. I needed a how-to, a purposeful way to get out of my fear pit. I never did find anything, but I’m documenting what I learned here.
What Got Me Through
Wider tires: The extra grip and more aggressive tread allowed me to ride on some crushed limestone trails that were well away from traffic when I needed as safe a space as possible to retrain my brain. I still get great performance for my needs on the roads now, but it’s nice to know I can take a shortcut across grass or gravel, or take advantage of the wonderful “rails to trails” options in Wisconsin. I don’t seek out cracks in the road, but it’s nice to know I’m not quite so vulnerable to getting trapped as I was with 25 mm tires.
Cycling “kit”: Hang around enough bike dudes and you’ll soon find out that a “kit” is your cycling clothes, often involving lycra. In my own case, my kit was also my armor. If I put on my cycling clothes, I was dedicating myself to riding my bike dammit. I would look like I knew what I was doing, even if I was still jelly inside. Pay no attention to my slow speed, I am willing to wear padded shorts in public, I must be an American cyclist!
Visibility gear: I’ve heard commentators say that hi-vis gear isn’t really necessary for cycling safety. I disagree, and love having my headlight, taillight, high-vis-yellow jersey, and even reflective leg bands. I know they make me feel safer, and I really don’t care if they’re not cool. The town I live in sees very few cyclists in general, I’d rather employ a few extra tricks to help them see me if the day is gray or the light is waning. I don’t use all of them all the time, but I use my taillight every ride, and keep my reflective armbands on my frame when not in use for a little visibility boost. Incidentally, the cheap safety vests available at hardware or sporting goods stores work perfectly well, too, and can be added over layers quite easily. A helmet mirror like the Take a Look cycling mirror is another favorite of mine, as when the wind is in my ears, I want to see whether that minivan is going around me or has a distracted driver I need to be aware of.
Acknowledge Every Success: If you’ve ever trained a pet, you know how important it is to break something complex into smaller steps and reward profusely for every step forward. It worked out the same for retraining my brain to enjoy riding my bike. Via Endomondo on my phone, a robot lady could announce every mile I traveled and my speed over that mile. You’d be surprised what a lift it is to improve your time, even if it’s just by a few seconds. I also made sure to notice every time I went a little further, or even if I’d felt like going a little further when I’d finished. Given how hyper-aware my brain was of DANGER in the beginning, it was also a happy day when I realized my mind had wandered during a ride (luckily on a protected trail). For a few moments, I was thinking about the day ahead instead of what unseen peril lurked around the corner.
Posture: Just as good equitation is key to riding a horse, posture is key to riding a bike. It affected my comfort level and how safe I felt. For example, I discovered that my anxiety on the bike was causing me to lock my arms. Not only is that a position that feeds your fear, it’s also a great way to make your front tire feel wobbly and to make your hands go numb. Learning to loosen my arms to receive the front end over bumps significantly improved how stable I felt. I still have problems with numbness if I’m on a route with a lot of hills, but if I pump my arms to flex my elbows a bit, it usually gets better. I also discovered a technique that I’ll call “bike dressage” for cornering – I stretch my head and spine upward around the turn, poised and upright. This is NOT a technique for maximum speed, but I feel more balanced and don’t snatch at the brakes as often.
Just as my old hunter/jumper instructor used to say, don’t look at the ground unless you want to go there. I check the road, but “eyes up!” is a useful correction for my bike equitation, too. People who ride horses are also used to being told to open their shoulders, and the more I could get my shoulders open and back, the less time I spent with my body in a fear-feeding hunch.
Favorite Routes: I applied a little of what one learns when desensitizing a horse to spooky objects to my riding routes approach. I scouted roads for problems (pavement conditions, traffic, steep hills) ahead of time, and used repetition to build confidence. Each time I rode a familiar route, my neurons rewired a little more towards “good” and away from “bad”. There’s a stretch of very new road near Trek headquarters in Waterloo that is clear, wide, smooth, and absolutely deserted during weekdays, and that was my go-to for any time I needed to end the ride on a good note. If I’d felt rattled from a big truck rumbling past me earlier, I’d spend another lap on that pristine boulevard to shake off the nerves.
Herd Support: If by chance you’re a confident cyclist reading this for amusement, I have a message: you can make a tremendous difference for a nervous or novice cyclist by being kind to them. In June, a colleague who can swoop along on her Domane with the best of them did me unending good when she slowed up and rode alongside me on the way back. Perhaps she could see the panic I was not hiding as well as I thought, but those few miles of physical support and pleasant conversation are something I am so grateful for. Another colleague joined me on the Glacial Drumlin Trail one night after work, and that success gave me another for the “win” column. Every success matters, and not having to go it alone makes it much easier to succeed. And for heaven’s sake have some fun, like the time a colleague and I “got our mile” for the National Bike Challenge via an impromptu ride loop around the neighborhood behind the campus, then returned to brag about our (totally imagined) record speed. It was casual, it was silly, and it was still worthwhile.
Even anecdotes can help. I once overheard a “proper cyclist” in the women’s locker room joking about her fear of leaning forward to improve her downhill speed – brought her teeth all the closer to the pavement in her mind. If a lycra gazelle like her could be afraid once in awhile, maybe it was OK for me to be a little wobbly, too. Another proper rider chimed in with a perfect antidote to her mental visuals of disaster: “Don’t think about that. Think about how well built your bike is, how stable you feel, how good the ride feels.” Visualize the win, no matter how you’re measuring it.
On the flip side, get ye far, far away from those who would sneer, tease, or bully you. If the others you would ride with will be frustrated by your speed, just let them go ahead and make your own progress in your own way.
Give Yourself a Break Because it Takes Time: As of this post, I’ve been riding my bike again for about four and a half months. The switch from rides that mostly scared me to rides that I mostly enjoy took probably three of those months. Progress was slow, but it was there. I had days where I had to scrap it completely, once when I was less than a mile out of the garage. I had to listen to my body that day, and I am still listening to find the sweet spot between doable and overload.
The Road Ahead
I’m not a professional cyclist, I’m a data geek who wants to enjoy cycling. I wasn’t sure I’d even get from terrified to grim acceptance for awhile there, but I’m pedaling my way back. I’m still not a fast rider, especially by Trek employee standards, and I’m still not at my best downhill. In the end, what matters is that I’m meeting my goal to get the “Whee!” back. I vividly remember the day it returned, swooping down a little hill on a side road. I promise that it can come back for you, too. Happy riding!