Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Moving past the fear

This post is for Linda. :-)

I wasn't allowed to ride bikes when I was a kid. My parents were older than most parents of kids my age, and they encouraged us to do "indoor" activities. My best friend taught me to ride a bike, when I was probably about 8, by showing me how to launch myself down a set of stairs at the school she was living at. Unfortunately my mum also worked at the school, so my lessons were cut short (and there went my career as a professional downhill racer...). My sister and I were given bikes for Christmas one year. They had 3 gears and were cutting edge at the time. I remember the neighbours stopping me as I did my endless laps of the cul-de-sac we lived in (we weren't allowed to ride beyond the bounds of the cul-de-sac) asking about these new fandangled inventions called gears. I was very proud.

But then school and life got in the way, and the bike got relegated to the garage. My bike was finally dusted off again when I moved to Canberra, so that I had something to commute on at Uni. I'd ride my bike into civic from ANU to get me to work, and I vaguely remember a friend at the time commenting that I rode like a mad woman, up and down the pavement, around pedestrians, cars, etc. I suspect that was because I was always running late.

That bike was unfortunately stolen from out the front of the college I lived in at some point during my first year. I was a little bit devastated about my loss, but quickly saw the opportunity it presented: I could get an upgrade! So some friends took me bike shopping, and it wasn't long until I was the proud owner of an industrial yellow mountain bike that even had front suspension. The only problem with that was the expectation that I should take it mountain biking. This wouldn't have been a problem if I had actually known how to ride the thing. Unfortunately I didn't. The first problem was that the brakes were set up opposite to how much little commuter had been set up. This caused me two trips to hospital (not to mention expensive dental work!) in what was practically the first week I owned the bike! Hmmm... these incidents didn't take me long to realise I was in way over my depth. I probably knew at the time that I should have quit while I was behind, but failing is not something I like to do, so I persevered until I could ride that da*mn bike. I would ride it everyday - commuting on bike paths, fire trails, single track, you name it and I would (try to) ride it. I finally got to the point that I felt vaguely competent on it, but I was always a bit too wary to really enjoy riding hard. Unsurprisingly, as life got in the way, my mountain bike got relegated to the garage.

It wasn't until some years later that a colleague signed me up to do the Hartley Lifecare Cycle Challenge. I'd never been on a road bike before (in fact it had been years since I'd been on a bike of any form!), but sure, why not sign up for the ride (which entailed riding from Canberra to Charlotte's Pass and back over 3 days) in just over 3 months time. So I bought my first road bike. Straight away, road cycling gelled with me. It seemed to be more about fitness than skill (at least it was based on the training that I was doing then, which was just to ride my bike as much as I could), so my lack of nerve didn't seem as relevant. I loved the act of cycling, the social side of cycling, the freedom of cycling and couldn't get enough of it. I remember getting back from the Hartley Cycle Challenge and not wanting to stop riding, despite having lived on the bike for basically 3 days straight.

Enter more life interruptions (in the form of a couple of babies) and I was ready to get back on the bike again. I rode with some good friends and then we decided to train up for a few events together. We were eagerly anticipating our first post-baby race, but when the race came, I only managed to stay upright for 1km or so before the person in front of me braked suddenly and I ran up the back of him, coming down hard and bringing a fair proportion of the bunch down with me. My bike was the most serious casualty of that crash, but I also managed to break and dislocate my collarbone. It didn't need surgery fortunately, but it did render me out of action for a good few weeks after the event.

I got back on the bike and started training again. I spent most of my time training alone (either on the wind trainer or just riding solo or with, at most, a couple of friends), so while I was getting stronger fitness-wise, I wasn't doing much to recover my loss of confidence in a bunch. I was very hesitant about the idea of riding with people I didn't know, and I was also concerned that people didn't want to ride with me because of what I perceived to be my lack of skill: I hated the idea of being the person that everyone would tell others to steer clear of in the bunch.

And then I came off again, unfortunately a little more seriously this time. A car stopped to give way to me at a t-intersection, and then "forgot" I was there when I was directly in front of him and he accelerated into me. I can piece together exactly what happened, but I can't remember much after the initial impact, not so much because I hit my head, but because I closed my eyes to pretend it wasn't happening. My injuries were a little more serious after this accident and kept me off the bike for a couple of months post-accident.

When I realised that physically I was probably able to get back on the bike, I struggled with the mental side of getting back on. I wanted to get back on the bike to prove to myself that I could, but the idea of getting back on and going through what I'd just gone through again made me feel physically sick. I was also struggling with the appropriateness of the level of risk represented by cycling (given what had just happened) when I had two small children at home.

Some good friends organised a nice gentle "return to the bike" ride for me about 2 months after my accident. One friend came to my house to make sure that I would not have to ride any part of the ride solo. We rode super slowly and carefully, largely on the bike path, to meet the others. I was shaking for most of it - everything about riding felt wrong: my body still hurt; my legs weren't functioning the way they used to; I was on a different bike / different helmet, etc. But when I met up with the rest of the girls and we started riding, it started to feel OK again. Over time, I started going out with the girls most weekends. I had a great time when I was with them, but as soon as they turned off and I had to ride those last few kms home alone, I felt like I was constantly holding my breath and trying not to cry - I cannot describe the sense of relief I felt when I made it home to my front door.

During this time, I decided that I didn't really want to get back into training on the bike. I thought that I could probably continue to have the occasional ride with friends on weekends, but that would be enough. It had been fun, but, in my mind, it was in the past. It's only now that I can honestly say that it was the fear talking. Most of you who will be reading this know me and know how much I LOVE riding my bike and what I get out of it. I love pushing myself as hard as I can on my bike, getting fitter and faster, the company, the adventures... Yep, I just love it.

Fortunately for me, Rach started the Valkyries. Despite having reconciled that my bike riding days were over, I was somehow tempted to join: if I had a regular group to ride with, maybe I could just slot in and enjoy some good company on a nice leisurely weekend ride followed by coffee? Maybe? So I turned up to my first PROD and it was pretty fun, despite me still feeling slow and unfit and terrified of traffic and other cyclists...

Then somehow I let Brad talk me into training up for the Tour of Bright with the V-max squad. I remember my first bunch ride with the guys: I spent most of the ride hanging metres off the back terrified that I was going to come crashing down and would not want to get back up again. I kept getting told to push up closer on the wheel in front, but I couldn't bring myself to do it, so I worked way too hard getting no draught off anyone, despite me being the smallest and least fit person in the group. I remember thinking I was way out of my depth in that group and I think the only reason I persevered was because I knew Bright was an uphill race, and that would mean that I could pretty much do it at my own pace and not worry about other riders.

It's been 12 weeks now since I started training again. I can't say exactly when it happened, but at some point over the past 12 weeks I stopped being scared. Each ride just got a bit easier. I've thrown a few races in during this period as well, which have been great for stopping me thinking so much about "how" I'm riding, and just get on with the job of riding and letting it come naturally.

There's definitely a direct correlation between me losing the fear and my skill on the bike increasing (the more scared I was, the worse my bike handling skill as I think I was basically fighting the bike rather than using it as my tool on the road). I even like going fast downhills and around corners now! I'll never be renowned for my "extreme bike handling skills", but I think now that I'm a bit more confident on the bike again, I'm easier to ride with as I'm more predictable for those around me. I still flinch (and occasionally slow down / swerve!) whenever I see a car coming towards me from the left at an intersection, but I'm quite happy to get up close and personal with other people / their wheels, etc. I think having an awareness / respect for the dangers of what we're doing is very important, as it helps inform us of appropriate levels of risks to take when riding and it makes us better riders.

I think females are generally less confident on bikes than men, whether that's because we don't tend to "grow up on a bike" as much as our male counterparts or something else I'm not sure. We over-analyse things when we can't do them, thinking over and over and over about our perceived lack of skill rather than celebrating the skills we actually have.

So my tips for moving past the fear:
* don't beat yourself up about being scared - everyone gets scared sometimes and you don't have to be brave all the time;
* try to figure out what it is you're actually scared of (eg, physical pain of falling off generally, a specific "skill" on the bike, such as cornering / descending, etc) and talk to other cyclists (preferably ones that actually seem to know what they're doing!) about how they handle particular situations;
* when things go wrong, try to remember that these are the best learning opportunities you'll get on the bike;
* take a moment to think about how far your bike skill has progressed since you first started riding and be proud of yourselves for every inch of that achievement;
* keep riding your bike - nothing can help more than time on the bike (particularly if it involves good company and good coffee (aka the ride debrief) afterwards);
* remember that everyone has a bad day now and then (for whatever reason), and that this doesn't mean you're a bad rider; and
* when you are having a bad day / patch on the bike, remind yourself of what it is you love about riding your bike - don't let a few bad incidents get in the way of all the positive things you get out of riding your bike.

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