Reflections on learning to ride | January 30, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

- January 30, 2009

Reflections on learning to ride

by Geoff Gillette

Two years ago I made the momentous decision to participate in the AIDS Lifecycle ride, a 565-mile trip down the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles in the beginning of June. It took me exactly one training ride to figure out just how much I was out of my depth.

I got out on the Iron Horse Trail, one of the flattest pieces of pavement you are likely to find in the Tri-Valley, and pointed my trusty steed south. I gave myself a three-hour time limit and set off. I turned back at Alcosta Boulevard, tired and sweaty, certain that the wind must have been blowing at least 30 miles an hour right in my face. Imagine my disappointment when I realized I'd only gone about 15 miles. How the heck was I going to make an 80 mile per day average when I could barely clock in at 5 mph?

I didn't know Greg Thurston then, I belonged to a gym that I sort of vaguely knew where it was, and I generally spent about 10 minutes a day in the saddle, mostly ferrying my kids to and from school.

But six months later, I rode every inch of The Ride and a little extra (I got lost, but that's a different story). How did I do it? The things I worked at hardest in training were endurance and listening. If you are participating in a big event, chances are pretty good that there's a support system set up to help you train. Whether it be online forums, scheduled events or free access to a gym or training facility, you have the opportunity to be around other people doing the same training you are.

For me, training rides were a lifesaver. They taught me how to ride and use my bike the way it should be. Training rides start out in January with lower speeds and fewer miles, and by the time you get to May, you are riding 70-80 miles at a time, with back-to-back long rides to simulate the conditions of The Ride. I learned a lot from these rides. How to properly shift, the importance of keeping a good cadence when pedaling, and when to eat or drink. The credo of the training ride leaders was always: Eat or drink before you get hungry or thirsty. The idea being that if you are already feeling the signs, your body is already reacting to the lack of food and it's too late. The key, many said, was to keep your fuel tank topped off as much as possible so you had plenty of energy for long flat stretches or the grueling climbs along the route.

Another thing I learned from listening to other cyclists is getting good quality gear. It's not necessary to have a $3,000 Giant road bike to do a long distance ride. You just need to have a decent bike with a relatively light frame and good components. Especially brakes. When you're going down a hill at 40 mph, you don't want to be scrimping on the machinery that lets you stop safely.

Bike shorts are a must. If you're concerned about how you'll look in spandex with a cushioned seat, replace that image with one of how you'll feel trying to sit down with your nether regions bruised and abraded to the point of bleeding.

Physically, I was on the bike at least twice a week for the six months leading up to the event, sometimes even more. In poor weather I found my way to the gym and used the stationary bike. Weekends were spent all over the Bay Area, riding with groups working toward the same goal. Having that commitment also helps on days with low motivation.

If you do persevere, put up with the aching quads and sore glutes, you will find that your ability to ride longer distances will increase. I eventually found that no matter how tired I might feel in the morning, once I passed that 20-mile mark my body seemed to slip into a rhythm. Call it muscle memory or learned response, my body adapted to the rigors of distance riding. My breathing steadied to the point where only the most daunting hills caused me to breathe heavily. And my legs hit a state where they almost seemed to complete rotations without conscious thought.

There's a calmness to riding, a stillness on the road when you hear only the drum of your heart, the hiss of your breath and the clicking of your gears. It feels good, moving smoothly through early morning fog or bright California sunshine. It's not heaven, but it is bliss.


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