The satisfying ‘click’ of pushing each shoe into my pedal clips. The whir of my thin, super-pressurized tires skimming over the pavement. The wind on my skin, and the powerful push I get when shifting gears to lift my speed to more than 30 kilometres per hour.
These are all wonderful things. (Note to veteran road cyclists: I don’t blame you if you want to skim over this article. These are the musings of a novice who is just getting to know the sport; you know well the thrill of cycling.) And I would never have experienced them if I hadn’t had a chance to spend a few days with Olympian Clara Hughes 10 short months ago. Best Health readers may recall that I got the chance last December to interview Hughes, my hero, when I went to the California training session of her professional road cycling team, Specialized’Lululemon. I had a chance then to try road cycling for the first time, on a borrowed bike, and wrote about the experience in the same issue of Best Health.
After the articles appeared, Caitie Croza of Paradigm PR in my hometown of Toronto emailed me with a challenge: to cycle 100 kilometres in Ride for Karen, a charity ride in September that Paradigm supports. It was started 11 years ago by Karen Tobias’s two grown sons, Kris and Kirk, when Karen died of breast cancer. They wanted a legacy celebrating their mom’s kind-hearted nature, and decided to raise funds to send kids with cancer to camp. How could I refuse?
Then again, how could I do 100K when I didn’t even own a bike? Riding 40K one day in California on flat surfaces was tough, and left my lower body’including, of course, my bum’sore for days. Well, I’d have to start somewhere, and that would mean getting a bike of my own: a Specialized model called Dolce that’s made for women. At the end of May, I was fitted for it at Gears bike shop in Mississauga, a process so thorough it took two hours. I also needed a pair of cycling shoes that clip to the pedals. This was the part that scared me most of all: having to be attached to the pedals. I knew doing so would be a key to having maximum power, because unlike with regular pedals, you get not only the power of pushing it down, but of pulling it back up. All the same, it’d take some getting used to. Wouldn’t I fall over?
Yes, I would! Twice during my ‘summer of the bike’ I fell on my left side, bike and all, although luckily both times I was at a standstill and only bruised my right calf as it slammed onto the toothed gear wheel. (In fact, I still have the little indent scars’a kind of battle wound that I actually sort of like.)
Other discomforts: the dreaded sore bum. But that didn’t last more than a few rides; padded cycling shorts help. Then there were the aching trapezius (shoulder/neck) muscles after the first two rides’back to Gears for an adjustment. But the scariest development was a numb, powerless left hand after a long ride in August, a condition called ‘handlebar palsy’ that’s caused by pressure on the ulnar nerve. It can lead to permanent damage. Back to Gears again, where I had my handlebars angled a little closer toward me so I wasn’t putting as much weight on them. That was my final adjustment: My bike is now perfect, and I haven’t had problems since. (See how important fit is?)
By the time the big day, Sept. 9, finally came along, I’d raised $5,754 (of more than $200,000 in total!). And I’d put 677K on my bike. Sounds like a lot of distance, right? The catch is, all but 70 kilometres were on flat bike paths. I had done only one ride, a 70K, on the Ride for Karen route on the hilly roads north of Toronto; Kris Tobias had kindly taken me out one Saturday and coached me on hill climbing. I survived, but barely.
So I was truly scared I wouldn’t be able to do 100K, and that even if I could, what if it took me more than five hours? That would be embarrassingly slow. Then there was fear of rain, which I had zero experience riding in. The night before the ride, the forecast was iffy (my husband, Jules, said I was fretfully talking about rain in my sleep).
But the day dawned cool and sunny. ‘Before I knew it, we were off. The group I started with, whom I had just met, quickly spread out and I was riding alone, until a guy named Eric joined me. We ended up riding the whole thing together and I never even got his last name! He was far more experienced but wanted a measured pace, and said he was happy to go at my speed. Thank goodness; it would have been even tougher to do this alone.
The downhill parts were awesomely fast and fun but, man, was climbing hard. And the flats weren’t easy, either; my legs were burning for most of the ride. But whenever I felt done in, I’d think of what Kirk Tobias (who was doing the 160K version) had told me in an email the day before, and it would give me a lift: ‘Keep your head up and enjoy the journey. One kilometre at a time; enjoy the other riders, the scenery and the beauty of the day. I think of Karen a lot when I ride, and about the kids battling cancer, and I always seem to find that little bit of extra ‘something’ to get me over the hills and back to the finish.”
Yes, I made it, and it was an amazing feeling to cross the finish line’even more so since the route was in fact 105K. I did it in four hours, 40 minutes. But for me, this is just the beginning.