This section of my website used to be dedicated to triathlon training, personal race results and certification reviews, like Turbo Kick. I am expanding it to include more generic health & fitness topics. Also, I talk a lot about "D" -- he's my husband (Dave Liu)!

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Part 2 of 2: Trying to Ride My New Shiny Bicycle

The next time you spot a coordination-challenged petite Asian woman wobbling precariously on a beautiful bike, give her a friendly wave and shout words of encouragement. Because that woman is probably me.

It never occurred to me that I would have trouble cycling now because I was a decent cyclist in my teens. Unfortunately, I had a terrible biking accident on my BMX fifteen years ago and lost all the skin on one side of my right arm. I have not cycled since, but I had convinced myself that I hadn't ridden in the past decade and a half only because I didn't own a bike, not because I had developed an irrational fear of falling/crashing. Besides, I just became a certified indoor cycling instructor. If I can spin, I can ride, right?

My bike sat in my apartment for three weeks before I had the guts to take it out. Finally, last Saturday, I took a deep breath, donned my Rollerblade pads (I wanted to wear wrist guards as well, but I couldn't operate the brakes properly with them on so I ditched them) and walked my bike over to the parking lot.

Against the bike shop's recommendation, I had asked D to lower the bike seat so that I could touch the ground with my toes. I realize that riding like that would compromise my form and cause all sorts of biomechanical stresses on my joints, but that wasn't my biggest problem at that point. Over time, as I grow more confident in my abilities, I'll gradually raise the seat to an appropriate height.

I had no idea what to do. D was at his weekly Saturday Team in Training practice, so I was alone in the parking lot, trying to come up with a plan. Not only did I have a phobia of riding in general, but I had to contend with clipless pedals. This increased the level of difficulty by an order of magnitude. If you're interested in getting a set yourself, here's a more extensive FAQ on the topic. I use SPDs (Shimano Pedalling Dynamics).

D had previously explained to me how experienced bikers use clipless pedals. When they're stopped at intersections, they leave one foot clipped in while the other foot rests on the ground. To get moving, they backpedal to lift the clipped foot to 2 o'clock position, push down, get some momentum going, and then clip the other foot in.

That was as good idea as any, so that's what I did. I clipped in one foot, lifted it, pushed, lost my balance, and screamed "AAAAAAAGGGHHHHHHHHH!" as I toppled over. It was the worst feeling because I knew I was going to fall. I knew I was clipped in. And I knew I couldn't do anything to either stop myself from falling or unclip myself in time. It was all in slow motion. I was like a felled tree. All that was missing was a lumberjack yelling, "TIMMMMBBEEERRRRRRRRR!"

I instinctively stuck my hand out to brace myself and jammed my wrist. Yeah, wrist guards would have been handy at that point. I was slightly shaken but otherwise okay. The only thing that was really hurt was my ego. That and my shattered confidence. At least nobody was around to witness my spectacular wipeout. I sat on my bike for a full two minutes questioning my decision to do a triathlon. I was tempted to quit but I refused to give up. I just had to grit my teeth and try again using another tactic.

Being clipped in from the get-go was clearly a bad idea. Suddenly, a brain wave: why not cycle WITHOUT clipping in? I pushed down on my right foot and started moving. I put my left foot on the other pedal and started cycling. I was really cycling! Woo hoo! The saying is true, you never do forget how to ride a bicycle. After tooling around for a bit, I clipped in both feet and continued to cycle.

I'm not used to cycling on a road bike where the handlebars curve downwards because I have to lean forward and down. D says it's supposed to be easier because my center of gravity is lower, but I would prefer wide handlebars like on a mountain bike. Right now, I can't balance well enough to sit upright or maneuver into any other position because I maintain an unhealthy death grip on the bars. I can't even remove one hand grab my water bottle. I have my work cut out for me.

My next challenge was to unclip and stop. Unclipping was a lot tougher. It took me several tries and after each unsuccessful attempt, I just kept on cycling to regain momentum to make sure I didn't abruptly stop and fall over. After lots of twisting and wrenching, I finally maneuvered myself out of both pedals.

Finally, I had to stop and dismount. Carlos (from Freewheel Bike Shop) had demonstrated how to do this at the store. You're supposed to stand up on the pedal while leaning forward, and step off with the other foot. Here's a better description of how you're supposed to do it. I ended up stumbling off the bike but stayed on my feet.

I've ridden three more times since then, once to Fort Point (the beginning of Golden Gate Bridge), once to the Presidio YMCA, and once on Canada Road which is closed to cars on Sundays from 9AM-3PM. D was with me on the ride on Canada, and he was shocked at how nervous I was. He said my front tire was shaking, which usually only happens to people who are brand new to cycling. I think that was the first time he really appreciated how deeply rooted my phobia is, and that I wasn't just exaggerating. There's only one way around it - practice.

The other piece of cycling news of note is that D & I went to Palo Alto Bicycles on University Ave. to look at some egg beater clipless pedals. Egg beater pedals are better than SPDs for mountain biking because they shed mud easily, and provide a platform wide enough for riding unclipped or with shoes without a cleat. All the people who worked at the store were extremely familiar with the different models, and suggested that D get the Candy SL.

As embarrassingly bad as I am at cycling, one of the reasons I'm writing it is to give others encouragement. If I can cycle (albeit poorly), then so can you! Here are some tips I have for other cycling/clipped pedal newbies:

  • Always wear a biking helmet
  • Learn how to bike WELL with regular pedals first. Biking well includes knowing when and how to shift your gears properly and ride with confidence
  • Use biking gloves. If you fall, at least you won't lose the skin on your hands
  • Wear inline skating elbow and knee pads at first. Wrist guards are probably more helpful but may interfere with your ability to shift gears and operate the brakes
  • Check the tension in your pedals and make them loose so it's easier to get in and out of them. You can tighten them up later once you get the hang of how to use them
  • Have the bike shop that installed the pedals to spray some lubricant on them to make it easier for you to unclip
  • Practice in an open area without traffic, e.g., an empty parking lot, before attempting to ride on the road. If possible, practice on a bicycle trainer which is the most controlled environment for figuring out how to clip/unclip
  • Start pedaling WITHOUT clipping in and then clip in once you get momentum. Over time, you can start with one foot already clipped in
  • Unclip BOTH feet before stopping. When you get comfortable doing that, you can stop by only unclipping one foot
  • If you intend to ride on the road, read this detailed bicycle safety guide first

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