Friday, April 25, 2014

Memoirs of a Newbie Cyclist. Part 1!

Memoirs of a Newbie Cyclist 
- Michael Grome
The race! But, first, I had to learn to ride a bike... 

Part 1

Here's a bit of background about me, concerning bikes, of course:

Every milestone surrounding bicycles for me has been filled with dread. As a kid, I was one of the last boys in my neighborhood to learn to ride a bike. I was scared to death of it. My father would take me up to the top of grassy hill, set me on a bike, give me a push, and yell, "Pedal!" Fearful of learning this way, I took one afternoon, when no one was around, and rode in circles in my driveway until I could stay upright. I don't know if it was my desire to ride, or my fear of learning from my father again, but I learned. In all seriousness, both were excellent motivation.
Several years later, still a child, I loved riding bikes down hills. The thrill of speeding down steep gradients at fast speeds drove me one day to try an extraordinarily steep downhill road that ended in a 90o turn. I started at the base and rode down. Eh, not high enough, I thought. Let's go a little higher, I told my bike. So I did, and then higher, and then higher, and then I was halfway up, holding my bike steady with a single foot on the ground. Excited to test my metal, I lifted my leg and began my descent... but it was too steep. The inertia drove me straight between two trees, with the handlebars caught between them, while I continued through. I didn't break anything, but it was enough to scare me from riding quickly down hills until age 22 (Yeah, I'm serious; last fall).
But I wanted to cycle.

Conquering them:
The reason why is unknown. I just felt compelled. That moment you feel an unrelenting urge to try something for seemingly no rational explanation. Maybe it was the long lost thrill I wished rekindled. Maybe it was the realization that this is only way I'd actually tolerate working out. Maybe I just liked the spandex. Who knows if I don't?
Then I came upon the glory of East Rock (New Haven). My first year of graduate school at Yale, coming from Ithaca, NY, a land fraught with roads, but too nervous to take many of them, I looked at that glorious East Rock and I knew, this was my chance. Just as I conquered my fear of learning to ride by simply doing it, I saw this as an opportunity to conquer my fear of hills and corners. Every afternoon for two weeks, I road to the top of that 366ft behemoth and road down it, over and over and over again; each time taking the turns faster, and faster, and faster.
The tricks were simple, but important:
1) As you descend, move your butt back. Shifting your weight back on a downhill keeps your weight where it should be and gives you traction, like putting sandbags in the back of your car for icy or snowy roads.
2) As you turn, put your outside foot down, your inside knee facing out, and lean away. Remembering to put your feet in the right position soon becomes habit, but its important to allow you to keep your center of gravity upright and away from the road. To turn sharper, you can even lean the bike inward beneath you, keeping your body leaning out. IF you haven't been doing this yet, try it, and you'll notice the difference.
3) When entering a turn, always keep your eyes pointed at the exit. This allows you to see where you're going next, and focus on shifting your weight.
4) For turns, brake before the turn, not during. Slow to a comfortable pace and then turn. If you brake during your turn, you're taking traction away from your wheels on the road, and that's never good. 
5) When going really big hills or over potentially slippery surfaces, DON'T BRAKE!!! This I'm still learning because it feels counter-intuitive, but it's definitely important. I cannot stress this enough (see MIT XPOT Race). 
Eventually I conquered my fear of hills (well, most of it). I felt confident enough to join the team.

Organized Rides:
October: my first Yale Ride: 54 miles around the North Branford (East Rock to Hamden to Durham to Guilford and back). This was the longest ride I had ever even conceived of trying, and if the novelty wasn't enough, everyone pace-lined. Everything started easy enough. From the fast to the slow, the rookies and the elites; we all road together in an easy, even pace for several miles. Then, at the end of this preliminary ride, we all stopped as group and divided into smaller groups based on one's own supposed abilities. We had an A group, a B group, and a C group. The A group were the elites, the Cat A men, the pro riders, the foolishly daring. Eh, maybe one day, I thought (if I ever decide to take riding too seriously). The C group seemed to be newbie riders, many just learning to ride with cleats. Eh, B works for me.

I started in B... I ended in C. You see, the Yale Ride is generally divided into 3 parts:
1) The Warm-up Social Ride: As described before, everyone rides together at a calm, easy, sociable pace for several miles, just get the spirits up, the legs warm, the heart pumping, and meet some fellow riders.

2) The Pace-Line Sprint: Not really a sprint, but this section takes place on a long, single stretch of road that leads to an inn on a corner (can't miss it). As mentioned, people divide up into groups based on one's level of performance or experience on a bike. The B group consisted of experienced riders who were fast, but not insanely fast (they're not paid to ride; they're just awesome for fun). I started here, not quite sure what I was in for. It wasn't bad, but I was dropped. After a few miles, neither the mind nor body was willing. I continued riding, catching up to a fellow rider who dropped just moments after me, and we rode to the inn together, with the C group moments behind. The first two sections total about 18 miles together.

3) The Long Ride Home: This part consists of a moderately hardy ride; not too tough, not too fast. Everyone splits again and readjusts to find others with like levels of endurance. When the groups are made (usually consisting of 3 to 6 people per group), the groups head out in a pace-line fashion. Single file rides for the remaining 36 miles. The person in the front pulls the group at a constant pace and then pulls to the side, slowly drifts back, and continues riding at the back of the group. This cycle of pulling and drafting continues throughout the ride.
At first I kept my distance behind the other riders, starting about a wheel's length behind. Both cautious and fearful, I fretted about potentially running into the person in front of me, hitting their tire, not seeing the road in front of the people before me, braking too hard and hitting the person behind me. 

As I rode, I was given tips and advice from many of the riders in my group. They told me:
-You're doing an awful lot of wobbling. I think you're bike's too big. You might want to size down.
-Use a speedometer to track your speed while pacing. When you pull, you want to keep the same speed as the pack.
-When drifting back, stay close to the sides of the other riders, and always look for cars before you pull out to drift back.
-Pedal in circles, don't push down. You'll save energy.
-When pacing, look at the shoulders of the rider in front of you. This way you can better gauge your distance from them instead of looking at the wheels.
-When pulling, to each his own. Pull only as much as you can.
-Drink more water! Eat! Speaking of which... I found an educational video for you.

While all of this was extremely helpful, it did make me nervous, too. I thought I knew much about riding a bike. It seemed easy once you figured out how to pedal, but road racing is a different animal. Definitely a fun one, though. After several more Yale rides, the distance between my front wheel and wheels of the riders in front of me grew smaller as I grew more confident.

Of course, confidence is not without its hiccups. In my first several rides, I had two flats that I was too slow to fix, and a more experienced rider fixed them for me to save time (a little embarrassing, but now I fix them faster). On another ride, my handlebars fell forward on a downhill because I didn't tighten them enough. No crash, but embarrassing. On a later ride, my seat knocked itself backwards when I hit a bump. I spent the last 10 miles riding on my thighs because I didn't have a tool. Lessons learned: bring the right tools, bring a hand pump, bring extra water, check your bike before each ride to avoid accidents, and fill your tires past 80 psi (they should be about 100-120 psi for a typical road bike, but I didn't know that, and I flatted twice because of it). 

With much learned about group riding and how to prepare for racing, thanks to the support of experienced riders on the Yale Cycling team, I was ready for the beginning of the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference season! To be continued....

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