Those who know me, know that bikes and I…well, we just don’t get along. My family jokes that I have a 3 wheel minimum – as in, anything less than a tricycle is off limits. That’s because I have a less than perfect track record with bikes. While in New Zealand, I rode my Kiwi roommates dirt bike approximately 10 feet, straight into a fence before tipping it. Then, a few years ago, I went to Florida to visit my family. While there, I decided it’d be a good idea to try out my uncle’s Vespa (motorized scooter). I rode it really well for about 15-20 yards, and then I crashed it even more successfully. It’s comical, really. I was going maybe 5 mph and just dumped it. Scooter = totaled. My leg = broken.
Maybe a year a half after the Vespa incident, I decided I wanted to try riding my bike again. I remember summers as a child spent zipping around the streets of Warsaw without a care in the world. Many times I’d ride hands free, and intuitively steered from shifting the weight in my hips. It was easy – and they say that riding a bike is well…”like riding a bike,” once you learn you never forget! HA! Maybe I hadn’t forgotten the mechanics and theories behind riding a bike, but my body had certainly lost all recollection of how naturally it used to feel.
On my maiden voyage at at 27, my father and I decided to take a trip around the “4 mile square” in town – a giant block that is, just as it sounds, roughly 4 miles start to finish. Well, I quickly learned that I didn’t understand when to shift into which gears. I was working my butt off and not going nearly as fast as my father who wasn’t even breaking a sweat. I called a halt to this foolish ride 1.5 miles in. We turned around, I tucked my tail between my legs, and pointed my handlebars towards home. As we came careening down this hill (ok, it was more like a small knoll), I decided it was time to shift about 10 gears at once. My chain slipped and my foot came flying off the pedal, slicing the back of my ankle in the process. I’m sure I yelled out some sort of expletive as I watched the blood drip onto Wyoming Street, documenting the comedy of errors this trip was being sprinkled with.
After learning that I was maybe being a tad dramatic, and I would indeed survive this dermal nick, I made my father carry my shoe back while I rode with one bare foot (I didn’t want to get blood on my new shoes). I was already feeling resentful at this point. At the bike specifically. Clearly, it was personal and I was being attacked. I felt embarrassed that small children could put my skills to shame. The competitive beast within was disgruntled that my dad made it look so easy, and I could not have beat him in any kind of a race should he have challenged me. Then things got serious when the darn pedal drew blood. As I headed for home, licking my wounds (figuratively, not literal in the case lol), I had no idea that another attack was immanent.
I pulled up out front of the house, my mom was calling out the window to ask how it went. I regaled the harrowing tale of how I narrowly escaped amputating my foot from the ankle down. Then, as I climbed off my bike, I lost my balance and stumbled backwards. I was headed straight for our garden pond. Now, one might think that this would be a good thing – a wet, yet soft landing. EXCEPT…we had just cleaned all the water out and scrubbed the sides. So it was essentially a three foot hole in the ground. Amazingly, I caught myself and managed not to fall backwards into what was sure to result in a broken bone. However, the price of avoiding the pit of death was a pulled groin. I literally threw the bike to the ground, went crawling to my mother and swore to never ride again. A commitment I took very seriously until recently.
So clearly, even before my life changed with Dysautonomia, I was leery of any sort of two-wheeled machine. Now, it just seems like a bike is probably a good thing to avoid. Due to the Dysautonomia, I deal with a lot of dizziness and intermittent vertigo. It used to be much worse before I had the TVAM procedure in January 2016. I’d pass out weekly, and I couldn’t stand or walk too far without feeling highly symptomatic. My world-spinning issues have improved greatly and now I can walk with very little feelings of dizziness. I walk and/or run daily and I rarely notice it anymore – at least while I’m on the move, and for that I am thankful. I do still feel quite a bit of dizziness if I’m standing still. I have learned to cope and try to focus on something immobile, or better yet “anchor” myself in someway. Oftentimes I’ll lean up against a wall, or touch something. It doesn’t need to be much, just sort of make contact with something stable and I feel much better. All of this to say – balancing on a bike can be tricky, but I have allowed my Dysautonomia to be a convenient excuse for why I “can’t” ride.
You see, the bike owns me. It’s a left me in fear. It’s in control. And, I’m definitely a control freak – so it bothers me that it’s “beating me” in a lot of ways. I’ve been able to complete four different triathlons so far, but they’ve all been modified. Three were team events, and I found someone to ride in the bike portions and the fourth was an indoor triathlon where I was required to use a stationary bike. Hooray! No fear of tipping that baby over! Many of my friends are competing in triathlons this month, and it’s reignited the fire within to finally conquer my fear of the bike. These friends are truly inspiring and it’s hard not to want to keep up with the amazing people in my life.
At my new job, I learned about SMART goals – Specific. Measureable. Attainable. Results-based. Time Limited. So, I decided to put these into action. Last summer, I did a team tri in LeRoy called “Tri-the-Oatka” and I wanted to make it my goal to do it solo this year. That’s a 3.1 mile run, 13.1 mile bike ride, and a 1.5 mile kayak. So, that was the goal, it was specific – I wanted to learn how to ride a bike without having an “anxiety attack.” Measurable – I had a definite distance I needed to be able to confidently traverse. Attainable – I wasn’t expecting to be able to ride in a 100 mile race or a mountain biking course on challenging trails. It was a realistic ambition. Results-based – you either complete the race, or you don’t. No gray area of “well, I’m riding more than I was a week ago. That’s good enough.” And Time Limited – the race is Saturday July 15th.
So, I found a friend with a bike that I could borrow. I was looking for something like a hybrid. I needed something better than the Walmart variety mountain bike I had. The gears and tires just aren’t designed for road races. However, I also needed something that wasn’t too aggressive and scary. I had borrowed a bike last year and only used it on a trainer (a device that holds your bike in place while the wheel spins. So it’s sort of like taking a regular bike and making it into an apparatus you’d use at the gym). The idea was to get used to the curved handlebars and shifting while safely staying upright – taking the balance out of the equation altogether. Only, the trainer was far too tempting of a crutch. I never developed the confidence to take the bike out on the streets. So, my hope was to find a bike that was my happy medium. I wanted thinner tires and better gears to handle riding long distances on the road, but the straight-styled handlebars from my childhood and definitely pedals that didn’t require clipping my feet in.
Beggars cannot be choosers. I humbly accepted the offer to borrow a bike that had curved handlebars and pedals that hold my feet on. I thought I’d just ride with the pedals flipped upside down, so the straps faced the ground. Fail. The straps scraped on the pavement and made it impossible to pedal. I was forced out of my comfort zone and reluctantly put my feet into the stirrups of death. How exactly do you fit your feet into the holds without dumping the bike onto the ground? Also, where exactly do I put my hands so that I can access the breaks as well as the gears. Do they go on the curved part of the horns? Or the straight part on top? We picked up the bike on Sunday (as in 3 days ago), and after a lot of sweating bullets Dad and I headed out on the four mile square again. This ride went considerable better than the one I took three years ago. I made it the full mileage this time. Starting and stopping was still panic inducing, as I knew I’d have to pull my foot out or put it back in. All-in-all, I was feeling mildly comfortable by time I returned to the house. Ok – I think my goal of doing the tri in less than 2 weeks may be attainable.
Well, I ran into a snag. I have another commitment that weekend. Crap. So, in talking to another friend – I discovered that the Tour de Perry, a bike race in the next town over, is taking place this Saturday! There are two courses, a beginner and an advanced, for lack of a better term. The “easy” course is 17 miles long and relatively flat, while the challenging one is 53 miles with about 3000 feet of elevation change. Is it possible to learn to ride this bike in 6 days with confidence enough to do the shorter course? My friend told me about the 18 mile loop she does. Starting at the YMCA, going north on Route 19 through Wyoming and out to Pearl Creek, then returning to town via Saltvale Road. Seemed straightforward enough, and as a bonus – the shoulder width of the road is pretty generous and it’s relatively flat. So, I left work on Monday with the goal of completing this 18 mile course. If I could do it, then I’d sign up for the Tour de Perry. If not, I’d have to find another option.
Nervously, I prepared for the challenge. I set out and pretty quickly learned that my confidence was my biggest barrier. I had to get off my bike and cross Main Street on foot, then getting back on the bike was terrifying. I’ve been using the curb to help steady myself for takeoff. I start with my left foot locked onto the pedal and push off the curb with my right foot. Then, the hardest part is fumbling with the right pedal to get my foot locked in on that side. It’s a balancing act of trying to pedal to gain a little momentum, then flip the right pedal around so I can slip my foot into the apparatus. Oftentimes, I’m doing this little zigzag dance down the street as I’m focusing on my foot and not so much which direction my handlebars are facing. On a desolate street – this isn’t an issue. However, on a main thoroughfare with 3 feet of shoulder to work with before swerving into traffic….panic. I legitimately tried four times before I got my bike moving in a controlled, forward direction. Phew! I was off though, the hardest part was done. Or at least I was hoping that was the hardest part.
I did pretty well for the first mile down main street, but then I came to the traffic laden, business end of town. Between Tim Horton’s and Walmart cars were zooming by me, then I hit a patch of gravel on the shoulder. I’d always heard that road bikes react wildly to pebbles because of the thin tires. So, as I see this debris in my path, my heart starts racing. How do I avoid it? Then, I hear a large vehicle over my shoulder. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced a legitimate panic attack, but this was probably the closest I’ve ever come. My palms instantly began to sweat as I realized a semi truck was about to pass me, just as I was coming to a patch of gravel. There was no swerving out into the road to miss it. My eyes welled with tears and I literally thought to myself “holy shit, I’m going to die. What the hell am I doing out here?” I wanted to turn around. To go back to the safety of the house. I wanted to return the bike and tell my friend that I just “can’t do it. Bikes aren’t for me.” I could have. Nothing and nobody was stopping me. Just as quickly as I had decided to turn around and head for home, I also knew that I MUST keep moving forward.
We’re always going to come to obstacles in our path. If we keep running from them, we never make it over them. I thought about how disappointed I would be in myself. I thought about telling the friend who had given me the tip on the 18 mile loop that I chickened out. I thought about how I would feel returning the bike without having done a race. That was all compelling reasons to keep moving forward – but the one that really mattered, was thinking about how then the bike would still be winning. I’d still be ruled by my fear. I wasn’t sure I could make it the full 18 miles, but I was sure that I could at least make it a little further. I could always turn around a mile down the road if I needed to, but right now the thing I needed most was to keep making revolutions in a forward direction.
Things got much better from there. Once I passed Walmart, I knew traffic would normalize and I’d have that nice shoulder the whole way. There were a few semis who continued to pass me, and the reminded me just how small I was. With each semi would come a gust of wind that would make my bike wobble a little. I was hyperaware of exactly where the white line beginning the shoulder was. I hoped that as long as I stayed on my side of that line, I’d be ok. I was relieved to make it to Wyoming, but I was presented with the option of taking a road that would cut over to Saltvale and make my ride considerably shorter. It was so very tempting. However, I knew that my confidence needed me to go the full 18 in order to be ready to sign up for the Tour de Perry. So, I carried on. I stopped on the corner of my turn to Saltvale to snap a couple of photos, grab a drink of water, and pat myself on the back for making it halfway. I think it’s important to take a second out in the midst of these big trials and recognize the work that you’re doing. For me, this workload was more about the mental aspect. Both sighing in relief that the hardest part was over, and feeling proud that I’d already done something that I didn’t think I was capable of. 9 miles was the furthest I’d ever taken a bike before, so even though I was only halfway there – I’d still accomplished so much.
Heading back on Saltvale was much less stressful. There weren’t too many cars to worry about, and the views were stunning. It’s funny, because by the time I returned to Warsaw I was so much more at peace. I handled that busy section of town with a lot more ease, and I trusted that the cars didn’t want to hit me any more than I wanted to be hit by them. I made it home and with a sigh of relief, I cried a little bit. I’m not sure if it was joyful – that I’d done something I didn’t think I could. Exhaustion – 18 miles isn’t easy! Or maybe just a release of the anxiety I’d been holding in for the hour and a half I was out on the roads.
Some people think I’m crazy. If you’re scared of riding a bike, it might not be the most logical thing to set out on a solo ride or sign up for bike race. But we grow the most in the times where we face our fears. If you’re afraid of riding a bike – I say the best possible thing to do is to challenge yourself by signing up for a ride. There’s no backing out (ok, technically I guess you could back out and lose the entrance fee).
No more excuses. No more leaning on my Dysautonomia as a crutch. I’m going to face my fears and prove to myself that I’m stronger than a silly bicycle.