Getting comfortable on my tri bike – it’s actually happening!

You can buy the shirt here!

You can buy the shirt here!

After I published my last post about training for next month’s half-Ironman, a couple of people mentioned they wanted to hear more about how I’ve been getting comfortable on the bike as part of my triathlon training. 

Notice that I said “getting” – because it is still happening.  It has been A Process, to say the very, very, very least.  I sometimes feel like my bike and I are doing a tango – two steps forward, one step back – and that progress has been slow-coming as a result. It actually looks a lot like this, to be honest.

I should be more specific when I talk about getting comfortable on my bike.  I am already comfortable on my old road bike that has toe clips on the pedals, so it’s not so much that I’m working to get comfortable with the bike as much as it is that I’m trying to feel at ease with clipless pedals.  I’ve read and heard other people say that once they figured out the mechanics of clipless pedals, learning to ride with them was simple and relatively stress-free (and even a couple who scoff at those of us who struggle with them – thanks for that, guys). 

This has not been the case for me. The first time I took my bike out with the clipless pedals, I had my first low-speed fall in four minutes, and another one two minutes later.  We made it about a mile down the nearby trail before I had my third low-speed fall, and this time I landed hard enough to bruise my shoulder and hip.  I’d had enough at that point so we called it for the day.

I am one of those people whose internal anxiety meter is calibrated a bit on the high side. Consequently one of my most well-developed skills – and frankly, one of the things I like least about myself – is my ability to take a relatively small obstacle, tease out all possible outcomes, and then dwell on the ones that end in catastrophe. The problem will grow until it looms like Uluru in my mental landscape, and then before you know it I’m having nightmares about riding my bike.

What particularly troubled me about riding my bike wasn’t the actual riding – it was the fact that my feet were attached to the bike.  I mean, if I couldn’t get out of my bike when I was at a dead stop, how was I going to get out if I was trying to avoid getting hit by a car?  I would be totally fucked!

(And here’s another thing: I actually have been hit by a truck before while riding.  Several years ago I was riding on the sidewalk ahead of my ex-husband when I came up to a 7-Eleven.  A pick-up truck was in the driveway, waiting to make a right turn into the traffic. I didn’t think the driver saw me so I slowed, but the wasbund yelled at me to keep riding and not to stop, so I sped up and rode in front of the truck, just in time for the driver to accelerate and knock me off my bike. I was bruised but okay, although I still have a dent in my calf from the impact. And also, may I point out how perfectly emblematic that incident was of that whole marriage.)

The first thing I did was lower my saddle by about three centimeters.  The fitter had put it in a fairly aggressive position, but when it left my feet dangling after I unclipped, and I had to fall to one side or the other. I know there is a process that involves stepping down off the saddle but that was waaaay too complicated for me, and still is to be honest. Lowering the seat a bit removed this source of stress for me. BTW I have since raised it two centimeters so I can get more power when pedaling, and so far so good.

Then I took my bike to a stretch of the trail with grass alongside and rode my bike along the grass while I tried to get the hang of clipping in and clipping out.  I had been clipping out with my right foot, but my right leg is the one I use to get my bike moving again, so my process of clipping out and in involved unclipping and reclipping both feet.

I knew it was totally cumbersome and time-consuming and, frankly, stupid, and I wanted to come up with a different way. So I unclipped my right foot, then tried to start cycling again with my weak-ass left leg and…promptly fell onto the grass.  That fall was my lightbulb moment, though, and I realized, hey, just unclip your left foot!  (It was immediately followed by embarrassment that such a simple revelation took so much trial-and-error to figure out.)

So I got to the point where I could clip in and out, and I could ride in aero for a bit without getting too sore or tired. This was really all I needed to be able to complete the bike leg of sprint distance triathlon.  In fact, I found that I could race at a decent pace with no problems at all, because I didn’t have to concern myself with traffic and I could just focus on riding.

But I also wanted to get faster AND I wanted to do the half-Ironman, which meant riding on the indoor trainer and then racing once a month wasn’t going to be enough.  I had to start taking the bike outside so I can ride longer distances in a variety of conditions and also practice skills like dealing with hydration and nutrition while in motion.

Brian loooves to ride his bike and is one of those people who took to riding a bike almost right away, so I recruited him to help me, in hopes that maybe some of his skillz would rub off on me.  So for the past several weeks, we’ve gone out on Sunday mornings for rides of gradually increasing length.  The first ride, we went seventeen miles and we stayed entirely on the trail.  Then we bumped it up to twenty-five miles and ventured onto a road for a bit, then in five mile increments until we hit fifty miles two weeks ago, half of which we rode on some fairly busy roads.

That first ride was tough.  Every time we came to an intersection – and there are quite a few of them – I would slow almost to a complete stop and unclip a foot, just in case I had to stop quickly (like the time when an oblivious dude on a motor scooter blew through an intersection where a bunch of us were waiting and all other vehicles had stopped).  I did this every intersection, whether there was a vehicle there or not.  Pretty sure I cried at mile six on this ride too, just because I was feeling so anxious.  (I felt better after I cried. I usually do.)

I made a goal to use every ride as an opportunity to focus on a new skill.  I switched over and did all my riding in the big chainring, then practiced getting into the small ring when I had to ride up an overpass or bridge.  I got out of my saddle and practiced climbing at the top of the hills.  I struggled with hydration, so I bought an Aerodrink hydration system that goes in between my aero bars and practiced using that.  Brian showed me his strategies for crossing roads with traffic and getting through intersections, and had me work on slowing down as much as possible when coming to an intersection so I can get a clear look instead of coming to a complete stop and unclipping at every single intersection.  I figured out how to do a tight u-turn without falling (important when racing!)

A few incidents have served as indicators of my progress.  Once, I was making a right turn onto the trail when I was startled by an oncoming cyclist. I hit a patch of sand and started swerving all over the place.  Both feet instinctively unclipped and I caught myself before I could fall.  Another time, I was climbing a long overpass when my chain came off. I knew the moment for that was coming and I was worried that I would fall when it happened, but instead I unclipped without even thinking about it, fixed my chain and got back on and kept riding.

What really showed me how far I had come was actually a pretty scary little incident, where I pulled up to stop at an intersection and felt my back wheel go clunk!.  I quickly unclipped and discovered that my back wheel had basically come entirely off the axle. That is some first-level nonsense, the shit of which equipment-failure nightmares are made of, but I surprised myself by handling it calmly and with minimal distress.  So what I’m finding is that it is true, that with time and repetition, clipping in and out actually does become a bit like second nature.

Because I feel more comfortable with the clipless pedals, I feel okay riding in bike lanes alongside busy roads. It’s not my favorite thing ever, but I can do it now and not spend the entire time on the verge of having a meltdown.  The more I ride on roads, the more I find that the vast majority of drivers do see cyclists and give us a lot of room.  Of course, it only takes one careless driver to turn me into roadkill, which is why I ride like I drive: cautiously, defensively and with vigilance.

Now the issue we are running into is that with a race looming, Brian wants to do his training rides faster, while I’m still pretty cautious when it comes to intersections and the like.  He has been getting frustrated with my slower pace, and even though he tries not to show it, I still pick up on it using my WESP (Wifely Extra-Sensory Perception), which in turn ramps up my stress and anxiety, and neither one of us needs that. So starting tomorrow, we’ll be doing our long rides separately.  After the 70.3 is over, we’ll go back to riding together. 

I’m still doing my midweek rides on the indoor trainer, mainly because I can do speed and power intervals on the trainer in a way I can’t while on the road or the trail.  I suppose I could just do all of my rides on the indoor trainer, which is what some pros do, but I find it kinda boring, to be honest, no matter how many of my favorite movies I can watch while riding.  Riding outside is a lot more fun. I have access to some really cool routes, including some that give me beautiful views of the water. 

Plus I don’t want to backslide and lose the progress I’ve made. If I were to stay off the bike for a few weeks or even a couple of months, I have a feeling I’d end up back where I started.  And I have made progress, make no mistake about it.  I raced in a triathlon this morning, and usually I would find myself fading by the end of the bike leg on a sprint distance, but this time I felt strong and confident almost the whole way, and my legs were still fresh enough for the second-fasted 5K in my age group.  The best part of all was that racing on my bike was so much fun.
So that’s where I’m at with getting comfortable on the bike.  It’s been a looooong journey so far and I still have a ways to go before I would consider myself fully comfortable on the bike, but I’m also really, really happy with how far I’ve come.


14 responses to “Getting comfortable on my tri bike – it’s actually happening!

  1. I just put clipless pedals on my bike for the first time yesterday. It’s definitely a learning process. I am most worried about unclipping quickly when my chain comes off or in order to avoid being hit by a truck, so I’m happy to hear that you did it instinctively. Hope I’m able to do that too.

  2. Whoa, how did your back wheel come off the axle altogether? That’s sketchy…And yes, playing outside is always more fun.

    • I still don’t know for sure, but I think it has to do with my indoor trainer, which attaches to the bike by the rear axle. I suspect that it was jimmied loose over time and that I just hit a bump that knocked it all the way out. Ever since then I’ve made a point to check both wheels to make sure they are securely seated. It’s not something I’d ever like to experience again.

  3. Rock on, Caitlin! Nothing easy about the clipping in/out thing, but practice makes it second nature. Then, the thing to work on is riding assertively: my worst falls have happened when I’ve been tentative and hesitated enough to give cars and trucks the space to do something dangerous. (I was once hit by a motor coach under these conditions…)

    Something else to consider as you train: getting a proper bike fit. This involves callipers and other measuring devices to determine the ideal position for you on your bike, for max speed and comfort; a really good bike shop (one that will do the fit and NOT try to upsell you) will do one for a couple hundred dollars and you’ll learn tonnes, especially about saddle position and ideal balance over the handlebars. It will also get you dreaming about buying new equipment. 😉

    Keep going! Sounds like you’re actually en route to being a bike natural.

    • I can’t let my husband see your comment. He’s always like, “Your timidity is what puts you in danger!” My head knows both of you are right but my heart…working on getting her to go along with it.

      And also, how scary about getting hit! I hope you weren’t hurt too badly. Ugh.

      I did actually have my bike fitted but I think I’m going to go and have it redone by my racing team’s coach, who owns a tri shop. He did Brian’s fitting and Brian has never had issues with his, whereas the more I ride, the more of an issue I’m having with my left knee. I have to get a new saddle, too. There’s basically a lot that needs to be done to make my bike MINE.

  4. My 2 biggest fears about doing a triathlon are: (1) people swimming over me/kicking me/hitting me to the point where I drown and (2) clipless pedals. Thanks for sharing your story — maybe I’ll woman up and take a few chances on the bike.

    • I think those are two totally legit fears! I’m still working through my issues with the swim as well, because some people – men particularly – really fling their arms and legs quite hard when swimming, which is insane to me for the reason you mentioned. (Guys, if you are reading this, STOP DOING THAT.)

      I think what keeps me working to try to deal with these is the fact that I find the overall experience of doing triathlon to be really fun. If I didn’t enjoy all of it, I wouldn’t do it. I certainly wouldn’t be putting in the effort to overcome these issues. I’m not that much of a masochist. 😀

    • I haven’t adjusted my release tension but I actually think they are okay as is. It doesn’t take a lot for me to get out of them.

      My big issue has been the height of my saddle. Once I got that issue resolved, cycling has been a lot less unnerving for me.

  5. “Guys, if you are reading this, STOP DOING THAT.”

    Noted. You know, I hadn’t actually considered the splash radius and force involved when competing, and as much as I enjoy reading this blog with my wife (she’s a huge fan, and the more I’ve read, I am too) I am now embarrassed for being so “in the zone” when competing in anything.

    The pedal issue is scary, bikes have problems just like vehicles do, but after a nasty incident involving a brake cable which injured me and 3 other cyclists, I’m glad to have my tiny toolkit aboard. Doesn’t always save me, but in a competition with so many people racing forward at breakneck speed, it might save someone else.

  6. Pingback: Unsolicited advice to triathletes who are reluctant cyclists | Fit Is a Feminist Issue·

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