The Summer I Learned to Ride a Bike
Salt Lake City, UT, 5 September 2014 – The summer of 2014 will go down in my personal history book as the summer I learned how to ride a bike. Not that I didn’t already know how to get started, balance, and pedal without falling over at every corner, but rather I learned new skills that improved my performance. Until this summer I’d been riding the DeSalvo for almost 9 months and had plateaued. My Strava segment times were stuck in neutral and riding was becoming a chore.
You might remember I had a love-hate relationship with Strava but have since learned to embrace the data collection and comparison features of the app. I no longer, mostly, get annoyed when I compare my segment times to other riders although there will always be that one virtual competitor whose segment improvements irk the crud out of me. But no matter how much I compared or how much I thought I was trying my riding was going nowhere.
Being on the DeSalvo means I don’t have to have a relationship with anyone but the bike. The bike doesn’t complain or tell you what you’re doing wrong. The bike usually takes what you give it and makes you a better person if you take care of it. As I’m sitting here writing I realized this is no different than any other relationship. But I’ve always been a little one-off when it comes to personal relationships. I usually have a difficult time starting a conversation and even harder time staying interested long enough to hear the end of a story. And because of this I’ve had a difficult time making and keeping friends. Greg has pushed me to find people to ride with in order to improve my cycling skills. But for a loner like me the thought of asking someone to ride with me was scarier than open-heart surgery. Though I’ve had chance meetings with many people while riding I’ve never felt a strong desire to ask them for their contact information so we could ride together. The nearest I’ve ever come to teaming up with a group of riders was after an invitation to ride up Emigration canyon with a group of people who meet every Tuesday and Thursday morning. Emigration Canyon Road is the place every SL,UT rider cuts their proverbial teeth on hill climbs. Most Saturdays the canyon is bustling with every style and experience level of cyclists, which is why I tended to avoid riding there. The day I almost got the nerve to go out and ride with the Tuesday/Thursday group I decided to leave very early in the morning, before 6 am, so I could do the canyon without any competition. I didn’t want anyone knowing I owned a pricey bike but was only a mediocre rider. Thus my life as a vampire in Emigration Canyon began most days before 5 am.
Because the canyon is such a popular bicycling destination an unofficial sub-30 minute Strava milestone exists for the segment. For many cyclists, getting to the top of little mountain summit within 30-minutes is akin to reaching the North Pole. And as long as I’ve used Strava to gauge my riding proficiency that goal has been in the back of my head — only in the back of my head because no matter how hard I thought I was trying I couldn’t do the ascent in less than 32:30.
Since I didn’t have the nerve to find a riding companion I’ve used Strava to find them virtually. I’ve tried not to only follow people I know as friends but I’ve also included people who I knew were better riders than me so I had lofty goals to pursue. I wasn’t so jaded that I thought I’d ever be as good as they were, but these virtual competitors were there egging me on to try just a little harder. Which is how we get to June of this year.
Early this year, I started following a rider, A.K., on Strava who is a significantly (perhaps not so “significantly” anymore, but we’ll get to that) better climber than I am. And like any good follower I gave him Strava “Kudos” for every ride he did. He must have noticed and then done some searching on Facebook for my profile where he “liked” all of my posts about same-sex marriage and my relationship with Greg. So when he invited me to connect on Facebook I couldn’t help but wonder whom this guy was. We live in Utah, after all, so the chances of meeting someone who approves of our alternative lifestyle and who rides a bike are slim, though perhaps not improbable. I did what any curious person would do and accepted his Facebook friendship. Then, after complementing A.K. on his riding skills, I asked some general questions about his belief system. No red flags popped up and he was easy to communicate with, as much as texting is considered actual communication these days. Then, because I was a bit emboldened by the fact A.K. wasn’t uptight about my living arrangements, I asked if he would be interested in riding one day. He may have been a bit apprehensive and certainly was not interested in riding before the sun was fully up in the sky, but he accepted my request.
The day we met to ride A.K. asked me how we knew each other. I quickly ran down the Strava and Facebook connections to get to where we were standing on the side of the road at the mouth of Emigration Canyon. After I finished connecting the dots, he said, “Huh,” and then started talking as if we’d known one another for years. We clipped into our pedals and started up the canyon. A.K. told me about his racing and his philosophy about riding and he started working on making me a better rider. For the most part this happened without my even realizing I was improving. On our first few rides I tried to absorb everything I heard and remember everything I saw him do.
The first thing A.K. told me was to lose the 11-25 cassette. Being situated in the intermountain west, the geographic area between the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Sierra Nevada range to the west, SL,UT, I learned, is not the place for manly feats of gear mashing on an 11-25 tooth cassette. The funny thing is years ago, the first thing I did to upgrade my bike was to remove the 11-28 cassette and put on a more manly 11-25. Then I spent four years mashing gears to climb every hill I could find. Suddenly, I felt like a fool but quickly understood A.K.’s reasoning, which goes along with the second part of learning how to ride.
By our second ride I was no longer climbing Emigration Canyon in the large chain ring. I learned to increase my cadence by pedaling in the small chain ring and a larger gear. A few weeks into riding and my cadence was nearing 90-100 rpm as we climbed the canyon. I realized when we reached the top of the canyon that I was not completely exhausted from mashing gears. On the way down the canyon I noticed almost every rider heading up was doing exactly what I thought was the right way to climb.
Having learned the basics of gearing and cadence my tutor changed tack. As we rode he picked a speed slightly faster than I was used to riding and would continue talking as if I was riding next to him. I quickly learned if I wanted to be part of the conversation I would have to speed up. He never pushed hard enough to completely wear me out but I could sense when our speed increased. When we ride together I keep my Garmin set to any screen other than the speed because I find I obsess over my speed rather than focusing on my riding.
I also learned to save some energy for the end. Before I realized what A.K. had said made perfect sense, many of my high energy rides started out with a bang and ended with a bonk. I usually had nothing left for the end of the hill climb or the end of a long ride. Soon, I was wistfully pedaling up hills, my legs spinning gleefully and painlessly to the top. I found I had extra energy to do one last hill or even one fast race downhill. I also learned to get up out of the saddle for the last push to the finish and to get in the drops on every downhill. And I learned to eat. I now have at least one energy bar on every ride and usually at least two bottles of water. I have more energy and more fun on my rides.
More importantly, I learned a little about nurturing relationships outside of my personal relationship with Greg and the importance of balance. My outlook was so positive on a recent ride I told A.K. one of my goals by the end of the year was to finish a sub-30:00 Emigration Canyon climb.
Last week I hopped on my bike and pedaled up to Emigration Canyon alone after work. I was feeling pretty good about my riding and thought it might be fun to see just how much I’d learned and how much I’d improved. As I entered the canyon I put my head down, hands in the drops and took off. As I sensed the grade shift I shifted up and down with the flow of the land. Suddenly I realized I was further into the canyon than I expected to be. I told myself not to give up and to maintain my pace as I reached the last hairpin turn. I’d tried to reserve a little for the last climb, then got up out of the saddle and gave one last push to the finish. As I started to go down the backside of little mountain summit I noticed the time on my Garmin said 56:04 and realized I may have come close to my sub-30:00 goal. Then, for a split second I thought how pissed I would be if I was one or two seconds short. But in the end, after seven weeks of summer school training and bike riding with A.K., I had achieved a goal I’d never really believed I was capable of achieving. Just to make sure this wasn’t a fluke, I did the same ride again finishing within 3 seconds of my personal best time. Because of A.K.’s tutelage and his patience, I had become a much better rider.
In the end, the most important lesson I learned from this guy whose life was forever altered by spending several excruciating seconds as the hood ornament of a car that drove into his path is no matter what life throws at you never give up.