Like many women of my acquaintance, I discovered cycling as an adult. Sure, most of us owned a bicycle as a kid: I have vague recollections from the late 70s and early 80s of sharing an old white Schwinn with my younger brother. At some point in time I learned to ride, but decidedly did not build the foundation of a lifelong cyclist.
In my twenties I bought a Specialized RockHopper mountain bike. On one of my early rides down a simple gravel road, my back tire skidded out from under me and I landed hard on my right elbow. After x-rays revealed that the tendon in my shoulder had popped a chunk out of the top of my humerus and I made several trips to a physical therapist, I finally regained full range of motion with my arm. Needless to say, I don’t recall getting back on the bike that summer.
Fast forward 10 years. I’m 36, a stay-at-home mom with a three-year-old living in Valdez, Alaska. My friend Mandy, 17 years older than me, had started cycling herself in her mid-forties. She’d been on one tour with Woman Tours, and suggested that we should do another that autumn. I recklessly said, “Sure, sounds like fun.” The same mountain bike came out of the storage shed, this time with a child’s trailer following along behind. Less than four months later, I’d put over 750 miles on those knobby tires and was scared to death of looking like an out-of-shape incompetent on our tour. Mandy was convinced that once I got on my rented road bike with no trailer behind she’d never be able to keep up. Turns out she was right.
After ten days of riding the back roads and hills of southern Utah through Bryce, Escalante and Capitol Reef National Parks and I was hooked. I’ve since toured in southern Arizona (I also fell in love with deserts) and British Columbia, have ridden event rides for charity in Alaska, and ride as often as I can while at home. I assess every road I drive for cycling and have plans (dreams) for many more tours. At 42, I now call myself a cyclist.
I have met a number of women on tour who share a similar story. As I mentioned, Mandy didn’t start riding until she was in her forties. She now says that for the first time in her life she considers herself an athlete, a sentiment I know many women cyclists share. During our self-supported tour in British Columbia, Mandy and I met many women who thought it was so great, and unbelievable, that we were doing two weeks of bike riding on our own. Almost every woman we met insisted that she could never do such a thing. I say, “Nonsense!”
Probably the two most common excuses offered for not following an urge to start cycling later in life:
Excuse #1: “I’m too old to start riding.” The Arizona tour offered an opportunity to ride a century, 100 miles in one day. The only women in the group to complete it were the youngest and the oldest, 28 and 80 years old. You’re never too old to ride – just start!
Excuse #2: “I’m too out-of-shape to ride a bike.” The great thing about cycling is that you ride into fitness. It’s a low-impact sport, and you can start with what you can do. It’s amazing how quickly you can ride further and faster. I find that even if I’ve had a slothful winter, it never takes more than a couple of weeks in the spring for me to be back up to my normal riding speed and distance.
Whether to ride for fitness, to tour or to race, there is no reason a person of any age shouldn’t go for it. Here are a few tips to get you out and pedaling.
1. Buy a bike that fits you. Don’t borrow your spouse’s/friend’s/neighbor’s bike just because he has an extra. Go to a bike shop and have them help you figure out the right size bicycle to fit your body. Not all bikes are the same, just as not all of our bodies are the same. If you have a bike that fits you properly you’ll be more comfortable, experience fewer joint problems (especially knees), and be more likely to keep on riding.
2. Buy a helmet. I have to say it again – buy a helmet! Your brain is your most precious asset and you can’t live without it. It doesn’t matter if your hair gets mussed or you look like a dork. Protect your brain and buy a helmet!
3. Learn the cycling rules of the road. Unlike when you’re walking, when you’re riding your bike is another vehicle on the road. You need to ride in the same direction as traffic, use hand signals before turning, and use common sense when approaching intersections. If you’re not sure what proper bike etiquette is, ask.
4. Find a cycling buddy. No matter the activity, we’re all more inclined to keep getting out there if we have someone to do it with. If you don’t already know someone who rides, check out a local bike club or post a notice at a local bike shop. Ask around and you might make a new friend.
5. Ride regularly for at least a month. Our bodies take time to adjust to any new activity, and cycling is no different. Every spring my knees give me a little grief and I have to take a couple of weeks to get them back in shape. Additionally, common knowledge says that it takes three weeks to develop a new habit. Ride at least two to three times a week for a month and soon you’ll realize you miss it when you don’t get to ride. However, while you can expect some discomfort if your muscles aren't used to the work, you shouldn't be in pain. Use common sense and rest when you need to.
6. Wear comfortable clothes. You don’t have to deck yourself out in spandex to ride, but you will find it more comfortable to keep riding if you wear appropriate clothing. Padded bike shorts may look silly, but they make sitting on the bike seat much more comfortable. If you don’t like the way they look, put a pair of looser shorts or pants over them. Padded bike gloves make holding the handle bars for long periods of time more comfortable. Shoes with stiff soles make pedaling more efficient and give each stroke more power. There are stores and websites that cater to cyclists of all shapes and sizes.
Do whatever it takes to motivate yourself and start pedaling! You’ll get to experience the feel of flying down the road into a better life.