02 September 2009


It took me a while to get the hang of the gears.

My first bike was a Catalina cruiser, teal green with rainbows on the fenders. I was ten years old when I got it, and I'd wanted one for years - my brother was six, and he got his first bike the same Christmas. That did not please me, but the rainbow fenders made up for it, mostly. Not that the sibling rivalry disappeared, then or ever. And not that that's a problem...

In the 70s, I had a 10-speed, which I never did figure out. I finally set it in the gear that felt most like the cruiser and left it there. Rode it for quite some time - took it to California with me, and rode it to my doctor's appointments in San Jose when I was pregnant, up through the 7th month. Stopped when someone stole it out of the bushes one night while we were in the movie theater.

Rode for a little bit 10-15 years ago, in eastern North Carolina. Had a couple of close calls with good old boys - in combination with trucks and beer, I believe - and one nearly-nasty incident with a couple of really bad dogs, the kind that don't bark. You know, the ones you realize are about to attack when you feel their breath on your ankles. After that, my range started shrinking, and I quickly gave up riding the Carolina back roads.

Thanks to a friend who's been commuting on his bike for several years, I started riding again two years ago, and fell back in love with the speed, the motion - the freedom. This year, I kicked off the season with the American Diabetes Association's Tour de Cure in May, and I haven't looked back. I did 14 miles on the Tour before I had a flat that wouldn't hold air any more. I'm now up close to 30 miles at a stretch, and I'll be at 60 by October, when my brother (remember him?) and I do a three-day ride from Carrollton, KY to the general vicinity of Bowling Green, near the Tennessee border. I was thinking about it, until he said, "If you'll do it, I will." That's where old sibling rivalry becomes a good thing: when your kid brother offers to drive from the D.C. suburbs to Louisville, Kentucky, if it will get you off your ass and get you moving.

Pedaling I could do. But shifting was a bit beyond me until about mid-summer. My friend Kirk, the bike commuter, noted during the Tour de Cure that I wasn't using my gears "efficiently." He kept telling me I should be using the higher gears to build up to hills, and I'm thinking, "Yeah, sure, and then what?" He told me that day to work with them, learn the feel of each gear, and after a while, I wouldn't have to think about it.

By July, I knew, at least in theory, that it was kind of like that Volkswagen Beetle I learned to drive in 1970: You start out in first gear, or you don't get going. You shift to the middle gears for cruising. And the high gears are for going downhill without burning out your brakes.

July 7, I got a heavy-duty lesson in first gear: I tried to start off going uphill on an unfamiliar rural road in New Jersey (yes, they have rural roads in New Jersey, and they're beautiful!) in too high a gear - around 6 on the second derailleur - and my foot slipped off the pedal. Three days later, we figured out it was the metal brace - actually a heavy-gauge wire - holding the fender to the axle that caught my shin and ripped it from about midway above the ankle almost to my knee, and nearly to the bone. What I learned there, in the order of learning:
  • The inside of the human leg is not attractive in the least.
  • It is possible to get a very nasty injury on a bike and never hit the ground, or anything else, as far as one can tell.
  • New Jersey emergency service personnel are absolutely the bestest!
  • I get talkative and even witty when I'm in shock. (There's now a whole dark comedy routine surrounding the incident. I drag it out at parties and meetings when I'm wearing a short dress and my scar shows.)
  • Those metal braces that hold the fenders to the axles are supposed to have rubber caps, and you should always check them when you do your ABC Quick Check.*
  • And when starting off going uphill, the best gear is first derailleur, somewhere in the neighborhood of no higher than 2 or 3. Your foot may spin, but it won't slip, you won't wobble, and the worst that will happen is that you'll have to stop, shift up a notch, and go again.
It took me a week to get back on the bike after that. We came home to Kentucky and the doctor who checked my stitches - 21, in case anyone wants to know - said I could ride again any time I felt like it, but I was scared. I didn't realize how scared for a few more days, when the shock finally wore off and I lost it completely. Then I nearly panicked. Here I'd finally found I was good at something physical - me, the girl who was not only picked last for teams, but over whom there were arguments about who had to take her - and I loved it, but I was afraid to do it again.

I told Ed - told him how scared I was, how scared I'd been, how I'd stood on the side of that road, holding the edges of my laid-open leg together, and I'd thought, "I could die out here. I could bleed to death on this day, in this park beside this road in New Jersey." And God bless him, as nervous as I know it makes him for me to be out there riding around in traffic (even with a helmet), he said, "Well, then, you have to get back on."

After that, I started getting it very quickly. I had a couple of "instructional moments" with Kirk and - second-hand - with a guy who works with Ed, who I've never met but who does a lot of distance riding, and I started taking off in lower gears and paying attention to how they felt, and it didn't take long at all.

When you're pedaling, you hit a point where it feels easy. Not just good, but almost too easy. The pedals are going fast, and you're flying along - but you're not moving any faster. You learn where that point is, and then you learn to shift up just before you get there. That's the magic: It isn't supposed to be hard most of the time, but it's not supposed to be coasting all the way.

You learn the sensation - the tension in your calves, the mild pressure in your thighs and hamstrings, nothing difficult, but definitely there. If it's missing, you're giving up power. When you get that push going, it's easier to throw yourself behind a hill - and when you hit a bitch of a hill, it's not impossible anymore. Then you shift down, and you can keep going.

This evening, after four days down with mild flu-like symptoms, I came home from my second day back at work - rode in with Ed this morning - and got the bike out of the shed. It's Wednesday, which is the day I take my crochet bag over to Maryhurst and spend an hour with the teenage girls who live there. Maryhurst is at the top of a hill that's at the top of another hill, and I'd never tackled either of those hills before. And they're both bitches.

I remember thinking back in the spring that I might never be able to ride all the way up the Maryhurst hill. This evening, I had to slow down as I made the corner into the drive, so I lost some push there, but I was nearly halfway up before I had to shift from the second derailleur to the first, and I made it to the top. I was in 1:1 mode, but by God, I did it. Okay, we did it - I was praying Anne Lamott's favorite prayer, "Help me, help me, thank you, thank you," from right after I shifted the first time, all the way up - but a few feet from the crest, I took a quick break from prayer to say, "Woo-hoo! HAH!"

There's a three-day ride waiting for me in October. Little Brother has already said he's in it for the ride, not the competition, which is okay by me. The second day is about 90 miles, and I can see it taking me 10 hours easily. And I may have to push Nellie Belle up some of those mid-Kentucky hills.

But not until I've hit 1:1 and she won't go any more. Because I can pedal, and I get it. I feel the gears now, and I know how to work them. And it can only get better from here.

Pedal on!

*ABC Quick Check:
  • A - air: Check your tires - preferably with a gauge
  • B - brakes: When you hold your brake handle and push the bike against it, does the other wheel come off the ground? It should.
  • C - chain and crank: Are your pedals stable? Do they wobble on the crank? (Not good.) Is your chain lubricated and looking good? AND - as of July 7, 2009 - CAPS: Are those little rubber cap thingies on your axle braces where they're supposed to be? And if not, is SOMETHING covering the ends of those heavy-gauge wires? A serious layer of electrical tape will do - just make sure they're covered!
  • Quick - quick release levers: They hold the wheels and often the seat, handlebars, and various other parts onto modern bikes. Make sure they're (a) down tight and (b) facing in a direction where they won't catch your clothing or anything else and throw you.
  • Check: Take a spin in a circle around the parking lot or cul-de-sac and see if you feel something you might've missed in your visual check.

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