Tuesday, September 12, 2017

I Still Sew, But This Post Is About Biking

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. –Unknown

I really miss blogging. I miss having this voice to express my thoughts. But working full time and trying to figure out how to fit the rest of the important things in — how to find the right balance — is difficult. If any of you have that down, will you let me in on the secret? You can imagine that the last two years have been filled with the miraculous and the mundane, almost in equal measure. Today I'm jumping right back in, like I haven't missed a beat. I'm not promising to blog again all the time. I may catch up on some of the more interesting bits of the last two years, but then again, I may not. Maybe I'll poke my head in here now and again, when I have something I need to say. And maybe it will be a few years before I post again.

I'll begin with a little (or a lot of) backstory (because there always is one with me) so you know how I ended up on a bicycle. In April of 2016, the kid who is running the show at work burst into my office all excited about challenging everyone in the company to run a marathon. Yes. 26.2 miles. His brother-in-law was training for one and had gotten him excited about it. He'd talked the owner of the company into paying for the race registration for anyone in the company who wanted to join in. His enthusiasm was so infectious that I thought seriously about it. I texted Mr. Bug, who suggested that anyone who wanted to still have all their own joints when they were 70 should probably stick to 10Ks. I decided against running a marathon.

Back in the day, I joined the 9th grade track team because the cool kids were doing it. I wasn't fast enough to do the short races and I wasn't coordinated enough to do the hurdles. The coach devoted her time to those with potential and the rest of us were sent off to “run” around the neighborhood during practice. I wasn't coached on technique or told how to work my way into it. I was put into the 800 meter for track meets, and with no training, no love for running and no success, ended any desire to run again.

After making his rounds, this young coworker of mine came back and said that half-marathon registrations would also be paid for by the company for any who wanted to. The idea was intriguing. 13.1 miles seemed a lot more reasonable. So, I found a series of apps that worked you into it and signed up for the half-marathon. The first app was called Couch to 5K (3.1 miles). It lived up to its name and took me from the couch to the ability to run for presumably enough time to finish a 5K, only I was slow. I finished all of the training sessions on the app, and although I still hadn't run a 5K, I moved on to the next app, 5K to 10K (6.2 miles). Midway through the app, my plantar fascia flared up and I had to stop running. I think that I told myself one too many times that I couldn't do it, so my body gave me an “out.” In any case, after about a week, I realized that I missed the physical activity, so I dusted off my bike and started riding.

As per usual, I jumped in with both feet. My first ride was about 7 miles. I loved it so much that I rode 27 miles the next day. I was riding a not-really-a-mountain-bike-but-not-a-road-bike-either with 7 gears. I bought it at a box store when the Not-So-Little Bugs were little. It had sat out in the elements and the chain was a bit rusty. It was a little worse for the wear. But I was excited. I did short, more intense rides on weekday mornings, 5 or 6 miles, and searched the interwebs for longer, organized rides on weekends. I rented a road bike and rack a couple of times and did a 47 mile ride and a 35 mile ride. It was awesome. Then the weather changed.

By chance, I came across a nice entry-level road bike at the outdoor shop where I had rented bikes. It was December and I'd been sent on an errand for work to pick up discounted lift tickets to a local ski resort. While the clerk went to the back office to get the tickets, I looked at the bikes on the rack and noticed a great big 40% off sticker on a pretty red one. I calculated the discounted price and the amount I had in my personal cash stash and saw that I had enough for it. I went home and told Mr. Bug about it and we looked up the specs and decided it was a good buy. I can't remember if I went back to get it that afternoon or if I went the next day, but I was soon the proud owner of an honest-to-goodness road bike.

In January of this year, I signed up for a series of organized rides beginning in June. Over the course of 11 weeks I worked my way up to a hundred miles. I started training in May and did yoga and again rode short, hard rides two or three (or four) times during the week. Saturdays were for the long rides. I started out on my first Saturday with 10 miles and added 10 more miles each Saturday. The first organized ride, on the first Saturday in June, was 50 miles and I rode it with my sister-in-law. Two weeks later, we did a 70 mile ride. And three weeks later we did a hundred. It was crazy and awesome and horrible all at once. I learned a lot about myself and what my mental and physical limits are. But that is a story for another day because we have finally arrived at the point where I can start to tell today's story. Well, actually, it was a few weeks ago.

I was out for a long Saturday ride. 60 miles, to be exact. I'd gotten a later start than I'd planned (because who doesn't like to sleep in on a Saturday), and the day was hot. I hit my wall at 37 miles. I was already headed back at that point, but I and considered calling search and rescue (Mr. Bug) to come get me. I was able to regroup and was feeling pretty good about my day's ride. I had three miles to go and came to a construction area. I'd noted it on my way out. The construction was on the opposite side of the road, and I thought to myself that it might be a good idea to cross back over to this side of the road on my way back and ride against traffic, or even up on the sidewalk, which was extra wide and had a yellow dotted line in the center of it indicating that it was a path of sorts. I wasn't 100% certain that bikes were allowed, and I prefer to ride on the road anyway, because unless it is a paved trail (of which there are a few around here), it is a lot bumpier. When I saw the construction cones, I briefly considered turning back and crossing at the light to ride on the other side of the road, but it was a few blocks back and I was ready to be done. I also didn't want to miss out on the segment recorded by GPS in my workout app by crossing to the other side of the road.

The construction cones were on the white line and there was about six feet of concrete shoulder before it was cut away. Curbing was being laid, so I assumed that the cones were there to keep people from driving off the concrete and damaging their cars. When I saw the gap that had been cut away from the shoulder, it was too late to stop. I couldn't swerve out into traffic because I couldn't see what was coming behind me. I hissed a curse through my teeth and closed my eyes.

{view from the other side}

My mom scolded me later about that when I texted my family group chat to tell them about my adventure. My sister thought it was amusing and asked me in code, using movie references, which word I'd said. Fortunately for me, I hadn't used the same word as Ralphie from A Christmas Story when he lost the lug nuts in the snow while changing the tire with his dad, and there was no need to get out the Palmolive. Instead, I echoed Biff Tannen from Back to the Future as he ran his shiny black convertible, top down, into a truck of manure. Really, my mom is right. I have a much better and more creative vocabulary than that.

I was going about 13 or 14 miles an hour when my front tire hit the opposite side of the gap (closest in the picture above). If I had been going just a little bit faster, I could have jumped right over. The impact and the accompanying image in my head of the rim crumpling in caused me to open my eyes for a moment. I would later find that, while the rim was out-of-round, the front tire didn't even pop.

On my first group ride, I was kind of a lost little puppy and I got picked up by a couple of stragglers at the back of the group who had been riding for years. One of them told me everything he knew about riding as we pedaled along. I don't remember much of what he said, but eventually we came around to the subject of riding with your feet clipped in and bike crashes. He told me that your arms aren't strong enough to catch you and it is best to tuck and roll. I thought it was crazy to ride with your feet clipped to your bike, but somehow I ended up with some fancy shoes and pedals that they clip into. Learning to ride with my feet clipped to my pedals afforded me plenty of opportunity to practice my tuck and roll.

My left ankle worked back and forth frantically to unclip. I'm fairly certain that I had unseen help at that point. I tucked my arms in to my chest. While the front tire had stopped, the momentum brought the back end of my bike around to my right. My left foot was unclipped at this point and the sideways motion helped my right foot to come out of its pedal as well. My cycling “tights,” you know the ones with the padding in the seat, are 3/4 length. I don't exactly remember hitting my knees, but both were sorely bruised. There wasn't a mark on my pants when all was said and done.

Free of the bike, I continued forward. I landed on my right shoulder and then my head hit the ground. My eyes were still closed and my mind registered this in single, disconnected words. Shoulder. Head. In all my toppling over, I'd never hit my head before. In the periphery, I wondered what would be the result of that. After, I was so grateful for my helmet — $20 of foam and plastic — that kept me safe from even a concussion. It's now in a landfill somewhere.

I must have rolled a little, because I ended up lying next to my bike, it with the front wheel facing towards the road and me with my feet towards the gap between the shoulder and the new curbing. I laid there for a moment more and then sat up. My first thought was, “nothing is broken.” Then I decided to call Mr. Bug to come get me, after which I would scoot over to the edge of the shoulder, put my feet down in the gravel and just wait patiently there. I dialed the phone and suddenly there was a man there asking me if I was OK. “Nothing is broken,” I said. Mr. Bug answered the phone. “I need you to come get me.” The man was asking me again if I was OK and if there was someone I could call. I was wearing blue-tooth bone conduction ear phones, which sit on your cheeks just in front of your ears, leaving them open and allowing you to hear both your ride workout playlist and the noise around you. He didn't realize that I was already talking to my husband. I explained to him that I had my husband on the phone and then I explained to Mr. Bug where to find me.

The man asked if I would like to sit in his car, where it was cool. It was then that I noticed it was a little warm sitting on the ground. I'd checked the temperature just a few minutes prior, and knew that it was 91˚ out. He offered his hand to help me to my feet and it was then that I noticed that I had gravel embedded in my left thumb, and my right middle, ring and pinky fingers. I later found some gravel in my back jersey pocket. My shoulder stung and my knees throbbed. The man's grandaughter was sitting in the passenger seat of his truck. She introduced herself as I got into the driver's seat. “I'm Tessie,” she said. “My name is Elizabeth,” I replied. Her mother climbed back into the passenger seat. She'd gotten out of the truck to move the driver's seat back and to talk to her father for a moment. She told me that she'd seen me crash and fall and immediately told her dad to pull over to check on me.

I was in 5th grade when I learned that there are people who actually laugh at someone when they fall. I couldn't fathom it. I still can't. I briefly wondered if Tessie's mom had laughed. And then I wished that someone had recorded my fall. It would be interesting to see. I wondered if I would laugh at the playback. Embarrassment washed over me. Tears were close to the surface. Fear and panic caught up to me. I fought it back. Everything was different now. A bike accident wasn't a possibility anymore. It was a reality. In the cab of the truck, sweaty and sticky, stunned to numbness and hurting at the same time, I continued to exchange pleasantries with this kind woman who had taken time out of her day to stop and make sure I was all right. I thanked her several times. It didn't seem enough. Of course she hadn't laughed.

Mr. Bug pulled up behind us. I got out of the cab of the truck and went to get my bike, which was still lying on the ground. Tessie's grandpa told Mr. Bug to take me to the car and he would get the bike. I thanked the man and his daughter again and climbed into the passenger seat of our car. When Mr. Bug got in, I told him that we needed to go to the InstaCare. “Why?” he wanted to know. “Because that's what you do after a bike wreck. I'm going to cry now.” And I did.

At the InstaCare, the nurse told me that she didn't see many bike accidents in women, and especially women “our age.” She obviously had my birth date on the paperwork. She told me that just yesterday, a woman had come in with a badly broken shoulder from a bike accident. I wondered if I was trying to prove something with the crazy long rides. The doctor came in and asked me to go over what had happened. He ruled out concussion by the fact that I had not lost consciousness and that I could remember pretty clearly everything that had happened. Then he examined my knees and my shoulder. I hadn't looked at either yet, and when I pulled my sleeve off I was glad I hadn't. My shoulder was an angry red color and blood was oozing from the wound. There was no gravel in it though. It looked worse than it felt. Considering how the skin looked underneath, I was surprised that my jersey wasn't even really torn. There was just a small scuff on it. The doctor ordered x-rays on both my shoulder and knee, but there were no breaks. He cleaned the scrapes on my fingers, my right shoulder and right knee, bandaged them and asked if I needed a prescription for pain. I declined.

At home I undressed to shower. There was a bruise on my chest where I must have hit the handlebars. It hadn't hurt before, but now my chest felt heavy. I showered and dressed. I went to the computer to find out what organized rides were going on with the cycling club I belong to and added about 6 to my calendar. Then I took a Tylenol and an Advil and hit the couch to catch up on some TV.

First thing Monday morning, I took my bike to the shop where I bought it to have it looked at. It obviously needed some work.

I picked it up a few days later and took it to a bike fitter. This guy knows his stuff. He helps you position your handlebars, brake levers, pedals and the cleats on your shoes, and your saddle for maximum efficiency and to keep your hands and feet from going numb. The impact had knocked the handlebars out of place and I needed him to help me get them adjusted again properly.

What the guys at the bike shop had missed is that the handlebar was bent and needed replacing. They had also not completely put the front rim back to true. So I left my bike with the fitter. It would take another week. I deleted two rides from my calendar. And I wondered again what I was trying to prove.

I'd been sporting bruises all spring and summer long. Granted, most of them were in places that no one gets to see. But two weeks prior to the crash, I'd lost my balance coming to a stop and tipped in the opposite direction of the foot I had loose from the pedals. The handlebar hit my arm and I got lots of questions about it. Mr. Bug said I should say I got it from kick-boxing.

It was shaped kind of like a peacock and the coloring was spot on. I thought it would be funny to take a Sharpie and draw in the outline. It wasn't the ugliest bruise I'd had from falling off my bike, but it was ugly enough. I wasn't too ashamed to admit that's where I got it. It hadn't entirely faded when I wrecked. My new bruises were not as colorful, but more painful than the one on my arm. My right knee, which hurt the most, was swollen and a little yellow. My shoulder went from red and irritated to peeling like it had been sunburned, to soft pink skin. It was bruised, but only a little yellow around the edges. The bruise on my chest was purple at the center, but was surrounded by a vivid yellow. I asked Dr. Google, and found that when deeper tissues are bruised the skin appears yellow.

Still, I wasn't stiff and sore, as I'd expected to be. I only took Tylenol and Aleve for a few days after the accident. I was down to one band aid after only a week.

Back at the bike fitter's, new handlebars and wraps installed, shoes and brake levers adjusted, front wheel in true, he encouraged me to get back out there and ride. The next day, last Friday morning, I went out at my usual time — zero.dark.thirty. Riding in the dark is no big deal. It is quiet and cool. I usually stay on the roads, which means streetlights but it also means traffic although it is scant. I have lights on my bike (it's the law); a white one in front and a red one in back, and I wear a forehead light as well. I but wanted to do a longer ride, so I rode up to a nice paved trail. A paved trail with no overhead lights. I was jumping at shadows, worried that I would miss seeing something important and have another accident. When I reached the end of the trail, rather than riding it back, I cut through town. And that's when it happened. I was coming to an intersection. A car was coming. I unclipped and slowed down. But I panicked and forgot my left foot was free and tipped to the right. I untangled myself and got back up. Nothing hurt and I was sure there were no new bruises. As I was composing myself, another rider passed me without saying a word. I found it odd. Surely he saw my flashing red light arc to the ground. I shook it off and continued on my way home. 14 miles. And I didn't die. But I did have new bruises.

Saturday morning I had an organized ride with the cycling club on my calendar. I'm a member, but I don't ride with them much because they mostly ride in the next county over. The starting point for the ride that day was 30 minutes away (rather than an hour) and in the same county. They planned to take one of my favorite trails, starting at the far end, and riding the length of the trail to a connector to another trail which runs up the canyon and then back — 50 miles round trip. The group met at the parking lot of a local store, but to get to the trail from there, you have to do a bunch of fiddling around, including carrying your bike through a patch of weeds to get to a connector and then crossing a major highway. There is an intersection with lights, but it isn't the best starting spot because there is a trail head about a mile from where we started, with plenty of parking and immediate access to the trail. Besides all of that, I was anxious about riding in a group. I know my limitations and worry about being the weakest link — the one they all have to wait for and to accommodate. I worried about impeding their joy in riding. In addition, I'd been having problems with my left shoe clipping in and out, so I worried about that and not being able to start and stop, especially when we had to cross at the crazy busy intersection.

We made it across the intersection, but I was still anxious about keeping up with the group. As we headed up the hill on the other side of the highway my chain came off and jammed in the cassette between the guard on the wheel and the inside gear. I managed to put my foot down — I'm not sure if it was clipped in or not since the left shoe has been a problem — and not hit the pavement. I had trouble figuring out the chain and getting it back on. I cut my finger on one of the teeth on the cassette trying to get it unstuck. I didn't have a rag or a bandaid, so I just let the blood pool and dry.

I got the chain back on but something weird was going on, because it came off a second time as I was trying to get going again. The group was out of sight by now so I was just going to turn around and walk back to my car and go home. I thought maybe the derailleur was broken. We were less than half a mile from the starting point. It made me anxious.

There were only six of us in the group; two married couples, another man and me. One of the married couples noticed I was gone and turned around and to help me out. The husband fiddled around with shifting gears and got me set to go, but the chain came off again. He shifted gears some more and finally we were on our way. I was still anxious and wondered if I was going to continue to have problems for the next 49.5 miles.

As we rode, the husband explained to me that you want to avoid having your chain on the outer ring in the front and on the gear closest to the wheel on the back because the angle is hard on the chain. He said it works the same for the inside ring in the front and the outside gear on the back. He explained to me what to avoid and encouraged me to use the inside ring on our ride today. I followed his advice, not wanting to have an accident, but I feel like you have to pedal a lot more on the small ring to get the same results as you get on the bigger ring with less pedaling. I knew there was a bit of a science to it, but I just shift down when my feet start moving slower and up when they start moving faster.

Anyway, I was pedaling along minding my gears when we come to this part along the trail that has a really great (curvy) downhill followed by a corresponding uphill. I've done it a few times before. Still, I felt a little more anxious going down the hill than usual, worried about the riders and runners around me. The uphill is not my favorite, but it is doable. I was using the smaller/inside ring in the front like I was supposed to for climbing and had a few more gears left in the back before I got to the farthest one out. As the hill got steeper and my pedaling got slower, I shifted to a lower gear. The chain must have skipped or something because suddenly I was free-pedaling (if that is a word). There was no traction from the chain on the gears and I was slowing down almost to stopping and falling over speed. I spat that same curse out just as two of the riders from my group passed me. Maybe we do need to get the Palmolive out. I thought for sure that I was going to tip over. Again. More bruises. More pain. What am I trying to prove?

To avoid falling, I would have to put my foot down. To put my foot down, I would have to unclip. To unclip, I would have to stop pedaling. If I stopped pedaling, I certainly couldn't engage the gears. If I couldn't engage the gears I would fall over. All of this passed through my mind in an instant. Not in so many words, but in flashes of thought in pictures. Out of sheer terror, I shifted back into a higher gear and the chain caught hold. I kept pedaling, but didn't dare change gears. And by the time I got to the top of the hill, I was done. My heart was racing, but not because of the climb. I was shaking, in a panic about what had just happened and afraid of riding any further. All the joy that biking brings me was gone. I was ready to sit down on the sidewalk right there and have Mr. Bug come get me.

The ride leader was at the top of the hill waiting. He has to make sure the group stays together. The couple who helped me out earlier had fallen behind, so I stood there collecting myself and trying to decide what to do — continue on or call search and rescue. When the husband got to the top of the hill, he said his wife had broken a spoke and they were turning back. We were about 4.5 miles from the start. I decided to turn back and go with them.

The trail runs north and south through a major portion of the county. It is, therefore, intersected by lots of streets. That means a lot of stopping and starting. If you're cruising along, you'll be in a higher gear. Remembering to downshift so it is easier to start again, unclip, stop and not fall over is a lot for me. Sometimes I forget to downshift. So starting back up again is hard, especially when my left shoe is having trouble. I am goofy-footed, so I keep my right foot clipped in and stop and stand with my left. I didn't want to cross the street in the trail ahead of us to continue on the ride, or any other street along the way and worry about being too slow or too cautious for the rest of the group. Bikers tend to just slow down at intersections and try to avoid stopping and getting off as much as possible. The intersections along the trail are often blind; fences or bushes or curves in the road block the view. Slowing as much as possible to check before crossing and then needing to stop suddenly if a car is coming isn't a safe idea, especially for me. Cars aren't very considerate of pedestrians or bikers sometimes and 10 to 1, if you try to take the right of way on a bike, you'll get hit.

The thought of continuing on for another 45 miles, not knowing if there would be further issues with the chain or shifting or if clipping or unclipping would be a problem, took all the enjoyment out of the day. I've fallen over enough to know it's not the end of the world. I walked away from a crash that should have been much worse than it was. I survived with minor injuries. But, the thought of anything going wrong, major or minor, filled me with fear and dread. I couldn't count on my bike. I couldn't count on myself. Continuing on was definitely out.

Getting on my bike and riding back down the hill I'd just come up and then riding up the hill on the other side didn't sound good either. I was fully prepared to walk the 4.5 miles back to my car. I settled for walking down the hill and then back up. I called Mr. Bug as I walked, just to hear his voice and get a little reassurance. The wife of the couple had gone ahead, walking her bike up the hill. The husband could see that I was rattled, so he waited for me to walk down the hill and then rode very slowly with me as I walked back up. I'm not sure how he managed it. I can't ride that slowly. I fall over.

When we reached level ground, I got back on my bike and had a nice conversation with this kind couple who had taken me under their wing. We took it slow, but I was still afraid of something going wrong. The trail is intersected with a lot of roads, but it is also designed with a few tunnels that go under the roads that intersect it. At these tunnels there are little off-shoots that let you get back to the road. The wife needed to use a restroom. Having never ridden this trail before and not knowing we were coming up on the trail head with restrooms that we should have started at, she opted to go to a Chevron, which required crossing a road rather than going under the tunnel next to it. I got off my bike and walked across the street. When we got back to the crazy busy intersection on the highway, I walked across that too.

As I planned my day, I originally wanted Mr. Bug to drive me up to the starting point and drop me off. I wanted to do the club ride of 50 miles and then ride the 30 more miles home. He really wanted me to stay with the group, so I just drove myself to the starting point. And then I chickened out. So, my ride went from 80 miles to 50 to 9. All throughout the afternoon, I second guessed myself. Away from the panic of the moment, I felt like I could have continued on. But then the thought of having the chain come off, or tipping over on a stop, or crashing into someone pushed me to the edge of that panic again.

I texted the bike fitter this morning. He said that the derailleur lever might be bent. He also said that he'd look at adjusting my shoe and to bring the bike in. I'll take care of it in the next day or two.

Mr. Bug says I should take the clip-in pedals off and put regular ones on for a while. He spent the evening researching different types of bike shoes and pedals.

I am worried that I will never stop being worried about something going wrong when I'm out riding. Mr. Bug is surprised at how afraid these last few events have made me. He doesn't think I've been afraid enough. A few months ago, downhill at 45 mph was exhilarating. Now, riding around the block scares the pants off me. Maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration.

Something bad happened. I came out OK. Nothing was broken, not even a nail. I only had to pick gravel out of a few fingers. I had some bruises, but it was nothing short of a miracle that all I needed was a few band aids. But now my brain really knows what the asphalt feels like and how scary things can get, so it is in overdrive to keep me safe.

I am signed up to ride a hundred miles again this Saturday. Mr. Bug thinks I ought to do the 75 mile option. I kind of think I should just do 35 miles. Hopefully the bike fitter can figure out what is wrong with it and have it fixed in time.

It makes me sad to think of my bike sitting in the shed collecting cobwebs. That gives me hope that next chapter of this story will find me out riding my bike just for the joy of it.