- Being saddle sore is not something to just accept. It is not a given. A lot of women labour under the misapprehension that cycling is inherently painful but it needn’t be this way – a saddle mapping session can put an end to that particular pain in the backside. Being saddle sore is markedly different for women than for men. Yes, your actual bum might ache – but it’s the chafing and tears on that exposed soft tissue which does the damage. A saddle mapping session can ensure that your weight is on your sit bones, not that delicate tissue.
- I needn’t have worried so much about not being quick enough. When I started road cycling, I was concerned that I would be too slow for Matt to want to ride with me. I thought it would make his rides boring and that he would be frustrated. But I was wrong. Sure, to begin with I wasn’t the fastest cyclist on the block; but riding with my Matt consistently spurred me on to build my speed and stamina. I trust him implicitly when we’re riding and after a few months we began practicing draughting. That means he takes the brunt of the wind while I tag on to his rear wheel, spinning quickly without it killing me and allowing me to keep pace. And now, we ride together so much and push each other so hard that he sometimes ends up draughting me, because I’m really quite fast now….
- Clipless pedals and cleats are not something to be afraid of. It does seem counterintuitive, to attach your feet to your bicycle. I’ll admit that the prospect filled me with horror. But the benefits far, far outweigh the disadvantages. Early doors, I’m not saying that you won’t forget to unclip, and then fall off, probably in an embarrassing fashion. And probably in front of people. It happens to the best of us. But in a very, very short space of time, unclipping becomes second nature. Matt taught me to unclip the moment I see something that may cause me to stop: a queue of traffic, a roundabout looming, a pedestrian crossing. If you don’t need to stop, you can just push down and carry on. But if you do need to stop, you’re prepared. Don’t be scared – clipless pedals are a wonderful invention.
- It doesn’t matter how slowly you go up hills: the point is that you go up them, full stop. I managed to work myself into a panic early doors about hills. It didn’t help that I hadn’t really got to grips with my gears and had a miserable experience trying to get to the top of a grade 4 climb in the big cog. I’ve sorted that problem now, but I still worry about gradients sometimes. On group rides in particular, I have a tendency to worry that I’ll be too slow and might hold other riders up. Well, so be it. If the rest of the group have to wait for me at the top, chances are they’ll be glad of a sip of water and a bite of flapjack. It’s not about getting up there quickly, and if you try, you’re more likely to get into difficulties. Just take it steady. Use the easiest gear. Keep to the left so that people can overtake you. Don’t keep looking for the top of the hill; I find it easier to just keep my head down rather than looking at the gradient. Remember to breathe. Let the weight of your legs do the work. And, it takes some practice, but get out of the saddle if you possibly can – it really does make climbing easier.
- It never gets easier, you just go faster. How right Greg LeMond is. After completing a hilly sportive in Yorkshire and the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100, I really thought a 63 mile sportive in Cambridgeshire would be a doddle. Well, I was wrong. I sweated, my legs were sore, I ached, and I was fed up. But my average speed was 16.3mph, compared to 15.5mph for the 100 and 13.8mph in Yorkshire. It wasn’t easier; but I was faster. And it was worth all of the pain for a Gold place!
new to cycling
- You will get faster. Two years ago the idea of a sub-twenty minute lap of Richmond Park was unthinkable: now, it’s normal. You might think that your current average speed is about as good as it gets – but trust me, you’ll look back at your old Strava times and be amazed at how far you’ve come.
- Don’t fixate on a single training strategy. To become a better rider, you need to alternate: sometimes you should focus on speed, but sometimes it’s about pushing yourself to ride further. Distance and endurance are vital building blocks on which to increase your strength and therefore build speed – while practising those sprints on shorter rides will boost your power for long outings.
- It’s no use waiting for the mood to take you. No matter how much you love cycling, you won’t always feel like riding. Yes, you’ll be tired; hungover; the weather won’t be ideal… but you have to ride. If you wait for ideal conditions you’ll never get any better. What’s more, you’ll be amazed by how often your best rides will be those you didn’t much fancy.
- Don’t be a lone ranger. Riding with others is a really enjoyable experience, and joining a cycling club will help you improve your technique and road craft. Take the plunge – you might not love the first one you try, but there are plenty around so ride out with a few groups until you find the one that suits you.
It’s not all about the bike. You might tell yourself that you’ll be faster on a better bike – but actually, what will make you a better cyclist is a better you. Losing those excess pounds and taking care of yourself will make you faster, fitter and stronger. (That doesn’t mean you won’t want, or need, another bike as well. But don’t buy it until you deserve it.)
In a recent article about cycling participation in The Guardian, one paragraph in particular caught my eye.
“For several female participants in the study, being a cyclist – or choosing not to be one – was very much entangled with concerns and convictions about femininity, appearance and their inclusion in a highly visible minority transport culture – a sort of club. One, Rachel, new to cycling, described uncertainties about what to wear: “I swing between, should I go all in Lycra or should I go for a more girlie look.” Others recognized the dilemma but felt they handled it quite comfortably, and some fully embraced the cyclist look: “I’ve got the kit, I’m a cyclist, yeah.” There was also outright rejection: “The women that do cycle are probably more blokey than feminine.”
I understand those concerns about appearance and femininity.
Only 18 months ago I was cycling to work at a gentle 12mph so as not to get sweaty in whatever I planned to wear at the office that day. A skirt and blouse with heels; a dress; a pair of skinny jeans and a blazer. I was always safe in a helmet and a fluorescent sash at night, but I was adamant that the only way I wanted to ride was at a comfortable pace in my regular clothes. And I enjoyed it.
It’s safe to say my view of cycling has changed in recent times.
Why would I want to ride fast and get sweaty on my way to work? Why would I want to wear specific cycling clothes, and have the rigmarole of getting changed at the other end? Couldn’t cycling just fit in with my lifestyle?
Well, of course it could.
But it’s safe to say my view of cycling has changed in recent times.
Fast forward a few months, and a persuasive Matt – co-founder of Vamper – convinced me to put my name down for the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100 mile cycling event. Quite how he managed it, I still don’t know; but sure enough, I entered the ballot – and was so disappointed to not receive a place that I immediately signed up for a charity spot instead.
It gradually dawned on me that to ride 100 miles – up some hills! – on my steel-framed single speed would be a challenge. I wasn’t sure Leith Hill was really made for a cyclist with a basket on the front of her bike. And I was fairly sure heels weren’t going to be the most appropriate footwear.
That aversion to sweat? Gone.
I realised I was going to have to make some concessions to practicality.
With Matt’s guidance, I settled on my first road bike. With a budget of £1,000, I wanted the best bike I could possibly find for that money. We decided that Sheffield-based Planet X was my best bet, and I opted for the Pro Carbon SRAM Rival 22 Women’s road bike.
I couldn’t very well ride a carbon road bike in heels, though, could I?
With some coaxing, I agreed to go the whole hog on the pedal front. I duly bought a set of Shimano SPD-SL pedals, and a set of cleats. They weren’t going to fit on my stilettoes, so I bought a pair of road shoes. And road shoes would not look good with a skirt, so I ordered a pair of padded bib tights. Which required a coordinating jersey… and a sportier helmet……
I couldn’t very well ride a carbon road bike in heels, though, could I?
I spent some time in a state of panic, practising clipping in and out on our private road until I felt reasonably confident that I could free my feet in case of emergency. And off we went. Me, riding a road bike, with gears, in Lycra.
I enjoyed it.
My hands hurt a bit, so I ordered a pair of cycling gloves. And a cycling jacket.
I enjoyed it all the more.
We put our names down for the 38 mile Le Petit Depart recreational ride in the Yorkshire Dales. I acquired a Garmin, and a cadence sensor. I started caring about Strava sections – and realised that I have a little bit of a competitive streak.
And by ‘a little bit’, I mean that it transpires my competitive streak is a mile wide.
I spent some time in a state of panic, practising clipping in and out on our private road until I felt reasonably confident that I could free my feet in case of emergency.
That aversion to sweat?
Gone. That’s what Muc-Off Dry Shower is for. And hell – if my hair is a bit messy at work, I can always tidy it up with the straighteners I keep in my desk drawer in case of emergency.
Having a physical, competitive outlet has given my life a new direction. I worry far less about my appearance than I used to: I’m happy to have a body which is active and healthy. I’m happy to have strong legs that allow me to nail sections and keep up with Matt.
I like to sweat.
Sweating keeps my skin healthy, and it tells me that I’ve worked hard.
I like my legs to ache after a 17mph commute or a hilly sportive.
I like my cycling tan from a summer of long rides, and I like the tell tale oil mark on my leg when I’ve been messing about with my bike in the house.
I like road cycling, and I’ll never again be content to ride at 12mph in heels again.
“The women that do cycle are probably more blokey than feminine.” Riding hard, challenging myself, breaking a sweat and dressing the part don’t make me feel blokey, that’s for sure. I feel like a stronger woman than I did before – and that makes me feel better about my gender than adhering to any modern constructs of what constitutes femininity.
This woman can.