One of the downsides of cycling. If you ride a bike lots, the laws of probability say you will probably fall off, at least once, maybe more if you’re unlucky….
I’ve been hugely impressed by my friend Meg who took a terrible crash last week and was back on her bike before she’d even had her stitches taken out. It takes real guts and courage to get over an accident because it shakes your confidence and leaves you feeling black and blue.
Best case scenario you check the bike over for damage, it is safe to ride and you continue. Worst case scenario, you don’t remember the crash. It doesn’t even need to be you, just witnessing a ride buddy take a spill can be enough to shatter your confidence and turn you into a nervous wreck when descending/approaching junctions/in heavy traffic.
When safe and sensible to do so, getting back on the bike straight away is great. You beat your daemons straight away and don’t let your anxieties snowball. Sometimes you get back on the bike straight away, then once getting home realise that wasn’t sensible. Spend a few weeks mashed up and then when you eventually get up the courage to get back on the bike realise that you are a nervous wreck. That last one is me.
My family seem to think I’m a whimp or that I complain too much. When I’m out by myself I’m often criticised for not giving myself enough sympathy or for pushing on through when I should stop. I suppose you can’t ever win.
This summer ‘Tractor gate’ happened. This is the first time I’ve broken a bone in a bike accident. I didn’t go to hospital, mum told me that ‘of course my face hurt I’d fallen off and hit the road!’. I only found out I’d broken my cheekbone two months later when a pedestrian sent me flying and I ended up in A&E needing stitches. A precautionary x-ray led to the Dr delivering the ‘are you being abused by your boyfriend’ chat. In actual fact what happened was that I was in the middle of a club run, chasing the boys down a descent when a tractor appeared. I pulled on the brakes, not quite happy with the amount of deceleration, pulled on the brakes some more. My rear wheel locked, I started skidding down the verge, something caught in my front wheel and over the handlebars I went. A bit like what happened in the Rio Olympics women’s road race but with less speed. I broke the fall with my face. Jumped back on the bike and got dropped on the return ride into Bristol. (Needless to say I thought twice about going back out with a club that drops an injured rider.) Thankfully my amazing friends Jim and Jordan looked out for me, Jim even sorted out my front shifters which had taken some of the impact.
Back at home I felt sore. There was road rash on my leg, shoulder and face. My face hurt, so I got a bag of frozen veg out of the freezer and went to bed. The next morning I had a massive black eye, I had to call my line manager to find out if it was acceptable to go to work looking like I had been in a pub brawl at the weekend. Apparently it is and anything goes when you work with academics!
Anyway, get to the point Eleanor! About 6 months on I still haven’t got my confidence back descending. I haven’t had the best year of riding anyway with life and work conspiring against me, maybe with more miles under my belt I’d have gotten over the fear.
At first I flat-out avoided descending at speed. I went through brake pads very quickly! I hardly ever use the rear brake now (which apparently is what proper cyclists do anyway, lesson learned!). I’ve slowly started to increase my confidence and speed descending and I will try to summarise how this has happened.
Relax your head – mind over matter
Be out on the bike more. The more times bad things don’t happen the less you worry that they might.
Start small. If it is descents that scare you – don’t go back and try to descend massive hills. Start with shorter descents and for me straight hills were I can see what lies ahead. Don’t try and be a hero in poor conditions, there is no point being a hero if it is wet and windy.
Go with friends: observing their speed, how they assess risk and learning from this BUT don’t let them push you before you are ready. Take things at your own pace. Sometimes going alone is better because you can just stay in your comfort zone without being pushed. You know you and what will work best for you.
Talk about it! Most (read all) cyclists are scared of crashing. Talking about it helps. Your fears aren’t irrational. Talking about it you feel less alone and less scared, you might even pick up some tips from someone else’s experiences.
Get your bike serviced regularly and check it before a ride! If your ride is in good working order then it is less likely to malfunction at speed and your brakes are more likely to stop you when you need them to! Bike maintenance isn’t for having a sparkly clean bike that looks pretty, it’s important for function! Peace of mind is worth a lot.
Relax your body – matter still needs some work
Loosen up! Post spill I gripped the handlebars tighter than I grip an alcoholic drink after a tough week at work. Not only was it tiring and gave me pretty bad back ache but it also made me a worse rider! With a stiff upper body my handling was worse and so I felt less in control of the bike.
Breathe. At the end of the day it is a form of anxiety. Breathe, look ahead at the corner/descent/traffic and keep a calm head. If that means not talking to a riding buddy, or putting down your drink/snack to help you focus then that’s what you need to do.
Plan ahead – big descent coming up? get down in the drops early. There is more braking power in that position. Shift your weight back so you can use the front break without worry of spilling over the bars. heavy traffic coming up? get into a good road position, make sure you are seen and away from the kerb/car doors and in a position where cars can’t overtake you dangerously.
It’s all about learning how to trust the bike again. If the incident was something out of your control like an idiot motorist then it’s harder because the thing that causes your anxiety is out of your control. However, there are some small things you can do to make you feel more in control: adjusting your route to avoid heavy traffic, wearing high-vis so you’re unlikely to be missed, adjusting time of day that you ride to avoid darkness/rush hour.
Whatever you do, don’t let the fear put you off riding.
There is a lot of information and media out there for people who are already pretty keen on cycling. If you know your cleats from your cadence you’re sorted. However, if have never heard of a MAMIL and think bonk is something horny teenagers do then the world of cycling can seem mystical and out of your reach.
Firstly. No breed of cyclist or type of cycling is better or worse than another. If you enjoy riding a bike then you are a winner. If you are a commuter, club cyclist or ultra endurance racer we all love bikes and that’s what matters.
Disclaimer: I am coming at this from an able-bodied road cycling perspective. I cycled as a child (I also fell off a lot as a child) so I can’t give any personal insight into learning to ride as an adult.
Someone commented on an instagram picture of mine recently, she is an injured runner who recently took up road cycling. She described taking up cycling as ‘all kinds of great and hard. But finding my bike feels like I’ve found a friend’.
I won’t profess to be an expert but Jo inspired me to write something. So I’ve reflected on my own experience of getting hooked on road cycling and hopefully it will help and inspire others out there to get on their bike and start riding more. I’ve structured this post around the sort of information she would find useful, expanded it into a story and deviated from the main point quite a bit.
It’s as easy as riding a bike. You will need…
Firstly, some background. I had always ridden bikes as long as I can remember (thank you Mum!). When I was tiny I had a tricycle. Then playing around the garden on bikes. Once we were old enough we used to go for family rides, first just down the lane but gradually getting longer until we had an established local loop. Living in south-west Wales it was pretty sparse and riding bikes was just a way to get around. We had a couple of second-hand bikes with stabilisers that I remember.Being the eldest I had the privilege of getting the new wheels when I outgrew the second hand bikes. Halfords own brand mountain bikes, always a few sizes to big for me so that I would grow into it.
Safe to say I never grew into the one that I had when I was 11 and when I went away to university this bike came with me! I started cycling everywhere. In Oxford, the city of dreaming spires and some beautiful vintage bicycles I quickly tired of my faithful, fat tyred and slow aluminum steed. Off to gumtree I went and in my second year I purchased for the princely sum of £70 my beautiful Princess. An old steel racer with a mixty frame and pink paint job. I had a few things to get used to, drop handlebars, skinny tyres and old school down tube gear levers. (Seven years on and I still commute on Princess every day.) I had caught the bug.
That’s how it stayed for a few years. Then, in the second year of my PhD a friend was selling a ‘proper’ road bike, a Pinnacle Gabbro – an aluminium, carbon forked, little cages on the pedals jobby. Few more things to get used to now- getting my feet into the little toe cages and the gear shifters that worked by moving the brake lever sideways (WTF?!). For the princely sum of £250 Pricilla was mine. At this point I had no proper cycling kit. I was wearing trainers, running shorts and rugby tops to ride in. Not always with a helmet (learned this lesson later) but my rides started getting longer and my confidence was improving.
I carried on just riding occasionally for pleasure. Then something happened. I tore my ACL in a skiing fall. This was the most I had hurt myself. I needed surgery. It also meant that I couldn’t keep playing my main sport, rugby. So I started riding the bike more and more, pre op and post op. Slowly I started to invest in bits of lycra.
Fast forward and a year after that I bought a carbon bike for £600 off a friend in my new cycling club (more on them later). Fast forward another year and I have just paid a deposit for a custom build steel frame for long distance endurance rides. Thanks Rob Quirk!
Cyclists have this joke that the correct number of bikes to own is N+1 where N is the number of bikes you currently own. I would be inclined to agree with this, but that doesn’t mean you need to remortgage your house!
2. Kit essentials.
About a year after meeting Priscilla my first ‘proper’ road bike I started investing in bits of kit. First it was padded shorts. Some discount Rivelo shorts from Sport Pursuit for £25. Not bad. If you are going to buy one piece of kit, make it a good pair of padded shorts!! Oh and some chamois cream! This is stuff you put on your bum to stop your shorts chaffing thus helping to prevent saddle sores. Also, go commando with your shorts. They are designed to be worn next to skin when cycling. My Marks and Spencers knickers were not designed with cycling in mind and I soon learned to leave them at home!
Following a few misadventures next came a proper helmet. There are arguments for and against wearing helmets. Chris Boardman (some guy who is really good at riding bikes) is famous for saying that helmets are not even in the top 10 things that keep cyclists safe on the road. But, if you are unlucky enough to be falling off your bike, accelerating towards the floor you want to be wearing head protection. Also, most road cycling clubs won’t let you ride without a helmet and you usually can’t ride mass participation events like sportives without one. I bought a reasonably good helmet on the sale for around £30. It is now my commuter helmet since upgrading.
Next came some cycling shoes (£50) and SPD-SL pedals (£24). Then a jersey, you can pick up some pretty cheap ones for around a tenner now in the sale. The advantage of a cycling specific jersey over a normal top? Pockets! Lots of pockets to stuff with cake! (and a puncture repair kit, phone, keys, money etc but mainly cake.)
Other important things:
A mini pump for fixing flats and punctures when you’re miles from nowhere
Cycling cap, because style (the peak is also practical at keeping glare out of your face when sunny and rain out of your face when it isn’t sunny)
Socks, not just any socks. Jazzy socks. Why? because style
Mitts, I remember riding my first 100km ride and afterwards my hands were sore. Pressure points from where they had been on the bars and been rattled around by some of the finest road surfaces in the Cotswolds.
Bottles and bottle cages, essential for long rides. Stay hydrated, kids!
Cycling computer, you don’t always need one of them these days with smartphones running Strava or similar ride tracking apps. However, if you want real-time ride data then you can pick up basic units pretty cheaply on eBay or on sale. Go up a price level and you can get one that helps you navigate. Helpful on long rides on unfamiliar roads.
Insurance – if you live in the UK join British Cycling. Their membership gives you liability insurance and membership support. When you have expensive bikes you can get something more comprehensive. Also a lot of home insurance will cover bikes in the contents but check your Ts&Cs.
Bike service – ok not kit technically. Regular servicing is a must. Once a year if you’re being frugal. Once every 100 miles if I listen to the guy at my local bike shop. It is great to learn to fix things yourself but having a regular once over by someone who knows what they are doing is important to keep your breaks, gears and everything else in working order
Wash your bike! A stitch in time saves nine. Don’t let your steed accumulate mud, salt and grit and then be surprised when it doesn’t run smoothly.
Cake – it makes the legs go round!
Coffee – as above
3. How to spread the cost
As I got increasingly keen over a couple of years the cost was already spread out in time. If you wake up one morning and decide to go from zero to Laura Trott then you have to expect a certain outlay.
Start with the bike. Bikes depreciate in value. I would massively advocate for buying second-hand, but know what you’re looking for. Ask someone who knows or go down a local bike shop and ask them to size you up. I spent too long riding bikes that were too big for me. A lot of manufacturers have size guides on their websites too and these can be a good starting point. Ride to work schemes are good if you work for an employer that offers it.
Kit. Sales, second-hand. Also, you don’t need all the gear to start. If you have a pair of cycling shorts you can ride in whatever trainers you have first. Chilly outside? You don’t need leg warmers or bib tights from the off, just chuck some normal leggings on top of your shorts. Wear a normal sports top (just stop regularly for cake).
Aldi. Everyone loves a german supermarket. At least once a year they run a cycling special buy. Where they get loads of stuff in bulk and sell it cheap. Everything from tool stands, cleaning solutions to clothing and Garmins. They advertise the special buys in advance, mark it in your calendar and get down early to grab a bargain.
4. To cleat or not to cleat?
Pretty much always cleat. I spent one sunny afternoon falling off a lot in my back garden. It is a ritual that every cyclist goes through. Cleats enable you to be more efficient in how you transfer power from your legs into the forward motion of the bike. Go somewhere quiet (and soft) and practice. Ride in cleats by yourself first before you go off on a group ride. Even people who have been riding years still have cleat fails – learn to laugh it off.
Which cleats? That’s a personal thing. There is no point in me even trying to attempt to summarise what is out there. From observation, most roadies ride with SPD-SL or similar. Mountain bike cleats are also an option for road bikes because the MTB shoes are easier to walk in, they are a popular choice for commuters and adventure cyclists.
5. How to find other cyclists
Again, if you live in the UK British Cycling has a club finder. Word of mouth (the internet isn’t everything you know!). Your local bike shop – they might host a local club or ride with a local club. Coffee shops, sounds like an odd one but hear me out. Cyclists run on coffee. Head down to your local independent caffeine dealership, they might be a watering hole for a local club and there may be posters on the wall or someone there who can tell you something about local clubs and where to find them. Breeze rides in the UK are great for women looking for an introduction to cycling and the Cycling Touring Club are great for low intimidation levels of accessibility.
I was really lucky. In Oxford there is this amazing club called the Cowley Road Condors. The summer I was getting out more and more on Priscilla they ran something called the ‘Ladies’ Summer Sessions’. A series of rides that over 6 or so weeks would take you from commuter, teach you the basics of group cycling, and by the end get you out on one of the club rides. I think more clubs should do this. If all cycling clubs were like the Condors the world would be a better place. I also have a lot of sympathy for men trying to get in to cycling because there are a lot of amazing incentives and programmes out there for female novices.
6. Falling off and the fear of falling off
This is I think the main reason people who learn to ride bikes as an adult struggle. The fear. When we’re little we’re bouncy and fearless. Fact of the matter is, you will probably fall off. At some time. At least once. Do what you can to make sure this doesn’t happen. Be alert. Look at the road (and cyclists) ahead. Get your bike serviced regularly to avoid mechanicals. Check your bike over before a ride to make sure it is road worthy. Don’t be an idiot and ride within your capabilities.
When you do eventually fall off, if you can and it is safe to do so, try and get back on your bike. The longer you leave it after a crash or spill the worse that fear becomes. We all fall off. Eventually the scars become something you wear with pride and show off at parties.
7. Local bike shops
Mentioned a couple of times already. Your local bike shop will become everything. From bike servicing to upgrade questions to last minute panick inner tube purchasing. A lot of the world is on the internet now. Yours truly is guilty of buying a lot of her kit from Wiggle or Chain Reaction Cycles. But you will not get better for customer service at your local and their advice may save you from that ill advised purchase thus saving you money in the long run.
What is local? Well it isn’t always the closest one to you. My old nearest bike shop (actually where my mum bought my very first tricycle!) were generally good at servicing my steel Princess and I had bought a few bits and bobs in there. One day I was rebuilding the rear brake and found that I needed a few more bits and bobs; a new cable and some new casing. I went in to the shop and explained. I came away with half of what I needed and the condescending phrase ‘are you going to do it yourself?’ coupled with a condescending gaze. Needless to say I never went back there again! Shop around and when you find the one you’ll know. In Bristol I love BW Cycling and my carbon bike sings after a service with them!
Things you must be able to do yourself:
Change/repair an inner tube. This involves taking the tyre off. This in itself can be turned into a competitive sport
Put the chain back on (sounds daft but I know people who can’t do this!)
Always carry a multi tool and have a general understanding of how to tighten bolts and which bolts to tighten when certain things start to rattle (comes with practice)
This year I’m doing a lot more self supported longer rides. I have become fully aware that I need to be more able at fixing the common things to break: snapped cables, broken spokes, broken chains etc. You can pay to take various courses. Some are big centralised things that are like the exam boards of bike mechanics like Cytech. Or if you live in a big town or city it is likely that you might have a sort of bike community hub cooperative where you can volunteer and learn how to fix bikes through helping others to fix bikes. I recently started volunteering at The Bristol Bike Project and it has been amazing so far. I love the exchanging of knowledge and skills that happens and how the project don’t let anything go to waste- everything that can be is re-used. I will write a proper post about the BBP later.
9. Just ride
Put down the google search and just get on your bike. Say yes when people ask if you want to go out on a ride and who knows what adventure may come your way! You may end up testing women’s road bikes with BikeRadar!
We broke up the adventure into 3 days and stayed with some kind Warm Showers hosts along the way. The scenery was beautiful, the gradients were challenging and the company was inspiring. The youngest of three and recovering from food poisoning I felt like I had something to prove. I was in charge of route planning – partly because I’m Welsh and therefore have intimate local knowledge of all of Wales (apparently!) and also because I’m hoping to get a place on the 5th Transcontinental race and so need plenty of practice at route planning!
Cycling out of Bristol on Friday morning I felt weak. I hadn’t eaten properly in a week because of food poisoning. I hadn’t slept much the night before from worry. I’d not ridden with any weight loaded on the bike before. I was in the granny ring before I’d even arrived at the meeting point. I thought I’d probably over estimated myself, that this was a bad idea. I wasn’t massively cycling fit, I was recovering from illness, it was winter, it was cold, it was dark. There were so many reasons to justify turning around and going home. Luckily, I’m a stubborn little thing and I won’t give up on anything I’ve set my mind to.
Day 1. https://www.strava.com/activities/791525550
Ok, so we weren’t going out to break any speed records. So we took it easy. Getting used to riding with weight on the bike, calming our nerves, getting used to the conditions. Day 1 was the shortest day so we had time to get our acts together without worrying too much about daylight and so we had faff in buckets. It was nice to have less pressure on the first day. I’d also only just met one of the ladies before so there was the group dynamic to establish. It’s always really motivating to ride with strong women who just do what they want with life. It can also be a bit intimidating! Despite all our faffing we made it to our first hosts just as darkness was descending. Much to my excitement our hosts were Transcontinental dot watchers! This is a race that I’ve applied for in 2017 so hearing their stories was very interesting. Dressed in clean, warm clothes we headed off to the pub and were still in bed by 9pm!
Day 2. https://www.strava.com/activities/792608326
I was really quiet at breakfast. I’m never quiet. We knew today would be tough, long and hilly. Finishing in the light was unlikely. The first challenge of the day was getting my two pairs of overshoes on. Faffing before we’d even set off! Eventually on our way we set off to enjoy the dawn. Excited that we were now well and truly on our adventure, that we hadn’t failed yet and the stunning countryside kept our spirits high.
When route planning I’d asked the girls, do we want to take the more main roads or the more minor roads. Consensus was for minor and sustrans routes. This was fine, until we hit some trails. Suddenly, tyres turned to skis as we slipped and skidded down a muddy track for a few miles. Some more narrow country lanes later and we realised we were making very slow time. We were muddied and worried about how much night riding we might be faced with if this lack of progress continued.
A quick lunch stop and some minimal faff later and we head off in the direction of Llanidloes with some purpose. We hit sunset at the top of the mountain road from Llanidloes to Machynlleth and it was epic. The gradients of this road were also epic and reduced my legs to jelly. What was less epic and more sketchy was the descent into Mach. I lost all my descending confidence after a crash earlier this summer. Couple that with an extra heavy bike, poor light and an unknown road. I descended like a granny but I didn’t care! The last few miles to our hosts’ for the second night in darkness. I was so glad to finish that day but worried how my legs would have anything in them for the final day.
Day 3. https://www.strava.com/activities/793727565
Tired, smelly and with very muddy bikes we swung our legs over the saddles and headed off on the third and final day. Riding back to back days wasn’t as tough on the legs as I imagined. They got very used to just going around and around in circles. My ass on the other hand was less comfortable. Day 3 and into Snowdon. It was a little colder, ice on the ground and a chill in the air. The first hill of the day was a beast. Up and up and up it just kept on going. Then it turned into a track. Crazy gradient, loose gravel, ice, I was struggling to maintain traction. But the view from the top was out of this world with a stunning view of Cadair Idris and Snowdon in the background.
The descent was just as sketch as the climb. We stopped for coffee and I educated the girls about the Welsh delicacy that is Bara Brith. Onwards! We had more hills but this time some main roads and made fairly decent time. The thing that makes rural Wales brilliant is also what makes it challenging. It is really sparse. Which meant we had to have quite a late lunch. I parted ways with the other two in Beddgelert as they headed up to the YHA at Pen-y-Pass to climb snowdon the next day. I headed off to Bangor to catch the train home. Sun setting I put a bit of an effort down. It felt so epic to be cruising through breathtaking mountain scenery at dusk, having cycled there from my front door. Darkness descended and I realised my Garmin had stopped giving me turn by turn directions. F*ck! What if I was lost? I checked my phone, no reception. Double f*ck. I cancelled the navigation and just put Bangor train station into the Garmin. Less than 100 metres up the road there was a road sign for Bangor, I needn’t have panicked. I took the most direct route to the station. Which meant main roads, cars, darkness. I made it to the station. Took a photo of my bike to celebrate and then realised I had enough time before the train to go and buy a massive pizza. The icing on the cake came in the form of an email from my hero Emily Chappell received on the train journey home. She (and it turns out her parents!) had been following our escapades and it really touched me that her dad had described us as ‘your sort’.
Bike – I bought my bike third hand for £600 from a friend in my old cycling club. A carbon Italian steed it has stood me well for club rides. I wasn’t sure if bikepacking would be a bit much but my steed served me well. Just goes to show that you don’t have to spend megabucks.
Luggage – Alpkit big pappa and medium fuel pod. We had three different seat post bags with us on the trip. Apidura, Aplkit and Restrap. The Alpkit has very clever compression straps and secures very tightly to the saddle and seat post. This combination means it wobbles around very little on the back of the bike and I think it fared the best of all three.
Kit: thermal bib tights (it was winter), shorts and legwarmers, merino socks, down jacket (packable warmth), a rapha winter jersey (which was amazing), a rain jacket (lightweight wind breaker), three pairs of gloves (it was winter), one of those USB charger thingys, toothbrush, clean thermals to sleep in, a lightweight jumper for casual wear.
Never forget: spare inner tube and puncture repair kit!
I’ll review bits and bobs of kit in more detail as we go along.
Hi. I’m El. 25. I grew up in South West Wales and now I live in Bristol. I like riding bikes. I’ve always cycled but got in to doing it a little more seriously after a knee injury. I ride because I love it. It started off being about physical health but now it’s just as much about the mental health. I find it very rewarding from getting from A to B by the power of my own body (well and cake too). I have decided to write a blog. To share things I’ve learned from trial and error, stories, photos, my journey. At best, I hope that this will inspire and inform others. At worst, no one will bother to read it. What can go wrong…?!