The bike: I have two. Cycling standards dictate that the number of bikes you should own can be calculated using the formula N+1, where N is equal to the number of bikes currently owned, or by S-1, where S is equal to the number of bikes it will take for your spouse to leave you. In my case, S equals the number of bikes my back shed can reasonably hold (3) without exploding. So I own two lovely wheeled creatures, one for lengthy pleasure rides (AKA my “bike to coffee” bike), and one for speed. Although one might be inclined to believe it’s the pleasure bike that’s vintage, this is not the case. I won’t bore you with all the technical details (we’ll build up to technical stuff), but here’s the basics:
1. The pleasure bike is a Trek WSD 7100, circa 2008. It’s a touring bike (I think now the term in circulation is “hybrid”), with good suspension and a comfy seat, and tires that are thin enough to pick up a decent amount of speed on pavement but will also survive gravel roads and dirt paths. Also it’s visually appealing – pretty sure that’s how I picked this particular bike out of the racks of similar styles lined up at my local bike shop. This one was colourful, had a seat that could be easily adjusted, with quick-release wheels and saddle, and the frame wasn’t too big for me, which is often the case.
2. The speed bike is a 1985 10-speed Supercycle, in blue, with drop handlebars and extra brake levers (I call them my “oh shit” brakes, because I really only use them for quick stops when I might otherwise flatten a small animal or child). The saddle is like sitting with a rock between your legs, but that’s why padded cycling shorts were invented. I did greatly improve the bike’s appearance by adding Superman-themed bar tape – the colour matched, I’m a Superman addict, and also I can fly like the S-man when I get all hunched in the drops with my butt sticking up for the world to admire. I can be all aerodynamic and stuff, even if my gear isn’t top quality – figuratively and literally. The speedy bike’s frame was also cast in steel, making it quite a bit heavier than the touring bike, but also marginally more durable. Which explains why I am still happily riding around on a 29-year-old bike!
Unlike my trusty Trek, which was bought new in the spring of 2008, the Supercycle came to me second-hand last fall for $40. After adding a new chain, tubes, tires, new second-hand wheels, and a complete tune-up, the whole thing cost me a whopping $115. Not bad for a first road bike. Plus I’m very, um, compact, and it’s nearly impossible to find teeny tiny road bike frames, so I lucked out in that this baby was built for a woman between 5 feet and 5′ 4”. Also I have an affection for steel, and jokingly tell all the carbon fiber riders who tease me on long charity tours that my bike will still be going long after theirs have fallen apart or cracked from the pot-hole laden streets here. They grimace and try to out-pace me (the fat girl on her vintage hunk of steel), but they don’t get far and rarely leave my line of sight. I’m just that awesome. Also: quads of steel. How ya like them apples?
All of which is to say that the machine is only as good as its operator. Sure, you can shave a few seconds off your time if you buy a top-of-the-line carbon road bike, but that isn’t nearly as important as building the quads, core, shoulders, and arms. No, I’m not the Hulk or anything, but I have QUADS (as opposed to lower-case quads). When you have quads, you can function normally and wear whatever you want on your lower extremities. When your quads become Quads, you can do a bit more but still be fashionable. But when those Quads morph, through sheer force of will (or repeated use, if you lack superpowers), into QUADS, you’ll walk like you’re holding precious gems in your crotch (mostly because everything in that region is bruised and sore, but also: QUADS), your go-to pants will be 90% lycra/spandex – think tights and yoga wear, rather than padded cycling shorts, which we only wear while riding. Repeat that out loud: I will only wear butt padding while riding, I will only wear butt padding while riding, I will only wear butt padding while riding. Or occasionally it’s acceptable to wear spandex shorts with butt padding while out for a post-ride coffee, usually to show off the QUADS to unassuming passers-by. When you have QUADS, you can forget about skirts unless you have the world’s greatest self-esteem. I wear them, rarely, because they’re flowy and breezy and because sometimes I want to look marginally feminine, even with the permanent grease stains on my calves. But when I wear a skirt, I look shockingly similar to a quarterback in drag. Which I kind of love a little bit.
While there is no substitute to actually putting your butt on your bike and riding, there are supplementary things you can do to enhance your performance. Everyone’s body is different, so find what works for you and do that. Here’s what works for me: every 2-3 days, I bench press about 70 lbs (3 or 4 sets of 10 reps), I do 3 or 4 sets of increasing double-arm rows (one set of 12 reps, then a set of 16 reps, then 20, etc.) using 30-lb weights, single leg curls (front and back, 30 lbs, 4 sets of 15 reps per leg, per side), 10-lb bicep curls (3 sets of 20 reps on each arm), and 20-lb tricep curls (3 sets of 10). Every day, I do 25 squats followed by 15 single-leg squats (and you wondered why I said I had quads of steel…), 45 sit-ups (real ones, military style, not crunches), 10 push-ups, another 15 reverse sit-ups (where you lie on your back and lift and lower your legs at the hips using your lower abs), and some yoga (bridge, plank, snake, dancer, tree, child). On occasion, I also sort of run. Then I bike – a lot. For the record, some of this is because of other interests and goals, but it all helps me to be a better rider.
Speed is not the be-all in cycling, but it’s one of my favourite parts. I’m sure the other riders on the roads and trails think I treat every ride as a race, but I don’t. Sure, it’s an ego boost like nothing else when I can pass a skinny spandexy cyclist on a carbon fiber road bike, especially when I’m on my Trek, doing a leisurely ride to coffee, wearing tights and a yoga shirt, but racing isn’t always my goal. My goal is generally to beat my previous time. At the end of May, I did a 54-km charity ride (most of it at a fairly leisurely pace, at the head of the pack), and finished in about 2.5 hours (excluding hydration and snack stops). Last weekend, I did another charity ride, 57 kms this time, and finished in just a hair over 2 hours – my time was 2 hours and 5 minutes. There was nothing leisurely about that ride – I was pushing, hard, to beat my previous time, and happily succeeded. My butt wasn’t so appreciative of that pushing, but it so rarely is. I wasn’t exactly leader of the pack (at least, not after the first 10 or so kms), but I also wasn’t dead last, and I beat my own best time, and that was all that really mattered. And then, because apparently I hadn’t had enough distance, yesterday I took my Trek out for a nice jaunt for coffee and rode clear across the county, covering 85 kms both on county roads and along our lovely Chrysler Canada Greenway (a natural path left behind when an old abandoned rail line was pulled up). I got a little crispy from the sun, but enjoyed the ride overall.
There is just something about riding that appeals to me on a primitive level. The open road, the wind, the sun, the sweat and adrenaline… And, of course, the sheer willpower involved in forcing your body and a hunk of steel up and down small inclines, over one more bridge, around one more corner. The knowledge that your body is capable of covering that much distance without an engine or a gas tank, with just two legs and a whole lot of muscle power. That’s amazing. That’s beautiful. And that’s more empowering than anything else I’ve ever accomplished in my life.