By: Lindsay Goldman
I’m riding worse than ever before, but at least I’m wiser.
This year marks the 15-year anniversary of when I discovered cycling, and I’m celebrating by hitting a wall completely. After years of rigorous training and a seemingly unrelenting ability to ride through just about anything, the wheels have finally fallen off. It’s not pretty. I feel like that gif of the dumpster on fire rolling downhill, except I’m moving way slower thanks to chronic back pain and burnout.
The upside of experiencing this after 15 years is that I mostly have the patience and wisdom to keep this in perspective. Yes, this period sucks and I miss feeling good on the bike. Yes, my ego is beyond bruised at this point from months of getting dropped from or dropping out of my favorite rides. But I assume this will eventually pass. In the interim, I’ve had a lot of time riding slowly in solitude thinking about the sport, what it means to me, and what I’ve learned (and am still learning). Here’s my take on the 15 most important lessons I’ve learned about riding bikes:
- Wave. Wave at other riders, say hello, nod your head if you prefer to keep your hands on the bars. Even if the rider looks nothing like you or seems like they’d rather eat their wheel than wave back, do it anyway. You can help continue the vibe that we’re all in this together. Bonus points for waving at cars who pass considerately or find other ways to make you feel more welcome on the road.
- All kinds of cycling are great. I’ve been a mountain biker, a cyclocross racer, and a roadie. I’ve even done a bit of downhill (poorly). Every discipline I’ve tried has a different culture and a few people who seem really judgmental about other types of riders. Don’t be like that. All types of riding have their merits and all of them are fun for different reasons.
- You’ll never regret packing extra. Nothing kills the joy of a ride like running out of food or water, or being unprepared for a flat. If you pack spares, worst case is that you’ll have to carry a few extra grams. It beats the alternative of bonking or needing an Uber home. Plus you can be the rider that helps somebody else in need when you can spare an extra.
- Gender inequality is real. There are a lot of differences between men and women in cycling. Some are physiological, like natural structure and power difference, and others are created, like pay and media coverage. But the greatest injustice is how much more complicated and time-consuming it is for women to pee on rides. After 15 years in this sport, I can forgive stupid expressions like “getting chicked”, overlook being pushed off wheels by unfamiliar men on group rides, and roll my eyes at yet another pro level men’s race without a women’s counterpart. But I will never accept having to finish the second half of a group ride with a full bladder because all of the guys took care of business in 30 seconds next to the road and started to roll away.
- Offer to lend a hand. If you see a rider on the side of the road, ask if they need anything. It might cost you some time or a tube, but helps perpetuate a culture where we all help each other out.
- A bike fit is worth it. This is not a luxury purchase, but rather an important step to improve your fundamental cycling experience. You’ll be more comfortable and efficient, avoid nagging injuries and hot spots, and set yourself up for a more enjoyable ride. Even if you don’t consider yourself a serious cyclist, you’ll want to make sure the time you do spend on the bike is in a position that won’t kill your back, knees, or butt.
- Don’t ignore nagging injuries. That little pain in your knee or that twinge in your back are signals that something isn’t quite right. Cycling involves doing the same motion repeatedly - if you pedal at 90 RPM, that’s 5,400 rotations every hour. Reinforcing broken movement patterns or continually irritating an injury with that many repetitions rarely ends well. This is a lesson I continue to learn the hard way.
Spending money on equipment has diminishing returns. At the entry level, spending a bit more can get you big gains in lighter equipment that actually feels better when you ride. At the mid level, it starts to cost a lot more to buy nicer stuff but can still make a noticeable difference. And at the top level, you’re shelling out hundreds to buy titanium rotor bolts and trying to believe you’re just that much faster for being 0.35 grams lighter. The rider matters more than the bike - buy what you can afford and focus on the work you put into riding instead.
- But invest in the right clothes. It’s important to have bibs and jerseys that fit well, protect your skin, and offer accessible pockets. Nothing is more irritating than chafing - not only is it uncomfortable, but it can lead to fidgeting on the saddle, which can cause misalignment of your body and ultimately injury. You’ll also want layers to stay comfortable in different weather conditions. My staples are the Laguna Seca bib, the Solana jersey, the Palomar vest, the Pismo base layer, and the Eliel gaiter.
- Assume every car doesn’t see you. If you always ride defensively, you’re more likely to avoid getting hit. Make eye contact with drivers before pulling out in front of them and expect cars to do unexpected things. (The latter is true for squirrels and small children too.) The cost of slowing down and being cautious is very low compared to the alternative.
- Don’t assume anything about a rider based on how they look. We all make snap judgments about riders based on what they’re wearing, what they’re riding, or their shape, size, or gender. But I’ve seen both stocky climbers and lanky sprinters win and sleek dudes on expensive bikes get dropped handily and hairy old dudes on aged bikes beat the young guns in the bunch. The safe bet is to treat every rider with respect and focus on your own ride.
Your cycling life continually evolves. New riders start by just pedaling around. Then you get a computer to see how many miles you rode. You might add heart rate data and then start doing some training. Then comes a power meter and a fixation on watts and analyzing performance. Over time - often many years - the fascination with data fades. There is less training and more riding. Maybe your cycling computer goes uncharged for a while and then suddenly one day you’re content just riding along. It’s okay. That’s normal.
- Consistency matters most. The best thing you can do to be a better cyclist is to ride. If your life is busy, or you’re stressed and tired, or your weather is bad, it can feel impossible to get going. Then a few days go by and turn into a week or two, and then getting started seems a lot harder. This is where it pays to be consistent. Just keep getting on your bike, even if the rides are short or you’re stuck indoors.
- The bad times are temporary. I’ve spent a lot of time in the sport and realized that everything is transient, including the bad times. I’ve felt terrible in races, only to come around halfway through. I’ve had bad injuries, only to recover and get back to fitness. I’ve had years where I just couldn’t get it together, only to come back the next year better than ever. If you keep showing up, things will eventually turn around. Just try to stay humble in the good times and steady in the hard ones because there is no guarantee of what’s coming next.
- Nobody else is on the same ride. You have your own life, your own body and health and fitness, your own preferences and experiences. It’s so easy to compare yourself to others - hello, Strava - but even if you’re on the same group ride or riding the same segment as another person, the path you took to get there is totally different. Competition can be fun but only when it’s healthy and you can respect yourself regardless of the outcome. If you look at your entire life from your first ride until today as one big ride, it’s an experience that is 100% unique to you. You’re the only person competing on that Strava segment so that means you’re automatically coming in first.