I was hoping to recount a resounding victory over my fear of the bicycle, but in fact I will have to call today's battle a draw. UGH! An honorable one, though, I think...
(Usually I prefer to have my psychodramas in PRIVATE rather than all over the internet, but in this case it seems to me it might be worthwhile chronicling - could be mildly useful for someone in a similar or related boat - also it will certainly make me feel much better to write a copious narrative!)
Longtime readers of this blog will already know that I basically have had what amounts to a phobia rather than ordinary anxiety about riding my bike. The backdrop, aside from the fact that NYC is a stressful place to ride a bike - that I had not ridden a bike since childhood - that I am just an anxious kind of person with no driver's license and no feel for traffic and no sense of direction - that I followed an ill-advised recommendation to use Look pedals and the cleat anxieties thoroughly exacerbated the regular ones - is a complicated one.
I guess, looking back, I'd say that three factors very unfortunately converged in my life during the winter of 2006-2007 to produce a perfect storm of anxiety disorderishness: (1) not being able to run for 3-4 months due to a stress fracture of the pelvic bone following my overenthusiastic initial embrace of distance running, with all the anxiety of injury and recovery; (2) the first deadline for submission of my tenure materials (the tenure case itself, from start to finish, basically took about a year and a half and is the main factor here, with all its attendant SERIOUS anxieties about life and work); (3) the violent death of my friend Helen.
So there I was in the summer of 2007 with an utter but as yet aspirational devotion to triathlon, a brand new bike and an unconquerable fear of riding it!
There have been ups and downs since then, but I put the bike aside after the New York City Triathlon last summer because it had become clear to me that I needed to deal with the underlying anxiety before there was any point worrying about the bike.
(Shortly before that I had taken a very sensible step and replaced the Look pedals with SPD pedals - there's a cleat on one side, and the shoes are much easier to clip in and out than the other ones, but the other side of the pedal is for regular shoes, and the whole system is much better suited to my needs.)
The weekend of riding I did last summer with the New York Cycle Club was most informative, not least because I learned about the club's C-SIG series, an 8-10-week training course they do every spring for novice riders.
I meant to have done some riding to get ready for it, but then I was in Antarctica, and of course I have this aversion to riding my bicycle in any case: the anxiety situation is thoroughly dispelled in my real life - as of about October of this fall I was feeling much more myself - but I was still in terror of bike-riding...
I spent a lot of hours last night trying to talk myself into the notion that I really shouldn't do the class this spring - too many other obligations - not ready - etc. etc. only of course it was awfully and horrifyingly clear to me that I had to do it, it would be an utter cop-out to skip out on it now - unlike running and swimming, cycling-related help is very thin on the ground, there are few organized structures the real novice can opt in on, so I could not afford to miss it.
Woke up again at 5am and proceeded to have several more hours of thoroughgoing attempts to cop out followed by queasy resolutions - I was genuinely afraid I was going to throw up, I was so nervous!
Finally I made a series of accommodations with myself that seemed fair enough. Really I knew I should ride over on STREETS, but I rode over through Riverside Park and then along the sidewalk of 84th St.; and I gave myself an out that if, after the indoor morning part of the workshop, I really could not face the group ride, I would bow out.
Well, the morning sessions were sort of soothingly dull in a useful way, and I explained myself to my fellow group members and confessed my anxiety in a misleadingly articulate way, and then we headed out for the group ride.
Here's where the draw part of it comes in.
We were heading from 84th and Columbus as a largish group (17-20?), first along 85th and then up Riverside Drive. There is something comforting in a large group, because it is obvious that cars have to take notice, but it's also impossible to get everyone through the lights together. And in fact I had a minor meltdown at 96th and Riverside, at which point I decided in consultation with the back-of-the-group leader that I was going to be better off dropping out for today.
So: I now have a clearer sense of what the problem is.
It is not riding the bike per se - now that I'm better sorted out in life in general, that seems fine, though I am sure I will always feel cautious and mildly terrified on downhills (just the kind of person I am).
It is the riding in traffic that I have a complete block on - and to confirm this, I will note (I did not mention it at the time!) that the only utter freakout I have had in the last six months (as opposed to feeling in constant every-minute utter-state-of-emergency for pretty much every hour of every day, including the ones where I was supposedly sleeping, for the 18 months before that!) was during an evening run in Grand Cayman. The last couple miles were after dark and on a shoulder with traffic coming from behind, and though it was in no realistic sense at all dangerous, I was in the fight-or-flight mode like you would not believe; by the end of it I was so discombobulated that I basically couldn't even cross at the street light when there were no cars in sight, I was paralyzed in front of the walk signal! And THAT was when I was on my own two feet...
SO though my intentions were very good, and though I screwed up my resolution to the sticking point, in fact after about 4-5 intersection stops and starts I was in such a state that I did not honestly think it safe to continue - the group leader and I were in agreement, it would have been fine if we were very near to New Jersey but in fact it was still 3-4 more miles of city biking and then the GW Bridge which is a harrowing feat in its own right. I was paralyzed at the intersection, I couldn't cross during the red when it was clear and everyone else passed me and then I couldn't seem to get started even when it was green...
The draw comes in by the fact that I went into the park (entrance right there) to ride the last mile home, but realized immediately that I was calmer once I was off the street and that I should do a ride on the Hudson bike path since I was actually out there. So I had a very nice ride (it was entirely enjoyable) down to Chambers St. and back - call it 15 miles. First ride I have had since July, so it is a step forward, at least...
I don't know quite what to do about this traffic business. There may be a really-the-most-beginners C-SIG group I can ride with (I got put in one of the middle ones - I did ask for the most beginner one, but my speeds suggest I should be with faster ones...). It may be that I need to do more acclimation on my own first - I'm kind of leaning this way, because in fact the problem with this riding structure is that it will ALWAYS involve a stop-and-go large group ride to the bridge which is exactly what I am least equipped to do - I will e-mail with the ride leaders this week and see what they think. I guess I probably have to try it again next week, but I may have to call it off after that, I am not sure it is going to work for me this year.
But though true cyclists will find this PITIFUL, I can definitely also work for now with what I've got. I think I must ban myself from the indoor trainer, because it is too much of a crutch. I have a very nice 15-mile round-trip bike path right at my doorstep; I should ride that often to continue working on the basic bike-riding fears. It is CRAZY, but I could just ride up and down there for longer rides (or go all the way up the west side path).
I can go at times when the streets are not busy - or ride on the sidewalk if I really cannot face particular stretches of street - and find quiet times to do multiples of the 6-mile loop in Central Park (or just do the little top loop for a hill workout).
I can do gym biking or a long trainer ride if I must.
The ridiculous thing is that I am doing the Florida half-iron triathlon in EIGHT WEEKS! I am going to be very undertrained for it again, but it is invaluable experience for me, it does not matter if I go very slowly.
Last year my only goal was to finish, and I did, though in an extremely slow time (I walked the whole run course because I was so hot and stressed out by that point - it was in the mid-90s and humid, it is not a good situation for me!). I would like to take a little time off each leg this year - I am sure I can do the swim faster and better (I never got into a groove, it was too crowded and I was very nervous about it being my first triathlon and the awful bicycle ride awaiting me afterwards), and whether or not I do the bike leg faster I can set the goal of doing it with more calmness and confidence and better hydration. I have a much better idea now of what the run will entail under those circumstances - I will set out at the slowest possible pace to begin with and see if I can jog 12-minute miles instead of walking 15-minute ones (though the fact is the 15-minute walk mile is much better bang for the buck! But let us see if I can get the run leg under 3 hours, that is a good goal...)
So there is your SCREED for the day...
15 bike miles (plus 2 each way to the workshop - I am going to cheat and call it 20 on my training log to give myself a MINOR morale boost on what has certainly been an EXHAUSTING DAY THUS FAR!)