We live our lives online these days. When you first start getting into cycling, it can be really motivating to follow other cyclists on social media. There are so many inspirational women out there who are traversing the globe, pushing themselves to their limits and achieving incredible things. If you’re anything like me, you love following these amazing stories, but on a deeper level find yourself feeling a little inadequate in comparison.
Social media acts as an echo chamber, bringing you more of the content you appear to enjoy, which means if you’re following several epic cyclists, you’ll start to see more and more. Eventually, it can seem like the whole world is racing the Transcontinental, or climbing the Passo Dello Stelvio, and gradually we shrink into ourselves feeling intimidated and unworthy.
I know this feeling well. I only got into cycling a couple of years ago, and if I’m completely honest, I only got into it to impress a boy. We’re still together, so it totally worked, but thankfully I caught the bug anyway. With his encouragement, I began riding longer distances, and the real turning point for me was when I rode my first 80 miles from Bristol to Oxford, to attend the Women and Bicycles Festival at the Broken Spoke Co-op.
There I met some members of The Adventure Syndicate and watched the premiere of their North Coast 500 film. Feeling super inspired and proud of my long ride, I signed up for a 200k ride with them in the Yorkshire Dales, the following month.
Then the fear set in...
You’d think it would be all the climbing, but actually, I was terrified of descending. I always had been. In the month leading up to the ride, rather than training, I obsessed over the route, its elevation profile, and some really steep descents I knew we’d be doing. When I finally got there, I let the fear get in the way of the enjoyment.
I tried to keep up with everyone else, despite the fact that they seemed super fit and were riding carbon road bikes, while I was carrying extra weight and riding an aluminium CX bike. Frustrated, I berated myself for being a big, fat failure.
It was only after the weekend had been and gone that I realised I’d set myself up to fail. This ride was much harder than Bristol to Oxford. It contained elements that I knew I was afraid of (long, steep downhills) and that I knew I wasn’t very good at (long, steep uphills). I was setting myself an impossibly high standard, and then beating myself up for not being able to reach it.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. This isn’t an attempt to stop you from signing up for that ridiculous ride that you’re half considering. It’s only to tell you that it’s okay to be afraid.
Back to the Dales. Once I’d cried my way up to Fleet Moss, I had no choice but to go down the other side, which was the part I’d been dreading the most. Imagine slogging your way up a brutal climb without the promise of a reward. It’s unthinkable. What was I doing?
"I did the unthinkable. I let go of the brakes, and I picked up speed..."
But, surrounded by supportive women with tons of experience and advice, I inched my way down, learning how to use the drops and shift my weight backwards. Once I felt in control, I was able to focus on what was ahead. We were on a long descent that was completely open and visible. There were no cars, just vast countryside and smooth tarmac. As soon as the riding position became familiar, and the worst of the gradient was behind me, I did the unthinkable. I let go of the brakes, and I picked up speed. I cried a little on the way down, but this time it was relief and joy.
That was a year ago. A couple of weeks ago, I rode with friends up to Clitheroe for the Cycle Touring Festival. The first day was particularly undulating, and I’d overpacked my bike so I struggled a lot on the climbs. It was only when we reached a long, fast descent that I was able to make up the distance, and so I let myself go each time. After one particular descent where I’d plummeted at around 40-50 kph, one of my companions caught me up afterwards and called out, ‘Hey Mildred, remember when you were scared of descending?’
It just goes to show how well we adapt. It’s normal to feel scared of something when it’s new, but just by going through it, we replace that fear of the unknown with knowledge and experience. And everyone goes through the same thing.
Recently I attended a screening of the new Adventure Syndicate film, ‘Divided’, which follows Lee Craigie and Rickie Cotter racing the Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile route from Canada to the Mexican border. These women are serious athletes, and incredibly inspiring. But despite their past achievements and all the amazing things they do year-round, they too felt that same fear. Watching their footage, you can feel the nerves building up as they get ready for the morning of. In the echo chamber of social media, it’s easy to lose perspective. Even the pros feel the fear from time to time.
All cycling journeys are unique and punctuated with highs and lows, but they all lead to progress. The important thing is to embrace the challenge and know your limits. Break things down into smaller, manageable chunks, and build up to the bigger challenges. Whether you’re attempting to ride your first century, or commuting to work on a particularly grim day where you have to push your bike up that last hill, accept your limits.
Let yourself be a beginner, and eventually, you’ll become an intermediate without even realising it.
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