Over the Hill: Taking up cycling at 50, A love story

We met on Match.com. I’d never met anyone quite like him before. He was unconventional, had long hair, liked heavy metal music, was really fit and always on the go. He liked riding bicycles, he told me. He spoke this strange language I wasn’t familiar with: Cycle-speak; participated in events I’d never heard of: WORS, road races, criteriums; and talked about a population I previously didn’t know existed: Cyclists. His name was Mike. At 50, a whole new world was opening up to this innocent girl who thought a nice walk in the park was enough exercise for one day.

You know when you buy a new car, you suddenly see loads of them on the road? Well that was how it was for me and bikes, and those who ride them. Suddenly they were everywhere, a parallel universe I had been completely unaware of. Why had I never noticed?

This man, foreign to me in many respects, began to introduce me to the concept of regular exercise through cycling, in all weathers, as well as life as a cyclist. He had to ride no matter what. He would get up at the ungodly hour of 7am on a winter’s Saturday, layer up in strange, tight fitting clothes, warm headgear under his helmet, and plastic bags under his covered cycling shoes. He did this joyfully, returning hours later having ridden 50 miles in frigid temperatures with similarly demented fellow cycling buddies. So weird. My idea of a winter Saturday was a lazy day involving a warm coffee shop and a book. I was beginning to see that our lifestyles were wildly different.

Previously, I thought a bike was just that, a bike, you could buy one in lots of places but now I began to realize there were bike shop bikes, then all the rest. You could spend anything on a bike but the more you spent, the lighter they got. I could lift Mike’s bike easily with one hand but as yet had no appreciation for his high end bike or his taste for the latest, greatest and lightest bikes. He soon procured a bike for me, one that wasn’t too foreign to me. It was an old Klein that someone called Tom had lovingly built. Before sending me off on the bike path, Mike put a simple computer on my new-to-me bike so I could see how fast and how far I was going. I clearly remember the day I got in my first 20 miles. It was a beautiful, sunny, summer’s day and I pedaled as fast as I could go, 14 miles an hour. I was exhilarated and my legs were wobbly when I got off, and I was so proud of myself. Once I got used to Tom’s bike, it was time for my first road bike.

It was time to kit me out in real cycling gear, so I bought my own lycra and chamois. According to Mike I looked good on a bike but I had my doubts. I had only just discovered figure hugging jeans for the middle-aged lady so these new cycling outfits felt very snug indeed. The chamois felt bulky and awkward between my legs and the shorts unnaturally tight. He sat me on his road bike that was set up on his indoor trainer, a piece of equipment that adorned his living room all winter long, incongruous with my idea of how a living room should be furnished. He made me pedal for a half hour to get the feel of it, and to get in some exercise. Never in my 50 years had I felt quite so foolish. Unbeknownst to me, there would be many more, more public, foolish moments.

Looking back, what was happening was, this man was grooming me, he was gradually desensitizing me to all things cycling. He must have really wanted me in his life.

Next, he got me clipped in. Oh.My.Gosh. I had NO idea such a thing existed. Mike figured out what pedals I should use and fitted the appropriate cleats to my new cycling shoes, all double-Dutch to me at the time. Clipped in I felt imprisoned, scared, very vulnerable, and completely unsure of myself. Approaching a stop, my heart would jump out of my chest as I tried hard to remember to unclip. As I learned to get in and, more importantly, out of these contraptions, I endured the indignities of falling over at traffic lights, in driveways, in the middle of a busy road once, and, the worst, in the forecourt of a packed outdoor restaurant with everyone looking at me. Mike just grinned knowingly as I scraped myself off the latest surface, I hated him. It took me months to master the clip-in pedals but what choice did I have? I had fallen, hook, line and chainring for a cyclist and I was going to make him proud of me, if it killed me.

My first road bike gave me the worst pain. My shoulders, my neck, my feet. I felt helpless to help myself as I was clueless as to the cause. I had terrible trouble with my saddle, my poor lady parts regularly turning numb in protest to their new position. One day I sidled up to a female sales associate in the bike shop and asked her in a whisper what female cyclists do to protect their nether regions? She matter-of-factly introduced me to Butt Cream for Ladies and the idea of shaving down there. Hmm. And when I confessed my problem to a cycling friend, she said “Oh honey, it’s your saddle”. In fairness, my rear end had never been on such a narrow, hard surface before so what did I expect when making it sit there for hours, grinding away to the rhythm of my pedaling legs? Sounds sexy, it was not. Additionally, along with chafing, came the advent of saddle sores. I was a bit of a mess really.

Then I was introduced to the local Bike Fit Guru. He used his computer wizardry to figure out how I should be sitting on the bike, what size bike would be optimal for me and helped me select a saddle. It took a little time before I managed to get myself and my bike all kitted out ready for comfortable and pain-free riding but I made it.

Mike and I got engaged on Christmas Day 2016. A quiet event, no fanfare, just like my humble, unassuming fiance. He would never brag but Mike had been a cyclist of some renown in his time and continues to be revered. A BMX bad boy in his younger days, he rode pro, winning races and crushing the competition into his 20s. Then he took up road riding and mountain biking. He rode pro categories in races for Schwinn all around the midwest winning many races. He raced Wisconsin Off Road Series (WORS) competitions where he earned the title The Legend. I have been told that if he had entered a race, his opponents knew they were sunk. I’ll never forget my first ever cycling event in which he competed, such incredible athleticism! What Mike was doing with me, this know-nothing-of-cycling woman, I do not know. But I knew he loved me and that’s all that mattered.

My first cycling season in 2017 was a wobbly one. I found some cycling groups that rode out of a local bike shop. They were great. They taught me the do-s and don’t-s of riding in a group and rudimentary stuff for the novice rider. I could barely keep up on their easier rides, my unpredictability a danger to the pack, and my yo-yoing an annoyance in the peloton. Mike also took me out riding. Along with pedal stroke, cadence, pace and positioning, he trained me to draft, insisting I ride 6 inches behind his wheel. I was terrified. Between being clipped in, riding a strange, drop handle bike 6 inches behind the bike in front and hemmed in by the bike behind, I felt like an accident looking for somewhere to happen. I would white knuckle the rides until, gradually, I learned to trust Mike and my fellow cyclists on the road, feeling safer and more relaxed.

Soon my first 20 mile ride became 32 miles, then 46 and beyond. Who would have thought?

Mike is a hard task master. He got me my very own bike trainer and, much to the disgust of my aesthetic sensibilities, set it up in my living room. He wrote me a training program and held me accountable to it. I trained all winter. I had never worked so physically hard in my life, sweating and pushing my muscles to the limit as I endured grueling intervals and long and boring solo indoor rides. What was I working towards? Speed, he said, speed.

One cold January day that year, Mike put a ring on my finger and made an honest woman of me. Me, the newb. Clearly he must have been able to imagine a future with me riding in his draft. Marriage is like that, the challenge is taking turns in the draft, making every effort to show up strong and not leave the other alone, flapping in the head wind. Not every day brings a tail wind, as we all know.

The reward for my hard work was accolades from my new cycling friends when at last we resumed our group rides in the Spring of 2018. I got the nominal prize for Most Improved Rider and that did my soul good, not to mention my ego. My hard work had been worth it and, although with a long way to go, I could keep up with everyone a bit better.

That summer I did my first century. My, by now, husband and I entered my first organized ride around a big local lake. Mike’s group, being the fast guys, left earlier than mine. There I was, left alone, with all my doubts and insecurities, to the mercies of hundreds of people I didn’t know, to do something I had never done, in a place I’d never been to before. I was nervous. I followed the instructions Mike had left me with and we were off. It was like being on a massive group ride drafting 75 people. It was amazing! I had not ridden so fast ever and could keep up with them all. It felt so good, I was euphoric! The ride was at times haphazard with dropped water bottles flying and the odd bike going down as we hurtled along through city streets and countryside. But I stayed upright for the most part managing to finish the 86 miles then, with Mike, did a 14 mile cool down to reach the century. Besides having a bad headache from dehydration, I had a pretty good recovery. Life as a cyclist was beginning to look up.

Everything in the mind of a cyclist is weather dependent. I get regular updates from Mike on what the weather is proposing, a habit borne of a deep dislike of riding in adverse conditions. What the weather does the cyclist does, where the wind goes the cyclist goes in the opposite direction so it is an easier ride home. Ideal conditions: warm, sunny and light, preferably tail, winds.

Best moments: my first 64 mile ride; stopping for breakfast to laugh and chat with cycling friends; feeling fast and strong; sailing along a newly black-topped country road for hours on my comfy, cool looking bike with my husband and/or favorite cycling friends in bright warm sunshine under blue skies.

My second cycling winter was in 2019 and I again trained on my own with Mike’s training program. It was difficult and I found it really hard to motivate myself as there was a lot going on in my life. I didn’t feel I made as many improvements that winter but I must have done a bit as my next cycling season went well and my cycling friends remarked on how my performance had again improved. Many fun group, double and solo rides were had that season.

Then I discovered my local Cycling Center, a wonderful place where people like me went in the winter to ride their bikes on Smart Trainers in order to get stronger and faster. I loved it. I went there once a week and gave it my all and, also once a week, would slog it out on my Dumb Trainer, in my living room, with a training video on You Tube. Otherwise I just rode, on my trainer or outside if I could. The 2020 season was therefore my best yet I feel. I certainly was at my fastest and felt I had generally more strength and endurance. Still, it is early days. I hope as the years go on that I will be able to build fitness upon fitness.

Best advice I’ve received: trust your strength, keep in the draft, ride smart, focus on your pedal stroke, and remember to breathe.

My new cycling friends are a sort of family and it is a diverse crowd hailing from many backgrounds: brain and orthopedic doctors, author, hospital bed salesperson, custodian, University Chancellor, flower shop assistant, chess champion, bike mechanic, small business owner, courier, the list goes on. But on the bike we are all equals, we look out for and look after each other. It’s wonderful. I also have a special cycling buddy and she and I have spent manys a happy hour riding, drinking coffee and sorting out the world’s problems.

I continue to feel cycling-foolish most of the time and am not very fluent in Cycle-speak but now I know what a crank and a stem are. Gearing is still a bit complicated, brakes I am getting to grips with but ball bearings and their why and whereabouts are a complete mystery to me and the anatomy of a bike largely remains unknown to me. I read in a cycling magazine all about this girl who wanted to learn about bikes. So she took hers apart and put it back together again, and in that difficult process learned all about bikes, their many parts and how they work. I have no intention, at this point, of doing that. Watch this space.

Best compliments I’ve received: solid rider (when I nearly caused a crash but didn’t go down), The Hammer (on a day I had watts up the wazoo), and “you rode well today” (from my husband).

The menopause interferes badly with my life in general but losing those last 7 or 8 lbs so I can clear those hills more easily has now suddenly become impossible. Even though I am putting in more exercise than I have ever done before, those stubborn belly, upper thigh, butt and muffin top fat deposits refuse to move, and I am hungrier than ever. There is no hiding a flabby gut in lycra. Women my age need good rest in order to control our cortisol levels otherwise the weight piles on. I could do with more rest. We are also super sensitive to bad carbs and sugar and their consumption will, you’ve guessed it, pile on the weight. In order to store up glycogen, that coveted energy needed for riding, I need to get smarter. Unrelated to the pesky menopause, I used to be quite proud of my slim knees. Now, however, while my lower thighs have become much firmer and slightly contoured, my knees have become lumpy, poking out from behind new muscles. So, as I get fitter and faster on the bike, my body is experiencing some unwanted and unexpected changes.

There are times riding with the fast guys that I just can’t keep up, my legs can’t muster the watts for whatever reason. I blame it on the aforementioned menopause. Those days I find the biggest guy and draft him as best I can. Sometimes, when I’m struggling, one guy will put his hand on the small of my back and give me a much needed push, and they will kindly wait as I struggle up and over the hill. One or two might also ride alongside me to shield me from the wind. Those days I feel very cared for by guys who have been at this for many, many years, some of them. Then there are the days that I feel powerful and could ride all day, taking pulls and crushing it. The feeling I get when I can keep up with the guys is unparalleled. I feel validated and accepted. What a rush, and what terrific fun!

The mind, I am finding, is a powerful thing. It can be such a downer. I’ll be hammering along, happily working hard and keeping up with the group and my mind will suddenly tell me that I can’t do this. What? Where did that come from? Shut up, head, my legs are doing it! One of the guys advises not to look at my speed, that my mind will lie about what I can do. I do get distracted and need to focus on my pedal stroke and the butt in front of me.

Now that I am four years into this new way of life, I feel ripped off if I ride for less than a fast 50 miles. A decent pace for me now is averaging 20–21 mph, with the group, on a good day. Who would have thought? Certainly not me. Even though I will never be able to keep up with Mike and have a lot to learn about riding smart, and will never look as cool as those racing chicks, I feel like a cyclist now.

Life with Mike is life with a cyclist meaning that cycling comes first. Nothing can happen or be arranged until we get a ride in. Work/life balance suddenly becomes work/life/cycling balance. How do I fit it all in? Really, the truth of the matter is, I don’t. My life becomes work/cycling, forget the life balance. “Let’s go for a nice hike” becomes a bike ride, or, “How about we go to the art museum/fair/farmers market/anything really” becomes an after-thought because we have to go on a bike ride first. I have made do with racing around an art exhibit in 20 minutes before it closed because work/cycling took most of the life balance, and it was a Trek bicycle exhibit! It’s something I am trying to make peace with and will probably never get used to as I cling desperately to whatever balance I can in an effort to meet my own needs as well as accommodate Mike’s. As we learn each other’s rhythms, Mike and I, we will achieve what works for us I’m sure. A young cyclist of our acquaintance remarked to us recently that finding a wife to ride with is the cyclist’s dream. I guess Mike was successful in all his grooming efforts and we will live the dream together.

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Diane Spiro

Diane Spiro

I have been writing in one form or another for many years, I just didn’t realize I was doing it. I have admitted it of late and have been happily typing away.