On one of my first road-biking adventures, my husband, Carlton, and I pedaled 15 miles through the rolling hills of Vermont. After wheeling past quaint barns, golden haystacks, and historic bridges along the lightly trafficked back roads, we stopped to admire the profile of Mount Mansfield. Resting in the shadow of the Green Mountain State’s highest peak, we discussed our kids, jobs, and lifetime goals, and how my decision to hop on a bike connected us in a whole new way.
“When you spend several hours a day riding next to someone, you learn a lot,” explains Nan Doyal, a cycling coach from Glencoe, Ill. “Not just through conversations, but also in how they deal with the inevitable challenges you all face at some point — heat, fatigue, climbs — how they communicate, and how they handle adversity.”
As a fiercely independent female athlete who literally outran her five brothers while growing up in a place known more for its ski slopes than its bike paths, I didn’t always think I needed a bicycle. But a freak trail-running accident in March 2013 led me to adopt the sport as an easy-to-learn recovery tool.
“Road biking doesn’t require as much bike-handling skill as mountain biking, and it’s more consistent,” says Olympic mountain biker Lea Davison, who did 85 percent of her training for the 2016 Rio Games on a road bike. “It’s a great way to get into the sport of cycling and to get fit.”
Biking helped heal my injury and improved my fitness, but the challenge of grinding out a long climb and the joy I found in coasting down the other side of the hill also gave me a fresh perspective on life, improved my resilience, and rejuvenated my relationships.
Back in the Saddle
The x-rays from my unlucky break showed more parts of me in pieces than just my lower right-leg bones. Running was my meditation, my muse, my me. It was as habitual as brushing my teeth.
So I was a little depressed as I was forced to don a series of immobilizing fixators and casts. Eventually, my doctor gave me the green light to ride a stationary bike. Carlton, who’d recently made the switch to cycling, was thrilled, and he invited me to try his brand-new road bike on an indoor trainer.
Pedaling in front of the TV was no sweat. Once we moved outside, however, I was perspiring before I left the driveway.
First, there was the inevitable struggle to get comfortable wearing the clipless shoes — designed to twist in and out of brackets on the pedals. Cyclists often wear them because they offer increased efficiency and better power transfer on hills.
I’d ridden a bike plenty of times with regular sneakers, but mastering the art of clicking out of the pedals at stop signs resulted in a fair number of falls. Carlton tried not to laugh, but eventually we were both giggling as I got used to twisting in and out of the contraptions and felt comfortable enough to venture down the street.
By the fall of 2013, I was riding with friends, but feeling frustrated — they were faster than me! I struggled to keep up and could barely hear what they were saying about our children’s soccer schedules or the latest episode of Orange Is the New Black. Would I ever advance from the back of the pack?
I was ready to hang up my jersey some days, but my friends inspired me to keep going. Julie cruised past Vermont’s apple orchards with her strong glutes and quads. Sara taught me how to power up hills by using my bike’s multiple gears, proper cadence, and my body’s good old, reliable lungs.
Cycling eventually provided not only another way to connect with Carlton, but a new social outlet as well — one that was less expensive, healthier, and more supportive than hitting the local watering hole. It also helped me develop a new set of life skills for maintaining my balance — on and off my bike.
That winter, my dedication paid unexpected dividends. Thanks to the strength I’d gained from biking, I was able to run again. I stashed my bike in the garage and laced up my shoes for bouts on the treadmill or along snow-covered roads. I even won a Valentine’s Day 5K. I felt fitter than ever, fully recovered from my injuries.
None of this came as a surprise to Davison. “Training on the road is how I develop a lot of my endurance for mountain-bike racing,” she says. The scenery, she adds, is just a bonus. “It’s a great way to get strong at the same time as really exploring the landscape. I get to see a lot more from my saddle than on a run.”
By May, I found myself eagerly eyeing the long, sinewy stretches of pavement knitting together the Green Mountains, ready to ride and experience the world — and myself — from the seat of my bike.
Carlton and I planned a daylong, 40-mile adventure to Vergennes, Vt. We booked a sitter for the kids and wheeled off into the sunrise with a French bakery as our destination. We kept count of the chickens we saw and marveled at the mountain views as we pedaled.
Later, as I eased my sore body into a chair to enjoy my hard-earned chocolate croissant and iced coffee, I realized I really did need a bicycle. And maybe a massage.