Life is always easier if you're in the right gear.

Good-bye Summer

Three years ago, I started out on this cycling adventure after being off the bike for almost thirty years. A year and a half ago, with my 50th birthday looming, I decided to finally drop the residual baby fat from my last pregancy (12 years ago) and get in shape. My goal, back then, was to drop 50 pounds by my 50th birthday. I was unexpectedly interrupted in this quest when in January 2012, I was diagnosed with DCIS, or ductile carcinoma in situ, a very early form of breast cancer. After a biopsy, two surgeries, and five and a half weeks of radiation, I was able to begin thinking about life as a cancer survivor.

Exercise, it is reported, can reduce one’s chance of cancer by 50%. In my case, it would reduce my odds of experiencing a recurrence. Alcohol consumption, it is also said, increases the odds. In spite of this knowledge from my doctors, I didn’t get serious about the exercise, weight loss and reducing the alcohol until this summer. I find it amusing, that my experience with cancer wasn’t enough to entirely motivate me to make a significant change. What finally tipped me over the line of sort of being serious to really being serious about making the necessary changes? Wait for it. Hills. More specifically, the desire to climb hills effortlessly (or seemingly so) like all the cool cyclists I had passing me up on the road while I huffed and puffed and labored and stalled up even the smallest incline.

At the beginning of the summer, I set some goals. I wanted to lose the weight, get stronger/faster on my new road bike, and be more comfortable on those inclines. After a few group rides where I was plenty able to keep up on the flats, but where I completely fell off the paceline on the hills, I was frustrated and discouraged. I’m a strong enough rider, for a large gal, and I should be able to muscle up the hills better than I was doing. I also had my 23-year-old self taunting me with thoughts like, “Wow, you used to handle this kind of thing without effort. What the hell happened to you?” I found myself seeking out the flat, level rides, and riding hard, but avoiding anything that looked even remotely like it could qualify as a hill. Hills, just were not fun. I gained no sense of satisfaction or feelings of success after climbing one so I didn’t.

My mother had a saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” After my last group ride, where I actually had to get off my bike and walk it up a portion of a fairly steep hill (I’m guessing it was a 14% grade, but the 14% part came after a long, steady, 3-4% part and we were about mile 15 in the ride), I messaged a cycling friend of mine who live out of town and has pre-ridden the Tour de France, several times. I told him about my woes, he gave me a few pointers, which I implemented, but until you actually ride with someone, you can’t see what they are doing on the bike that might be holding them back. So, while my friend couldn’t exactly help diagnose my problem, he did the next best thing, and put me in touch with one of his cycling buddies who happens to live close to me. We were introduced, first online, then in person and Anton agreed to ride with me and coach me along. Mind you, he rides some serious bike porn ( a titanium LeMond) and he knows how to handle it. His expertise is hill climbing, and there’s no way I could keep up with him, if he decided to put the hammer down, ever, even with a thirty year head start. It was an incredible gift that he decided to take the time with me.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

Our first ride out, I panicked. I was tense, awkward, and struggled up every hill even the small little rollers. I was able to get in a 36 mile ride with him that day, but it wasn’t my best. The information I received from Anton, during that ride and subsequent others that we’ve been able to schedule over the last month, have rocked my cycling world.

Here are a few things Anton mentioned on our rides together that really made a difference for me:

1. Perceived Effort. This is all about your mental mindset. After watching me ride, he told me I was a natural on the bike. He said part of my problem was the extra weight I was packing up the hills ( for every pound a cyclist weighs, they lose 15 seconds of time on a ride, for a climber, packing my kind of weight is a death knell). He said, a greater portion of my problem was my attitude. I perceived that hills were going to be an agonizing experience, so, to some degree, I made them an agonizing experience for myself. I needed to change my attitude. But Anton, didn’t work with me on motivation. He worked with me on skills and he stayed away from hills. (This ended up really annoying me, but I think that was his intent, because I finally got to the point where I was ready to try some hills on a more regular basis. That was the next level of my training program.)

2. Timing is everything. It is often rare for a cyclist to turn a corner and be faced with a steep climb. We usually see it coming and there’s a bit of planning and strategy that goes into attacking a hill. For me, I spent so much of my energy dreading the climb that I was usually wasted before I got there. Additionally, I had no idea about strategy; how to shift, when to shift and how to pace myself up the hill so I wasn’t blowing up three quarters of the way up. And, of course, the extra (now 40 instead of 50 pounds) didn’t work in my favor. I couldn’t instantly zap the fat, but I could work on technique. So that’s what we did. We rode hills. These were mere bumps in the road for a cyclist like Anton, but to me, at my fitness level, I may as well have been trying to climb to Mt. Ashland. He was encouraging, and I found it helpful to follow him up the hills, listen to when he shifted and to follow suit. I’ve learned how and when to shift, so I don’t head into the climb in too high a gear, and yet just high enough that I don’t run out of gears before I get to the top.

3. Get up off your butt. Okay, so Anton would never say that to me, but it’s true. Getting up out of the saddle really makes a difference on a climb. Again, timing is everything, but standing up on the pedals at the right place in a climb can pop a cyclist right up to the top. Okay, so I don’t exactly pop up, yet, but I don’t slog up and I’m up off my seat most of the climbs and for most of the incline. I’m not blowing hard when I reach the top, except on some of the very steepest climbs.

4. Look at food as fuel. This changed my attitude about eating. Instead of worrying about what I’m eating and cutting calories, I worry more now, about when I eat and the kind of food I eat. This all depends upon when I’ll be riding and what kind of riding I will be doing. And…I’ve completely cut the alcohol. I don’t splurge. I eat the good stuff and stay away from the bad, but if I’m going on a long intense ride the next day, I make sure I’ve put some carbs in my gullet the night before. Also, some energy drink mix in one water bottle and some energy gels are good to have. My ride endurance has improved as a result. (I still can’t ride worth beans in the heat, but I’ll tackle that problem after I’m at my target weight…or maybe that problem will disappear, when I’m at my target weight.)

5. Rest. Anton is very firm about taking the rest days, and the recovery days. Not every ride can be a hammer-down all out push up twenty or thirty climbs. There is a place for putting in some miles in the smallest chainring (yes, I know what that is now) and spinning out the lactic acid.

It’s been a fabulous four weeks. Anton’s been a patient and encouraging mentor, and my fitness level has jumped exponentially.

Last summer, at the beginning of the summer (back when I was riding the hybrid) I looked down at my legs in my cycling shorts. It was not a good look. The fat just kind of rippled out past the end of the cycling spanks and on down toward my ankles. And, to be honest, I’ve only lost ten pounds according to my scale. When I look down now, however, I see definition in my calves. They actually begin to resemble the legs of someone who spends some time on the bike. There’s still fat to address, but it continues to recede further up my leg. Today, when I looked down I could see the cut of my quads. I still have about 40 more pounds to drop, (and I will do it), but the physical changes in my body are encouraging.

I’m also noticeably stronger and my “perceived effort” has changed dramatically. This morning was my last weekday morning ride until the holidays or spring break. School begins and, as a teacher, getting up to ride before school is not possible. I wanted to make this ride special. Kind of like that formative assessment that helps one note their progress along the way. I chose a route, that just six weeks ago, killed me. For those of you in Southern Oregon, you might recognize these roads. I started out from my place up Beall Lane to Grant, turned north on Grant Road, headed up to Scenic Avenue, but turned off Scenic before the first roller and headed out to 99. Turned left on 99, then left onto Willow Springs Rd. I’m at about mile five in my ride and am cruising with no effort on the pedals at between 15-17 miles an hour. I ride up over the railroad tracks on Willow Springs, and get ready for the little steep climb at the 90 degree left turn. There are tons of Erickson Air Crane employees out on the road walking, especially as I try to negotiate that climb. I shift into my small chainring and halfway up I get out of my seat. That’s still a challenging climb for me, but I pushed up it, winded, but in good shape. I immediately put myself into an easy spin mode and set myself up to recover and take the next two climbs on Willow Springs. The last time I rode this section, I made the climbs, but I was huffing and puffing and dropped in speed. Getting up out the the seat happened occasionally, not consistently. Today, I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered these little intense climbs, but I attacked them, got up on the pedals and moved on up to the top of each climb. Minimal huffing (but then I was really hammering), little burn in the legs, and smooth climbing with no stalling three quarters of the way up. Then it was down to Tolo Road, turn left and head to upper Scenic Avenue (another previous nemesis) where I climbed right up to Old Stage road without having to drop into my lowest gear. I headed south on Old Stage to just past the second entrance of Old Military Road, turned around, came back down Beall to Grant road…and…wait for it…I did Scenic Avenue again!!! This time, the whole bit of it, up out of the saddle on all the climbs and ended up at the top in fabulous shape. At this point I turned around and headed home, spinning without pressure on the pedals at 17 mph. on the flats (26+ down Scenic).

My stats for this ride are:

23.33 miles
1 hour 31 minutes
And here’s the best part: 15.2 average mph.

I’m really sad that my days of being able to get out and just ride without worrying about deadlines and time frames are over for this summer, but I’m thrilled at my progress. Good-bye summer riding. Hello fall training. I can’t wait.

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Hi, I'm Cat A.Olson, @According2Cat on Twitter, or @TheDigitalCat on Instagram, and I write about my cycling adventures. In 2010, after 25 years off the bike, I decided to get a bike and start riding again. In 2012, I was diagnosed with DCIS, an early and completely curable form of breast cancer. I had five weeks of radiation treatment and I rode my bike to nearly every treatment. In 2013, I decided to get a faster bike. I'm finally getting serious about losing weight, and riding really fast with the cool kids.

I ride every chance I get, as fast as I can, for as long as my body will allow. I'm learning how to embrace challenges like helmet hair, padded pants, clipless shoes, flat tires, bugs in my teeth, and...ugh...hills. I'm learning that both cycling and life are easier and a lot more fun when you're in the right gear.

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