Feb 102013
(Re) Learning to Ride a Road Bike

Riding my road bike on the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in Spokane when it opened in 2012. The mayor's office hadn't planned bike participation so I fixed that.

Barb Chamberlain on a road bike with a Donkey Boxx and a helmet cover by Hub and Bespoke.
Riding my road bike on the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in Spokane, back when this was my only bike and using everything on it was just a matter of muscle memory.

I believe I’ve proven in these pages that I’m perfectly willing to (a) give you a laugh at my expense and (b) prove that I’m not an expert on bikes. My confusion over the Trek’s shifting mechanism when I tried out Betsy’s bike comes to mind–who would have guessed that its mechanism worked just like the one on my road bike? Not me, apparently. This post should give you another laugh, especially if you own various types of bikes and switch easily from one to another.

Yesterday gave me another chance to reacquaint myself with what Zen masters call Beginner’s Mind, which is a humbling place to be. Why? Because I got back on my road bike after months of riding an upright bike.

The early days on the Mary Poppins bike I’ve been riding since last fall were full of little things that made me laugh because they were so different from my road bike:

  • realizing I was lifting my leg extra high to clear a bar I no longer had since the Globe is a step-through model,
  • feeling as if riding it was like steering a wheelbarrow because of its mustache handlebars,
  • trying to figure out which part of the 8-speed shifter on my right handlebar made it get easier (my opposable thumb, which was counterintuitive for me) and which made it harder, which for some reason threw me since I didn’t also have a shifter on the left to provide further adjustments.
The Specialized Globe Daily 2 is my bike-about-town ride these days. Stepthrough design and upright riding posture make it a delight!

All that confusion and every attribute that I wanted in a daily commuter, from upright posture to fatter tires to the step-through design, came back at me yesterday when I got back on my road bike to get in a few miles this weekend riding with my sweetheart.

I’m sharing the story to illustrate that every kind of bike is different. If you don’t like the one you’re riding now and that’s going to make you stop bicycling, try a different kind of bike!

Don’t worry about what “everyone” rides, and find a local bike shop with staff who will listen to you respectfully and suggest options to address your concerns. The differences I felt between my two bikes, especially given the amount of mileage I’ve put in on my road bike, make the phrase “just like riding a bike” seem a little silly.

I’m also illustrating that someone with a fair amount of experience–I’ve been bike commuting for years–can be just as shaky out there as you are, if you just started, so that’s no reason to feel embarrassed.

Now, to redeem myself somewhat, let me point out that I’ve ridden my upright bike pretty much every day since I got it October 8, 2012. Oh, wait–that’s only four months. Dang.

Point is, I haven’t ridden my road bike at all in that same time frame. Setting off on it for a ride by myself yesterday morning to go meet up with Sweet Hubs at a coffee shop proved a little strange, and anyone watching me take off would have thought I was a total newbie.

The one problem I did not have, much to my pleasant surprise, was clipping out of my pedals. That’s the one that can be really painful when you can’t get your foot loose in time and fall over, still firmly attached to your pedal and burning with embarrassment and road rash.

After a wobbly take-off and realizing I literally felt nervous being on my own bike as I climbed north on First Avenue in downtown Seattle through thick traffic around Pike Place Market, these are the things I did yesterday riding a bike that was my sole commuter for five whole years:

  • Snagged my foot on the top bar trying to lift my leg over. More than once.
  • Felt completely spooked by the forward posture and grip on the handlebars (I tend to keep my hands on the hoods, not in the drops, which would have been even scarier) so I wobbled as I rode and felt as if this skittish beast might bolt out from under me.
  • Forgot–and forgot–how to shift up or down and thus shifted in the wrong direction, sometimes on an uphill climb, although I finally settled down on this maybe six miles into the ride. (Clearly, something happens in my brain when you change the orientation of my shifter from horizontal to vertical. Whatever it is, it gets worse when you change me back again and give me a shifter on the left hand as well as the right.)
  • Felt aches and pains in my neck from that craning position you have to adopt in order to see the road.
  • Felt even more aches and pains in my elbows, which serve as shock absorbers on the road bike in a way they don’t on the commuter.
  • Realized I needed to let go of the handlebar and act earlier if I wanted to ring my bell for a pedestrian because the positioning is less convenient on my road bike (end of handlebar) than on my upright (move left thumb–ding!).

I rode again today and felt much more comfortable (except for those elbows). With 13 miles yesterday, 17 today, that’s more mileage on my road bike this weekend than I get on my commuter bike in the course of two or three typical weeks because I live too close to work and the work days are long and intense. (This, of course, argues in favor of more riding, not less, and I did actually take a lunch break the other day and go ride my commuter for about 30 minutes on the Sodo Trail, which takes off south from Seattle’s International District not too far from my office in Pioneer Square. But that’s not typical.)

It will be interesting to see how it feels to ride my commuter bike tomorrow. Expect to see me hoist my leg high in the air over a bar that isn’t there.

Related Reading

Your Turn

  • Have you switched between bikes with very different configurations?
  • How did it feel? (In other words, am I the only one who runs into these challenges?)
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Reader Comments

  1. I am a mountain bike geek. I love riding
    mountain bike so much. We usually ride as a team. Recently we have been thinking of riding a road bike trip. This post will help us.

  2. Maid, I’m with you on the drops. I find it spooky down in the drops because I can’t reach my brakes, despite it being a women’s bike. Why they would design a bike that doesn’t let a woman with good-sized hands reach the brakes I don’t know, and in the drops you’re apt to get going faster (less wind resistance when you’re down farther) so that’s doubly bad. I’ll just stay up on the hoods.

  3. I have so many bikes with so many types of shifters: Shimano road, SRAM MTB, Shimano Grip Shift, Shimano Rapidfire. The trick for me is to memorize the “easy” button/direction so I can rapidly remember how to get into a lower gear when the road or trail kicks up suddenly. Still, it’s better than riding with a coaster brake. That adjustment almost killed me.

  4. When we rented bikes in Europe this summer, I had to figure out a different bike THREE times. Each time I get on one what is not mine, I unglue for a few blocks. My best advice for a new (or not used often) bike: lower the seat until you remember how to ride 🙂

  5. Though the same style of bike – drop bar road bike- my commuter and racing bike have shifters that work differently. (Shimano vs. Campagnolo) After riding my commuter all winter, I hopped on my racing bike. As I peddled along, I went to shift..the lever didn’t move I wiggled the cable and tried again…nothing. Oh crap what could be wrong??? I pulled over to check in further detail; no impingments, no frozen cables…hmmm oh. different shifters They work under the brake lever they are not a part of the lever. How long have I been riding? I quickly glanced around to be sure nobody was looking, mounted my steed and went on my merry, yet somewhat befuddled way… Even those of us with years and years of racing, commuting and touring experience still are capable of “newbie” mistakes. Laugh and learn…repeat as necessary.

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