As a professional athlete. I know how to work hard, how to push and to squeeze out that very last drop. But what happens when motivation, fitness and determination isn’t the limiting factor? But instead, a lack of knowledge, practice and experience?
Well, this is what I’m encountering as I’m beginning to explore gravel bike riding and racing. I’m Starting from scratch.
Think it would be easy to just hop on a bike and go? Yea, I thought this was the case too, but apparently it’s a bit more complicated than that. After a near fatal fall in 2017 during a race in 2017, I decided to get a gravel bike in 2018 as a means to get outside while I was learning to walk and run again. But honestly, I wouldn’t go for very long on a bike, because I didn’t know where to go, it was uncomfortable and once I started running again, that took precedent. It wasn’t until this winter, after breaking my ankle, that I decided to give cycling a serious try. I had to scratch my early season races and focus on getting better. I couldn’t fully weight bear for 2 months, so I decided to get on a bike.
One of the first things I learned as a newbie cyclist was that your butt isn’t supposed to hurt. Yea, I spent hours riding a bike with my ass literally killing me . . . maybe that’s why I didn’t like cycling very much the first go around. I thought that this was the status quo, this was normal, that my sit bone nerves apparently had to die before I was able to bear sitting on my bike seat for more than 2 hours. I remember taking my good friend Liz, a professional mountain biker, aside, commending her on the strength of her hiney (and her lady parts) and asking when my butt would behave. She laughed and said, ‘oh Hill, you need a new saddle . . . and a bike fit.’
Now that my butt was more comfy, riding became way more enjoyable, but there was still the dilemma of technique. Cycling is the exact opposite of running. It involves concentric muscle contractions versus more eccentric and spring loading for running. My muscles weren’t used to this type of movement and coordination, neither was my brain. It was a bit frustrating at first because my heart rate wouldn’t get as high before my legs started to fatigue. I had to learn and practice this motion and movement. Some things I did to combat this was just practice riding. I also did high intensity workouts on a bike trainer so I could elevate my heart rate and get in a good cross training workout. I was amazed by how quickly my body reacted and adapted.
But, I still wasn’t quite there. Sure, gravel bike riding is fun, and it suits my craving for going far, uphill, and with little traffic, but there’s the whole other aspect about bike handling skills and communication. Apparently there’s this whole language to cycling that I had no idea about. When I’d go on rides, the people in front of me would point at things on the ground, use hand gestures behind them, tap their butt as they rode by, telling me to ‘hop on.’ I was a bit confused. If I did that during my group trail run, I would be yelling ‘ROCK’ and pointing at debris every 2 seconds. Also, drafting, where you literally let someone block the wind for you and pull you along. If I did that running, I would either trip or get elbowed in the boob for running too close.
Also, gravel can be rutted, loose and rocky; I had to learn how to handle my bike in these conditions. So, that meant lots of practice riding in different terrain and going to the Valmont Bike Park to do the pump tracks.
But, the more I ride the better I’m getting and the more fun I’m having. I’m amazed by how far I can go on a bike in one day. It’s completely different to running in that way, and that one of the parts about cycling I like the most – the exploration aspect of it. Also, the culture of linking up towns for snacks and coffee breaks is my favorite! Cycling is much different that running because I can eat easier on a bike than I can running. I can eat more real food (Skratch Labs rice cakes and energy bars) and not get sick to my stomach. Usually for running I have to stick to the Skratch Labs Fruit Drops and Skratch Lab Hydration drink mix to avoid stomach issues, but for long bike rides, the more I fuel the more I can go. It’s quite wonderful.
To top it all off, I’m tackling my first gravel bike race, The Dirty Kanza 200, June 1st. And, of course, this race is a BIG DEAL! It’s become the premiere gravel bike race in the country with pros showing up and it’s gaining lots of attention in the cycling world. So what am I doing at this race? Good question. Even though I’m completely out of my comfort zone and have only been riding gravel for 2 months, I’m having a lot of fun in the process. It’s not easy to be out of my comfort zone every single day, trying my best at something that doesn’t come naturally or easily. It’s hard. It’s scary. It’s frustrating. And, it’s worth it. To become a well-rounded athlete. To learn new things, to grow and be humble throughout the process. These are the most important lessons I’m learning. To have fun, enjoy the process, and to NEVER go on a bike ride without chamois cream.
Check out more details about “Operation make Hillary Allen a cyclist” in Episode 1 of Starting from Skratch.