Last Woman Standing
Pushing my bike uphill, I am high off the ground and high on happiness.
"Look, look! I can stand out of the saddle!"
My riding companion's face registers confusion, then bewildered comprehension.
"Oh my God. You mean all this time you couldn't?!"
Funny that she hadn't noticed - although many people I ride with don't seem to notice my deficiencies in cycling skills; I guess I find ways to disguise them. But privately I remain acutely aware of those deficiencies. And ever since I started riding as an adult, I've been trying to master this particular "skill" - something most riders seem to take for granted as just being part of riding a bike. Standing up when a gear feels too high is simply the natural thing to do for them. Pedal sitting, pedal standing, what's the difference?
For me there was a big difference. Since childhood, I've had problems with balance and proprioception (the awareness of one's body in space), both of which made riding a bike in anything but a rudimentary manner seem unattainable. 4 years ago, I could hardly swing a leg over a top tube without toppling over. But my irrational love of cycling made me persistent. Things are much better now than they used to be, to the point that I can almost pass for "normal" on a roadbike - all the more reason my few remaining difficulties are so frustrating.
So what was the problem getting out of the saddle?.. The physical memory is disappearing now, but try to imagine this: Whenever I'd try to stand up, I would lose the sense of where I was in relation to both the bike and the ground. Not only did I have no intuitive notion of how to hold my body up when no longer seated, but I'd start to experience general disorientation and mild vertigo. Not surprisingly, these sensations would make me anxious, which in turn made the whole thing worse; a vicious cycle. Verbal instructions from well-meaning riding companions did not help. This was obviously just something I needed to work on myself. And I did keep trying.
But the first break-through came when I wasn't trying at all. It was a couple of months ago. I was riding an Xtracycle Radish one day, up a gentle hill. Just before I was about to reach the top, I stood up and leaned forward instead of downshifting. My mind was elsewhere and the whole thing was unintentional; it just happened. After I realised what I'd done, I was so happy I almost had to pull over on the side of the road to laugh or cry or something. My mind was blown! I tried it again later, this time intentionally. It was not quite as natural as the first time. I was jerky in my movements and my legs grew tired quickly, but for a few pedal strokes at a time it worked.
Several days later came the 300K brevet. I was losing time on a long climb, and in a moment of frustration I tried standing up again so that I could push a bigger gear. This did not feel the same as it did on the Xtracycle and I nearly fell off my bike. After that I decided to give my standing attempts a little rest.
And I did, until one day - on my roadbike in Northern Ireland - it "just happened" again on its own. I simply stood up, absent-mindedly on a short hill. This time I decided to harness whatever impulse had enabled me to do this. Continuing to ride on rolling terrain I stood up again and again, rather than switching gears, until I began to trust that I could do it. After a week of this, I was no longer hesitant or nervous to stand up at will.
A few days ago I pedaled over to County Tyrone to visit a friend. It was a 100 mile day with around 6,000 feet of climbing over the "shoulders" of the Sperrins mountain range. I stood up whenever I wanted, and finally, in the course of this ride, it began to feel as I imagine it's felt to other riders all along - normal.
One thing I realise now, is that in addition to whatever balance issues were involved, another problem was weak legs. At first my legs would start to quiver after just a short time out of the saddle; I felt like one of those newborn colts learning to walk. On a serious hill, I still get worn out quickly when standing. So even though the balance and proprioception problems are gone, I continue to practice just to develop more leg strength. And finesse. At the moment, my technique is not exactly elegant. I don't throw the bike from side to side needlessly, but my pedal strokes are jerky and awkward compared to how I pedal seated.
As my last two years of roadcycling have shown, it is possible to do even long distance rides without ever standing out of the saddle. And there are, after all, experienced riders who simply prefer not to stand. I do not know whether I am one of them yet. But once I form a preference, it will be exactly that - a preference, and not a limitation.