Sunday, 10 July 2016

On yer bike

Cycling has long been a favourite outdoor activity for me. It has always been a wonderful way of getting away from it all - a time when it's just me, the bike, and whatever little-used back roads I find myself riding down.
Once I'm off the main roads and cruising along with no sounds apart from the tyres on tarmac, the tall grass rustling in the breeze and grasshoppers chirping in the verge, it's almost meditative.
I used to find the same sort of thing when I was doing archery. Once I was on the line it was as though the rest of the world and its distractions disappeared, leaving just me, my bow and the target.
That was half the reason I did archery. I never felt compelled to be competitive beyond improving my ability for my own gratification, but I enjoyed the activity and there were some nice people at the club who were happy to have a chat when we weren't shooting.
It was such a shame when I damaged a tendon in my arm and was no longer able to shoot because it meant my twice weekly meditation session also came to an end.

Riding my bike is the only way I'm able to come near to replacing that feeling, especially if it's early on a Sunday morning before the rest of the world has taken to the roads.
Then of course two and a half years ago my world got turned upside down by the motorcycle crash and since then my attempts to do any sort of cycling have been patchy at best.
After the first surgery to rebuild my knee I sold my 1200 Bandit (knowing I didn't want to ride a motorbike again) and used some of the money to buy a Trek 1.1 road bike to replace the Diamondback hardtail mountain bike I'd been using for the past few years - a decent enough bike which was fairly light and pretty good for tarmac use with the fitting of semi-slick city tyres. I'd fancied a nice lightweight machine for a while and in many ways it is a fine entry level bike, but like most things there was the odd drawback.
The first thing was the toe-strap pedals. My feet naturally turn outwards slightly, so forcing them to point straight forward made my hips ache and the injured knee screamed at me. So I replaced the pedals with a decent set of alloy mountain bike ones to give my feet the freedom of movement I need.

For a while all was well and cycling was proving to be a useful form of physiotherapy, but after a few months the knee pain was increasing and it was time for more surgery.
After a recuperation period I got back on the bike. Things were a little better, but by this time I was tired of the razor blade that manufacturers find necessary to fit to road bikes in lieu of a proper saddle. My bum doesn't have much in the way of natural padding, and padded cycle shorts are restrictive and make you feel like you're wearing a nappy. So the next modification was to fit a nicely shaped gel saddle that keeps the weight off the delicate bits and provides far better support without the need for padded clothing.
Unfortunately I didn't have long to enjoy the benefits of this because once again the knee conspired to make any such exercise too painful to bear.

A couple of months ago I had surgery on the knee again, and it seemed to make a huge improvement, so once things had had time to heal I tentatively swung my leg over the bike and went to the end of the street and back and was surprised that it didn't hurt at all.
With hope in my heart I pulled on some trainers and rode off to the old pumping station which is about a mile and a quarter from home, and by the time I got back I was still pain free and feeling so happy it was amazing.
I was however quite out of breath even after such a short distance. I knew this would be a problem. Having been without proper exercise for the best part of a year has left me with a subterranean fitness level, plus my left leg has about half the strength of the right one and needs to be built up.
I'm not disillusioned though, just determined to get back as close as possible to my pre-crash capabilities and fitness.

For the bike there just remained one more modification - the handlebars.
I've tried to get on with drop bars but for the sort of riding I do they're just not right. I found myself always riding with my hands on top of the bars which makes it awkward to reach the brakes and still pitched me slightly too far forward for comfort. Plus to be honest I didn't like having any sort of association with the standard issue lycra-clad tossers that usually ride road bikes - especially those who ride in big groups spread out across the road pissing off motorists.
So I took the plunge and ordered Shimano Claris shifters and brake levers for flat bars that match the existing derailleurs (good old Amazon Marketplace), and picked up some low-rise mountain bike bars and a pair of grips from the bike shop near work.
It took a couple of hours work to strip off the original bars etc, fit the new components and rig the gears correctly, by which time the bike was looking rather different.


What I've ended up with is a sort of Frankenstein's monster that combines the best attributes of a road bike and a standard off-the-peg hybrid.
I've retained the light weight, gearing, geometry and low rolling resistance of a road bike while adding the more ergonomic riding position and comfort of a hybrid.
This morning was my first proper ride in this configuration, and I'm happy to report that the desired effect has been achieved.
I did a 9.5 mile circuit which although not very long by normal standards felt like quite an achievement considering my current physical condition, and the bike felt fantastic. The riding position is now spot on for me with minimal weight on my wrists and the wide bars giving good stability.
I can now look forward to getting out there whenever the great British weather isn't taking the fun out of it by raining or blowing or some disagreeable combination of the two. My fitness and strength is already starting to get better, and even if it's not appropriate to go out on the bike there's the cross trainer in the shed to make sure I don't have an excuse to slack off in my pursuit of physical improvement.
And who knows - all this effort might even help shift those few unwanted pounds around my middle.