Wednesday, November 4, 2015

From 2004, more or less: The Sunnyside Women's Road Cycling Clinic

This piece ran in the Bicycle Paper, a free Pacific NW cycling newspaper. The clinic ran in the days before the Cascade Classic Stage Race in Bend, if memory serves.... What fun!

Every July for the past five or six years, Sunnyside Sports, a great bike shop in Bend, has promoted a weekend road cycling clinic for women. I’ve helped out at all but one of them and promoted two of my own in Tucson. My two followed Sunnyside’s model faithfully. Why fool with a successful formula?

You wonder why you’d need to educate cyclists. Can’t they learn all they need to know from books or magazines or their computers? I’m afraid they cannot. No diagram ever taught a new rider how a pace line rotates or how hard to pedal while at the front.

No series of photos or drawings ever made a safer, faster downhill bike-handler. No article has conveyed the feeling of drafting at 25mph or riding confidently elbow-to-elbow, chatting the miles away on some sun-dappled country road.

And it has become difficult to learn group skills on local group rides. Few want to teach and few seem happy to be taught. Perhaps our veterans are reluctant to act like self-appointed experts – and newer riders act as if they know all they need to know – especially, if you ask me, new guy riders.   

Whatever the reason, many club cyclists ride for years at the same scarcely adequate skill level. They don’t have the tools to enjoy road cycling fully.

So Sunnyside Sports initiated the Women’s Road Clinic. Here’s how it works – and how I organized my own clinics. No reason you couldn’t do a similar event where you live.

This year, in the weeks before the clinic, Sunnyside did bike fittings for each participant, making sure each woman was comfortable on her bike and in a position of control and power. At previous clinics, we’ve done that during the weekend, but it is time-consuming and depends on careful scheduling. Fittings are best done before the clinic weekend.

On Saturday morning, the staff divided the women into groups by estimated comfortable road speed. This year we had about 15 women total, divided into two groups. Each group enjoyed the attention of three instructors.

Our group rode a few miles out of Bend to a quiet road, where we stopped and got off our bikes. We talked about basic group riding, technique and etiquette, and about pace.

We talked about fear of following close and how to maintain a steady pace uphill and down. Staffers talked about delightful, often unexpected, conversations we’ve had on rides. We said we think of cycling as a social sport, and we’re thankful that it is.

The women formed into lines ON FOOT and walked through the motions of two common rotating pace lines, so everyone understood how they worked. I don’t know who came up with this training method, but gosh it’s effective – and safe. Try it at home.

Then we rolled out onto the lightly traveled road to practice our new skills. Raggedy at first, soon the women were riding like the USPS “blue train.” We’d stop a time or two to discuss what was happening and to listen to suggestions or questions.

By the time we’d ridden up and back, we were a pretty doggoned accomplished group. We rolled back down the highway into Bend looking red-hot. For many of the women, this was their first “sitting-in” experience, as it has been every year at the clinic. It’s amazing how fast the transition happens: cautious solo rider to polished pace-liner.

Makes even cynical, white-socks roadie instructors proud.

After lunch, each woman “fixed a flat” on her own bike. Each demonstrated that she could remove and replace her front wheel and her back one. Each indicated that she knew which brake lever operated which brake and how to properly apply them.

The students then listened to a presentation about turning a bicycle. Then they mounted up for cornering practice on a twisty course in a parking lot that sees only weekday use.

On the grass nearby, the women learned to ride close together. They bumped elbows. They jumped their bikes over (or reached down and picked up) dropped water bottles. They briefly touched the rear wheel of the rider in front of them with their own front wheel.

For many of the students, this was scary and adventurous beyond their expectations. They performed like veterans nevertheless, scarcely revealing what must have been wide-eyed fear. Bravo, says this old roadie!

Saturday evening after dinner, a grizzled magazine columnist read a few truly boring stories to an increasingly sleepy-eyed group.

“Could I have more coffee, please. Yes, caffeinated will do just fine.”

After dinner in Tucson, by the way, a woman staffer talked about woman-specific issues and a male staffer discussed riding safely and confidently in urban traffic.

Sunday morning, staff and students assembled at a wide spot in the road east of Alfalfa, Oregon, for a real road ride – with hills and wind and maybe a drop or two of rain. We talked about climbing, about standing up and sitting in the saddle, about gear selection and pacing oneself on the hill. We talked about descending, relaxing on the bike and remembering how to use the front and rear brakes.

Each staffer rode with only three women on that Sunday. As I watched my little flock, I could see lessons the women had learned at the clinic come to fruition.

On the way back, we split into two tiny, two-rider packs. We flew back to the cars, forming and splitting, forming and splitting again as our climbing or descending skills separated us. Again, I was proud of my students. I couldn’t have selected one of them as “most improved.” They were all “most improved.”

Please do put together a clinic like Sunnyside’s in your community. For your instructors, select four or five riders who are empathetic and enthusiastic about cycling, who are, to be frank, nice. Use Sunnyside’s model or design one of your own to meet your particular needs.

When I did my first one here in Tucson in 2001, I had no problem recruiting qualified, volunteer instructors. Afterward, several of them said they’d enjoyed the experience far more than they could have imagined. A few called the clinic weekend “life-changing.”

Sharing your love for cycling with excited riders is life-changing. It changes all those riders’ lives…and it changes yours.

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