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Meet Me Half Way
Editorial by Tom Demerly.


Tom Demerly Competing in Desert
I went to a batting cage once with a friend of mine. I don’t like ball sports. They remind me of gym class as a kid. I was a fatso. As a lardass I was always last to be picked for the team, first to be ridiculed for my ineptitude at anything involving hand/eye coordination.

I was having minor, unpleasant flashbacks of 6th grade gym class at the batting cage. But I sucked it up and entered the enclosure to maintain appearances. It was the day before Ironman Canada, 1999, and I was looking for a few hours of mindless distraction to keep my mind off the 10-12 hours of discomfort I’d be subjecting myself to the following day.

So I went to the batting cage with my friend. I wanted to race go-karts. I am good at that. They also had a zoo of sorts with large, flightless birds. I had no interest in that. Flightless birds? What’s the point? But my associate wanted to do the batting cage. So batting cage it was.

The batting cage, it occurred to me, looked like a rifle range at Fort Benning, only you stood at the wrong end. You walked into a fenced off area and a device that looked like a grenade launcher hurled a projectile at you. As you know, you swat at the projectile with a bat hoping to produce an elastic collision deflecting the ball on a more or less random trajectory (in my case) while simultaneously trying not to become a target for said projectile.

Everything about this arrangement ran counter to my military mind. As I stood there, awaiting the first fusillade, my brain screamed one thing:

“GET DOWN!”

I held my position though, inept as I am at such activities, and bravely faced the first volley. I never did see the ball. It moved too fast, or perhaps my eyes were shut. I did hear it, and I swung at it with all I was worth. I must have displaced a massive volume of air, but probably came no where near the ball. It struck the fabric behind me with a hollow report. “Whhuummmph!” That could have been me. Now it was personal.

In rapid-fire succession another white leather missile launched uprange, tracking on my position. I acquired the incoming target and took immediate countermeasures by initiating my swing early. In the military we practiced a thing called “grazing fire” during which a random and copious volume of lead was discharged willy-nilly in the general direction of any perceived threat with devastation being the desired result. That’s what I did with my bat. I just swung wildly.

SSSttrrriiiiikke Twwoooooo!

With little time to correct fire another ball was inbound. I was locked in mortal combat with this batting machine, a veritable ballpark Guadalcanal, in defense of my manhood against this mindless enemy- the ball cannon. This time I exhaled half a breath, established a clear sight picture and initiated my swing while maintaining visual acquisition of the incoming target at center mass.

Direct hit. I didn’t exactly do a Babe Ruth, but I connected solidly enough to divert the damn ball away from me.

Of course, my associate was far more astute at this activity and hit every ball presented to her. Given her batting prowess, I asked her if she ever considered an alternative lifestyle. She did not find it amusing. I continued to struggle but was up for the challenge. After all, I was an Ironman. No little white ball is gonna kick my ass.

I did OK, but swinging that damn bat felt really awkward and I didn’t like the idea of that ball being shot at me, face level, at over 40 mph. This went on for about an hour until, mercifully, petting an emu at the zoo did suddenly take on new luster. So we left the batting cage in favor of petting foul smelling, ill tempered (because they’re flightless) mammoth birds.

“I can’t do the ball thing.” I said, admitting my ineptitude. “I have just never been good at anything with a ball.”

My friend, who was always oddly wise in a basic, Yoda kind of way, said, “It’s just because you haven’t worked at it enough. You’re convinced you can’t do it but you could if you put some practice in.”

I noticed that an emu’s knees hinge backward, and wondered what a chair would look like if our knees hinged backward.

Anyway.

The next morning, very early, I got up for Ironman and began my carefully regimented pre race ritual. Water, food, pills, more water, the first of a bunch of bathroom trips, music (carefully chosen to instill just the right mindset), etc. All practiced before and rehearsed so nothing was a surprise. All done in the dark, calm silence of super early morning. Placid, relaxed and unhurried. I reviewed the wide sheet of paper that was my race time line plan for probably the 50th time in the last four days. It was committed to memory. I could do a brief-back on every action at every aid station, what my splits should be where, what my heart rate should be, what the weather forecast was, what the wind was predicted to be and from where- every detail of the day’s operation committed to memory. And of course, a contingency plan too. Everything was ready, everything was in place. The training was done. This was a celebration, graduation day. I was oddly relaxed and looking forward to the start.

But this morning my shoulders were killing me. When my associate walked in the room I didn’t say anything, but I was moderately concerned about my back, arm and shoulders from fanning the air with a ball bat the day before. I know I wasn’t sore from petting those musty smelling bird-monsters.

I had an OK race that day, not terrible by any means, pretty good actually; my shoulders loosened up quickly after the cannon went off and I had a pretty good swim.

After the race I told my associate, “Man, my shoulders were killing me from that batting cage when I got up. I am not meant to do that. I'm just not built for that.”

“Well,” She said, “I can’t bend over a bike like you do for five hours, my butt can’t take it and my back would be killing me.”

“Oh,” I told her, “That’s where you’re wrong… It is just a matter of conditioning. You can’t do it all at once but given enough time you could sit on a bike for five hours in the aero position.”

“Well then,” She said, “It is just like baseball…”

And suddenly it occurred to me. Sitting on a bike is like any other sport. You do have to accept a certain level of discomfort, probably quite a bit at first. Just like me with the batting cage. And you do have to condition yourself to do it before it is anything like comfortable.

Perhaps the most common things we encounter during a fit for a road bike are customers who want their handlebars higher and their stems shorter. With aerobars some customers are surprised that their reach is so short.

We tell people, “Well, you have to meet the position half way.”

This is what we mean: When you get on a precisely fitted, performance oriented bicycle the first time, it will not feel good. It also won’t feel “right”. It will feel weird. It will feel to you like I felt in the batting cage.

Your neck will hurt, your crotch will go numb, your toes will go numb, your back will bother you. That is the discomfort you experience getting used to a new athletic activity. It is normal, it may get worse before it gets better, but it will get better if you meet it half way.

How much better? Well, I suspect a lot of people who come to us for a fitting have unreasonable expectations of how comfortable a bicycle can be. Bicycle fit is a skilled trade and, done correctly by an educated, formally trained and experienced bike fitter, will enhance your enjoyment of the sport and your performance on the bike, on the run too if you are a triathlete.

Accurate bicycle fit will not fix your weight problem, your bad back, your numb hands, your bad knee or your lack of fitness. You’ll have to fix those things on your own or with your doctor.

Sometimes when customers come in with a new bike they bought elsewhere that they say doesn’t fit them, or say, “I have never been comfortable on this bike” they simply need a lesson in posture.

Sitting on the bike correctly is a skill that some people take to more easily than others. While I can ride a bike as well as most of the guys here in the store I don’t look nearly as elegant as, say, Mike Aderhold, our I.T. guy who seems to have been born on a bike. His posture is flawless and as a result he is always comfortable. Speed seems to appear effortless for him. He guarantees us he hurts like everyone else does; it just doesn’t look like he does.

For other people, learning to sit on a bike takes time and effort. They have to do some homework first. One of the great benefits of the popularity of yoga is that it provides exactly the type of conditioning a cyclist needs to adapt to a good cycling posture. Yoga reinforces flexibility and strength; exactly the two attributes needed to sit on a bike well.

So how do you learn to sit on the bike correctly once you have the strength and flexibility? Practice and patience.

If you buy a new bike and expect to go on a two-hour ride in comfort, well, that is an unreasonable expectation. Just like swinging a bat for an hour and not expecting to be sore.

To some degree, I dread getting a new bike because I know, no matter how precise I have been in duplicating my position, it is going to feel weird and I am going to have little aches and pains. That is a small part of the deal. Whether you are swinging a bat or getting used to a new bike, it takes time and effort. You have to meet it half way.

I think some people feel that when they get a bike fitting the bike will somehow magically interface with them, become an extension of their body, meld with them to become unobtrusive.

Sorry. Cycling is not like that. At the end of the day you still have a contact patch with the pavement the size of two dimes under tires with over five times the air pressure of your car- and you only have two of them. Between your legs is this vaguely padded leather thing attached to an aluminum pole rammed into your crotch. Every time you hit a bump it finds home a little harder.

Sometimes it is tough for us to tell someone that. They just don’t want to hear it. They want to believe their new $1500 bike is the answer to every issue they have ever had with cycling. It isn’t. You have to meet it half way, and you have to be willing and diligent and persistent. You have to want it to work. There will be major discomfort- a polite word for pain- along the way. There will even be pain once you get there, but it does eventually get better.

One thing I learned from my batting cage experience though, if you say you “Can’t do that”, you’re right.

Like any new sport or new skill you have to have the willingness to meet it half way

 

 
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