We weren’t supposed to ride Paradise Loop on Sunday. We were supposed to ride something more manageable, something easier, something, well, flatter. But the swimming pool where we train was hosting a meet, and so Sunday became long-ride day. I woke up five minutes before my alarm, thinking maybe there would be lightning or something and we wouldn’t ride. It was 60 and gorgeously sunny already. I had no out.
My tri buddy and I loaded our bikes onto the car and took the wide lane over the Golden Gate Bridge. Just a few exits up was our turn, into a parking lot where everyone else was pumping their tires and looking very official. I kept leaving my helmet in the backseat.
The first three miles were relatively simple — zigzagging through light traffic, riding over a wooden bridge (I jealously ogled my tri buddy’s hybrid tires), and practicing riding in a line. My stupid new cadence sensor Pete and I managed to break within five minutes of taking it out of the box wasn’t registering anything at this point, and I kept forgetting to start my watch, but I know we weren’t going very fast, and that was fine.
At one point, we pulled up along the bay, watching paddleboarders (and otters!) pass by as our coach told us why we were there. Hill repeats. Fifteen minutes of them, up a hill we couldn’t even see yet but that he was describing as “quite steep” and “one where you’ll need all your gears” and other scary things I only sort of processed. The front of the group started riding, then the middle, then it was our turn, and I pushed off and rounded the bend and started going up.
And that’s when things started to change.
A few weeks ago, Pete took me to ride up a hill that’s on the route home from my regular ride. It’s only a block long, but it’s a pretty substantial rise — this is, after all, San Francisco, in a part of the city where the flattest routes are remarkably flat but also occupied by zooming commute traffic and no bike lanes in the inbound direction. This hill was the last thing standing between me and not having to walk my bike for several blocks on the way home, and I’d been too nervous to tackle it on my own. We rode it in the morning, when traffic was light, and on the third trip up, I made it to the top of the hill first. I figured it was a fluke, but still, that put this crazy idea in my head: maybe, possibly, I was actually good at climbing.
On Sunday, when the hill we were riding came into view, it looked remarkably similar to my practice hill. And I thought, “Wait — I know I can do this.” And I started climbing…and passing people…and feeling confidence I didn’t know I could feel on the bike, yet or ever. My little hummingbird legs went swishswishswishswish on the pedals, and I started to think maybe these thighs that I’ve been hauling around since my teenage years could actually be good for something besides fierce switch leaps in dance class.
Remember: I was probably one of the last five people in the group to start, so “passing people” should be taken with a grain of salt. But over the course of three repeats, I’d worked myself from the back of the group to the middle. And that’s with half the crowd passing me back on the downhill as I wimpily rode the brakes. There was a girl in front of me who’s a much stronger rider; I passed her on every uphill, and she’d rocket by me on every downhill, and we’d yell and cheer as we went, and I felt this weird surge of joy.
We rode a few miles further, then stopped to rest and divide into two groups: One taking the longer but almost completely flat route back to the start, the other riding a shorter but hillier loop. At this point, a close friend (and one of our peer captains) rode up to me and said, “You can ride the loop. You’re not turning around.” But then the coach kept describing it as hillier and hillier — he seemed to add new hills to it every time he talked about the route — and I told my friend I was turning back. The experienced group turned left. The other group headed right. And one other girl and I were still standing there, not sure where to go.
Then, for some reason, we both turned left.
I rode about a mile or so with our coach, who advised me to climb easy and “stay within my comfort zone” on the downhills. I fought the urge to point out that if I was staying within my comfort zone, I wouldn’t be on a bicycle. He zoomed off on the first downhill, and then it was just this other rider and me, and we settled into a rhythm: I’d lead up the hills; she’d zoom past on the descents; then we’d switch back, occasionally asking each other why on earth we had thought this was a good idea.
But after the first couple of hills, the road leveled out into true rollers — a little bit up, a little bit down — and I felt myself relax. I looked to my right and spotted the bay, the mountains, a bridge (I had no idea which one, because I have no sense of direction; it was the Richmond). The other girl passed me for good on a long downhill, but I eventually came up on another rider from our group, and we kept the same rhythm, until I pulled away and was on my own.
I expected to panic, being on my own. But I knew there was a rider not far behind, and my friend riding sweep somewhere behind her. And with the trees and the gentle rolling road and the reassuring beep of my watch, I felt OK. Great, even. Happy.
We rode through town, and over 101, and lord, that part sucked — stoplights and turning cars and a highway onramp and all sorts of nonsense. But soon we were back in the trees, back in the happy place, and we were climbing the last hill. This was the hill everyone kept saying was huge and giant and big and scary, and yet: apparently I define “hill” differently. A hill to me is a sharp crest that I see and say “OH MY GOD I AM GOING TO START ROLLING BACKWARDS.” A two-mile stretch of consistent incline sucks, but it doesn’t mentally wreck me the same way; I learned to ride on one of those, it’s on my normal route through the park, and while this one was bigger (~360 feet up in just over two miles, vs. the one in the park, which is closer to 200 feet in the same distance), I knew if I just kept my legs moving, I’d be at the top eventually.
And then I went into psychological-disaster mode and coasted most of the downhill back into town. But whatever. I still pulled into the parking lot with the hugest smile on my face and spotted our coach and yelled out: “NEIL! I DIDN’T DIE!”
I smiled through the whole transition run. I smiled through the drive home. I smiled in the shower. I’m still smiling as I’m writing this, and it’s been almost 24 hours. I didn’t take the easy way out. I rode a loop that I thought was above my level, and in doing so, I found out where my level actually is. And I loved every part of it (except for maybe — TMI — the part where everything within a three-inch radius of my saddle went numb and stayed that way for a good eight hours).
I know there are more scary moments on the way. I know I’ll be riding harder routes. I know at some point I’ll probably clip in and have to learn everything all over again. But for this one day, I loved my bike and I loved my body for flying up those hills and I loved getting to see so much of this beautiful place so close to where I live and so inaccessible to me before this. I loved the support of the group, because I never would have done this on my own, and I loved the moments of being on my own, because it proved to me that I could handle it.
I still can’t believe I’m saying this, but: I loved being on my bicycle.