... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Heart vs. Gear: Clipping In to Your Inner Strength

Speedplay X series pedals ("lollipops") and cleats
Today I get to report that I finally have clipless pedals. Well, technically I've had the pedals for almost a month, but I was missing the most important part: the cleats and the shoes! That's right, I've been riding my beautiful new bike on just the tiny round Speedplay X series pedals, or "lollipops," as they're semi-affectionately called. (The level of affection and amount of rain are inversely proportional.) This interesting and highly un-triathlete-kosher technique worked in a pinch, but it was definitely making life harder. I was constantly worried that my foot would slip off of the pedal and I would crash, especially during the North Kohala downpours that are so common. In fact, I did slip off a few times, but luckily never when I had a lot of weight on the foot. This makes it extremely frustrating to make it up a large hills, which are even more plentiful than the rain. In addition to the practical problems, I was completely certain that each of the many finely trained cyclists who saw me during a ride was making snide comments and spreading rumors about the pathetic girl wearing running shoes on a Cervelo all over Ironman Town.

This switch in gear marks a transition that for whatever reason I have been a little hesitant to make. From the beginning of this triathlon adventure, it has been me forging brazenly (and often cluelessly) ahead, finding my own training schedules, doing my workouts alone, and discovering things the hard way -- through experience. When I started out I never knew that triathlon would be a sport I would want to stay involved in, simply that I wanted to find out if I could complete a couple of races for the sake of doing them. Because of this mindset, I have pretty much ignored the plethora of fancy gear available in favor of seeing what my own body, unaided by technology, can do. I took a little backwards pride in my beloved vintage bike, my sports bra swim top, and my EarBandit ridiculousness ... these untrendy things being indicative of my self-made triathlon journey, of each moment I realized that I was doing something completely wrong and found the way to work through it. My triathlon interests were simple and unadorned.

Unadorned, however, is not a word that comes to mind when I look at my new bike. Gorgeous, sleek, aggressive, elegant... but not simple. My $35 helmet is suddenly looking out of place. When they told me that I should get a new base bar and gave me a choice between the $80 standard bar and the $245 carbon fiber version, I actually paused to think about it.

So let's reevaluate here.

I have been given amazing things. From the magazine, I have seemingly endless amounts of triathlon shorts, tops, and suits, and from my employer, this wonderful bike. It is fast and mean and beautiful, and in order to do it justice, I have to incorporate some gear that wasn't necessary before. But in my heart, I am still doing this to see what my body, not my gear, can do. Whether I'm on a 1980 Peugeot or a Cervelo P2, I will be gasping for air and feeling my legs ignite in searing fiery heat when I climb a hill. It is the same willpower that will get me through it regardless of whether I'm sitting on steel or carbon. My joy in this sport is not dependent on the latest trends of technology.

All that said, clipless pedals are pretty fucking fantastic.

After spending two and a half hours at Bike Works Waikoloa on Wednesday getting the bike fitted and having cleats installed on my new shoes, I was excited to give it a try. Thankfully, they insisted that my first endeavor be on the grassy field outside of the shop so that if I tipped over before I could unclip, I wouldn't break my legs or otherwise mangle myself. I have to say, however, that once you get a feel for these cleats, they're pretty easy to manage. It just takes a little forethought when you plan on slowing to a stop.

Clip foot in. Pull leg up. Hop on bike. Pedal, pedal. Clip other foot in. Ride... Ride... Slow down. Clip foot out. Weight on other leg. Slow, slow, lean to free leg side. Land. Balance. Clip other foot out. Precariously swing leg over bike while balancing on cleat without toppling over...

These are my new instructions, which I repeat to myself over and over each time I come near the bike. To be honest, the hardest part for me is not the clipping in or out, it's the balancing on one wobbly cleat to get my leg over the bike. If I end up falling, I think it will be from a stand still.

I am amazed by the difference this system makes on hills. Whereas before I struggled to keep my speed up, wobbling all over the place and seemingly going nowhere, pushing the pedal down violently with each rotation only to lose all of that momentum as it came back up, my pedal strokes are now a complete and smooth circle, I am moving forward in a fluid motion rather than a series of lurches. In places where I'd falter before, I can now keep going strong. I had feared that the "pull" portion of the revolution would require muscles that I hadn't used before, but instead it seemed that the new circular motion engaged the larger muscles of my legs more effectively, thus making it easier.

Basically, whoever though of this was a goddamn genius.

And so here I am, taking the next baby step into being a "real" triathlete, reminding myself all the while to never forget that whether I'm riding a thirty-year-old clunker or the most advanced bike in the world, what makes a triathlete is that inner warrior. No amount of carbon fiber can change that.

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