Back on a Bicycle at 50
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The Return to Riding

Hardy Menagh   10/09/07

From an email to a friend:

I was awake at 2:30 am last night, with my mind racing.

When it was just light enough, around 5:00, I got my bike, an old steel Ross, out of the garage and pedaled it down the driveway and up the road. It was deathly quiet. The only sounds were the whoosh of my tires on the road and the clickety-clatter sound of the gears as I shifted on the hills.

The dim light and stillness reminded me of the Stephen King movie, The Langoliers, when the jet's passengers were in the used-up time where nothing seemed to have any real substance and the air seemed lifeless.

There wasn't a single car on the road, just me with no engine, whizzing along the county roads with the cold wind in my face. There was something perfect about it and my mood changed with each passing minute.

30 minutes later, I was back home, feeling better with a cleared mind. I'm always amazed at the things a bicycle can do for a person.

This Summer, I turned 50 years old and I feel younger than I have in years.

About a year ago, I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a degenerative arthritic condition of the spine. As part of the treatment, my doctor prescribed physical therapy and exercise. In the Spring of this year, when the physical therapy was done, I needed to continue to exercise at home.

Weights and crunches would keep my muscles toned but for cardiovascular exercise, only one option appealed to me; riding a bicycle.

The Obstacles

Almost 20 years ago, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. This was due to a range of symptoms including fatigue, attention deficit, dizziness and balance problems. Since the sudden onset of these problems, I had not ridden a bike which was something I used to really enjoy.

Thanks to some astonishingly expensive medication (Enbrel), my spinal problems were under control, I was sleeping through the night without pain and had more energy during the day. Extended workouts on the machines at the physical therapy office had renewed my muscle tone over the Winter and my physical condition was better than it had been in many years.

The main stumbling block to riding a bike now was the balance problem.

Ever since the CFIDS symptoms appeared, turning and especially turning around 180° while walking could be a hazardous maneuver. I even occasionally fell down until I developed an automatic cautious attitude about turning.

Most road bike riding involves traveling in a straight or nearly straight line so I was optimistic that I could actually get back on a bike again.

Selecting a Bike

I was fortunate to already own a potential fitness bike. I found my old low-mileage Ross Eurotour 10-speed in the clutter of the garage, got it out and in a short time, had it in good working order.

If you are just starting to ride for fitness, there is no need for the latest in pedaled two-wheeled technology. If your bike is steel and doesn't have the widest range of gears, your workout will only be better. The last thing you want is a modern rigid lightweight bicycle that's easy to pedal. This will only slow your fitness progress. Develop your riding muscles and reflexes first. This will allow you to make the most of a lighter faster bike if you transition to one later.

Older steel bikes are easy to come by. If you don't have one and can't get someone to give or lend you one, check your local ad digest or the Craigslist. You should be able to get one cheap. Just make sure it's not too large for you. One size too small is not necessarily a bad thing as long as you can raise the seat post and handlebar stem enough and the bike's geometry fits you otherwise.

A Helmet is Just Smart

Although, helmets aren't required for adults in my state and I had never used one in the past, I decided it would be smart to purchase and wear one. The helmet also gave me a place to put a rear view mirror which is important to me for two reasons. Several of the vertebrae in my neck are fused from surgery for spinal cord compression and even if I could turn my head far enough to look behind me, I would be likely to lose my balance and fall.

As Riding Proficiency Advances, a Symptom Retreats

Initially, I didn't go far on the Ross. My rides totalled about 10 to 15 minutes a day. I felt a little insecure, even in the broad turns and my legs weren't up to long rides and steep hills. After several weeks things began to click. The comfort and control I had with a bike in my youth, returned, my leg muscles began to respond and my rides got longer.

The truly remarkable thing was that my balance began to improve. U-turns were now possible, most days, and didn't require one foot dragging on the pavement. I can't explain how or why this happened but maybe my brain was rewiring itself for the more challenging balance demands.

By mid-Summer I was riding at least hour a day and at least 4 days a week. I had lost weight and built muscle. Although a couple of my CFIDS symptoms had diminished, I was often still exhausted but it was a satisfying kind of exhaustion that left me feeling contented and centered.

Outgrowing the "Trainer"

I was now thinking about getting a new bike, something that would let me go farther and faster without wearing me out.

Many bicycle companies like Bianchi, Specialized and K2 to name a few, offer lightweight comfort/fitness or similarly configured "hybrid" bicycles. For about US$500 you get a mass-produced aluminum frame with ugly raw welds, made in the orient and arbitrarily fitted with components that are identical to what the other companies are using on their clones of the same bikes.

Not only didn't I have a spare $500 but none of these bikes that I test rode, appeared to have the quality of construction I could feel comfortable or safe with. I resigned myself to waiting another year and trying to save for a new bike that was better than these questionable offerings.

Fate Intercedes

While riding one morning just before Labor Day, I made an impulsive stop at a garage sale, something I never do. The timely good fortune that came from this odd impulse still has me shaking my head in wonderment. I acquired two unused Cannondale racing bikes for US$50.

Cannondale had only been manufacturing bikes for 3 years when these racers were made in 1985 but they got it right, even back then. The aluminum frames are beautifully designed, constructed and fitted with lightweight components that compliment them perfectly. Compared to Cannondale's current line, they might be more than a little outmoded but the carefully hand crafted frames are still vastly superior to those made in the Far East today.

I hadn't considered a racing bike. I sure don't ever plan on racing but the interesting thing is, I was ready for a racer. Imagine learning all the ins, outs and shortcomings of driving an old underpowered air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle then suddenly finding yourself with a new Porsche.

Until now, I had been shying away from bikes with drop handlebars. I had them on my bikes as a teenager but I'm far from a teenager now and upright handlebars allow for a more comfortable riding position. Aerodynamics were never a serious consideration for me. However, I quickly discovered that the numbness in my hands due to carpal tunnel problems was minor to non-existent when I used the drop bars. This may be due to regularly changing hand positions while riding. After making this discovery, I fitted the Ross, now my inclement-weather bike, with some old steel drop handlebars. I cut the lower parts off and inverted them for pseudo "Cow Horn" bars (see image above). These work equally well for the prevention of numbness.

I selected one Cannondale bike from the pair to ride and made some minor changes and additions so it would fit me better and comply with state regulations. It's fast and responsive, of course, but it's also no longer necessary for me to shift off the big chainring on the same hills that required the lowest gear combination on the Ross. Not only that, but I can actually accelerate up hills that formerly took everything I had just to get to the top.

With Winter approaching, the Cannondale won't see much use. I'll be spending some time with a recumbent exercise bike indoors and riding the Ross outside on the salty roads when they are clear.

0 Gallons
When Spring comes, I'll be able to use the Cannondale to its full advantage for recreation, commuting and even grocery shopping. It gets infinite miles on zero gallons and the total milage possible is only dependent on my physical condition.


Advice and Resources:

I wrote this article, hoping that it would be encouraging to anyone thinking about getting on a bicycle after a lengthy break from riding. As they say, consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program. This goes double if you're my age or older. Please read the disclaimer at the bottom of this page.

Unless you regularly exercise your legs, it's a good idea to take it slow at first. If you can, consider some controlled work with a stationary bike for a few weeks before you begin to ride a moving one. Get used to the bike and allow your muscles to get used to the idea of powering a vehicle. A good starting point is to ride for 10 minutes or less, 3 or 4 days a week, then add another 5 to 10 minutes to each ride every two weeks. After a few months you can be the judge of how much to increase the frequency and duration of your rides.

If you don't already have the expertise, you should learn how to maintain your own bike. It's not difficult and it can save you a long walk home. I carry pumps, wrenches, patch kits, tire levers and even spare tubes on my bikes. I recently got a flat tire several miles from home and was very glad I had these things and the minimal knowledge needed to quickly change a tube.

There is a wealth of information about bicycle maintenance on the web. Much of it was put there by bicycle guru, Sheldon Brown*. Take some time to read his pages. If it doesn't all make sense to you now, it will when you need it to.

Car Laws as they Apply to Bikes

Do a search on the name of your state and "bicycle regulations" You will not only learn what safety equipment is required on your bike but how you are required to operate your bike on the road. Be aware that the traffic laws as they apply to cars, can't always apply to bikes. You may find that you have to occasionally "bend" a law to ride safely. Just be sure that it's necessary to do it and if you have to, you can explain to a law officer precisely why you had to do what you did. If it was clearly necessary for safety, the officer will usually be understanding.

One example of this in the US, is not signalling a left turn as you roll to an intersection at the bottom of a steep hill. Since your front brake is usually controlled by your left hand and signaling with your right hand would be confusing (Left hand up, definitely a right turn. Right hand up. Are you signalling a left or right turn?). It's best to wait until you come to a stop to signal, possibly also signalling briefly somewhere on the hill if you're certain you can still stop after doing so. For this and other reasons, some folks move their front brake cable to the lever on the right side of their handlebars.

It's in your favor that most drivers watch cyclists carefully. They assume you are going to behave erratically. You should assume the same thing about them.

Your Position on the Road and Safety

If your state still has a law requiring a bicycle rider to always stay as close to the side (right in the US) of the road as possible, this law needs to be changed and you should work to change it. Unless you normally ride in heavy traffic, it simply isn't safe to always be on the side of the road and I have the scars to prove it.

First; You are far less likely to be seen by motorists in that position, especially in less than optimal visual conditions like fog, rain and dim light or darkness.

Second; This is usually the most uneven, debris-scattered area of the road. You are prone to losing control and damaging your bike and yourself from hitting holes, slipping off the pavement and getting flats from bits of metal and glass.

Third; Motorists may try to pass you when it really isn't safe to do so and force you off the road (it's happened to me). If you ride in the middle of the traffic lane, you can move over and signal a motorist to pass when you know it's safe. Just be aware that some drivers may resent you for, as they see it, being in their way. Don't ever try to assert your right-of-way if a motorist clearly doesn't want to yield. You will always lose in such confrontations.

Lastly; If there are cars parked by the side of the road and you are riding right next to them, the occupants won't see you and may open a door or pull out suddenly and hit you hard. The latter happened to me at age 19 and cost me my bike and a year of my life in three hospitals, while I had my right leg reconstructed with grafts from other parts of my body.

Always be aware of the law but also know what is safe for a bicyclist and explain the difference to your law enforcement and state officials. Contact your local cycling club. Several voices carry more weight than one and they will be working on projects that you will be interested in.

Be safe, be vocal and have a good ride!

* Sheldon Brown died of a heart attack on Feb. 3rd, 2008 after a valiant battle with MS.

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Copyright © 2007 Hardy Menagh

Use this information at your own risk.

The information in the above article is provided without warranty.
It contains advice that may increase your physical activity.
Riding a bicycle can put you at increased risk of danger from motorized traffic.

The author assumes no responsibility for any injury, suffering, damage
or death that may result from following any advice in this article.

By following any advice in this article the reader accepts all risk
and agrees to hold the author harmless for any injury, suffering,
damage or death that may occur as a direct or indirect result.