Why You Should Do The Rides That Scare You

When the whistle blew, I was gripped by a fear like I had never experienced on a bicycle. Disaster seemed constantly imminent.


By Gloria Liu |

I just had not expected I’d be racing against so many children.

It all started when one of my mountain-biking buddies, Ben, began raving about how fast he was getting from doing the local weekly training crit. I race mountain bikes. Road racing had always scared me, until Ben – and his newfound speed – convinced me it’d be good for my fitness. I signed up for the training crit.

Because I had no experience, I was assigned to the early ‘B’ race with the juniors. The few other novice adults and I looked like chaperones on a primary school field trip. The race turned out to be much more harrowing than that.

When the whistle blew, I was gripped by a fear like I had never experienced on a bicycle. Disaster seemed constantly imminent. Kids dove left and right like suicide bombers. Every time we approached the start/finish I thought about pulling to the side and bailing, but I was too terrified to even do that. Thus trapped, I was sucked along for 15 1 600-metre laps until the race was over. I swore I was never doing it again.

But the incident hung over me for weeks. I knew that my fear of fast pack riding was holding me back. Sure, I did group road rides regularly, but even in those neat, courteous pacelines I was never 100 per cent relaxed. And I could do all the intervals I could stand, but the fastest, fittest cyclists I knew were road racers.

Something snapped. I was tired of this limitation. I would embark on a quest of courage: do the crit for 10 weeks, until I was no longer afraid. And that’s how I found myself back among the children for race number two. This time, I had a plan. It was very simple. Ben was one of the fastest guys in the B race. So I was just going to follow him around like a puppy – that had sunk its teeth into his ankle.

The whistle blew. The pack rolled off the line. I quickly found that my strategy also had the unintended but welcome benefit of keeping me towards the front of the group, where the pace was smoother and the riders less erratic. I started to relax.

The crit I was doing is a points race, so there’s a sprint every three laps. As I came into the first sprint, I looked around and saw something weird: there were only five or six riders in front of me. Instinct kicked in, and I stomped on the pedals. I was fifth across the line – just one spot away from a point.

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Exhilaration coursed through my body. I was second in the next sprint. I started focusing on positioning, not letting gaps open up. Suddenly, I realised, I wasn’t scared – I was too busy actually racing.

My fear didn’t just disappear. I continued to feel a general sense of dread throughout the workday on Thursdays. And in the fourth week, I learned the healthy lesson that not all my fear was irrational. As we rounded a turn on the third lap, two riders in front of me hit the ground. I grabbed my brakes, but it was too late. I went over the handlebar. Fortunately, everyone was okay. I was shaken up, but I didn’t want to ride off and stew on the traumatic memory for a week. So when the group came around again, I jumped back in.

And I kept coming back.

Something interesting started happening during week five: after I took a turn at the front and swung off, I noticed that riders were letting me back in around fifth or sixth wheel. “They want to be behind you,” Ben explained. But it was week seven when I truly felt like I’d arrived: A pair of the speediest juniors attacked early, and as they went by, one muttered, “Hop on.” I got invited on a breakaway! I thought, RSVP yes!

They merged the ‘A’ and ‘B’ races for my final crit of the season. The pace was faster, and I only made it 13 laps before I was dropped.

But before that happened, I was part of the group. I heard the whoomph, whoomph, whoomph of wheels. I took a pull. I felt the fleeting thrill of playing my role in this choreographed dance where no one said a word, and yet everyone knew the moves. I never knew the ride could be so beautiful.
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Suddenly I understood the true meaning of my quest, why people say, “Do what scares you.” Fear shuts us out: out of the group, out of the ride, out of new and profound experiences. When we conquer our fears, we can learn new skills, we can gain confidence, we can prove something about ourselves (such as, I’m a grown woman who has no qualms beating little kids in a bike race). But the greatest reward for being brave – whether it’s jumping into a race or taking a career leap or moving to a new town where you know no one – is simply that it allows us to participate in more of life.

My throat burned as I watched the group grow smaller in the distance, legs ticking in unison, glowing in the golden light. They’d come back around. I spun my feet lazily, joyfully, as I waited to be subsumed by the pack again.

Conquer what freaks you out – Using SCIENCE!

Face your fears. Research shows that gradual exposure to a phobia, followed by experience that disconfirms the negative (like jumping into a crit, then not crashing), can decrease anxiety.

Try again ASAP. A 2010 study found that the brain can rewrite traumatic memories if they’re updated with non-fearful information between 10 minutes to two hours after a trauma. Jumping back into the race minutes after my crash prevented the development of a hardwired association of road racing with crashing.

Bring friends. Having familiar people around provides ‘safety stimuli’ that decrease your perception of a threat, says a 2018 article published by the Association for Psychological Science. Having Ben – and later, a couple of other mountain-biking friends – at the crit helped me keep my cool.

Focus on technique. Studies show that increasing the sense of control over a situation can decrease fear. When I was focusing on specific tactics during the race – watching the lap counter, protecting my position – I felt more in control, and less scared.

3 Tips for Your First Training Crit

Stay close to the front.
You’ll be less likely to get caught up in a crash if it happens, and the pace is generally smoother.

Find your ‘Ben’.
Identify the strongest riders in the group and try to stay with them. You’ll need better tactics later, but this is a good one for beginners.

Protect your front wheel.
If your front wheel goes, you go down. Avoid overlapping wheels – riding in a position where another rider’s back wheel could take yours out – for too long.

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