Adventures in Tri: Clipping In

Riding a bike used to be a simple and joyous occasion. I learned when I was around 7 years old (I think that’s a little late, but not quite sure) and lived on my bike ever after. You think it’s an easy thing and people always tell you that you can’t forget how to do it. Jump forward to 26 year old me trying to buy a bike for the 2013 NYC Triathlon. I bought my beautiful 2012 Cannondale Synapse that I promptly named Ghost (ie. the direwolf of Jon Snow) and shortly after I realized how clumsy I was on my road bike. The handles were different (drop handles that look like ram horns) and a higher in-the-saddle fit than my childhood Huffy.  I tipped over a few times. Twice trying to turn around on a steep incline and three times standing still at a red light. Not doing anything, just standing. Luckily, I had been only wearing sneakers and not clips. I convinced myself that I could have ended seriously injured if I had been clipped in and this affirmed my fears.

Ghost and me, clearly not clipped in

I had asked everyone I could if I had to clip in for the Tri and they told me no. Not if you’re not comfortable. Clearly I wasn’t comfortable and looked at it as a way to shorten my T2 times. I wasn’t smart at shifting gears or chain rings and I had issues being able to keep pedaling during the downhills of the Tri. My gears were too low and my legs would spin out causing my feet to slide off. I spent most of the downhill coasting. I think it was that experience where I knew I would need to clip in.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, what in the world does clipping in even mean? It’s where your shoes interlock with specialized pedals on your bike. They bond, allowing you to bike more efficiently. Think of the pedal stroke as a clock. When you pedal wearing street shoes, you’re only pushing the pedals (being effective from 11:30ish-6). With clips, you can also pull them back up (being effective throughout the entire clock). This is especially helpful in climbing hills. While the benefit is that you’re connected with your bike, the disadvantage is also that you’re connected with your bike! When you’re stopping you have to remember to disconnect your foot from the pedal in order to stand. If you hesitate, boom. You go down and hard. This is a major reason non-cyclist don’t understand the benefit. They say you’re just looking for a way to injure yourself. “You’ll break a leg and then how efficient will your rides be?!”

Despite the fear of the consequences, I was toying with the idea this season. I would look around at everyone in the intermediate/advanced bike group and see I was the only one not clipped in (except for Elyse and she at least had cages). I was one of the slower ones getting up hills and felt like I was trying much harder than anyone else. It became more obvious at our Palisades ride two weeks ago. I rode from Hoboken to the Palisades Interstate Park and ended up having to walk my bike up a steep incline to get to our meeting point. If you’ve been to the park, you know how steep a hill the entrance is located on, but other bikers (with clips) were sailing past me. We went into the park to Ross Dock, our meeting place where Coach Mike explained the workout. We would do sighting drills, handling drills and then kick off the hill repeats. Everyone began climbing and coasting through the route with Mike floating around to give us advice. I was changing gears and chain rings like a pro. I felt great, passed one teammate who yelled after me “HOW ARE YOU DOING THIS WITHOUT CLIPS?!” How indeed. I passed Mike who said in his best coaching voice “it’s time to graduate to shoes.” On the way home, that’s all I could think about. I had been holding off until I HAD to get clips and this was my sign.

Scenes from the Palisades ride. Still smiling after the hills!

The next day, I went in to Sid’s bikes and bought my new shoes. When you buy new shoes, they put your bike on a trainer and have you ride and practice clipping in and out until you’re comfortable then you’re sent out into the world. This took some time. Trying to clip my right shoe was easier going than my left. I couldn’t understand how they married and the best possible way to position my foot so they would bond. Dave, my new friend at Sid’s who helped me, was very patient and saying “ok great! Right there! Now just down and back!” What the heck does THAT mean?! It took a lot of patience, but I eventually was as comfortable as I was going to be, so I decided to leave “before my mind figures out what I’m doing and tells me to stop.” Also, once you switch out your pedals, it’s near impossible to ride with running shoes again because of their size and mechanics. You’ll slip right off. Once you’re in, you’re in.

Everyone tells you that you’re going to fall when you are clipped in. It’s just something that happens. I think knowing this is helpful, but also nerve wracking because then it’s a waiting game. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long to get my first fall out of the way. I had effectively ridden two blocks from the bike shop when I stopped at a red light. I unclipped my right foot, feeling so great and thinking “this is not the bad,” when I shifted my weight slightly to the left side. That was all it took. Falling happens in slow motion and the feeling where your equilibrium is thrown off and you realize, “aw crap I’m doing down,” is a scary one. But it only last a split second before you meet with the ground. When you’re laid out on the ground, you’re only worried about standing up and shaking it off for the world to see. I had fallen on 19th and 9th with plenty of people around and a cab behind me. What if he didn’t see me fall and went to drive and ran me over? What color is the light? Did it change yet? WHY CAN’T I STAND UP?! Why? Because my left foot was still clipped on! I flailed slightly, popped back up, got back on the saddle and biked vigorously away.

New shoes and badgeof honor

Then I started laughing uncontrollably. I had made it TWO BLOCKS! That was it! But now, the fear of falling is gone because, while I was dripping blood from my knee, that wasn’t THAT bad. I made it the rest of the way home without incident and was very proud. I had my battle wounds and even gave Mike a hard time at practice on Tueaday (“Mike, see this? I clipped in!”). I haven’t ridden Ghost since she was given her new pedals, but I can’t wait to see the difference and how many more scars I can wrack up.

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