Exposure Therapy Efficacy

About a month ago, I wrote about my own awkward discomfort riding around strangers. I realized that I needed to gather some courage and force myself to go on a group ride. I mentally framed this as exposure therapy designed to help me hold my line and stay aboard when packs of unsmiling dudes rage through my margin or error in the wild.

I arrived at my local bike shop for my first-ever group ride on a chilly April morning.

I was terrified. The cyclists milling around outside the shop all looked like uber-fast pros, and I was utterly intimidated. What if I couldn't keep up, and everyone was waiting and waiting...? What if they crowded around too closely and I took someone down? What if we did a fast descent on a crowded trail, and I had another terrifying full-body wreck? What if I was the only girl? Had I brought enough water?

To my immense relief, there were three other women. They were all very nice. There were probably 25 men. 

I felt like an impostor. Like I shouldn't be there. What the hell was I doing trying to ride with real cyclists?! 

I stayed near the back where no one crowds and chatted with the women. The pace was (mostly) comfortable and fun, the distance was perfect, and there were no crowded, technical descents. I had a really good time. No one went down, not even me. Not even when I drafted behind that guy on the mountain bike. I did not run out of water.

The way the rides are structured, the group starts out together, gets all spread out, then regroups a few times along the way. There are at least two guys from the bike shop to make sure no one gets lost: one at the front and one at the back. Even the fast dudes who immediately evaporated over the horizon waited calmly at the stops to regroup. The vibe was relaxed and friendly. Very welcoming.

I got through it just fine. I even had fun!

I did the same thing the following week, except this time I took my Trophy Husband along. We rarely get to ride together, so I savor the times that we do. I floated between him and two other women, enjoying just being out on my bike in the spring sunshine. Again, very fun and friendly.

The third week I rode to the shop alone. I went inside to borrow some isopropyl for my squawky front brake. I said hello to the few guys I recognized from the previous rides and looked around for my friends, the other women.

No other women.



And sixteen men who all suddenly seemed physically much larger than they had last time.

I took a deep breath and decided to at least try to keep the fast dudes on my horizon this time. I knew it would be fun once I warmed up and settled into the ride. I always feel great on my bike once I get going. I also reminded myself that both the ride leader and the guy riding sweep are friendly, and I started to relax.

I dropped in close to the front of the group, thinking that if I started out there and let the other riders drift past, I might not be miles behind the entire time. 

As we swept down the path single-file, the first rider to pass me came alongside. He had heard me say I was afraid of riding in a crowd during that first group ride. He told me that he gets a little nervous riding close together too. I would never have guessed that! I relaxed into the stroke and started smiling, hanging onto his wheel as long as I could. 

A few other riders passed as we started up the long climb on the north side of a sixty-year-old earthen dam. Most of them said something friendly to me as they went by. 

Traffic on the trail increased, and the riders ahead started signaling. These are not just the left/right turn signals that everyone knows. They have to do with keeping the people behind you safe by pointing out hazards like potholes, or telling the riders behind that you are moving out to pass, or slowing and stopping. Most usefully, there is one that communicates that people are coming in the opposite direction. This prevents the riders behind from passing into a head-on collision. 

I try to dutifully copy the hand signals even if I'm not quite sure what they mean. My theory is that it's important to pass the information along as best I can. Maybe someone will know what it means and find it useful, and maybe I'll learn the language by immersion.

One time, a guy up-line did a baffling finger-pantomime on his backside. I still have no idea what it meant. Maybe something to do with cycling, but it looked to me like: "colonoscopy, one polyp." 

Up on the flats and rolling hills I rode with the guy riding sweep. He's awesome. Encouraging, positive, and totally chill. Super fun to ride with. Like me, he seems to be happy just to be out on his bike. We started climbing again into a headwind, and he let me draft him, taking care not to drop me. Then two more riders dropped in behind me and the four of us rode together for a few minutes. I started imagining I was graceful and strong, just like a real cyclist. 

I rode hard and steady, mostly solo, for the rest of the ascent to the turnaround, keeping the fast group just barely within my line of sight. When I finally joined them, grinning, hypoxic, and completely blissed, some of them were still catching their breath too. Everyone seemed calm and happy. 

There's a nice long descent on the way back. I love this section. The road is is wide open and uncrowded, so I feel comfortable flying. Everyone I saw near me seemed to be grinning as hard as I was. 

Later we topped the dam and flew back down the busy trail. Runners and other cyclists, hikers, dogs, and kids swarmed everywhere. I focused on the wheel ahead and tried not to panic. Close to tears. My friend from the back rolled up and gently told me to stay in the saddle, keep my center of gravity low, and control the bike. I came out the other side of that fray in one piece and turned south toward the shop. 

This third group ride was far outside my comfort zone. Challenging. Uncomfortable. Unsettling. 

And yet.

I rode hard and far and felt amazing. I kept the fast group in sight. Other riders crowded close, but I held steady. We did a terrifying descent down a very busy trail, and I did not fling myself to the ground. I was the only girl, and I made a few new friends. I even had water left at the end.

For most of the ride, I was calm. Graceful. Strong. Fast. I felt completely badass by the end.

Maybe I am actually a real cyclist too. Regardless, I can't wait to go again.