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Banishing White-Knuckle Cycling

By Sheila Ascroft

share the road

For the first few years of cycling, fear sat on the nape of my neck. I hated the noise of cars whizzing by and tensed up every time a driver zoomed passed me. It wasn’t that I was afraid of falling off my bike; it was that something might knock me off or, worse still, run me over!

I had taken a few sedate spills caused by my own stupidity like over-braking in the rain. And once I had let my attention wander while zipping downhill and my front wheel caught the edge of the asphalt. I bounced onto the sloping rock-strewn gravel shoulder. Trying to regain control, I braked too hard on the front and somersaulted, into two broken ribs and a damaged ego. Ouch. At 46, I was old enough to know better. But still, I was more worried about the “other” guy in the metal machine doing me damage.

I knew the potential threat steel-clad vehicles posed to the thin skin of a human body on a bike. Even when riding with others on near-deserted country roads, if I was the last in line, I clutched the handlebar in white-knuckle fear at the sound of a car behind. So I took the Ottawa Bicycling Club group-riding clinic. It really helped me to understand that I legally belonged on the road.

My cycling friends joked about “white-knuckle syndrome.” They told of having beer bottles thrown at them from drive-by idiots and said the answer lie in believing you belonged on the road. There would always be careless and/or uncaring drivers who would show contempt of cyclists regardless of whether we had the right to be there.

So I learned and followed the rules of the road; always wore a helmet, carried the proper equipment and avoided busy city streets whenever possible. Deep down I understood there was no protection on the road, especially for a lone female. In spite of everything, I loved cycling. I was just tired of fear stopping me from exploring the countryside on two wheels. I didn’t want to quit riding but something had to change….

It happened on a summery morning deep in farm country outside of Ottawa – when I least expected it. I’d only seen two cars and one pickup truck and they gave me lots of room when passing. Singing birds, dew-covered fields, perfect blues skies. Trees lining the road creating an overhead cathedral of lush green leaves. Old-fashioned cedar fences staggered down a pasture. I was finally reaping the delights of true cycling. What could be better! What had I been so afraid of?

I just kept pedalling along, finally into a comfortable mental space. After easy flat miles in the farmlands, rolling hills now appeared around every corner. I was climbing another hill — this one steeper than the others and on a curve — when an air horn blasted behind me. Startled, I glanced over my shoulder at a large looming dump truck. Another loud honk. Of course, right then there happened to be a string of on-coming traffic so the dump truck couldn’t pass. It was obvious he wanted me out of his way in a hurry. My mind jumped with options to escape: the logical one was to move onto the shoulder, but I was staring at a two-inch drop-off into a thick layer of freshly laid loose gravel. I knew I’d lose control of my bike. There was no time to stop first and then get off the road, and besides on this steep hill, I’d end up having to walk up it. Inside my panic, I heard a strong quiet voice saying, “Don’t move, you have a right to be here.” The horn blasted again. I had to decide now! He was so much bigger than me — the power of steel and mechanical speed versus narrow tires and thunder thighs.

The Ontario Highway Traffic Act considers a bicycle a vehicle and as such says a driver must wait until it is safe to pass. Did the dump truck driver know the rules? Did he care? I held my ground. I heard his brakes and engine as he geared down, slowing. I kept riding, surprised at myself. Finally, after the on-coming cars had passed, he swung around me with more honking, fist shaking. Then he took revenge. Swerving back sharply, he drove onto the shoulder — at first I thought he was going to stop the truck and come at me — but instead he spit up loose gravel with his wheels. Flying stones bit my shins, pinged off my bike. Then I was blinded in a tunnel of dust. He was making me eat grit, but I didn’t care. I was safe!

I was also shaking. I stood up from the saddle and pumped away trying to rid myself of the shakes, adrenalin and anger on the hill. But there was no fear. As soon as I had decided to hold the road, my fear had vanished. Adrenalin and anger surged inside me but not fear. After a few minutes of cursing, totally out of breath, I reached the hilltop and stop to calm down.

Thankfully, there was minimal damage. My face was gritty and tiny specks of blood dotted my shins. There were a few nicks in the green paint on my forks and frame. I stood for a moment alone on a country road and realized what I had done. I had not given in to the beast. Well, so much for the white-knuckle syndrome. And I rode on like I belonged on a bike on the road.

Sheila AscroftI’ve been cycling for 20-some years and writing about it for the last 10. My articles have been published in newspapers and magazines — and now on the women’s cycling website! I’m a member of the Ottawa Bicycle Club and the Canadian Kilometer Achiever Program. www.sheilaascroft.com

2 comments to Banishing White-Knuckle Cycling

  • Lynn Kennedy

    Thanks for the post. I too ride on country roads and if I have to travel on the local highway it freaks me out. Road snakes are abundant as they will never totally resurface that stretch; large dump trucks and idiots in cars that expect me to hit the dirt whenever they meet oncoming traffic. I mean, it’s a two lane road, people, sit for a minute and wait. Very scary…and after the accident last summer in Ottawa I am nervous with cars that come up from behind. But I too try to stick to my space and just ride through it always aware of where the car is. thanks again.

  • Darle

    Really inspirational. I know many women who are afraid to ride on the streets and I’ve been known to panic at more complex intersections and multi-lane roadways myself. I read an article responding to the question of risks in cycling –how do you justify the danger. The author’s response was that there was risk in absolutely everything we do but we ride because of the pleasure it gives us (not to mention the health benefits). Everything we commit ourselves to brings challenge and risk. Challenge encourages us to become our best selves.

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