I want to ride a bike to work, but that is.. terrifying.
April 17, 2014 11:35 AM   Subscribe

I rode a bike when I was a kid, but that was about 15-20 years ago now. In order to get to work I'd have to go down a mid-steep hill, covered in gravel and/or mulch. I'm finding it really scary, is it possible to feel confident on a bike, starting essentially from scratch? what kind of bike? help!

I am NOT athletic. I recently fell down walking across a flat road and skinned my knee. This is the level of awkward baby deer we're working with.

I live in alberta, and it's spring, my walk to work is 45+ minutes, which is okay, but a little long some days, and would only be a 15ish minute bike ride down some (Scary) trails and a river pathway. no road riding on roads that aren't super quiet. (or I can just dismount and use the crosswalk across.)

However, I'm REALLY scared of going down this bluff. there's city-cut trails, I've seen people on bikes when I'm walking them, but I'm worried about brakes on gravel/mulch/dirt, I'm worried about breaking my arm (I need my arm to work, so can't break it.) and I'm not too hot on high speeds.

Is this going to be as bad as I think? I can probably like.. practice riding a bike before I do it, but my experience with rollerblading informs me that even after a fair amount of practice, going down hills is really hard and scary.

I can't just avoid the trails because my other options are two main calgary roads (bridges in fact) that are busy and steeper. I don't think I'm ever going to be up to road riding.

my question is.. how does one build confidence on a bike? what kind of bike equipment should I get, I currently obviously have no bike, if I was going to buy a bike, what kind of bike would be best? do I need a full-on mountain bike for 5 minutes of trails?

any advice would be appreciated!
posted by euphoria066 to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would not opt to ride a bike down a steep hill with lots of gravel.

It is usually pretty easy to use a combination of braking and gearing to go down hills pretty slowly, but I would be really leery of miscellaneous loose materials on the trail.

You're probably going to want a mountain bike if you even contemplate this. The big nubby tires deal with loose material a lot better than a typical tire does.

With the hill itself, I'd be more worried about how you're going to bike home. That sounds like a lot of tedious uphill riding. Walking might be splitting the difference in terms of how much more convenient biking would be.
posted by Sara C. at 11:40 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do what the bicycle-loving Dutch do for significant hills, and jump off your bike for that part and walk it down (or up). My bike-riding increased significantly when I realized there were no bike-police making me bike up and down the big hill!

Otherwise, make sure your brakes have been adjusted at a local bike shop so they work really well, and go slowwwwwwww. You have more speed control going downhill on a bike than on rollerblades, IMHO. Your local bike shop may also have bike safety classes that cover these sorts of things, or sponsor beginner trail rides to help you practice the skills.

I am a giant wuss about going downhill on wheels (or horses!), but it's not hurting anything when I get off and walk, so I no longer worry about it or believe I need to "overcome my fear." Nope, I just need to walk down the hill and start over at the bottom!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:41 AM on April 17, 2014 [31 favorites]

I broke my leg on a bike when I was 10 and gave it up permanently after that; bike-riding was one of the great fears of my life until I was in my early 30s. Then about four years ago, I discovered there were paved trails about 90% of the way between my home and office, and I became obsessed with avoiding a car commute if at all possible. So I determined that I would learn to ride a bike so I could ride to work.

Boy, was it scary. But you know, I pretty quickly realized that it was the idea of riding a bike that was scarier than the actual doing, especially once I had the fundamentals down. Even now, four years later, when I'm lying in bed knowing I'll ride to work the next day, I'm still a little terrified picturing myself riding down one particular hill. When I'm actually there, though, on the bike with my hands on the brakes (just in case!) - it's not scary at all.

Start slow. Go try the scary parts on a weekend when you don't need to go to work right after. If you're freaked out, get off and walk the bike in the scariest parts. I still do that sometimes. Spend a few weeks riding around in unpopulated areas on safe, level surfaces to build confidence. You can do it! and I don't think you'll regret it. I certainly don't. At the very least, people don't make fun of me anymore for being scared to ride a bike!
posted by something something at 11:54 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

my question is.. how does one build confidence on a bike?


Well, practice and the occasional wipeout.

I firmly believe that it's important for every bike rider to come a cropper, as they say in jolly old, at least once. I've done it a bunch. I was doing downhills at Killington and was absolutely fuckin' terrified and then I wound up eating shit on a trail and then, you know...you get up and you're fine. Maybe you feel a little stiff for a bit. You take some advil and life goes on. That's the trick: you find out there's really nothing to be afraid of.

what kind of bike equipment should I get, I currently obviously have no bike, if I was going to buy a bike, what kind of bike would be best?

I use a hybrid but that's me. You should get a helmet.

do I need a full-on mountain bike for 5 minutes of trails?

Mountain bikes are fun but they're heavy as shit. Uphills would suck. The good news is that you'd get in pretty good shape riding that thing around.

I'm worried about brakes on gravel/mulch/dirt

Ride the brakes lightly down the hill. Unless you really know what you're doing, you don't want to slam them on as you head down. As noted above, you can walk the bike if you feel safer doing that.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:02 PM on April 17, 2014

You will need a hard tail mountain bike for this ride. That's for two reasons. One is the tires, the other is because they are geared lower, so it is easier to pedal up steep hills. You would need one with a lock out fork so you can ride it comfortably on roads. This will cost you a bit and bikes like this are hard to find used. You will also need excellent lighting for night.

I think downhill is definitely worse/scarier than up especially if you have a decent bike. You do get used to it. If there's room on the trail you can make slalom turns like a skier to slow your descent in addition to using your brakes. You can also get off and walk. If the trail is not uniformly steep, you can always start walking short distances to a flatter place then start again. You get used to it.
posted by crazycanuck at 12:04 PM on April 17, 2014

There is for sure going to be an introduction to mountain biking course somewhere near you. Find one, take one. Just a day on a bike with a teacher is going to give you lots of skills and confidence. You may even find you love it.

I suspect you'll find that some of those scary parts become ordinary pretty quickly.
posted by Sleddog_Afterburn at 12:07 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Get any old bike. Ride it where u feel totally safe. Keep doing it, and moving to other areas u feel safe.

Pretty soon yl be jumping cliffs.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:18 PM on April 17, 2014

Hi, mountain bike racer here. Let me tell you a secret: I am STILL terrified of (some) downhills, yet I do them anyway.

Here's the thing. Like Eyebrows upthread said, there are no rules saying you can't walk the bike wherever you don't feel safe riding it. I race Expert level in one of the most competitive mountain bike regions on the planet and you know what? I still have to hike-a-bike through shit sometimes.

Go to your local bike shop. Don't just ask them about bikes, ask them if there's a good mountain biking coach or skills clinic or beginner social ride in your area. You want beginner level skills training, and you want a hardtail MTB, a decent one, not the cheapest old thing you can find. Get one with disc brakes, not rim brakes - they will help dramatically with control on steep loose descents.

Get a helmet. Get a couple lessons from an experienced rider. If you lived anywhere around here I'd teach you myself.

Good luck, go slow, and remember no one's keeping score. You can do this!
posted by lonefrontranger at 12:19 PM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Could you link to some pictures of these trails? It might be that people who ride a lot will be all "eh, those are not so bad, once you've done them a couple of times you'll be fine" or maybe people will be all "yes, those are eleventh level ninja trails and you should walk them".

Going down hills on a bike versus on skates: you are in a really different position and your use of the brakes is really different. I think it's much easier to brake on a bike and it's much easier to keep your balance. There are lots of hills that I would not skate down where I feel very comfortable biking.
posted by Frowner at 12:32 PM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

How steep are we talking here? How big of a hill? Try using a mapping service like mapmyride.com to see what the actual grade is. I mean, if it's 10% twisty ass trail descent for a mile on gravel I'd be wary of that, even as an ultra experienced touring cyclist who has ridden all over the world in all conditions. If we're talking like a couple of percent for a few hundred straight yards all you really have to do is not slam on your brakes and inertia will take care of the rest.

Might seem scary the first time you do it (I remember the first time I did the 'easy' local trail on a mountain bike, after over a decade of serious road riding, I thought I was going to shit my pants) but like everyone else said here: practice, or walk it until you feel confident enough. What you think might be a serious descent as a pedestrian might be no big deal on a bike. Or it could be some MTB ninja shit, hard to say without knowing anything about it.

A lot of the above advice is good, like I said I'm mostly a road rider but if I were you I'd get a hardtail mountain bike with disc brakes.

I bet after you do it a few times you'll love it and wonder why you ever were afraid.
posted by bradbane at 12:37 PM on April 17, 2014

I grew up in central Alberta, have never been a driver, and cycle for basic transportation. I have the frostbite scars to prove it.

That being said downhills on loose material matched with little to no experiences is not a good combination. Ascents and descents that can be navigated by the skilled can be terribly dangerous without the experience and muscle memory and reactions born of practice and falling.

The good news is that normally all it takes is practice, and falling can be made much safer with appropriate safety gear. And it can be a lot of fun!

I would recommend checking out your local bike shop, cycling groups if you have access to them, and getting some practice riding where you do feel comfortable. Mark your successes, making progress one step at a time. As has been said before, there's nothing to say that you can't (or shouldn't) walk the terrible hills. It is a perfectly sane and rational thing to do. In the same manner there is no reason why you can't get practice riding your bike elsewhere.

Good luck and have fun!

Ps: depending on just where you are there may be other cycling tips that could help, like getting a bike on and off transit if applicable in your community.
posted by mce at 12:44 PM on April 17, 2014

Would it be possible to ride the route on a weekend where there's low traffic and you can take it slow? That might be a safer way to see how bad it is. Also, make sure you have really good brakes. When I used to cycle commute, I burned through my cheap brakes quickly, especially early on. Laying out some cash for good brakes will be worth the investment.
posted by Kurichina at 12:53 PM on April 17, 2014

Get the right bike. Go to you local bike shop and ask about that trail. If you already have a bike, then ask anyway. Bikes are customizable - they can swap out brakes, gears, all kinds of stuff. Ask if they have a bike maintenance class - they most assuredly do. You want the class where they teach you how to do common roadside repairs on your own bike. Stuff like fixing a flat tire. Knowing how your bike works is a big confidence builder. (Living in bike loving San Diego, some guy usually comes along and changes my tire before I can get out my tire levers. But if I had to do it I could do it in about 2 minutes.)

Now take your bike to that hill on a Saturday and ride the hill a bit at a time. First, ride the bottom bit. Next ride, go a little higher up and ride down. When you start to feel like it's too much, you've done enough for today. Next week, you try again and try to go a bit higher.

Also, there is no shame in being smart enough to get off the bike if you encounter an area where you can't navigate safely. I got off my bike in an Ironman 70.3 because there was a tricky downhill chicane that gave me the panics. If you can't do it safely, then hop off and walk it.
posted by 26.2 at 1:00 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I will only generally encourage you to pursue this, because biking to work is a huge quality-of-life improver, in my experience.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 1:11 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have the hill of death on my commute. It's only a hundred yards but it's twisty and steep enough that people sled it in the winter. I walk down when it's icy, I'm not ashamed to admit.

Sometimes I walk up it when it's hot too so I'm not all sweaty when I get to work.
posted by fshgrl at 2:32 PM on April 17, 2014

Going fast down hills is scary. A great way to address your fear and build confidence would be to make a plan to approach the hill that gradually builds up your skill and confidence. Something like:
1. Walk your bike down the hill. Do this for several weeks or even a couple months, until you become more confident in your non-hill biking skills.
2. Walk your bike 90% of the way down the hill, get on and bike down the last tiny section. Do this for several weeks.
3. Walk your bike 2/3 of the way down the hill, bike down the rest. Repeat for several weeks. Experiment with going a little faster or a little slower, braking harder/less hard, and so on while you're still not going very fast.
. (Keep gradually moving the point where you start riding higher up the hill.)
N. Stay on your bike the whole way down the hill.
N+1. Victory!
posted by medusa at 2:50 PM on April 17, 2014

I never really rode a bike as a kid, and I'm not athletic. But a couple years ago, I decided that I really needed a bike. I went to a local bike shop, and said "suggest a bike for someone who doesn't know how to ride a bike." The salesclerk had a suggestion right away.

The bike I got is a Trek Navigator, kind of like this one. It's a step-through, you sit upright on it, it's got twist-shifters (I forget what they're called; not click shifters). (This was my first bike with gears, so I wanted gear shifters that were easy to understand. I'm probably going to upgrade them this summer, though.) It's a hybrid, I think.

I love my bike. So easy to ride.

I commute about a mile and a half, so not real far. At the end there's a (fairly short) steep hill. It's not bad to ride down, unlike yours (although I do kinda ride the brakes this time of year, because all the snow's melting, so it's both very wet, with streams of running water, and covered with all the gravel from when it was snowy), but mostly I just walk up it, because I don't want to be sweaty and gross when I get to work.

The key is that you don't have to be competing with the speedsters who ride super-fast on their super-cool bikes. You just can tootle along at whatever speed you're comfortable with, and if you don't feel like riding up the hill---or down the hill---then don't. You'll still make it to work faster than if you weren't biking any of it.
posted by leahwrenn at 3:05 PM on April 17, 2014

Without seeing the hills in question, it's hard to say whether they're "oh yeah you can take a road bike down those, just be careful" or "wtf those are technical mountain bike trails you'll die".

If they are the latter, you don't want to be taking a step-through casual cruiser / heavy Dutch bike / road bike on them. You'll probably want a mountain bike of some sort, maybe not one with a suspension or anything, but something with 26" wheels and fairly wide tires to give you some grip. And you'll want to practice it, probably with some extra safety equipment (you mentioned you've done some rollerblading, so wear your 'blading stuff) so you don't hurt yourself if you do fall, on a weekend before riding to work that way.

What are other people riding on these trails? Is everyone on a mountain bike? Or are there people with bikes with skinny tires and fenders and stuff riding them too? That will give you an idea of how technical they are in an objective sense, and also what kind of bike is reasonable to attempt them on.

Also, when you descend a hill on a mountain bike, particularly on any sort of loose terrain, you don't want to be riding the brakes all the way down. That's how you fall. First, because the bike is inherently more stable when it's moving along at a better-than-walking pace, second because if the brakes are applied when you go over loose dirt/sand/whatever, the tire will skid, the wheel will stop rotating, and (unless you are very quick to release the brake and recover) you'll fall. You have to use the brake on a downhill judiciously, shedding speed on firm sections of trail and rolling through loose sections.

The advice of walking your bike (carrying it, if it's light and the terrain is very rough) is absolutely fine. Particularly if you are just commuting to work and not wearing proper safety equipment, there's no reason to ride a descent you're not comfortable with. Go out on a weekend when you're not in a hurry and get comfortable on the hill, don't do it when you need to get to work and have your mind on other things.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:04 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

It is usually pretty easy to use a combination of braking and gearing to go down hills pretty slowly, but I would be really leery of miscellaneous loose materials on the trail.

Gearing has absolutely nothing to do with how fast you will go downhill on a bike.

If I had a descent like the one you describe on my commute, I would want a bike with somewhat large, knobby tires. You don't need to go all the way to a mountain bike, but whatever bike you have you might want tires like these.

I think what you should do is ride to the bluff on a weekend, walk yourself and your bike to the bottom of it, and try it out in sections from the bottom to the top. If you don't feel safe, just stop. For your commute, you can always just walk the hill every time, as long as its not too long.
posted by Aizkolari at 8:25 AM on April 18, 2014

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