By Peter Burns
Over the years I have purchased many pairs of bike shoes. I bought most of them new, but recently I have found used bike shoes at Outdoor Gear Exchange in the consignment area. They are much cheaper than new shoes, but the challenge is finding the right size.
I use SPD clip-in pedals on all four of my bikes. On three of the bikes, the pedals also have a flat side so they can be used with regular shoes or boots. When the weather gets really wet or cold, I find that non-bike shoes work best. In November I took a wonderful ride from my work in Burlington, along the 127 bike path to the Burlington bike path and then to Airport Park. I stopped for a break and then went through Mallets Bay back to Winooski where I live. In Mallets Bay, the late afternoon sun was illuminating the snow-topped Green Mountains. The temperature was in the upper forties and I wore my Wolvhammer 45NRTH bike boots. They are heavy duty boots but even in the relatively warm temperature that day my feet got a little cold. Cold is cumulative so the longer the ride, the colder your feet get. Sadly, a warm core does not necessarily translate into warm extremities.
I lived in England and France for two years when I was in my early 20’s. I had just one pair of shoes. Those hiking boots took me through hundreds of miles of English and French cities and countryside. Since then I have acquired many more pairs of shoes, probably too many. I keep my current use of shoes on shelves in my living room. By the end of March, my warmest boots will be in storage and some of my lighter boots and shoes will replace them.
Recently I have been in a frugal phase of my financial life. I am trying to pay off my mortgage, so I am only buying things I need. That means no fancy bike stuff. After the mortgage is paid off I will indulge myself for a couple of months before taking out a home equity loan for some home renovations. I don’t have a car, and using only bike and bus transportation saves me money each year. That said, it is easy enough to counterbalance the savings by buying high-end bike stuff. Dromarti makes a beautiful vintage style leather bike shoe that I have been eyeing lately. Clearly is something I do not need, but it is a temptation. I will keep you posted.
In January I took a recreational ride through the Intervale, along the 127 bike path and then into town on the Burlington Bike Path. I rode my fat bake and encountered three different kinds of riding surfaces. Through the Intervale, the snow was packed down by many people walking on the path. The ride was very bumpy and unpleasant. I had to relax and absorb the bumps with my legs and arms. The 127 bike path had not been plowed and few people had there. I rode on tire tracks made by a truck. It was a challenge to stay on the tire tracks, and once in a while I had to stop and re-focus. When I meditate I pay attention to my breath, but if my mind wanders I continue to breathe. On the 127 bike path, if my mind started to wander, I went into deep snow and started to wobble. The Burlington Bike Path was the most enjoyable part of the adventure. It was plowed but not salted so I had a smooth ice/snow surface to ride on. Because it was a weekday morning, there were few other people on the path.
On Friday, February 7th the snow was falling hard when I left my house in Winooski. I was riding my fat bike with studded tires. I could have walked to the YMCA or taken the bus, but I was interested in what my bike could do in heavy snow. I found out. As I started my ride there were about five inches of snow on the ground, but new snow was accumulating fast. I made it through Winooski, but the street plow had thrown snow onto the sidewalk I usually take over the bridge to Burlington. After struggling to push my bike through the snow I decided to ride in the road. The Riverside Avenue bike path was impossible to ride because it had not been plowed. I took my usual route into town, and I did OK until I got to Greene Street. There I fell off my bike. I was fine and I jumped right back on. Taking calculated risks, and dealing with challenging situations helps build resilience. Falling off a bike every once in a while is not a bad thing, as long as up you don’t get seriously hurt. I got to the YMCA, went swimming and then headed home. By this time there was a lot of snow on the ground and more coming down all the time. I decided to start for Winooski, but if it was impossible to ride I had the option of putting my bike in a shed at work. Then I could have walked home or taken the bus. In extreme situations, it is always good to have options. In the event, I decided to try making it home by bike. It was a struggle. I ended up walking 20% of the time. The Riverside Avenue bike path was not plowed, but a portion of the sidewalk on the other side of the road was. When the plowing ended I got into the street, and as I approached the bridge into Winooski, things got pretty hairy. I found myself swerving and nearly losing balance. Not a good situation with cars behind me. I got off and walked over the bridge and walked my bike up the hill on Main Street. From there I was able to ride most of the rest of the way home.
When I was 18, I sprained my right ankle during a game of basketball. Over the next couple of years, I re-injured the ankle three times. I never gave myself enough time to heal before engaging in vigorous activity. I didn’t see a doctor or a physical therapist about it, but I recovered enough to do a lot of walking when I lived in Europe in my early twenties. In 1982, when I got back to this country, I had a series of temporary jobs, including sweeping the floor and emptying trash in a factory. I was on my feet for many hours a day and my right ankle began to really hurt. The pain gave me an excuse to refuse the job when it was offered to me on a permanent basis. Over the next thirty-five years, my ankle continued to bother me. There were periods when I was mostly free of pain, then I took an awkward step and it would hurt for a week at a time. I stopped running altogether and I rode a bike because it was easier on my ankle than walking.
Last spring I started doing physical therapy for my right ankle. After a couple of months, the physical therapist told me that we had accomplished all we could together. He gave me six exercises that I continue to do every day. The ankle feels stronger and even if there is pain or discomfort, I feel more confident putting weight on it.
I realized that long-ingrained habits had resulted in my right ankle being less flexible than my left. I sit in a half-lotus when I am eating and meditating. For many years I sat with my left foot on my right thigh. Nine months ago I started sitting in the reverse position — right foot on left thigh. At first, it felt awkward, but after a while, I got used to it. Now that I have established a balance between the ankles, I sit with my right ankle on top before noon and my left ankle on top afternoon.
Because of the injured ankle, I also mounted and dismounted my bicycles on the left side, putting my weight on my left foot and swinging my right foot over the bike. I also walked the bike from the left side. I decided to start mounting, dismounting and walking the bike from the right side. I began very gradually. The first step was learning to get on my bike from the right side. It was surprisingly difficult! I almost fell over a couple of times. Just because I can do something on one side, it didn’t mean I can do it on the other. For the first week, I just got on my bike from the right side when I left my house. Then I started getting on from the right side every time I got on my bike during the day. The key was being confident that my right foot and ankle would support me when I swung my leg over the bike. This was both a physical and psychological process. As the ankle felt stronger, my confidence in it increased. Sometimes I felt a little self-conscious. If I sensed that someone was watching me while I was getting onto my bike, I wanted to say “I am really a good bike rider, I just look a little awkward because I am trying something new!”
It was not a smooth learning curve. For a day or two it seemed as if I really had the right foot mount figured out, then the next day I felt very shaky. After a couple of weeks the right mount started feeling more natural. After more or less mastering the mount I began stopping with my right foot and dismounting on the right side. At first, I only stopped with my right foot at the end of a ride, what I call planned to stop. I put my weight on the left pedal, shifted off my bike saddle and put down my right foot. Stopping was not as hard as I thought it would be, but throwing my left leg over the bike to dismount was a challenge. I nearly lost my balance the first couple of times.
My goal is to make a right foot stop the same as my left foot stop. I began trying to stop without sliding out of the saddle, what I call a traffic stop. This was difficult. When I have to stop unexpectedly, I still tend to use my left foot. I took a bike ride at the end of January through the Gilbrook Pond recreation area and then out to Colchester. There was an icy hill near the pond and even with my fat bike and studded tires, I did not quite make it to the top. When I had to bail quickly I put down my left foot. Later, after I had been riding for an hour or so, I stopped at the Burnham Library in Colchester. I was ready to put my right foot down, but instead of leaning to the right, I found myself leaning to the left. I quickly put down my left foot. I think this happened because I was tired. I still have to consciously decide to use my right foot. If I can slow down gradually and point my right foot to the ground, once I make contact the stop usually goes smoothly. I began to trust the intelligence of my right leg. I think of bodily skill as a kind of embodied intelligence. My hands “know” how to tie my shoes. Every time I stop with my right foot my foot gains more knowledge of how to cope with different surfaces and circumstances.
A couple of weeks into my experiment, my right knee started hurting. I thought that it was because of starting to use my right leg more, in a way that I was not used to. In my anxious way, I thought that the knee would get worse and worse and that I would have to stop riding and that I would not be able to take long rides next summer. Part of me even believed that if I have those thoughts the thoughts themselves would make it happen. Another part of my mind said that I have not injured the knee, I am in great shape and that the muscles around the knee are strong. In a couple of days, the pain went away.
During the blizzard ride described above, I stopped and started with my left foot. The day after the blizzard I went back to my right foot except for emergency stops. A week or so after the difficulties with my knee, my lower back started to hurt, especially on the right side. I am not sure whether this pain is connected with my shift from left to right, but it is certainly possible. In spite of the pain, I have continued to ride and continued my right side adventure. Gradually, over about a week, my back started to feel better.
One positive result of this process has been a renewed understanding of how difficult it is to learn to ride a bike. I have had to break down processes which I previously did without thinking. I have a renewed respect for people who learn skills later in life.
About the author:
Peter Burns is a long-time bike enthusiast, and one of the original year-round bike riders in Burlington. He writes amazing monthly blogs and teaches a variety of Everyday Biking workshops. In addition to his work at Local Motion, he also works at a group home for people with Psychiatric disabilities, teaches classes for the Vermont Humanities Council, teaches swimming at the Burlington YMCA, and is a regular host of Storytelling VT.