A cycling venue opened in my neighborhood. Normally I scoff at exercise fads. But when I walked by the window, I noticed a big sign tacked to the glass: Free Ride. I couldn't resist.
Anyone can ride a bike! I went inside to collect my coupon for one free cycling class. "Do you have your own gear?" the very young receptionist inquired and I answered in the affirmative while thinking: Gear?
Turns out, the new cycling world has absolutely nothing in common with the bike riding of the past. Modern cycling has hardware, costumes, soundtracks and nomenclature. There is a website to help you determine your best cycling nickname. IMAX is opening an indoor cycling experience.
"No matter, he said, noting my confusion. "We'll provide everything for the first class."
The following week, I returned for my free class. I signed away all my rights and waived the additional personal insurance rider, provided my shoe size and voila! I was ready to ride. But first: some gear. I was handed a pair of cycling shoes that, apparently, have an important role in your workout results. Also, they look seriously cool. "Your instructor will show you to your assigned bike, and then he'll review the functions, postures and positions." I was about to feel insulted at the implied assumption that I don't know how to ride a bike, but then he added, "He'll show you how to properly clip in." Clip in?
The nightclub-style studio was dark. I saw dozens of bikes, some draped already with little white towels. At the front of the room, on an elevated platform was, I swear, a prop from the Terminator, bolted to the floor. Was that a bike? The seat hovered over the frame like a vulture's beak. The pedals had been stripped away, leaving only a bolt in their place. I have to say, I felt a little intimidated so I busied myself by studying the preparation of the other cyclists.
It became quickly evident that there was much to do before the real work of cycling began. A man performed stretches with the finesse of a professional figure skater, lifting each leg to rest on the armrests of his bike and then carrying each ankle around in a wide arc, pulling the whole leg behind him. Who bends like that? Gumby! He nodded at me so I did a quad stretch to show my solidarity and then followed him to the cabinet in the back to retrieve a towel. He extracted five white towels from the stack. We need five towels?
The instructor arrived and signaled to me. He pointed to a bike, Bike Number One, right in the front. He showed me how to adjust my seat and how to suspend my weight evenly on both clipped-in feet. He suggested that, next time, I wear clothing that "breathes" and I promised to do exactly that even though I had no intention of buying clothes in which to sweat. My workout attire includes an old T-shirt probably worn by both my kids and tights that are much more comfortable now that they've outlived their elasticity. Cycling people, it should be said, take their workout wardrobe seriously. Twisting-back tank tops and sleek riding shorts were in abundance. Headbands were obviously part of the uniform. Matching socks, optional.
The instructor recommended I drink water and enjoy the ride before climbing atop the robotic structure on the platform that was his bike. I must say, he looked magnificent in Lycra. Some of us do not.
The lights dimmed to true dark, the sound of a Hip Hop beat encouraged my legs to pump in rhythm. I listened to the very enthusiastic voice of the instructor as he guided the class through the landscape of music. I was relaxed and encouraged. This was easy! Everyone knows how to ride a bike. The next two songs increased in tempo and ferocity. I pedaled along with the beat. No sweat! I was cycling with the best of them, keeping up and looking strong.
After the fourth song, my shoulders burned and my legs were screaming. I pretended to reach for a new towel, and managed to twist my tension knob down without anyone noticing. "If you feel tired, take the tension down to Two," the instructor said through his secret-service headset. I nodded at him, as if to say, thanks for the advice, but not me, I don't need to reduce my tension, I'm doing just fine over here in the about-to-vomit section.
Fifteen minutes into the class, I found myself leaned against the back wall with my hands on my thighs, gasping, as the other cyclists visualized reaching the crest of a hill. Two dozen Lycra'ed asses bobbed in front of me. Beyond the sea of toned glutes and thighs, my own image glowed like red coal in the far mirror. My hair was black paste, my face the color of an eggplant. My T-shirt hung like a becalmed flag, soaked dark in my own sweat. I sipped at the water bottle that I'd bought in the lobby for $3 and silently coached my heart to calm. Every few minutes, I heard the instructor ask: "Are you okay back there?"
After a while, I returned to my bike amid grunts of appreciation from my classmates. "Way to stick with it," a woman said. I tried to smile as I slid back onto the boulder-hard crescent seat that was, supposedly, padded to ensure maximum riding comfort. I clicked my shoes in, put a new towel over my handles and pushed the pedal forward. I could do this.
At the end of the class, I saw that a puddle had formed underneath Bike Number One, about the size and scope of Lake Erie. I could have mopped it up with a little white towels, but I was afraid to bend forward.
I made my way to the front desk and returned the loaner shoes. "Want to sign up for your next class?" the receptionist asked as if the suggestion was a no-brainer. I thought about responding, but my mouth was too dry. My lips were stuck to my teeth. I walked home like that, with my mouth frozen in a grimace and my T-shirt hanging to my knees. Next class? I think not.