Caboose, Potato, and Cycling with RA

Camaraderie is very important in life. Growing up we need friends. As adults, it really helps to have people we can depend upon. I hope that this community provides the type of camaraderie that YOU need.

I have a story to tell about a recent experience where I felt so supported in a way that was unique to me. RA only plays a tiny part of this story. But the generosity of others plays a HUGE part of the story.

Attending a bicycle ride

Last week, I showed up to ride in a women’s only group bicycle ride organized by a local bike shop. This shop has been in our community for a few years and I had never stepped foot in the store although I knew it was there.

I chose my bike based on my RA needs

The shop is one that caters to a type of clientele who might ride on bikes that cost 10-15 times that of my own modest hybrid bicycle that has a straight handlebar and flat pedals. I chose my bike because it had bigger tires (appropriate for gravel riding if that’s what I wanted to do), a front suspension to reduce the impact of bumps on my RA wrists, elbows, and shoulders, flat pedals (no clipping my shoes onto pedals and risk twisting my knees), and no racing style drop handlebars that look like they would put undue pressure on those same wrists, elbows, and shoulders.

I was too intimidated to join the ride

This bike shop even has a professional racing team that trains together and competes together. I have an acquaintance who has run a few races with them. She also participates in the summer weekly women’s only ride that leaves from the shop.

She has invited me to join them in prior years, but I always felt too intimidated. The description of the ride states that it is a beginner-friendly, no-drop ride — that means that they don’t leave someone behind who can’t keep up. The description also mentions that they average 12-14 mph and take some “rolling hill” routes through Northern Virginia, an area that can be VERY hilly. Road bikes are expected.

How did I come to join the ride?

Getting some well-needed rassurance

I had a recent accident on my bike and posted in a local bike group on Facebook asking a question about a sound I could now hear on the bike. One local bike shop had already taken a very quick look at it and determined that the bike was safe to drive and no cause for the sound could be detected. A bicycle mechanic who is also a member of this group sent me a private message offering to look over the bike since she noticed where I lived. She happens to work part-time at the fancy, racing team bike shop mentioned above.

I took her up on the generous offer and was reassured that, yes, my bike was fine and only making “normal” sounds (although the sounds were new to my ears). She told me about the Thursday night ride and I mentioned that I was intimidated. She reassured me that it would be an easy ride since it was the first of the season after some of our area’s COVID19-related restrictions were relaxed. She said that there’d be a lot of ladies show up who probably hadn’t ridden since last summer.

I show up to the ride and am welcomed by name by the generous bike mechanic who is also a member of the shop’s women’s racing team. My friend was there as well and introduced me to a few people. In all, about 16 women showed up to ride together. Some of us had never ridden in a group ride before and a few more were new to this group.

The potato chasers and the caboose

After a brief safety and rules-of-the-road talk, we took off. I was a little slow on the uptake to get going. Not the first one out of the parking lot, but definitely not at the front of the line. One thing to know about these group rides, there is always someone designated to lead in front, a few people to be “potato chasers” — folks who ride between the faster and slower groups if the larger group splits apart — and the “caboose” who does what you think they might do — ride in the back. My friend was the “caboose” and it was said that if you couldn’t see her, you were not last!

Managing the terrain of the bike path

Well, it didn’t take very long before I was one of the 4 or so riders in the back. Then the first big hill came up. I pedaled pedaled pedaled and caught up to the larger group waiting at the top of the hill. The leader asked back down the line if everybody was together and off we went. Then came the second hill, a little bigger one this time. It took me longer to get up this one and I was totally out of breath. The group waited as I asked for 30 more seconds before continuing.

Then we got to go downhill. Wheeeeee!!! I moved out of the back because gravity was on my side because I’m sure that I weigh 50-60% more than anybody else who was riding. Eventually another hill came up. For this one, I eventually had to get off the bike and walk to the crest. Here it was decided that the caboose and one potato would ride with me while the bulk of the group continued on.

Support and encouragement from the bike group

When this group stated it was a “no drop” ride, they meant it! The three of us got separated from the others by a long traffic light and we were truly on our own. After looking at my Strava data later that evening, I can see that the group got ahead about 1 mile because of that long light and then an additional mile because they were just faster than me/us.

I walked up a few more hills during the course of the ride. We stopped while I caught my breath, but never sat down. I was encouraged from behind and given tips on how and when to shift into different gears to set myself up to better tackle the hills coming up. I was praised and called “sergeant” when I successfully rode up a really steep hill on Military Road.

Having to work harder due to my bike

The caboose and potato swapped spots and the woman behind me commented how much harder I had to work because I had flat pedals and could only push with my legs, not push and pull if my shoes were hooked to the pedals themselves. She asked me a few questions and I mentioned that I also lived with MS and RA, and I had had a cycling accident in the previous week.

She didn’t go, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” She said, “You’re doing great!! You’re having to work harder than any the rest of us out here because of your bike and flat pedals. And, you are working at least 3 times harder than that even because of everything you face.”

Community and team building through bike rides

We were taking a brief break at this moment and she reassured me that they — the cyclists connected to the bike shop and racing team — just really want to see women enjoy getting out on their bikes. They view this as part community service and part team-building.

Eventually, we pulled back into the shop’s parking lot about 20 minutes after everybody else had. I later looked on my Strava data and saw that the faster group had rested or not moved for about 30 minutes of their entire ride. I had stopped for only 16 minutes during those same 12.7 miles that presented 1,131 feet of total elevation gain.

These two women were much more capable than I. They chose to be cheerleaders and to help me on this journey. I was also strongly encouraged to come back and do it again.

Help and support in the RA community

So how does any of this come back to rheumatoid arthritis? My hope is that within our RA community, those who have more experience take the time to help those who are struggling. Encourage them and build them up. Help them to learn new ways to manage challenges.

This type of support is really special, particularly when you are on the receiving end of it. My soul was fed while my body was aching on this grueling “easy” ride.

You know what? I think I’ll go back again next Thursday. I really enjoyed basking in that type of positivity and support.

Thank you for reading and remember to be kind.


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