Within my family—and really, my entire hometown of Boulder, Colorado—I’m somewhat of a cycling black sheep. That’s because even though I was born, raised, and currently live in what has been described as “the most bikeable city in the U.S.,” a “cyclist’s paradise,” and “bicycle heaven,” I have very limited experience with the sport myself.
Yes, I know how to ride a bike, and I’ve pedaled leisurely and sporadically throughout my life, mostly a few miles at a time either for fun or a quick commute around town. I’ve also tried out an indoor cycling class, had a short-lived stint with triathlons as a teen, and occasionally write about the sport for work. But donning cycling attire and hitting the roads for a legit workout? Not my thing. Not at all.
Even worse, I’ve never been all that interested in becoming a biker. That’s basically blasphemous for a Boulderite to admit, but it’s just how I feel. Or rather, how I felt…until this spring, when I pedaled more than 200 miles. In 6 days. Across another country.
Forget the deep end—I threw myself into the middle of the freakin’ ocean. And it challenged all of my assumptions about cycling.
My mindset before the trip
The majority of folks in my inner circle—my parents, my boyfriend, my roommate—love cycling. And I’d long listened to them rave about the activity, happy for them but skeptical that I too could ever feel that way.
There are a few reasons I used to justify this aversion. My main gripe was that cycling had always seemed like an inefficient form of exercise. Like, you’re working out but also sitting down at the same time?! I’d rather go for a run, which seemed to tax my lungs—and really my entire body—much more than any bike ride did. On top of that, I wasn’t a fan of cycling gear. Call me vain, but the tight, padded shorts reminded me of adult diapers, the skintight jerseys weren’t exactly my style, and the weirdly shaped clip-in shoes just looked foreign to me. I understood that it’s all designed to make you faster and more comfortable, but I simply wasn’t into it.
All that said, when REI Adventures emailed me in March with a seriously enticing invite—bike, eat, and explore your way through southern Spain for a week as a member of the media—I saw it as an opportunity to challenge (and hopefully change) my mindset about the sport. There were the tiny (OK, large) caveats that attendees should train for three months prior to the week-long, 239-plus-mile guided cycling trip and also feel comfortable spending a full day in the saddle. Neither of those were really accurate in my case, but I simply shrugged it off. I’d be fine, I thought. Biking wasn’t that hard anyway, right?
Such was the attitude I maintained for the next seven weeks before my departure. Though I should have used that time to build my strength and skills on the bike, I only went on a handful of rides, reluctant to alter my usual workout routine of running and strength training. This concerned the cyclists closest to me (rightfully so). My dad, who told me I should be pedaling three to four days a week in preparation, consistently pestered me to ride with him before or after work; my roommate invited me to 6 a.m. indoor cycling classes; my boyfriend suggested we tackle the 28-mile ride from Boulder to Denver together (we never did). The one smart thing I did do was acquire cycling gear (jerseys, shorts, socks, and gloves), which I quickly learned was actually really comfortable, and in the case of padded bike shorts, essential to a pleasant riding experience. My first biking myth busted.
The experience itself
I arrived in Sevilla, Spain—our first stop on the journey through Spain’s Andalusia region—with severe jet lag and swollen ankles from 24-plus hours of traveling. I started to get nervous about the cycling that would commence the next morning. Fortunately, day one started off relatively easy with one of the shortest mileages of the trip (about 29) and hill climbs that were challenging but not overwhelming. More important, the scenery was simply stunning. We pedaled on a winding paved road, flanked by yellow and white wildflowers and ancient-looking cork trees with twisted trunks. Birds chirped around us, and the sky blazed a brilliant light blue color. I found myself focusing not so much on the biking, but instead enchanted by my surroundings.
Day two was somehow even more gorgeous. We pedaled for about 35 miles total, including a long stretch on a converted old mining railroad line past fields filled with red and yellow poppies, which legit looked like a scene from Wizard of Oz. There were solid stretches of hard work that got my heart pumping and quads burning interspersed with fun stretches of breezy downhill. I started to realize that if I rode long enough and got on steep hills, biking absolutely could be difficult. As I experimented with pushing myself during the uphill portions, seeing how fast I could ascend, I began to hit my cycling stride, finding it fun, thrilling, and challenging. By the end of the day, after spending more than eight hours outside (biking time plus breaks and a leisurely picnic lunch), I felt like a kid who’d just been to a jam-packed day of summer camp, simultaneously hyped up on life while also utterly exhausted from all the physical activity.
Then, things got real on day three as we tackled 10.3 miles of climbing above the historic city of Córdoba, and even more real on day four, when we encountered the steepest hills of the week while pedaling about 45 total miles past seemingly endless fields of olive groves. I wasn’t previously familiar with the hill-grade rating system, but soon learned that a 12 percent grade equals a pretty damn steep climb. After tackling a 12 percenter, I was out of breath and could feel my legs burning when I saw the sign indicating a 14 percent hill was ahead, causing me to curse out loud and then start laughing maniacally. What the hell is happening right now? I thought as my heart pounded and legs begged for a break. I’m on this wild bike trip and I’m not a biker! I struggled to the top of the hill, fighting the urge to hop off my bike and just walk. When I miraculously made it to the top, my newfound respect for biking only deepened. Hauling both yourself—and a bike—up a steep hill with just the strength of your legs and core requires serious endurance, strength, and focus, and hurts in a way that other activities don’t. Another biking myth busted.
Throughout the week, I learned more about proper riding form from the guides and other participants, which helped me feel more confident and also opened my eyes to the fact that there is more technique to biking than I realized. Day by day, I was gaining respect, appreciation, and dare I say it—fondness—for the sport.
Toward the end of the trip, as we rode south and east to our end point in Grenada, passing even more olive orchards and panoramic views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountain range, all that pedaling started to take a physical toll. A bone-deep fatigue settled into pretty much every part of my body, the skin beneath my butt cheeks started chafing (sorry if that’s TMI), and strangely, the middle toenail on my right foot fell off (again, apologies). Even so, my new and unexpected passion for biking only increased. By the last day, I was so into our pedal-all-day routine that I felt disappointed when we had to cut our final ride short because of scheduling logistics. It’s funny to think how quickly my mindset shifted—from reluctant and dismissive of biking to completely hooked—in just six days.
What I think about biking now
My whirlwind week in Spain cost me a toenail and some skin on my backside, but I came away with something much greater: a deep appreciation for cycling. Now, I almost cringe when I remember my previous arrogant misperception that the sport is easy. Riding more than 200 miles through Spain proved that cycling absolutely can be difficult and requires skill, strength, endurance, and technique. Beyond the physical challenge, though, I learned it’s hands-down one of the best ways to really immerse yourself in the outdoors. Unlike running, biking is something I can pretty much do all day long, and the sights, sounds, and even smells it allows me to experience along the way (at one point during day four, I caught an intoxicating whiff of olive oil) make it feel more like an adventure than just a standard workout.
Now I wouldn’t say I’m a total biking convert (in all honesty, I’ve only been cycling once since the trip), but I’m no longer a total beginner. And I’m excited to one day soon hop in the saddle alongside my bike-obsessed friends and family and actually, finally, enjoy the ride.