Spinning in Bike Town

Why, in a city with more bikes than residents, where 63% of people use their bike(s) daily, where there are 500km of cycling paths and no less than 157 bike shops, why, WHY would anyone take a spinning class?

This was the question I was asking myself last night as I headed (by bike!) to my first exercise class in Amsterdam. A friend invited me to join him and his wife at RoCycle, a relatively new spin/cycling studio in Amsterdam. Billed as a “killer workout for badass people”, I was curious.

As I may have mentioned, I love to bike. I contribute to the imbalance of bikes and people in Amsterdam; I have two bikes. My daily commute is on my city bike, with its coaster breaks and single gear. It is practical and functional and I have come to love it.

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This is my city bike. My racing bike is too fast to be photographed.

My weekend rides are on my beautiful road bike, a black Specialized Roubaix that is light and responsive and has more gears than I need. I did not have to learn to love it.

The biking culture of the Netherlands was one of the things that made moving here so attractive. Even my husband, who does not enjoy cycling, has converted to biking for most of our errands and outings. It’s just the best, fastest way to get around.

 

Still, I wondered, will people who spend so much time cycling for transport and practicality want to cycle for exercise? It seems that the answer is yes, although there were definitely some Americans and other non-Dutch folk in my first RoCycle class. And of course, most of us came and went by bike. (But wow, was the ride home a challenge!)

I had taken spinning classes before, so I knew my daily bike commute would have about as much in common with RoCycle as watching “Top Chef” does with cooking a 5-course meal for 20 people. Still, I wasn’t worried. Faced with a little anxiety before this new class, I called up a memory from one of the first spinning classes I took in Boston. It would have been in late February or early March of 2010. It was just days after my grandmother passed away, and a few weeks after my mom shared her cancer diagnosis with us. At a challenging moment in the class, probably a climb, the instructor was encouraging us to stay with it, keep going. And a very clear sequence of thoughts came into my head: Your grandmother has died. Your mother is sick, and dying. But you. You are here. You are alive. You are strong. You. Are. Not. Giving. Up.

I come from a line of remarkable women, now gone. In that moment, years ago, my health and fitness offered one way that I could keep the story going, keep the line alive. And I felt that again last night, as the instructor told us to “give it all we had”.  I smiled to myself, knowing that I had a reserve to draw from, that I could handle more work and more sweat and a little more pain. And I did not give up.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work with any other sport. I’ll wimp out of running in a heartbeat. But on the bike, I am a badass.

 

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Les mystères de la France, #3

This post would more accurately be titled “les effets mystérieux de la France”, since it’s less about a mystery in France and more about a mystery from France. Something I can’t explain, but that I’m choosing to credit to my time in France, even though there are probably a dozen other reasonable explanations.

It’s this: since I’ve returned from France, I am a better runner. I am running farther and faster than I have before. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that generous quantities of rosé and chèvre have given me bionic abilities (although that would be something…).  All I know is that when I left for Villefranche I was, as I’ve ever been, a struggling runner who did not enjoy running. Ever. And now that I’m back, well, things have changed.

A bit of background so you can appreciate this transformation:

I’ve always hated running. As a pre-teen softball player I was given some constructive criticism by a coach, which a sibling of mine (who will remain unnamed) translated into, “Kathryn runs funny.” So I avoided running for years, until I decided, sometime around 2005, that I wanted to do a triathlon. (For those of you who care, I promise I’ll get around to talking about my tri experience one of these days…) I joined the local running club and participated in their “Walk to Run” program. I realized something important during this program: with the rare exception of a few graceful, beautiful, gazelle-like people, everyone runs funny.  Flailing arms, hitches in their gait, bobbing heads – you name it, I saw it. So I lightened up about my own running style, such as it was, and just got on with it.

For the last 7 or 8 years, I’ve just been surviving my runs. I’d manage 3 or 3.5 miles, slogging along around a 10-minute mile pace.  I never enjoyed the run itself, it never seemed to get easier, and I never got any faster. I read Runner’s World and tried to do fartleks and tempo runs and long runs and all the things you’re supposed to do, but nothing much changed.

Then I go to France. I brought my running gear thinking I’d need to do something to work off all the bread and cheese I expected to eat. Villefranche was very hilly, and running in and around the town was too much for me. I found a relatively flat route out-and-back on Boulevard Princess Grace, a busy road on one side and a lovely view of the sea on the other, with a monument to the late Princess where I’d often stop to pay my respects. And by “pay my respects” I mean, of course, “try to catch my breath while appearing to gaze thoughtfully at the sea“.  I probably only ran about 5 or 6 times during the month I was there, and I didn’t feel particularly fast or strong during those runs.

I come home to Boston, and a few days after returning I head out to do a 3 mile loop in our neighborhood. I notice that the effort is easier, and when I check my GPS I see that I’m running a sub-10 minute mile. Huh. That’s interesting. But then it keeps happening. On my shorter runs, I’m going faster. And just today, I did a 5-mile run (which is long for me, at least), and felt great. I probably could have kept going.

So do we give France the credit for this breakthrough? Could it be that the few pounds I lost in France made a difference? I was considering writing a diet book, “Eat Chèvre for Breakfast and Still Lose Weight!” or “Drink Your Way Thin with Rosé!”, but I think someone has already got that covered. Could it be all the hills I climbed in Villefranche, strengthening muscles I hadn’t paid attention to? Whatever the actual reason, I’m happy to see this improved performance as yet another souvenir – hopefully a lasting one – of my French adventure.