Words by Bill Haley
Given the cold and snowy winter we're experiencing here in the northeast, there isn't much to discuss regarding riding an actual bicycle in the actual outdoors. I know there are plenty of hardcore types that ride every second of planned outdoor training, usually while shouting HTFU! to weaklings like me (this blog is G rated, so Google if necessary). The trails are worse than snow covered because they have iced over. The roads are narrowed down due to incomplete plowing, and they are covered with salty melt water and gravel. Heck, things are bad enough that this weekend's planned trail work for the Tuscarora Off-Road Weekend will probably be cancelled because we can't access the areas that require work. Never fear, though, the race should go off without a hitch....don't miss it. Register Here
So where does that leave those of us who don't care for riding in cold, wind, snow, slush, and misery? That's right, indoors on a trainer or rollers. Enough has been typed about the joys of indoor cycling, so I won't bother adding my two cents here. Instead I'll discuss the joys of an alternative that I've resorted to this winter: gym membership! One could legitimately make the point that working out in a gym or riding a trainer brings a higher level of suffering than does riding outdoors in the cold, but this is the path that I have chosen this year. There is considerable debate in the competitive cycling community regarding the effectiveness of weight training for the endurance athlete. From what I read most coaches lean toward the 'no weight training' school of thought, but the venerable Joe Friel, author of "The Cyclist's Training Bible" advocates weight training which is good enough for me. Besides, it's time for something a little different to shake up the routine, and it may be time to ditch the starving cyclist look anyway.
Left: (Chris Froome photo) Caption: World class bike racer Chris Froome
Right: (Weight lifter dude photo) Caption: Me in six weeks?
So now I'm a gym rat and have been spending more time lifting weights than riding my trainer in the basement. Will I be regretting this when race season starts? Probably, but nobody is paying me to race a bike, so what the hell. I had been considering the possibility of adding weight training to my program for a few years now but never did because it would require a gym membership since I don't have space at home for equipment, and having to go somwehere to work out wasn't appealing. Well this year my mother discovered that her supplemental health insurance covers the cost of a gym membership, so I took her around to the local gyms so she could pick one. The gears in my head began turning and I signed the dotted line along with thousands of New Year Resolution Joinees (a coincidence of the calendar...I made no resolution). I have some experience lifting weights but that goes back 30 (holy crap!) years to my high school days, meaning I had lessons to learn.
Every activity has specialized language and subtle, unwritten rules. As cyclists we're familiar with this but probably don't even think about some of them any more. Who has the right of way on single track - climber or descender? What's the right sized Camelbak to wear on that Wednesday fast road ride? The gym is no different but I don't even know what questions I should be asking. In high school the coach told us what to do and we did it; etiquette never came into play. The first thing I learned is that the gym is not a social environment, so I'm on my own to figure things out. Everyone walks around in their own little, ear-budded, music listening, world. If I need to communicate with one of my fellow iron pumpers I first need to employ miming techniques to catch their attention and then convey my thoughts. Anyone know the sign for "Are you using this Bicep Blaster?" It's a three step process actually. First, position yourself in the line of sight of the equipment hog, er...fellow gym member, and wave your arms overhead in the universal manner of getting someone's attention. Second, point at said individual. Third, point at said piece of equipment with a questioning look on your face (lip movement optional). The response will be a nod or shake of the head, or a shrug if they have no idea what the heck you're asking. An extroverted member will pull out one ear bud and answer in the spoken word. Of course when that happened to me I couldn't hear what they said because I was listening to Olivia Newton John at the time.
Then there's the question of pecking order and equipment access. Does any one have priority to certain pieces of equipment and, if so, who? Cycling clubs make it easy by advertising different ride categories with definitions. I remember my first group ride with the Harrisburg Bicycle Club. They categorize their rides with a letter designation by average speed and total distance which makes it easier for a rookie to choose the correct group. In the gym there is no such system to assist the rookie, but I have come close by dividing the gym into four areas. Area One is your barbell area which is generally populated by thick, serious looking lifters that stack a lot of weight on bars and grunt. Area Two is the dumb bell area which is populated by ripped users that stare into the mirrors and flex a lot. Area Three is the machine area which is populated by users that are reading instructions and uneasily glancing at the lifters in areas one and two. The fourth and final area is the cardio equipment zone which is avoided by the users of Areas One and Two, but does seem to be frequented by the users of Area Three. The borders between the three weight lifting areas do seem to be open and unguarded, although I do recall seeing looks of bewilderment the first time my skinny cyclist butt wandered into barbell territory. Everyone has been accepting, if not necessarily friendly, so if there is a true pecking order I haven't seen it. So kudos to the gym crowd...any meathead stereotypes are unfounded, at least at my gym.
My conclusion for my fellow cyclists, or any other skinny endurance type, is to go ahead and try out the world of a gym and see if you like it. The current payment system is one of monthly payments without long term contracts, so there is no need to worry about getting into something that you may only use during the off-season. The majority of the New Year Resolution crowd have already given up and gone back to their couches, so crowds are not a concern. My mother and I went to four different gym locations to find the right one, so I can say that there is something for everyone. My mother ultimately picked a different gym than I would have, but I went to her choice anyway. There isn't a world of difference between them. You will be on your own unless you also decide to employ a personal trainer, thus the users in Area Three reading all of the instructions on the machines. Then again, it's easy enough to do some basic research on which exercises are good choices to supplement your primary training and then just doing it.