About four months ago, I got a work contract that has me commuting out to Val-des-Monts roughly three days a week. It's 40km each way, on the highway - not something I can do on the bike. So, I drive. Which means I'm commuting by bike a whole lot less than usual. And lately, as I head out onto the road on the days I do bike, I'm noticing a difference.
I've experienced the same thing in the springtime, when the outdoor rock climbing season starts and I've been indoors all winter. Climbing real rock is a whole other headgame from climbing plastic in a gym, and the first time I get out there on the real thing, I feel this weird flurry of nerves. The first time I lead a route (yet another headgame) it's even worse. Time away means you get a lot nervier.
And lately, when I get out onto the fast, wide, scary road right outside my building, I'm way more tense than usual. I can be fairly sure that traffic hasn't gotten faster or more reckless
in the last few months, so it's a gimme that what's changed is my
nerve. Cars coming up behind me drive me way too close to the curb, so when they pass I feel trapped and flinchy. I've screeched to a stop a couple of times as large trucks rumble by me. When they pass, I feel my left hand flex the way it does when I'm spooked. I've screamed out loud a couple of times as cars and trucks have gone whizzing past too close for comfort, and I stopped at the side of the road to call OC Transpo and report a bus that gave me a little over a foot of clearance a couple of weeks ago.
And when I get on the road and feel that tension and fear creeping in (it doesn't help that the first mile of my commute is the worst) I remember that it wasn't always quite this bad.
It seems like a no-brainer, but maybe worth saying: Courage is a muscle. You use it, it gets bigger. You don't use it, it slacks off. I keep insisting I'm no braver than anyone else, and when people tell me "I'd be far too scared to bike to work," I tell them it's not that bad and "you get used to it," but the last few months have reminded me that courage - the ability to hold your space on the road, the ability to ignore the roar of the truck you know is approaching you from behind, the ability to shoulder check and make the call before you merge left, the pigheaded refusal to cede your lane just because the driver behind you is breathing down your neck - all of that is something you have to do regularly, every day, or it starts to be harder to do.
And why that really matters is for all the new riders, trying to get out there on the road - or the folks that put their bikes away over the winter and get them out again in the spring. It takes some time to get confident, or to readjust if you were confident once and have been away.
Good news is, like any other muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets.