Bicycle Network: Women's Cycling
Cycling for two
Meet Nicola Dunnicliff-Wells, 38 weeks pregnant and still riding
Prior to going on maternity leave, Nicola Dunnicliff-Wells was editor of Bicycle Network Victoria's Ride On magazine. We caught up with her at 38 weeks, close to the end of her pregnancy and still riding.
What sort of bike riding did you do before you got pregnant?
I mostly commuted, but have done quite a bit of touring, especially when I was writing touring guide books with Lonely Planet.
Did you think you'd have to give up cycling when you got pregnant?
Well, I knew there were other women who rode through, so I assumed and hoped that I would be able to keep riding. I just thought I'd keep riding for as long as I could.
Is cycling a particularly good form of exercise for pregnancy?
The important thing about exercising during pregnancy is not to go too hard, and not to get your heart rate higher than around 140 beats a minute, which is about 23 beats in 10 seconds. I would just take my pulse for 10 seconds to get an idea of how I was going. You get to know what your body feels like when you're around 140.
The main thing with bike riding is that you don't want to fall off. You wouldn't want to have a serious accident, so you don't take risks and you ride more slowly. But other than that, it's a reasonably comfortable form of exercise for a lot of the pregnancy. Later on you have to modify your bike to sit up straighter, so you have to have a more upright position. But I find cycling more comfortable than walking a lot of the time. It's good that it's cardiovascular, and you can control the pace. I've been swimming a bit more in the later bit of my pregnancy and I found that I have to rest to make sure my heart rate doesn't get too high. With cycling you can slow down, whereas I can't seem to slow down enough when I swim. Maybe it's something to do with the breathing, but I can't seem to swin really really slow so that my heart rate doesn't get too high.
The real advantage for me is time - I use a bike as transport. Work was quite busy, so I just wouldn't have had the time to do swimming or yoga or walking or whatever, so for me it was a way to keep doing exercise. I think I would've stacked on the weight if I hadn't have done that. The only thing with cycling is that if you're not a confident cyclist beforehand, pregnancy is probably not the time to start. But if you ride regularly it's great.
Have there been any times when you found it a struggle to get on the bike?
Between 8 and 10 weeks, Tim and I went cycling in Tassie. We planned what I thought was not too ambitious a trip, but it turned out to be. In the first trimester you tend to get really tired. We were doing 50 or 60km a day, and if we rode more than two days in a row I would get really very tired and very emotional. I'd get up and I'd do it, but my body was just saying “Go back to bed" and then I'd get really emotional, because I'd think “I don't want to spoil our trip!"
So we learned that we had to take it a bit slower, go shorter distances, and have more rest days. My ideal would have been to ride 30km to 50km every second day. We did a little more than that and there were days when I just lost it. I'd have to ride to where we were going, and we'd put the tent up and take an extra day off and I'd just sleep for half the day. I was just forced to listen to my body, whereas before I probably would've pushed through.
Getting through the birth must be easier if you're fitter.
I'm convinced that being fit will help. I just don't know how women who don't have any fitness could do it. It's hard work carrying all the extra weight - the average is an extra 12 kilos, and I put on more than that. I hate to think how much more I would've put on if I hadn't been riding. And it just makes you feel better.
I think it will help getting through the birth mentally as well. Apparently there's two major stages of labour. The first is when the contractions start and the cervix is dilating to make it big enough so the baby can come through, and then the second stage is when you're actually pushing it out, which is usually quite a lot quicker. At the point where you're pretty much fully dilated and you're about to start pushing is called “transition". Apparently at that stage a lot of women go through a crisis of confidence. You think “I can't do this any more, I can't stand it any more, give me an epidural". The childbirth educator said that most women will experience a loss of control and a complete crisis of confidence, whether it's physical pain or mental.
I remembered during this horrible, horrible day in Tassie, when we'd decided to take a 30km shortcut instead of going 70km the long way round. I knew that it was going to be roughish, and that we had to go over a ridge, but it didn't look like a big ridge on the map. I was saying, “oh, it could be really hard" but at the same time I was saying “how bad can it be?" It was alright for the first few kilometres, but then it got quite bumpy, and it was a little bit undulating, and I kept thinking “hmmmm I wonder when this ridge is going to come up". Then it started, and it kept going and going and going and it was quite steep and quite soft, and quite bumpy and we just had to walk most of it and it just kept going! At one point I thought “What am I doing? I'm pregnant for God's sake! I'm doing this stupid thing in the middle of nowhere, with this really rough steep hill and I'm trying to ride my bike up it... or walk up it... and it's never going to end... and I don't know if I can do this anymore and I don't know what else we can do cos there's no cars... no one's going to come and pick us up!" And so I just sort of lost it! Tim was really good at saying “we're going to be able to do it", and encouraging me to go a little bit more and then stop to have a rest. He'd say, "don't push yourself so hard, just go another 20 metres and we'll stop and have a rest". We finally got to the top, had a rest, and started to go down the other side.
Anyway, we were talking about this with the woman who was going to be our birth attendant and she was saying “yeah, great, you've experienced this crisis of confidence". I don't know how similar the birth will be, but hopefully knowing you got through that will help you get through something else... I'll let you know!
How did you adjust your bike to make your position more upright?
I used to ride with my handlebars about level with my seat, which is a classic touring or commuting set up. So I raised them as high as I could. I had to get new brake cables put on to raise the handlebars, because the brake cables were too short. That probably raised it 10cm. I had an adjustable head stem, so I raised that up fairly high as well. If I had a longer stem, I would've raised it even a little bit higher.
What would your ideal bike for pregnancy be?
Ideally I would have a comfort bike with a totally upright position and front suspension or seat-post suspension. Normally if I was going over a bump I'd take my weight off my saddle and take the weight on my knees, but now when I get tired I just can't be bothered doing that, and there's more weight to take. It doesn't feel good going over bumps, so a bike with suspension would be great. But I didn't have that and I'm still leaning forward a little bit since I can't get my handlebars high enough to be completely upright. I'm still using clipless pedals at 38 weeks, too, and in some ways I think it would be good not to because I have to ride with my knees slightly out!
Do you ride very differently now you're pregnant?
I used to like to ride fast. I don't think aggressive is the right word, but I used to be quite assertive on the road. But that changed! I was much more cautious and much slower. To begin with I found it frustrating, because I used to be reasonably fast. For example, riding to work up Brunswick Street, it was always a little challenge to beat everyone else. As soon as I slowed down everybody was passing me, and I was thinking “Oh! You just don't know! I could really beat you if I wanted to, but...!"
You just had to swallow your pride?
Yes, totally! I had to learn that I couldn't accelerate any more, so I think I became more patient. I used to be quite impatient sometimes and thought that I had to race to get there and take advantage of opportunities to get ahead. But because I knew I couldn't do that any more, I would be much more polite and patient with other road users. It's probably been really good for me!
Do you plan to ride with your baby?
The general recommendation is that you can't put a child on the back of the bike until they can support a helmet, which is about 10 to 12 months. I'd actually like to research this a little bit more though - I have heard of people carrying babies in trailers (lying down, without a helmet - which makes it illegal in Australia), but I've also heard other people say that under 12 months there are issues with the baby getting shaken around. You can buy trailers with suspension, but they're the real top-of-the-range ones, which we probably couldn't afford. I'm planning to do a lot more walking, after the baby is born, but I think I'll find it hard because it takes a bit more of a chunk out of your day not being able to ride. Today it took me 10 minutes to ride to a friend's place, but it will take me 45 minutes to walk there. I think I'll really miss riding, but that's just the way it will be for a bit.
At what age do you think a child should get their first bike?
As soon as they can sit up?! I don't really know. We'll probably want ours to get on a bike fairly early. I saw a family down at Yarra Bend Park, and dad had the trailer bike on the back, with a 5 year old, and mum had the child seat with a toddler age kid on the back. A couple of hours later I saw them going home and I thought “Yeah! It would be fun to do that!" It was good to see.
Baby Anna arrived after a 25-hour labour. Nicola reports that after 18 hours, she experienced her "crisis of confidence" and at that point she was given an epidural and induced. Nonetheless, Nicola is sure being fit helped her get through and recover more quickly.