Bicycle Network: Women's Cycling
Bicycling for Women
Gale Bernhardt's book provides a guide to bicycling for women at an intermediate level of riding, but has lots of great information relevant to all. Dr Louise Bricknell reviews it here
Bicycling for Women, by Gale Bernhardt (2008) is a book for cyclists training on a regular basis who have some knowledge of training programs and plans, but do not have access to strength and conditioning coaches, professional biomechanical advice and analysis, professional mechanics or nutritionists. Although much of the book is aimed at women, much of it is suitable for men too.
Anatomy and bike fit
The book opens with a chapter on anatomy and bike fit. Bernhardt’s opening remarks on bike fit and anatomy are great. She draws upon the work of forensic pathologists (determining gender from skeletal remains) to debunk myths about the differences between female and male leg length to torso length ratios. The conclusion? There is not a great deal of difference between Mr and Mrs/Ms/Miss Average in terms of leg length to torso length. This is myth busting at its best.
Unfortunately the rest of the chapter reads like a mathematical equation, which is a shame. The relentless sense of information overload (which permeates the first part of the book) masks her obvious passion for cycling, and her genuine concern to support women’s cycling. The book is well-written, well-researched, well-informed and contains all the right information on bike fit and anatomy…but, as with so many discussions about bike fit, the passion – and the human element – is missing.
Bike fit is not just a scientific equation. It has many variables. For example, there are a lot of things you can adjust on a bicycle to make it fit better – minor adjustments that make a huge differences to the way a bike feels, which in turn have a positive effect on a cyclist’s confidence, wellbeing, and overall cycling enjoyment. There are even more variables and components in the human body that you can change, too. Human bodies are dynamic; they change. Bike fits are dynamic, too. A good bike fit is a lot more than a balanced mathematical equation. Bike fits go beyond the bike.
Women's bodies and cycling - at every life stage
Going beyond the bike brings me to the second part of Bernhardt’s book. This section is specifically for women. It covers pregnancy, the, menstrual cycle, menopause and ageing in relation to cycling. Through all these chapters and topics there is one common theme: cycling is good for women at all stages of their lives.
This part of the book is more readable than the more-technical first part, and again more suited to the intermediate cyclist rather than the total novice. Nevertheless there are some great stories, anecdotes and information that will strike a chord with all women. Here’s a taste.
Training to take advantage of the menstrual cycle
A curse or a blessing, how does the menstrual cycle impact upon women’s cycling? This is a glass half full/half empty situation. Bernhardt is determined to help female cyclists understand how the menstrual cycle impacts upon their cycling experience, because she wants to empower women to use the naturally-occurring fluctuations of the menstrual cycle to their advantage.
For example, why plan complex motor ability training sessions during the luteal phase of your cycle when these abilities are naturally decreasing and aerobic capacity is increasing? It’s going to make you feel like the menstrual cycle is a curse. If, on the other hand, you train for increased aerobic capacity during this stage – you’ll be hitting goals and the menstrual cycle will seem like a blessing to any training regime. Her key message is a sensible one: work with the body – not against it.
Bernhardt comments (p168) that the body will follow the mind. I disagree – it’s got to balance out. Sometimes the mind has to follow the body, and this is what working with the menstrual cycle (not against it) is all about. This way it really is a gift – and a great way to plan a diverse training program. Here are some pointers to help female cyclists plan their training programs so that their glasses are always half full – never half empty!
• Follicular phase of the menstrual cycle (typically lasting 7 to 21 days after bleeding starts): oestrogen levels rise and aerobic capacity and spatial visualisation decreases. “While these two functions … decline, carbohydrate metabolism, mental capacity, mental focus, problem-solving capabilities, and fine motor function all increase” (pp196-197)
• Ovulation (occurring approximately in the middle of the follicular phase): mental focus and fine-motor function remain high, while aerobic capacity and spatial visualisation decrease (p199).
• Luteal phase: follows ovulation and is characterised by a decline in oestrogen levels. “Memory, perceptual speed, and fine-motor ability are not at their best during this phase,” however, the decline in oestrogen leads to an increase aerobic capacity and improved ability to conceptualise information and store glycogen. (p199)
The lowdown down under
Chapter 11 is titled “Comfort and Safety.” Bernhardt describes it as a “collection of useful tips” and it certainly is – for male as well as female cyclists. It covers an array of topics and specifically addresses issues “down under”: saddle sores and vaginal discomfort, including what Bernhardt terms “crotchitis”: red, swollen soreness, possibly itchy and burning, in the vaginal area.
Bernhardt offers possible treatments for crotchitis. She suggests a non-prescription cream may relieve itching and help make bike riding more comfortable (p259), and offers tips for preventing crotchitis, including keeping your crotch dry and ventilated when you’re off the bike. When you’ve finished riding, get out of your cycling knicks quickly – wherever you are. Always wear padded cycling shorts when riding and DON’T wear underwear or anything else under them. The more layers you wear, the more friction and chafing opportunities you’ll create, and the greater chance of a sore.
Crotchitis does happen. What works for me? Calendula cream – no specific brand but I’ve found I can put it anywhere, on just about any body part, with no ill effects – sores, bruises, cuts, sunburn: obviously the less chemicals in the brand the better. Calendula also works on the nasty, white, pimple-like sores that male cyclists get in the scrotum area.
The other tip I can offer in relation to vaginal soreness is, don’t be afraid to redress your vaginal area if you start to even feel a bit sore down there. Soreness can be minimised if you check the ways your flaps are folded: CHANGE THEIR POSITION, use your hands. Don’t keep riding – stop, assess, redress. You might have to do this several times after you initially feel the soreness.
I’m skipping along, but there are a host of other variables to consider in relation to vaginal soreness: saddles, saddle position, knick types (shorts vs bibs, baggies vs lycra), riding style, bike fit. All of these are noted by Bernhardt.
One thing Bernhardt doesn’t mention in Bicycling for Women is breast sores. These most commonly happen to women with breast sizes C and above. They can occur in smaller breasted women, but they take longer. What are they? Oozing open sores that form under the breast, along the bra line. They are the result of continual dampness from climate/sweat that chafes against the skin. It doesn’t matter whether you wear a bra or not – it is wetness against skin that causes the sore. If you’re using a hydration pack or small backpack, the chest straps can aggravate the sore’s development and/or healing. Most backpack/hydration pack breast straps aren’t positioned to allow for women’s breasts. Adjust the straps, alter them if you need to; make sure they are positioned above the breasts.
Any book on cycling and women should include a chapter on pregnancy and cycling. And this book does. In an upbeat discussion about Pregnancy and Exercise (Chapter 9), Bernhardt cuts to the chase of the matter by citing examples of athletes who have competed successfully at elite level while pregnant, including Mary Jane Reoch, who rode her bicycle ten miles to the delivery room (p 215)! Bernhardt offers practical advice for safe, successful, active pregnancies and for finding the ‘fastest recovery road’ post-pregnancy (p 223). This is great chapter: fun, positive, interesting and informative.
Training and skills development
Back to Part 1 of the book. This covers training, and includes five detailed training plans and timetables (chapter 3) and discussion about building aerobic stamina and strength through hill climbing (chapter 5).
Aerobic stamina and strength are important aspects of hill climbing, but they are only half the equation. All the aerobic capacity in the world is not much good if you have to stop to mend a puncture and don’t know how to hill-start on steep gradients. There is such a thing as riding skilfully and technically, and this requires just as much training as building up aerobic capacity and stamina. Unfortunately, the slow accretion of skill development is a crucial aspect of training that is not mentioned in this book. (It is rarely discussed anywhere else either.)
Interestingly, as I’m writing this, I’ve read that Victorian hospitals have noted a significant increase in road cycling injuries for men aged between 30 to 50 years. There are a lot of fit people out there, but they are not necessarily skilled riders. At 50km/h, it can hurt to discover that you haven’t got the skill to handle a corner. But learning high-speed skills at slow speeds, or practicing them in your local park or backyard, doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t even require mountains.
There is no discussion on developing technical skills in Bicycling for Women. The focus is on physical and mental conditioning, and Chapter 4 picks up this theme in its discussion of strength and conditioning for cycling. It explores differences between maximum strength/ power endurance/ strength maintenance/ strength exercises. It includes plans, tables, and diagrams for stretches in the gym and post-ride. This information won’t be useful for every cyclist, and is probably going to confuse those already using planned programs, however, if you are in the market for general information it might be helpful.
Exercise, diet and nutrition
Bernhardt explores the equation between exercise, diet and nutrition through discussing the role of micro- and macronutrients on diet, proteins, carbohydrates, water, and fat, in Chapter 5. She makes the point that no single diet is suitable for everyone, and touches on issues connected to diet. These include cycling performance, recovery, and eating disorders. The chapter includes tables to estimate percentages of carbohydrates, proteins, fat, and vitamins in diet (p153), and a case study of what a 64kg cyclist’s diet could look like if they are training for an event.
Chapter 6 is all about mental fitness. Bernhardt stresses the importance of setting goals and focusing on the positives – regardless of how small they are.
Women and ageing
In Bicycling for Women, issues addressed in relation to the mature female cyclist include: menopause, osteoporosis (risks and prevention), and hormone replacement therapy, including natural and herbal remedies. These discussions are accompanied by various tables, as well as an analysis of ageing: how its associated changes may impact upon cycling, and how to minimise the negatives and maximise the many positives. It is an informative chapter, but for me it doesn’t exemplify the sheer courage, tenacity, humour, grace, and passion that many mature cyclists, especially female, bring to their cycling.
Which brings us to Chapter 10 of Bernhardt’s book, and the final part of this review: The Masters Cyclist. I want to explore this chapter through a personal anecdote which highlights the achievements of a group of female Masters Cyclists I worked with, some post breast cancer, who in April 2009 got on mountain bikes for the first time in their lives and went mountain biking. Five months later, with more than 1000km under each of their saddles, these women entered their first mountain bike race (they had to work hard to persuade the organisers to create a category for themselves!). The race conditions were atrocious, but they all completed their laps.
What does this say about the female Masters Cyclist?
It says, and Bicycling for Women reiterates, that:
• Cycling is beneficial to women of all ages.
• You can learn to ride a bike, develop your skills, and try something new on a bike at any age: 60 or six.
• Learning doesn’t have any age limits, and nor does adventure.
• Cycling offers the mature cyclist opportunities for adventure – whether touring, road racing/riding, mountain biking, commuting.
• Challenging yourself as a mature cyclist can develop your confidence, self esteem, and enjoyment of the sport. It is never too late to do this.
• Opportunities to excel come in different ways at different times to different people – the masters’ cyclist is maximising these opportunities.
• Mature cyclists are keen to learn, committed to developing themselves and their cycling.
• Mature cyclists follow their cycling passions with a sense of humour, rigour and vigour that is hard to match.
Cycling with cancer
I was disappointed that Bicycling for Women, a book with such a wide scope, didn’t comment on cycling with cancer, pre- and post-chemotherapy and/or surgery. I wish I could offer some comments. I can’t. I know there are thousands of cyclists training, riding, commuting, touring, living and cycling with cancer. I know the cycling they do (regardless of how much, where, or when) supports them in some way – so keep doing it, as and when you can.
Bicycling for Women is not a book I would recommend for every cyclist. It is a book for the intermediate cyclist who is training or starting to train and wants more information about training plans, programs, evaluating performance and so on. But there is information in here that is of interest to all women, and many men, and offers encouragement to take up and continue riding at any time of life.
About the Author: Gale Bernhardt
Bernhardt’s area of expertise is coaching. She coaches cyclists, and has done so for over 30 years, at all levels of the sport including professional, and including Olympic cyclists and triathletes. Bicycling for WOMEN reflects Bernhardt’s passions: for cycling, for cyclists, for supporting all cyclists in getting the most out of themselves and their cycling, and for encouraging everyone to try cycling as an activity. She lives, rides, and coaches in Boulder, Colorado. Find out more at Gale Bernhardt Consulting
About the Reviewer: Dr Louise Bricknell
Dr Bricknell’s area of expertise is skills-based learning. She has researched, studied and worked across five continents; was an athlete at the Victorian Institute of Sport; and currently develops adventures in learning, using road and mountain bike skill development, for companies, schools, and people who want to foster learning in themselves and their organisations. Find out more at BikeBeyond