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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  6/1/2005

Lessons on Two Wheels

Whenever I meet people who aren't avid cyclists (yet), they invariably ask me where they can learn to ride a bike. Or how they can get back into bicycling. Or even ramp up from rank novice to a more confident level.

My answer: Enroll in the ACTC Academy. Run by volunteer members of Almaden Cycle Touring Club in San Jose, the Academy offers 12 weeks of cycling instruction for adults who want to become competent cyclists.

The structured Academy curriculum combines classroom instruction, hands-on practice and actual road riding. If you're 18 or older, you can register for one, two or all three Academy "modules," starting with Introduction to Bike Riding (IBR), then advancing to Road Riding I (RRI) and Road Riding II (RRII). You must be a member of ACTC to enroll. Tuition for the each of thefirst two modules is around $10.

Each module meets every Saturday for four weeks, so if you sign up for the entire Academy course, it involves 12 consecutive Saturdays. Sure, that's a lot of time to commit, but there's another option. Complete IBR (Module 1), then hold off until the next session, in about six months, to sign up for Module 2. Likewise, after Module 2, you can put off attending Module 3 until next time around.

In 2003 the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition cited ACTC for "their successful Academy which introduces novices to the joys of cycling . . . since the late 80s." Actually, the Academy got its start when one ACTC member began teaching basic bike riding skills like fixing flats and shifting gears. By 1989 she had passed the task on to Robbie Huffman and Tommie Lacy, two ladies who knew their stuff and were eager to create a professional program. About 12 years ago these two "Deans" retired from teaching, turning the handlebars over to Esther Snively, who remains the Academy's "Chancellor." She works closely with co-chancellor Harry Lichtbach, who is one of the most dedicated cycling instructors around.

Who are the teachers?

"We have enthusiastic club members who are willing to dedicate many Saturdays to help others learn the joys of cycling," says Esther. "[They] coordinate the curriculum, plan and check routes and design lessons."

"The ACTC Academy Faculty is composed of experienced and qualified instructors," adds Harry. "Some are certified League of American Bicyclists (LAB) League Cycling Instructors (LCIs). We ask each staff member to attend at least one training sessions every 12 months. Training includes teaching instructions, what to watch for in students during rides, practice, feedback and, very important, how to conduct yourself during student instruction and rides. We discuss any disagreements we have in riding techniques and reach consensus on how we will handle these disagreements." As a result of this rigorous training, the Academy staff becomes more professional every year.

The Academy is run very professionally," agrees student Pauline Wilson. "I am so impressed with the staff. They donate so much time and energy to ensure its success and the success of the students. They are experienced, expert cyclists, passionate about their cycling. They share their expertise and stories in an informal and humorous fashion."

What they teach you

In IBR/Module 1, you'll learn how about helmets, clothes and accessories, and various types of bikes. You'll also delve into the mysteries of gears, shifting and braking. Before you finish, you'll know the rules of the road, how to ride safely in traffic and in a group, how and what to eat and drink for optimum performance. You'll be able to climb and descend, fix your own flats, and tackle whatever else comes up in class and/or on the road.

Whew! That's a lot to squeeze into four four-to-eight hour sessions of lectures, demonstrations, practice and yes, bike rides. Before the very first ride, Terry Shaw of Shaw's Lightweight Cycles inspects everyone's bike and makes necessary repairs.

Then it's off on the road. "We start with 10 miles at a 'leisurely' pace," says Harry. "We make frequent stops to review road and traffic situations as they occur. Depending on class size and available staff, we may break into groups, but we wait for everyone."

By the fourth IBR ride, everyone should be able to do 25 miles at a slightly speedier, "Leisurely-to-Moderate" pace. At least one ride stresses shifting practice, followed by, as Harry puts it, "doing a real hill" (IOW, a sustained climb). But don't worry, he reminds his students, "you already know how to get into your lowest gear and that is all it will take."

Last year, one of the rides also featured a time trial, complete with timekeeper and club participants. Another sent students up short-but-steep "Church Hill," apparently a surprise for those who had yet to master shifting!

Got the IBR basics down but still want to increase your endurance and climbing ability? If you showed up for all four IBR classes, sign up for RRI/Module 2. You'll boost your ride mileage to 45 while you learn about nutrition, heart rate and training zones, riding in the rain, pedaling techniques, gearing and gear charts, and -- again -- practice, practice, practice.

Still eager to ride and learn more while gearing up for your first century? Four more Saturdays of RRII/Module 3 will cost you nothing (except sweat equity). Lectures and demos include night riding, drafting, bicycle commuting, minor roadside repair. And your pedaling excursions culminate in a 100 km (62-mile) "graduation" ride.

Most years the Academy also offers additional modules on mountain biking and bicycle touring, complete with "field trips."

Who are the students?

Pauline Wilson told me she had next to no confidence on a bike before taking the IBR and RRI courses. "I could not have achieved a 40-mile bike ride without the support and encouragement from the Academy staff. They allowed me to ride at my own pace and distracted me from the pain, discomfort and stress with stories gathered from their years of bike riding. I now have the confidence to join club rides!"

Nita Frick, on the other hand, had been a club and century rider in the 80s. Then she dropped out of cycling for 15 years. The Academy gave her a chance to get back to one of her life passions and at the same time meet fellow cyclists in a non-challenging environment. "I was very impressed with how professionally organized the Academy was," Nita said. "The materials were good, the lectures were good. It was like a real school."

Another former student told Esther: " I love biking again (last time was 26 years ago!) and the academy's information and moral support have been absolutely invaluable." Yet another said: "I'm learning everything I should have learned five years ago and enjoying it." And one more: "I really look forward to each week's ride and feel I've finally discovered what I love to do!! Cycle!!" Nearly all of them said they were recommending the Academy to their friends.

Although most Academy students come from the South Bay, a growing number are driving long distances to be in San Jose by 8:30 on Saturday mornings. "We have had students come from San Francisco, San Mateo, Monterey, Salinas, Livermore, Santa Cruz and Aptos," Esther told me.

Of course, enrolling in the Academy means meeting like-minded people on bikes. I love to tell singles about my friends Katie and Harold. (OK, I changed their names for anonymity, but ACTC folks will guess who they are.) Back in the mid-90s a mutual friend and I strongly advised Katie to enroll. She did, and by the time she'd advanced to Module 2, she had met Harold, an intermediate-level instructor. I attended their wedding about a year later.

Thinking of someone (maybe yourself) who could use some real-life lessons on two wheels? Get them to join Almaden Cycle Touring Club and sign up with ACTC Academy Registrar Karin Crosby. Total cost of $20 dues plus $10-$20 tuition is such a deal! Besides, when you're on two wheels, you're never too cool for school!

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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