Christina Bennett was riding up a Zwift mountain when a familiar voice started saying she couldn’t do it. She wasn’t going to make it to the top.
“I’ve always had complicated feelings towards sports, I think because of not growing up being encouraged to be athletic and always struggling with anxiety and depression,” Bennett says. “So I often have this little voice in my head that tells me I’m terrible at everything I do.”
But she kept going. She had joined a group event for women and she was determined to finish the ride, encouraged by the others around her.
Bennett got over the top of the Innsbruck climb and burst into tears. “Take that, dumb voice!” It was her hardest ride and biggest climb yet, indoors or outdoors. She was still pretty new to cycling.
Just a few months before, she didn’t know how to ride a bike.
Bennett, now 31, was happy to avoid anything athletic for almost the first three decades of her life – until 2017. That’s when her doctor told her she was about 60 pounds overweight and at risk of major health problems.
“She was concerned that if I didn’t make some significant lifestyle changes that I was on my way to diabetes,” Bennett says.
So she decided to start running.
“It was miserable and hilarious and I remember vacillating between feeling awesome and wishing I was dead,” she says with a laugh. “My heart rate was something like 201 and I remember coming home and screeching that at my husband, a mountain biker, and asking if I was dying. He tried to very gently tell me I would live, I was just out of shape.”
Bennett would focus on running to targets like the next tree or the next house before slowing to a walk. Eventually, she could run past more trees, then past more houses, then a whole mile, then a few miles. She even started enjoying it!
A few half marathons later, she decided she wanted to try cycling with her husband, Dave.
“He’s been riding a bike his whole life and he’s amazing at it, and I wanted us to be able to connect over riding bikes together,” she says. “Neither of us expected that it would take years, or that we would ever be sitting on the side of the road so much with him straightening out my handlebars while I’m throwing a tantrum and cursing and shaking my fist. Learning to ride a bike at 30ish is HARD!”
Christina and her husband Dave
Believe to Achieve
At first, Bennett started on a beach cruiser with training wheels. It was slow going. Dave encouraged her, but she was embarrassed to ride with children’s training wheels, and the heavy single-speed cruiser was hard to pedal.
“I think after a few weeks we crashed into each other somehow and I took a hiatus from learning for a while,” she says. “He got rid of that bike.”
In the summer of 2018, Bennett’s husband bought himself a dirt jumper, and she decided to try again.
“He would just pull the pedals off and I would sit on the seat and keep my feet on the ground and scoot myself up and down the street, like a kids’ balance bike,” she says.
Eventually, she got another bike of her own. This time, it was a Specialized Pitch mountain bike. She kept the seat low enough that she could scoot with her feet. Then she’d pick up her feet to the pedals and start really riding!
Bit by bit, she moved the saddle up, but she would still scoot with her toes to get going. This fall, her husband told her, “Just pretend you know how to do it.”
So Bennett steeled herself, jokingly quoting a motivational phrase from the TV show “King of the Hill”: “believe to achieve!”
“Then I tried to pedal to start and it worked,” she says. “Now I feel like I have to say it every time, but it keeps working.”
A self-portrait from Christina, showing herself as part turtle alongside her miniature horse Falafel
Zwift Community and Challenges
During a cold and wet winter in January 2019, Bennett’s husband surprised her with a Wahoo KICKR and a Zwift subscription so she could ride indoors.
“I think it’s really cool,” she says. “I’ve never really liked exercise for the sake of exercising, but making it into a game makes it fun, so someone like me who is more like, ‘ugh the gym? Maybe wine and Netflix instead?’ is more likely to get into it.”
At times when she felt shaky or uncertain riding outdoors, she could push her limits indoors on Zwift. Her miniature horse, Falafel, likes to keep her company, and she’s also found a supportive community in other Zwift riders. She started posting in the Zwift Ladies Only Facebook group and chatting with riders in-game.
“Being new to cycling too, and (my husband)’s the only person I bike with, it’s really cool to be able to connect with other women bikers in the lady events,” says Bennett. “Some of them have been so hard and it’s been amazing to see the chat messages and not feel alone.”
One memorable challenge for her was completing the Absa Cape Epic group workout series. She had to lower the FTP bias of the workouts, making them a little easier, and she still had trouble finishing them. But she kept trying.
(Zwift now offers a Back to Fitness training plan, meant for beginners or people coming back to riding after a long break. If you’re having trouble with some of Zwift’s structured workouts or aren’t sure if they’re for you, try this plan’s shorter sessions!)
“My first metric century was on Zwift,” Bennett says. “It took me all day but I was so proud that I did it. I could cry happy tears thinking about these moments.”
Outdoors, she’s been riding longer and longer, often with the help of her husband on a tandem bike. They had signed up for a century (100 miles) ride on their tandem in March 2020, but it was canceled. Bennett still wants to hit that milestone in the future.
Learn Something New
How is Bennett’s health after a few years of increased activity?
The last time she went in for a checkup, her doctor said everything looked great. Her numbers and weight have improved, and she’s feeling good!
Bennett has mostly moved from running to cycling these days, but she’d like to get back into trail running. It’s something that she enjoyed until she started comparing herself to faster athletes and doubting herself.
“I think we’re really hard on ourselves sometimes,” she says. “I’ve been trying to remind myself to treat me the way my best friend treats me.”
Bennett is learning to accept and feel good about her own progress on the bike. She says kids pass her doing tricks and riding faster than she is, but she still feels amazing while riding.
“I wish I hadn’t spent so many years so afraid to learn something new,” Bennett says.
With a new year beginning, you might be thinking of making some lifestyle changes of your own. Try something new, start a healthy habit, or master that skill you’ve never learned. Bennett urges, don’t be too afraid to take that step!
“To make a change you have to want it even if that voice in your head says you’re going to look like an idiot with your adult training wheels,” she says. “It gets easier, and it eventually might even be fun, but you won’t know until you try.”