There’s a small handful or western rites-of-passage that skipped over me. Going to sleepaway camp, becoming blood siblings with someone and, oh yeah–learning to ride a bike.
My parents claimed the trike they bought me when I was little broke, and they never got me a new one. When I was little I opted to roller blade, or jump rope, or ride scooters. I wasn’t thinking about this unspoken skill that I never mastered–at least, until riding your scooter wasn’t cool anymore and my best friend, Hannah began riding her bike again. The summer after 8th grade she attempted to teach me to ride with no avail. Her method consisted of pushing me and letting go moments after I started pedaling. I fell again and again, finally quitting after I ruined my friend’s tire wheel.
The summer before college Hannah left for orientation early. In need of a quick work substitute, her boss, Maria, hired me to work at my local bike shop. But there was little more intimidating to a girl that doesn’t know how to ride a bike than having customers inquire about the state of their fork, bolts for tightening rear axles, or raising a seat post. I worked the register, trying (and often failing) to sound as knowledgeable about bikes as possible. One day, walking back to the register from the bathroom, Maria stopped me.
“Do you want to learn how to ride a bike?”
I blinked, caught off guard. “Well, if there’s time for me to learn….”
“We could get you riding in a week, tops.”
She had me pick a bike to choose. We ventured out into the oppressive August sun, with me awkwardly maneuvering the bike out the door. I strapped the helmet on and mounted the bike.
“Okay, what you want to do is coast,” Maria instructed. “You had a scooter when you were a kid, right?” I nodded.
“It’s just like that. Push your feet off the ground, and see how long you can balance.” After looking around, making sure no one was within five yards of me, I tentatively pushed off with both my feet. I stumbled at first, barely traveling a foot before almost tipping over. With determination, I kept coasting until I finally felt myself going further and further, without feet on the ground. So this is what it felt like to bike? Of course, I wasn’t exactly riding since my feet weren’t on the pedals…but this was what freedom felt like!. Once in a while, when I got to the curb, I had to get off the bike and physically turn it around. But I had the first step down.
The next day, I did the same, this time keeping one foot on the pedal and one foot on the ground, coasting. I tried to ignore the curious glances around me and tune in on Maria’s words of encouragement.
“That’s it, just coast! You’re doing great!”
After a day, I mastered that skill too. And as I wheeled the bike back into the shop, Maria told me the next step, which was pedaling with both feet. I put this off for as long as I could. During work, I occupied myself by sorting accessories and pricing items. Finally, on one very slow Wednesday afternoon, I made up my mind that I would learn. With conviction, I grabbed my bike from the back slab and took it out front. I had a mantra in my head as I attempted to ride: kick, push, coast. Kick, push, coast.I moved to a quieter side-street, where the only passerby was the occasional bum. For fifteen minutes, I fumbled with trying to get my feet on both pedals. Finally, as I coasted for the fiftieth time, I put my first foot on the pedal…so far, I was still balancing. Then I added my second foot and tried to pedal. I was wobbly, and felt like I would fall over again; I came close to falling over on a garbage dumpster. But I managed to keep pedaling stayed upright.
This was it–I could ride a bike! I could say goodbye to years of embarrassment and years of shame! I came back into the bike shop sweaty, out-of-breath, but still triumphant.