A tale of two adults’ attempt to learn to ride a bicycle

Sy, who is older than I am at 37, and I never learned how to ride a bicycle.

My parents got me a tricycle – it was red – and then a bicycle with training wheels. But they got busy starting the restaurant and I never got beyond the training wheels stage and always just leaned to one side or the other. Throughout adolescence, I amused myself reading books while my younger sister would mess around and, as far as I know, figured out how to ride a bike on her own. Our mum drove us everywhere we needed because we lived far from school and our extracurricular activities so I never had to get anywhere on my own. My last attempt to learn how to ride a bike was well over 15 years ago, perhaps during March Break in Toronto when some cousins attempted to teach me.

Sy and I and our group of friends have known about this shortcoming for several years. It hasn’t been a hindrance or anything as no group cycling outing has ever been proposed. Recently, NPY got a new bike after many years of not having one. It has been a nice and new turn of events where instead of being planted in front of the television all evening, NPY will call or message me and let me know he’s heading out for a ride. Also recently, I listened to the DNTO episode “Where did your bike take you?” [mp3] wherein one of the stories was about a cycling school in Montreal geared to help new immigrants learn how to ride bicycles and how the woman interviewed learned how to ride a bike within three sessions.

Three sessions. I had to get started.

Things haven’t particularly slowed down since summer ended but here was a Saturday when I was in town. I made the proposal that Sy and I learn and everyone else was welcome to attend and help and watch.

On Friday evening, we worked out the logistics which I haven’t given a lot of thought. I thought we’d rent bikes in Yaletown or Coal Harbour, the latter where Sy lives. But where would we learn? Sy wasn’t keen on there being a lot of human traffic potential spectators and we couldn’t really transport rentals to, say, Richmond. After some consultation, Sy borrowed a bike from a friend going out of town and I borrowed one from a friend who lives in Richmond and we would learn in a parking lot, which is more abundant in Richmond than downtown Vancouver. It was settled.

As we approached 3 p.m., our meet-up time, I was wholly discouraged from who knows what. I was tired and took a two-hour nap at noon. Maybe I would just sleep through it and miss the meet-up altogether?

We picked up two friends downtown and head to Richmond. Sy head with the group that went to the parking lot first. Meanwhile, I was, as I declared in the group Whats App chat, “kidnapped by the caffeine addicts and at Starbucks!” We endured the worse queue ever at a Starbucks in a Target and left without coffee. It was horrible.

Half an hour after the other group including Sy got to the parking lot, we arrived at the parking lot of Henry Anderson Elementary School and I set to work right away.

You see, I felt a bit competitive with Sy. Supposedly I have better balance than Sy since I dance and I do core-training activities like barre and ballet. I kind of look more fit than he does. I didn’t want to let Sy know I was feeling competitive and bring out his competitive spirit because he was sure to “beat” me.

The bike I rode was kind of a mountain bike with wheels with thick treads, Columbia brand, and at the lowest setting of the seat, I was on my tip toes. I wondered if I had really erred in what I decided to wear (stretchy but skinny jeans – had I set myself up for failure?) and the sun was unexpectedly brilliant for late afternoon in the fall.

The first thing Dee and NPY tried to get me to do was pedal and balance and steer while Dee held the handle (which I felt was pulling me to one side) and NPY held my seat. I wasn’t catching on. I was bailing easily and quickly. I was given instructions to build up my momentum, to try to steer, to look ahead, to not bail, where to arrange the pedals and start pedaling. I was quickly feeling a little tired holding up the heavy bike when I tipped and had to set it straight again. I was leaning my own body in the opposite direction from where the bike was leaning. They were both encouraging and saying that I “got it” and I didn’t think “getting it” for all of one second was anything to encourage me.

I looked over at Sy and he was coasting, one foot on a pedal, the other one off the ground and he was steering to adjust.

Why wasn’t I getting it?!

I kept tipping over. The bike felt so heavy and overly tall and I didn’t have control.

I rolled over NPY’s foot. I really cracked up at that. Poor guy, didn’t know how to help me, frustrated that I couldn’t go any distance, how incorrect my steering and corrections were. How quick I was to put my foot on the ground.

I looked over and Sy was cycling, slowly, in need of frequent adjusting and compensation with steering. He was traversing the parking lot without his feet ever touching the ground. Then, I got mad. He was riding! He had lied about “not being able to ride a bike”!

I was also mad at myself. Something was not clicking. I didn’t feel in control of my education. I was being too “cerebral” and listening to instructions and asking about processes. I wasn’t learning in the correct order. So, I started where it was logical, where I saw Sy at about half an hour before.

As I had kind of snapped to poor Dee, I knew how to pedal. I’ve clocked stationary biking and paddleboating experience. Sy and I have gone through over 30 years eluding knowledge of balancing in the air while in a seated position. With a few more tips from NPY like not leaning into the handlebars because that makes steering difficult and to be relaxed, I tried to coast down the small incline in the parking lot. I kept putting my foot down but started to concentrate on steering and at the slow rate I was going, it was kind of “dry steering” and almost futile.

But that’s how I got the courage to push off with a little more momentum and steer down the small slope to stay off the ground for one second, then two seconds and three.

Then, once, I had coasted for three seconds and I was tired of having my left leg splayed to the side and I put it on a pedal and kind of naturally pedaled for a couple more seconds. Behind me, NPY was bewildered and choked out, “What the…?” Then I bailed.

But… oh! Soon, I was running back up to the highest point and trying to recapture that. It still took a few tries and I would pedal for five seconds or even almost 10. I bailed a couple of times badly and scratched the end of each of the handles and even Dee’s pretty bell that reads “This bike is my car.” That’s when I put on dopey knee pads and wrist pads and still declined to wear a helmet. I was starting to go somewhere.

Sy and I are so blessed to have supporters and friends come out, give up a Saturday to spend with us in a potentially futile endeavour and to have so much faith in us: NPY, Dee who loaned her bike and hubby JZ, and another couple. But I was freaking out when someone looked over at me and kindly gave words of support or observed me or got excited I was kinda cycling. At this point, everyone except Sy, NPY and I left to get that elusive Starbucks coffee.

That was what I needed. The larger group would be away for 15 or 30 minutes or more if NPY had figured it out and told them what he suspected I needed. After more false starts than real ones, I was cycling again. I wanted to ride in a full circle in the inner parking lot like I had seen Sy doing half an hour earlier. I tried my hand at making gradual turns. I even rolled over a few speed bumps. NPY marvelled that I went over a speed bump – the bane of my existence when rollerblading – and I informed him that I had gone over a few already! He marvelled that I would just start pedaling instead of getting a rolling start. Sometimes I would start to get tense, lean forward and start to lose control but I remembered what NPY said to sit back and be relaxed. I even started to brake, tentatively at first to get an idea of the level of response.

Not that I’m consistent by any means and I fear that when I get another chance to go out, not for another week, I won’t be able to replicate my efforts, but when I crossed the barrier, to the other side, I almost couldn’t remember or fathom not being able to do it! Why did I wobble or be unsure to begin with? It is kind of natural and, cliche as it sounds, easier to do it when you don’t think about it.

Apparently, Sy had major difficulties as well in the beginning, during that half hour while I was waiting in line at Starbucks. We laughed about it and how I thought it was going to be a waste of everyone’s time and how despairing NPY was starting to feel at first.

Everyone was floored we could make such progress in a day and asked what the breakthrough point is. Soon, some of use will be teaching our children to ride and wanted to know. That’s why I tried to document our efforts here. Know how to pedal first on a tricycle or with training wheels, then learn how to coast on two wheels… then it comes together, a little like magic.

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NPY really needs a new phone, but that’s me! (There is also a video.)

And while we’re on the topic, I already have lofty goals. It’s the distance runner in me that wants to ride far and be able to report that I had gone to some mind-bogglingly far neighbouring town. Actually, if it weren’t for the fundraising amount and some fear of the inordinate discomfort, I wanted to learn to ride a bicycle in order to do the 200-300 kilometer ride to Seattle for the Ride to Conquer Cancer.

There, I said it!

Edit: I forgot to mention how tense I felt at times, even a bit fearful at times. I thought I would scrape myself up and did land on the pads of my palms and my knees. Immediately after, my hands were a little sore and today, my pecs are sore!

On this day..