I never learnt how to ride a bike as a child. Well, that’s a lie; I did, to a very minimal degree, but then an incident occurred (the details of which remain under lock and key*), and I stopped. The older I became, the more the two-wheeled enigma became an impenetrable fantasy mode of transport, and the more estranged I felt from “normal” people who took this skill for granted.
Leaving aside the limitations to mobility – particular when I was living in Melbourne – there’s a secret shame to not being able to ride a bike as an adult. For one, if you do confess this to someone, the most common response is: “How can you not know how to ride a bike?”
This question, though not ill-intended, is incredibly frustrating. It would always compound my self-consciousness about even admitting I couldn’t ride a bike. Which doesn’t really help in finding the courage to give it a stab. Instead, I continued to eye cyclists with a very mature mix of envy and resentment, wondering how I was missing a basic component of apparent adult normalcy.
So I became defensive. Defensiveness morphed into obstinacy – much more useful – and eventually overrode self-consciousness. I was going to learn how to negotiate this bloody two-wheeled metal contraption. I would achieve some measure of “normal”. I pictured myself flitting from house to house, gliding effortlessly through Melbourne’s grey streets, gracefully disembarking my vehicle, only to disappear into the night again with bike lights winking in the dark – as I’d so often seen others do, like it was the simplest thing in the world.
But it was not so simple to learn. It didn’t happen overnight, and I still really, really suck at it. But it does make a nice template for how to practice, how to steel yourself and just have a crack – ‘cause at the end of the day, life’s too short to be self-conscious and fearful. (Also, evading tram inspectors is incredibly stressful after a while.)
This is how I learnt how to ride a bike at the ripe old age of 26.
I inherited my brother’s former faithful two-wheeled steed, which we shall call Old Red. Old Red travelled with me from house to house, Canberra to Melbourne, silent but accusatory, gathering dust each passing month as I tried to ignore its omnipresent guilt trip.
I kept harping on about how I was going to learn to ride a bike to friends who at first, bless them, encouraged the notion. Then they justifiably got sick of me being all talk, and interrogated me until it was no longer possible to avoid seeing it through without feeling like I was somehow failing both them and myself.
They cajoled me in rarely populated car parks with subtle inclines, held me steady on the bike, forced me to take my feet off the ground and become accustomed to the sensation of balance. We experimented on my street as well, which at one point led to being loudly ridiculed by a small gang of teenage boys.
My next step was consistency, and repetition. Every morning at 7am, I took Old Red out onto the footpath in front of my house in Fitzroy North. I’d hop on the seat with one foot on a pedal, and propel myself forwards as though on a skateboard. I experimented with taking that other foot off the ground, finding the other pedal, and then, slowly, slowly, when I found my footing, trying for a single revolution.
I did this over and over, just 10-15 minutes per day, nearly running over my tiny old Italian neighbour and her little white dog on their morning walk around the block. My avid cyclist significant lover gave me some useful tips to help me cross the threshold. Keep your gaze up, look towards where you want to go. RELAX. Unclench your hands on the handlebars; your knuckles are going white. RELAX. Stop overthinking it. RELAX. I took to repeatedly saying “spanakopita”** really loudly in my head as I practiced, as a distraction from fear.
Then, one day, it happened.
I managed several revolutions without falling; the sense of balance came – albeit briefly – as though it had just been hiding away all along.
My god, the rush when I managed to peddle for the first time! I screamed inwardly, “I’m a cute girl in an A-line smock riding a bicycle in Berlin!”*** and, with the stupidest grin plastered across my face, cycled for about three metres – before crashing into the side of a stationary car.
I didn’t let this discourage me – I held onto that delectable sensation of flying along, even for just a few moments. I tried again, going further, setting goal destinations, allowing myself to hop off and walk when I needed, not letting it get to me when I nearly got run over by taxi drivers failing to indicate, when cars would honk, when other cyclists yelled random abuse because I was clumsy and still learning. It was, and still is, a messy process of trying, flailing, failing, and trying again. But it helps to pointedly ignore anyone who mocks you for trying, or at least turn to some good friends who will call out those asshats and tell you you’re a magnificent courageous warrior of mythical proportions.
Sometimes though – a lot of the time – you will feel like the asshat, humiliating and harming yourself. It’s part of the fear cycle that holds many of us back from trying new things – the overriding, paralytic fear of really, really sucking at something. You can see how it should be, you can envisage exactly how well you ought to be able to do something (and let’s not forget that healthy ol’ demon, comparing our current capabilities to those of others), but the reality that manifests is clumsy, discouraging, and bad enough to make you give up before you’ve really tried at all.
With cycling, I realised I had to apply the same principles I’d learnt in developing my writing, i.e. write many really terrible gigantic steaming piles of triceratops dung, and continue anyway. I still have a long way to go, and practicing has come to a bit of a standstill (owning a single speed in Hobart, City of Hills, is not really motivational). But I got past the first hurdle and, with another dash of almost comical determination, I’ll get past a few more.
My next challenge? Learning how to play a musical instrument. Because I’m so great at realistic ambitions, I’ve gone with a really simple option. Watch me flail, fall, flail again, but maybe possibly crack out a tune that isn’t just me yelling “I’M A GODDAMN PIRATE!” (or singing “Drunken Sailor” with magpie editor Cheney over a few cheeky whiskys):
What are you going to try, magpie readers? Get in touch – we’d love to hear what you’re scared of trying, and what you’ll brave.
*Unless someone’s being generous with their whisky.
**My comfort food.
***A fantasy of mine for the past decade.
Illustrations by the adroit and effulgent Elly Freer.