I am learning to ride a bicycle.

I am learning to ride a bicycle. Oh yeah.

Don’t ask me how I managed to get to the age of 24 without learning earlier, that’s what everybody asks; I just did, alright. My sister can’t either. My dad did try to teach me when I was about 12 or so; it didn’t work, I guess I was a bad combination of too stubborn and too scared. Now it’s different, my stubbornness is actually helping me in a way, I’m approaching it as a kind of challenge, so I’m thinking ‘huh, riding a bike, anyone can ride a bike, I bet I can too’. Also my very dear friend, P, is helping me. Well, actually he deserves more credit than that. He is not just ‘helping me’, he is: almost solely responsible for bringing bicycles into my consciousness, proselytizing about his whenever I give him a chance; definitely the most constant source of nagging/promising to teach me ever since he found out I couldn’t, at least a year ago; single-handedly undertaking teaching me in a series of early(ish) morning lessons on the Meadows; selflessly allowing his beloved bike to be mishandled, wobblingly ridden and fallen off by me, in what he calls ‘low rider’ mode which is where he’s changed the seat to cater to my smaller proportions; running along behind me holding me up, being encouraging and apologising when he touches my bottom; tirelessly explaining every principle of bike-riding physics and engineering that I think of questions to ask him about, and even the ones I don’t; providing emotional support and tough love and absolutely not allowing me to quit; incredibly patient and tolerant and lovely and cheerful in the face of my cowering, wibbling, sulking, falling, bellowing and cursing; generally going far above and beyond the call of friendship duty; actually quite possibly a saint.

I have had two lessons which probably total about three hours of attempted riding. Lesson one was on (skanky, wet) grass and included steering, braking and pedalling, but didn’t include sitting on the seat because he had forgotten the Allen key to lower it and my feet wouldn’t go all the way around on the pedals otherwise. Lesson two included starting (it’s really difficult!), stopping and actually riding in straight lines, on concrete and grass, slightly uphill and slightly downhill, and changing gear. And falling off. And an ’emergency stop’ because a dog was about to piss on P’s bag, haha, awesome. Anyway, I rode on Middle Meadow Walk for, I’d say, maybe 20 metres without his support. He said ‘I let go there for a moment!’ and I said ‘NOOO WAAAAY’ and he said ‘WAAAY!’ and I said ‘waaay?!’ then he did it again and ran along beside me waving his hands so I could see them, then I said ‘wwaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH‘ (this is my usual cycling sound) and he held on again until we got to the top bit where I stopped quite smoothly and dismounted gracefully and did a happy little jig.

After that I fell off. I saw a tree that was growing at a weird angle, like 20 or 30 degrees off vertical, and kind of leaning into the path where I was riding, and it made me feel all funny and unbalanced, and I’d got quite a good speed up (I was in second gear) so then all of a sudden I was unbalanced and I fell owwwwwww. I wanted to go home after that but P wouldn’t allow it, so he made me ride on the grass for a bit. Riding on the grass is really different and sort of harder, you have to put more effort in to turn the pedals and it’s wet and leaves go in the spokes and make funny sounds and then my feet fall off the pedals sometimes because they’re slippery and I think that’s what happened and I fell off again owww but not as painfully as the first but muddier. And once more in a bad way which was where I thought about that tree again, and then my legs got all tangled up with the frame while I was falling and it REALLY hurt and P sort of dived in the opposite direction and scraped his arm up on the path too. If you are interested in injuries you can see some of mine here, do not click that if bruises upset you, okay, srsly.

So in an attempt to get my fearlessness head on, today I have been reading about Frances Willard, a cool American suffragist who learned to ride in the 1890s at the age of 53. She wrote a book about it, A Wheel within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, in which she extols its virtues, offers practical advice to fellow learners, and moralizes wildly about the benefits and socio-psychological lessons you can learn from cycling. I love the crap out of her.

There is already a rather good blog post about it here, and she is wordy just like me, so I’ll not go on; but on the other hand she really is eminently quotable and I wanted to put this bit here for keeps, because it makes me laugh and I need to remember it and I think maybe it will help.

[F]rom the day when, at sixteen years of age, I was enwrapped in the long skirts that impeded every footstep, I have detested walking and felt with a certain noble disdain that the conventions of life had cut me off from what in the freedom of my prairie home had been one of life’s sweetest joys. Driving is not real exercise; it does not renovate the river of blood that flows so sluggishly in the veins of those who from any cause have lost the natural adjustment of brain to brawn. Horseback-riding, which does promise vigorous exercise, is expensive. The bicycle meets all the conditions and will ere long come within the reach of all. Therefore, in obedience to the laws of health, I learned to ride. I also wanted to help women to a wider world, for I hold that the more interests women and men can have in common, in thought, word, and deed, the happier will it be for the home. Besides, there was a special value to women in the conquest of the bicycle by a woman in her fifty-third year, and one who had so many comrades in the white-ribbon army that her action would be widely influential. . . .

It is needless to say that a bicycling costume was a prerequisite. This consisted of a skirt and blouse of tweed, with belt, rolling collar, and loose cravat, the skirt three inches from the ground; a round straw hat; and walking-shoes with gaiters. It was a simple, modest suit, to which no person of common sense could take exception.

As nearly as I can make out, reducing the problem to actual figures, it took me about three months, with an average of fifteen minutes’ practice daily, to learn, first, to pedal; second, to turn; third, to dismount; and fourth, to mount independently this most mysterious animal. January 20th will always be a red-letter bicycle day, because although I had already mounted several times with no hand on the rudder, some good friend had always stood by to lend moral support; but summoning all my force, and, most forcible of all, what Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson declares to be the two essential elements—decision and precision—I mounted and started off alone. From that hour the spell was broken; Gladys [that is what she calls her bike, because it gladdens her] was no more a mystery: I had learned all her kinks, had put a bridle in her teeth, and touched her smartly with the whip of victory.

Consider, ye who are of a considerable chronology: in about thirteen hundred minutes, or, to put it more mildly, in twenty-two hours, or, to put it most mildly of all, in less than a single day as the almanac reckons time—but practically in two days of actual practice—amid the delightful surroundings of the great outdoors, and inspired by the bird-songs, the color and fragrance of an English posygarden, in the company of devoted and pleasant comrades, I had made myself master of the most remarkable, ingenious, and inspiring motor ever yet devised upon this planet.

I can’t wait to touch Marin smartly with the whip of victory, it’s going to be wicked. I will honestly try not to ever write quite so much about cycling again (especially considering how much Other Stuff has actually been happening lately that I could’ve written about instead – among other things I’ve gone to Newcastle, gone to London, gone to two weddings and a mehndi, had the most rubbish night out ever, met lots of people, ridden the big wheel in the gardens, attempted ice skating, urban explored a bit, found a really weird new beverage (Polish lime and mint juice for 24p in tesco), went to a party where I didn’t get drunk but still had a good time), but I will probably keep you posted, sort of, maybe.

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  • By PHOTO Tradewinds 090314-M-7404B-004 on December 1, 2010 at 16:24

    […] mechanical/engineering know-how, but that is a journey and apparently I am still at the beginning (read more here about my big adventure of learning to cycle as an adult, if you like). With my trusty bike I will […]

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