Learning to Ride a Bike

I learned how to bike when I was really young. Somewhere between the ages of 5 and 7 if I had to guess. It is curious, actually, that my parents made a point of buying each of us bikes and teaching us to ride. We lived on a busy, narrow road, the kind with ditches on the side and blindman curves throughout. There were certainly no sidewalks or bike paths in that entire side of town. There still aren’t.

The process of learning went like this. I would pedal all over the front yard and pace across the fifteen feet of uneven patio-style sidewalk and zoom and skid down the steep gravel driveway with my training wheels on. At some point, the training wheels were removed and my dad would walk me back and forth on the tiny sidewalk, letting go every once and a while. I have no memory of the actual transition from needing help to riding independently: one minute he was holding on, and then suddenly I could do it on my own.

I do think that is how we remember skills that we learn when we are young. There is no process or technique; we have known how to do this for so long that it is innate. Some people are this way with swimming or playing an instrument. Learning those skills as an adult, though, and practicing at them alongside people who have those skills internalized is intimidating and humbling. I have been thinking about this as we bike along the lakeshore path  in Chicago. Several times a week, we pass a woman in her thirties or forties who wears a bright blue helmet, has a broad and sturdy bike, and moves glacially slow. Her legs push the pedals in a controlled cyclic motion and her hands are firmly planted on the handlebars in the bicycling equivalent of hands on two and ten. We pass her immediately each encounter, but she is never surprised, she just moves methodically ahead, eyes focused on the path ahead of her.

I am sure she just learned how to ride.

Obviously, having not asked her directly, I have no way to truly know her history of biking. Maybe she just keeps her bike on a low low gear? The way she moves, though, with a steady pace and careful balance, I am sure that she is a student driver, if you will.

I have been biking my whole life, and was  still very intimidated to bike on the road to get to lakeshore path, and then equally intimidated to ride along and be passed by speedy “real bikers.” The kind that have those ugly sporty sunglasses on, those alien-shaped helmets and those tight, padded pants. Those guys. I cannot imagine mustering up the same courage if I was new and unsure and all alone but guess what? This woman does that. All the time! She practices with regularity and determination. Color me impressed.

I guess in a way I do that with other things. Practicing my instrument even though I started five years later than the masters and always feel a little behind. Enrolling in a rock climbing training course with real climbers even though I can’t make it up the wall right now. Having conversations about child behavior with parents who are older than me. There is definitely a fake it till you make it confidence requirement for learning and growing in different skill sets.

I think that watching this woman’s focus and determination has given me a fresh inspiration to try new things and to commit to hard things. It is really tempting to withdraw from uncomfortable challenge, but the struggle makes us stronger.

I’ll be sure to wear a helmet.

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