My hours on a bike reach about 16. Not 16 this year. Not 16 as an adult. Just 16. Total.
I got my first bike when I was seven, after we had moved away from my grandparents’ house and into our own apartment. Like all Christmases thereafter, my mom made me stay in my room until my grandparents got there, which was akin to torture for a young child who knew Santa had been there the night before. I waited. And waited. Finally, I heard the knock on the door.
“Where’s the baby?” Papa asked as my mom answered the door.
“Good morning to you too, Dad.” My mom replied. “I made her wait in her room until you got here.”
“Oh, poor dear, she must be sitting on pins and needles!” my grandma said.
“For Christ sake, Lin, why are you making her wait like that? Get her out here!”
“John, it’s Christmas, watch your mouth!”
I could have let them continue, but this bickering drill was familiar. I figured it had to be time to end this madness for all of us.
“Can I come out now?!”
“Yes,” my mom relented, “come on out.”
I took the ten steps it normally took to get from my room to the living room in about three. And there it was, a yellow bike, complete with a white basket donned with pink and blue flowers. For any girl in 1979, this might have been the best bike ever.
Any girl, that is, except me. As beautiful as it was and as grateful as I was to have it, the fact remained that I didn’t know how to ride a bike.
“Come on, let’s get you out there!” Papa said.
“John, she seems a little overwhelmed, let’s let her be.” Ever the sensitive one, my grandma.
I was overwhelmed. If it wasn’t enough that this was our first Christmas away from my grandparents’ house, here I was faced with the prospect of learning how to ride a bike at the old age of seven. That thought loomed in the back of my mind as I opened the other presents; I knew I couldn’t avoid it forever.
Turns out, maybe I could. We took one pass down the sidewalk in front of our apartment building and I fell. I cried. From the looks on the faces of my family, I figured I might be on to something. So I cried some more. Loudly this time.
“Knock this shit off, Lin, don’t make her do it if it’s going to make her cry!”
“I know, I know. Sorry, baby,” he said to me. “I owe you a nickel.” In addition to a no-swearing jar he kept, giving me a nickel for every bad word he said, Papa also promised me he’d quit smoking. He kept only the smoking promise, and even that took two decades.
My mom tried to get me on that bike a couple more times in the coming months, pushing me in the parking lot until I wobbled, fell, and cried some more. She hates to be outside anyway, so I think this whole bike-riding prospect was out of her interest area as it was.
“Do you want to stop?”
And that was it for a good five years.
By then it was 1984. At that point I had started spending Christmas Eve with my dad and his new family. I adored them, even though those damned kids were all bike riders. My stepmom sometimes would try to send us on errands in the summertime to do things like return movies or get something she had forgotten from the store, all, to my horror, on a bike.
I was 12 years old; the fact I couldn’t ride a bike never occurred to anyone. I found ways to avoid those errands most days, offering to do something around the house to help instead. One day, however, I couldn’t.
“Not this time, Miss.” My stepmom said. “Get your butt out of this house and get some exercise! Here’s the movie, you and Kassie go take it back and get a new one you like.” Holy hell. What was I going to do?
“Not one word, go on! Chris is at a friend’s house, so you take his bike.”
And so I did. I got my butt on my stepbrother’s bike and rode to the video store, following my stepsister who didn’t look back because, like everyone else, she didn’t think twice about me knowing how to ride a bike. Either that or she was just too kind to make me feel as stupid as I’m sure I looked. I cannot imagine the wobbling and wavering craziness that was me on that bike but somehow, probably out of sheer pride, I made it.
I don’t know if Kassie reported back to her mom that I was a wreck on that bike or if Norma watched me ride down the street in shock and horror. To their credit, they never said anything to me but that Christmas, my dad got me a ten-speed.
It was maroon with white handlebars. Even the bike-averse like me could attest to just how cool it was. My dad drove my bike and me home Christmas Eve night in his van while I sat in the back thinking, this is the second Christmas that I should be thrilled and grateful, and instead I’m horrified.
That bike sat for years without me on it. Until one day it was gone and I have no idea where it went.
Of course the universe would not let me off that easy. In my early twenties I had to fall in love with a man who adored mountain biking. A generous, sweet man who wanted to share his bike passion with the woman he loved. And on Christmas morning of 1994 I came face to face with a beautiful, deep purple, Specialized mountain bike–the bike that all twenty-something’s who loved the outdoors in the 90s would be thrilled to have.
I loved the outdoors. And I loved this man. But Oh My God was this really happening?
“Come on, sweetie!” he said as soon as I saw it, “Let’s get you on it and go for a spin!”
My eyes widened, my breath gathered in my chest, and through a bright but forced smile I said, “Ok!”
I can do this, I thought. People say once you learn how to ride a bike you never forget. I rode once when I was twelve, I can ride now.
Trouble is, at that point the hours I’d logged on a bike were precisely one. One hour of experience and there I was, faced with the prospect of mountain biking?
He laughed at me in the most good-natured way, wobbling around his street on my bike, like a new horse on legs. I laughed too, which only made the wobbling worse.
“The only way you’re going to get better is just to do it more often,” he encouraged me, “so let’s get out and hit those trails!”
I’ll tell you how many trails we hit: one. Physically, it was the scariest experience I’ve ever had. There is something to be said about my pride, however, because it wasn’t going to let me quit. I think he knew that, just like Norma did ten years before. We rode a few times after that; we mostly started together then he’d go up some crazy mountain and I’d head to the nearest bench to take out a book and read. Turns out that would be part of our undoing: he wanted to bike and ski and surf while all I wanted to do was sit down to read and write. We broke up a little more than a year later.
Since then I’ve become a grown up. I built a career, got married, bought a house, had a child, bought a bigger house, had a second child, separated from my husband, reconciled with my husband, and now am finally settling into a comfortable place, in my life and in my skin.
Of course, God thinks, this is the perfect time to reintroduce the issue. Knowing God as I do, I should not have been surprised that for Christmas this past year, my husband and kids decided I should have my own bike.
“For family bike rides!” my oldest said, as I opened the handmade card with a stick figure picture of me riding a giant bike and shouting, “Yahoo!”
My eyes did a familiar widening, my breath again gathered in my chest, and through a bright but forced smile I said, “That’s awesome!”
Ever the generous God, our microwave burned out the next day. The money for the bike had to go to that and I got a six-month reprieve.
That generous God is also no fool. He knows the only way I would do something I said I’d never do is to involve my kids. If there is something I don’t want to do I can hold off anyone with a delay of game, a good shot of humor, or even pure hostility. With my children, however, I have no defense.
“Mommy,” my youngest begins in early June, “when are you going to pick out the bike we got you for Christmas?” Uh oh. Then come the brown eyes looking up at me as he puts his arms around my waist. Look away! Look away!
“Did you not like our present?” Too late.
“I loved that present, sweetheart! I just must have forgotten. Let’s go this weekend and get it.” What are you saying?! Are you crazy?!
“HOORAY! Jackson! Mom wants to get her bike this weekend!”
“Yeah, Mom! I’m so excited!”
And so we went, the four of us, to pick out my new bike. The woman helping me showed me several and I chose the cutest one in the store.
“Great, I’ll get you a helmet and you can try it out.”
“Wait, what? I just want to buy it. I’ll try it at home,” I countered, horrified. This tough, bike-riding girl who probably works here just for the discount was NOT going to watch me wobble my ass down the street on a bike.
“Nope, can’t do it. You have to try it out first.”
Enter generous God, who put another customer in her path just as she rolled me the bike.
“I’m going to help him while you check it out, let me know if you have questions.”
Deep exhale. I didn’t realize I wasn’t breathing. My family followed me outside as I walked the bike to the street.
“Nice bike, Mom!”
“Is that your new bike, Mom? It’s awesome!”
“Guys, let’s let Mom be.” Bless my husband. He knew what this was costing me.
I got on the bike and tenuously made my way up the street and back. I could see my ten year old from twenty yards out, eyebrows up, hands on hips, looking at his dad.
“What?” I said as I made my way closer, only after I got my feet to the ground. Can’t ride and talk at the same time.
“Wow, you sure do need some practice, Mom.”
“Yeah, Mom,” my seven year old interjected, “You’re worse than me!”
“Hey, I got my first bike when I was your age,” I said to him.
“Well, you clearly haven’t ridden it since then!” was his reply. We laughed, all of us, at the true comedy that was watching me on a bike.
Then I realized, this was my chance. Four Christmases, four chances to move though my fear. I always tell my kids to go after what they want, that they can do anything their minds think up as long as they work hard and are willing to keep working hard even when times get tough. Now it’s my turn to walk my talk.
And, by the way, it’s a good thing that lady made me try out the bike before I bought it because truth in marketing would have put a label on the cutest one in the store that reads, “It’ll hurt your ass like nobody’s business.” Instead, I settled on a cruiser—less form, more function–with a proper seat to fit my generous backside and wider tires to make my ride a bit more manageable.
In the last couple weeks I’ve doubled my seat time on the two-wheeled wonder that we call a bike. It still marvels me how such narrow tires can hold up a whole person, through turns and over bumps and in and out of traffic. (And by traffic, I mean the traffic other people ride in and out of. I myself am still on the sidewalk.)
Our family bike rides have taken a rhythm of sorts. Jackson, my first born whose only fear is imperfection, takes the lead. My husband follows, making sure Mr. Confident doesn’t get ahead of himself. Behind him is my second born, Tommy, whose fears are sometimes too numerous to count. I use him as my gauge as I take up the rear. If my little boy, who is paralyzed by the site of a bee, can ride his bike, go over that bump, take that turn…so can I. He’s my trailblazer and I am so grateful for him. I think the fact that he is in charge of leading Mom makes him feel pretty lucky too.
On these rides I’ve come to understand that bike riding—like most everything else–is really a metaphor for life. I’m sure there are more lessons to come, but in my recent hours atop my bike this is what I’ve learned:
- Ride with confidence. Nothing is going to mess you up worse than fear.
- Bumps and turns in the road are inevitable. Ride with your eyes ahead so you can see them coming, and then take them quickly. They are far less disruptive when you do. Much like tearing off a band-aid or giving a public address, the anticipation can be far more damaging than the actual event.
- Ride with people who are better than you and let them know they are your mentors. Not only are their abilities inspiring, warnings like, “Car’s coming!” or “Watch the big bump!” are invaluable.
- Take advantage of the downhill, because you only get them when you are about to climb up.
- If you fall, get up. And then get back on the bike and try again. Even if you are embarrassed. Even if you are hurt. Get your ass back on that seat and ride baby because if you don’t, you’ll regret it forever.