The author shows off her new skills (Photo: supplied)

The humiliating, thrilling experience of learning to ride a bike as an adult

Is learning to get around on two wheels as easy as riding a bike? Not exactly, writes Wyoming Paul.

As an adult, saying that you can’t ride a bike can feel like admitting you’re not sure how to use a can opener, make a bed, fry an egg, or read a clock. It’s a basic milestone of growing up — it means a new level of freedom and independence, like the five-year-old version of getting your driver’s licence — and almost everyone passes the test.

But I never learnt to ride a bike growing up, due to a perhaps overgrown sense of self-preservation (read: fear). I repelled all teaching attempts, convinced that rolling down a hill on wheels was suicidal, and rolling up one impossible. Even the flat was absurd. Just like it doesn’t make sense to me that planes remain in the air, neither does people staying upright on two thin wheels – and it doesn’t matter how many times people said “But, physics!”

As a kid my lack of cycling skills was occasionally humiliating. The worst was Bike Safety Week at primary school. While everyone else in my class rode their bikes around the basketball court like they were born with tyre limbs, I, along with one or two other students, was displaced from the herd. We were put in a separate area, learning to ride from one orange cone to the next with training wheels.

If only. (Photo: Getty Images)

Later in life, cycling seemed like a skill you either learnt growing up, or never. I’d spurned my chance — the time had passed, the bicycle opportunity had expired, and I was doomed to a life without two-wheeled friends. Rather than being a learnable skill, riding a bike felt wild and out of reach, like superstardom.

That didn’t matter too much, though. Not being able to ride a bike almost became a point of pride in my teens and twenties. I enjoyed the stunned look on people’s faces when I said I’d never learnt – it made me feel like my lack of ability was endearing, a quirky part of my identity. I was a rebel.

Plus, it wasn’t as though I knew many people who actually rode bikes for transport. Everyone was capable of riding a bike, but most people hadn’t been on one in years. So what if I couldn’t? It felt like a hypothetical inability, irrelevant to real life — more similar to not knowing how to do a triple backflip than not knowing how to open a can.

Along with those more psychological reasons, there were the common barriers that stop many Aucklanders from cycling. Limited cycling infrastructure, hills, and anti-bike drivers made learning to cycle for transport reasons seem outside the bounds of rationality. I also knew a few people who had had serious cycling accidents: my sister got a concussion after being hit by a car while riding a bike, and a friend of a friend had broken a leg. It seemed not only natural, but also logical not to learn.

Unfortunately, my boyfriend challenged nature and logic by becoming obsessed with the idea of teaching me to ride a bike.

The ‘relationship ruiner’ in action (Photo: Getty Images)

My first experience of cycling was on a tandem bike with my boyfriend in Holland. At that point the only thing I could do with a bike was walk it like a dog, which meant I was totally at his mercy to get around safely. As captain of the tandem, he controlled the gears, brakes and steering, and was the one of us who could see where we were going.

Because you’re so reliant on one another, the tandem bike is sometimes known as the “relationship ruiner” or “divorce bike”. To avoid mutual hatred, you need precise communication, teamwork, and a high level of trust, and as a complete novice not used to the sensation of cycling, all of those dynamics were heightened. Fortunately, the communication and trust were there, and we ended up having an incredible day.

“I’m definitely learning to ride a bike now,” I’d said, hopped up on endorphins.

“Why don’t you try being at the front of the tandem?” my boyfriend suggested, right before we returned the bike.

“OK!”

The falling down was immediate. While I’d learnt to enjoy cycling, I had not learnt how to actually cycle.

Ready to ride (Photo: supplied)

It took me another year, until lockdown, to really try to learn. Partly this was because there was suddenly a far safer environment for cycling. The other part of it was that during lockdown, time felt stagnant. What could I claim to have done for months of 2020 other than rewatching Buffy and Gilmore Girls?

So I borrowed my sister’s bike and started the slow process of learning. The various pain points can be summarised as follows:

  • The mounting problem. For hours, I couldn’t get my second foot on the pedal. “One TWO,” my boyfriend repeated patiently. “You need to lift your left foot and get it on the pedal.” But my left foot wanted to remain securely on the ground. I tried various mental techniques: At one point, I decided that the key to learning was all about discovering the bike’s true name. I would pat the handlebar and then test a name, “Perhaps you’re a Sandy,” as I pushed off. Depending on the bike’s performance, it was a sign of whether I was on the right track.
  • The going straight problem. Once I could get on, the bike would wind back and forth like its spirit animal was a snake.

“Why is it doing this?” I moaned.

“You’re doing it,” my boyfriend said. “Stop looking down and squirming.”

“The bike is possessed by a snake demon!”

“Maybe you’re possessed.”

“Absolutely not. I want to go straight. Straighty straight straight.”

  • The turning problem. Once “straight” was handled, there was changing direction. I had an overwhelming desire to ignore the advice “just turn the handlebar”, and instead tilt my whole body dangerously, despite knowing that tilting is the first step to falling. I’d then leap from the bike and look at it accusingly, like it had tried to bite me.

While the statement “I can’t ride a bike” sounded, at least in my ears, dashing and quirky as long as I had no intention of learning, once I had decided to learn, the embarrassment of sucking was acute. Every time I saw another person on the street I would quickly dismount and wait for them to pass, anxious that they would know what I was: incompetent.

Today, I can proudly say that I’m not totally incompetent, and even better, I’m capable of doing things that I couldn’t do just a few weeks ago. I can get on the bike all by myself, avoid static objects by breaking to a safe stop, cycle in a straight line, and turn both left and right.

There’s something hugely rewarding about learning something new as an adult, especially something with such a clear can/can’t dynamic as riding a bike. As children, we’re constantly learning new skills and reaching new heights of capability. But as adults, too often it feels like we’re done – we do the same things every week, because we’ve already learnt everything we want to learn, and certainly don’t want to feel incompetent again.

But I found joy in being incompetent — in getting past the difficulty and embarrassment, accepting that I’m quite shit, and continuing to try anyway.



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