Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Paddling Along

I’m an old newspaperman, and if there’s one thing we wizened scribes hate it’s getting beat on a story, especially one you’ve been sitting on till the time was right. You can imagine, then, my disappointment and anguish when I read deep into the NY Times on Monday and came across the headline, “A Goal Met Before Age 50, And No Training Wheels!”. It ran over an article about a Bike New York program in Brooklyn that teaches adults to overcome their fears and race off on two wheels (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/20/nyregion/learning-to-bike-at-adulthood.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=training%20wheels&st=cse).

It was an article I could relate to as I was a late bicycler. It was a story idea I had been planning to incorporate into a future blog after promising to do so last December when I seconded the notion of a different Times piece, “Fell Off My Bike and Vowed Never To Get Back On” (http://nosocksneededanymore.blogspot.com/2010/12/two-wheeled-trauma.html).

I learned to ride after four decades of disdain for the two-wheeled conveyance. I learned via the Amanda Steinberg system, as taught to Ellie Forseter and passed on to her father. Ellie was all of 7 when Amanda took her under her slightly older wing to teach the finer points of balance and pedaling. I was 40.

As I am quite confident Amanda has not patented her system, I am at liberty to convey its rudimentary form to you. As noted, it works for young and old alike.

First, make sure your bike has no training wheels. For adult men, I recommend an old-style woman’s bicycle because there is no center bar to shall we say, challenge your manhood. The bike seat should be low enough to enable your feet to fully touch the ground so if you ever feel yourself tipping over you can comfortably and without panic steady yourself without falling.

Balancing yourself on the bike, with your legs dangling at the sides, not on the pedals, paddle forward with your feet. After moving a few yards, lift your feet onto the pedals and try to turn them. Don’t be discouraged if you lose your balance. Try again. Sooner, rather than later, hopefully, your balance will become second nature and you’ll be able to continuously pedal.

There. You’ve just learned to ride a bike.

I won’t pretend it’s easy, especially when you’re older and fear consumes you, memories of prior falls and failures freeze you and embarrassment haunts your every attempt. What will the neighbors think?, is constantly going through your mind.

If you’re lucky (I use that word advisedly), as I was, you’ll have a life-partner who will shove you outside the moment you come home from work. Your spouse will exhort you to “man up” and do it before dinner is ready. Don’t come inside unless you’re bicycle-trained. If you do, it’s back outside after dinner, old man. Learn, or be forever left alone while the rest of the family pedals off on wonderful eco-friendly rides.

Futility engulfed my first attempt. I gave up when it became too dark even on our protected cul-de-sac. The next day I was sent out again before dinner. No luck. I moaned over meat loaf I’d never be able to learn. I just couldn’t coordinate more than two turns of the pedals before losing my balance. Ten-year-old Dan volunteered to observe and correct my faulty approach.

We marched out after dinner, I climbed onto Gilda’s old bike, and as I proceeded to explain to Dan how I couldn’t pedal more than two revolutions...I was halfway down the block, the wind in my exhilarated face, tension turning my smile into a grimace as I realized I had no idea how to stop or turn. While Dan called for Gilda to come outside, quick, I figured the only way to stop was to plow into a curb. I got back on the bike. Lo and behold, I was able to pedal again. I was riding a bicycle. Far from laughing at me, neighbors came out and applauded.

Oh, the joy of conquering a childhood phantom.

Truth be told, I hated biking. My ass hurt after a short spin. My neck hurt from looking up with my back bent over the handlebars. My hands and wrists hurt from holding the handlebars too tightly. And I didn’t like falling, which I did repeatedly (see above mentioned blog on two-wheeled trauma).

But at least I learned to ride. I hope it’s true what they say about never forgetting how to ride a bicycle, just in case I find myself in a desperate situation, as Carl Reiner’s character did in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. You never know when knowing how to ride a bike can help you save the world.

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