It took me 40 years to move from “I love riding bikes” to “I am a cyclist.” Hard to believe, I know. Looking back, I guess it was because I made so many mistakes along the way. Maybe I’m just a slow learner – but please let me tell you about my journey to becoming a cyclist.
Learning to Ride a Bike – the Hard Way
My very first bicycle memories involved a lot of pain. My buddy Kevin, who lived next door and was a year older than me, taught me how to ride a bike. This basically involved him encouraging me to get on a bike, and then standing back and watching as I hurtled down the driveway of his home, around into the back yard – and then slammed straight into a tree. It was a big yard and there was just one little tree, so I am not sure how I managed to hit it so unerringly. But I did. In my memory, I hit the tree every single time. This did have the helpful side effect of stopping me, as the bike did not have brakes.
From that experience, I guess I should have learned that (a) I needed to work on my steering a bit and (b) brakes are a need-to-have on a bike, not a nice-to-have.
But I didn’t. In fact, my next memory of that learning-to-ride-a-bike experience was venturing out onto the road (in retrospect, it was lucky that it was a very quiet road). I remember being really pleased with myself, as I discovered it was easier to ride on a paved road than on grass. By the time I managed to turn the bike around and head back towards my home, I was going at what I thought was an impressive speed.
Unfortunately, I had not yet learned the basic concept that it is a good idea to slow down before attempting a turn.
So I turned into our driveway at breakneck speed – and very nearly did break my neck. I couldn’t make the turn, so I went soaring off the edge of the retaining wall, and somehow managed to belly flop onto my mother’s prized rose garden.
The next thing I knew I was looking up into Kevin’s shocked face, and realizing that I couldn’t speak or breathe. It was the first time I had ever been completely winded. As soon as I could draw breath, I shouted at him: “Stop standing there and go CALL MY MOTHER!” Yep, not one of the high points of my youth.
Strangely, none of that shook the fixed idea I had in my head that “I love riding bikes.” Even though at that point, it was not so much riding as crashing.
As I Got Older, My Attempts to Ride a Bike Became More Fun!
Over the years, I started to have more and more fun riding bikes. One of my best childhood memories is of riding my bike along bush paths, hurtling downhill with my scruffy brown Heinz 57 dog in hot pursuit. Other times I would join a bunch of neighborhood boys and we would ride along the streets in a pack. Looking back, I am not sure how we all survived that. The drivers were monumentally unfriendly to people on bikes, and there was no cycling infrastructure at all. Luckily, we were too young to realize that we were in any kind of danger, so we had a great time.
The Red Chopper Bike Incident
Next, there was the red Chopper bike incident. Chopper bikes were suddenly the must-have bikes, and I got a red one for Christmas. Basically, Choppers were the most ridiculous design ever, with a very dangerous, tiny front wheel – but they had a cool factor. So I took my ridiculous-but-cool bike out for a Christmas morning ride.
It lasted about three minutes. Just until I got to the first steep downhill, and hurtled down it. The handlebars got a speed wobble that I could not control, because of the ridiculously small front wheel, and I ended up flying through the air – until I was abruptly stopped by the sidewalk. So, I spent that Christmas in hospital with a concussion.
But still, I was convinced that “I love to ride bikes.”
From that, I might have learned that not all bikes are created equal, but I didn’t. As I mentioned, I am a slow learner.
The Teenage Years …
Next came my teenage years, when I was determined that I would ride a bike for transportation. The trouble was that the bigger I got, the taller the hills seem to get. Looking back, I realize that a lot of the problem was that I was riding a monumental clunker of a bike.
At that point, I had no idea that there is a massive difference between a good quality bike and a clunker. And one of the key differences is that it is WAY easier to ride a good quality bike. You know, where the bike actually helps you to move, rather than trying to slow you down. So I eventually gave up, and moved on to a motorcycle, and then on to a yellow Beetle. I focused on school, and then on my career, and then on raising a family.
I started to forget that I loved to ride bikes.
My First Attempt to Bike Commute
In my late twenties, bikes started to call me again. I decided that I would bike commute to work, a distance of about seven miles each way, and reasonably flat. It was fun! I remembered all over again how much I loved riding bikes, and got really fit in a short period of time. Unfortunately, there was still another lesson to be learned. This was simply that there are places where it is smart and safe to ride a bike. And places where it is not.
At the time I was living in a small city in South Africa. The streets were designed (of course) for cars and buses – and none of the drivers was remotely interested in sharing them with an idiot on a bike (their description, not mine). On one memorable day I was very nearly run down by a bus driver who left-hooked me (it’s left-hand drive there). In the gutter, shaken, I realized that if I persisted in riding a bike, sooner or later, someone was going to kill me.
So I gave up again, and for many years I actually DID forget that I loved to ride bikes.
Moving to Canada
Then I moved to Canada. The first job I got, my boss was a redheaded woman who rode her bike to work every day. About 12 miles each way. She explained to me that Vancouver had quite a lot of bike paths, even on bridges. And that she hardly ever felt unsafe biking to work. I suddenly remembered that I LOVE to ride bikes. And a little voice in the back of my head started to whisper, “Yes, you can.”
So I bought a bike again. Unfortunately, although I now had the right city, I still had not got the point about how hard it is to ride clunkers. So I bought a really cheap bike. And a bike trailer for my four-year-old. I remember the first time I tried to tow her to her daycare. I was baffled. How did she get to be so HEAVY? And even without the trailer and the four-year-old, every little hill seemed to be really, really BIG. For a while, I was really discouraged.
Then, I finally made the breakthrough. I was in the habit of spending a lot of time at bike shops, and one day I took a good quality bike for a test ride. It was a DeVinci Rio, which is the cheapest bike in the high quality DeVinci range. But it was like I’d finally got the brakes off! I couldn’t believe how much easier it was to ride this bike, and to get up hills. And I remembered that Hey, I LOVE to ride bikes! So of course, I bought the Rio, and started riding it to work.
I Finally had All of the Pieces. A Great Bike, and a Great City to Ride in
Vancouver is not Amsterdam, but it does have a lot of good cycling infrastructure – and it is constantly improving too. I started cycling to work, and again got really fit. Not as fast as I did when I was in my twenties, but I did get fit and have a lot of fun. I was reminded that riding a bike to and from work is just about the best thing you can do to reduce stress in your life and feel great.
The Challenge of Steep Hills
A decade later, I found myself with a new job and a bike commute that included massive hills. Too steep for me to do once in a life-time, let alone twice a day. It looked like I was going to have to give up the bike commuting. But then I discovered the magic of electric bikes. With a BionX assist to help me up the hills, I was able to continue to enjoy bike commuting.
For three years, I rode an e-bike to and from work every single week day, for a total of about 16 miles a day. The e-bike made a daily commute with giant hills possible and even fun, so I kept it up. This is consistent with research that shows that electric bikes cause people to ride more often and further. I was still getting exercise, however. So much so, that I got fitter than I ever have been in my entire life.
A New Cycling Challenge
Now, I am once again in a different stage of my life. As Heraclitus said, the only constant is change. I am now working from home (on this blog!!!), which means I don’t have the consistency of twice daily bike commutes. I have decided to channel my love of riding bikes into a new challenge. I have started training on my regular bike (by beautiful Specialized Tricross, reviewed here), and plan to build up the distance until I am ready to do something I have always wanted to do: long-distance charity bike rides. My first will be 40 km, then 80 km – and finally I will get to my first Ride to Conquer Cancer, which is 200 km over two days.
So … now I am not only someone who loves to ride bikes – I am a cyclist. When did that happen?
I don’t know at what point I started to think of myself as “a cyclist,” not just someone who loves to ride bikes. I think it most likely started creeping up on me when I started writing this blog, back in 2010. I wanted to write a blog for people like me – average people who love to ride bikes.
Over time I finally realized that riding bikes had become an important part of my identity. Sure, I am a son, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a liberal, a writer, a sci-fi fan, a dog-lover who has inexplicably progressed from German Shepherds to Poodles, a traveller – I am many, many things. But in the middle of all that, riding a bike is very important too. Riding bikes has given me transportation and health, but it has given me a whole lot more besides that. It has given me an interest, a passion, a community, a focus. It has become a vitally important part of my identity that I hope I will never again have to give up.
Do you have a story to share about your early experiences of riding a bike? We’d love to hear your story. You can comment below if you are logged into Facebook, or just send us an email to tell us about it. We’re always looking for Guest Posts – would you like to write a Guest Post about how YOU became a cyclist?
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Hey I thought that I was the only person to end up in a rose bed. It did not help that my indecision as to which side of it to ride was whilst trying to impress my father with my new skill in the hope of a bike of my own. I never did get a bike from him…
Average Joe Cyclist says
And I thought that I was the only one to end up in a rose bed 🙂 Sorry about your father, but I am happy that I am not the only one!