Confessions of a Girl Who Never Learned to Bike

Photo courtesy of Flick user Pörrö

“It’s like riding a bike.”

I’ve heard this expression countless times, but I don’t know what it means.

No, I’m not over-analyzing a stale metaphor here, or trying to pull some snobbish trick. I’m 23 years old, and I don’t know how to ride a bike.

That sounds a little bit like the beginning of a monologue at a support group meeting. But in a way, this is a confession. After all, I don’t go around blabbing that I can’t do something most people have done since they were kids. Because when I do, they would look at me weird.

It’s not like I grew up in a cave or anything. By all accounts, my childhood was pretty normal. I watched Saturday morning cartoons, misspelled words in spelling bees, and relished the sound of the bell signaling recess. However, all this only began after I turned eight: I was born in Russia and lived in Israel for five years before moving to the States. This background provided me the privilege of the immigrant card, which I whipped out every time someone asked why I didn’t know how to ride a bike. It’s true that I was busy adjusting to a new school, a new language, and an entirely new culture. It’s also true we probably couldn’t have afforded a bike then. But I made these reasons out to be bigger than they were, and hid behind them for so long that I eventually started to believe them.

The real reason, though, came about the summer after we moved to New Jersey. My next-door neighbors gave us a rickety pink-and-white bicycle that their kids had grown out of. Soon after, my father walked it down to the end of the street, where I climbed on and tried pedaling forward. I toppled over in minutes. The rough asphalt broke the skin on my knee, and I started to cry. I hadn’t expected to fall, and in the immediate aftermath, I didn’t know who or what was at fault. Did I blame the bike, the unforgiving concrete, or myself? Seconds later, my father rushed the few yards to the scene of the accident and bent down to hug me. He’s a man with two daughters and no sons—once he saw tears, he knew he couldn’t convince me to take the handlebars again.

I looked at the bike, crumpled and pitiful on the sidewalk, and wondered if I looked that way too.

Immediately, I deemed the attempt a failure. I was a burgeoning perfectionist before I’d even hit double digits, and the idea that practice makes perfect was, more often than not, completely lost on me (just ask my parents about piano lessons). There was no point in getting back on the bike, I thought, because I’d just fall again.

And so, the hand-me-down bicycle was quickly returned to my neighbors, who kept it nestled against some bushes in front of their house. For years, I watched it recede further and further into the thick branches, metal sprouting flecks of orange rust. Whenever I walked home from school and passed it on my way to the front door, I often felt a tiny pang in the pit of my stomach. As neighborhood kids sped by on their bikes, I wondered what my hometown looked like to them.

For the most part, however, not riding a bike didn’t bother me. My hometown was small, and I could make it to school, a convenience store or a friend’s house in less than 10 minutes on foot. Soon, driving cut those trips to minutes. My college campus was walkable, and so is the neighborhood I live in now. What did I need a bike for? I had two perfectly good legs and a shiny, laminated driver’s license.

The two-wheeled monster wasn’t done with me, though. A decade after my first attempt, my mother found a bike rental shop near our hotel in Wildwood, a family friendly beach town at the very tip of New Jersey. She had only reached tricycle status as a kid, but still, that was a lot farther than I’d traveled. Her first attempts at balancing on the bike that day, she recently reminded me, were far from successful. She had to spend a full morning relearning how to stay upright, but all I can remember from that summer is her coasting down the boardwalk. My sister, who tried learning when she was five but didn’t keep up with it, joined my mother the next day. Soon, she too was speeding across the rickety wood planks, the ocean shimmering with the yellow morning light at her side. To me, they both seemed like complete naturals.

Every night before bed, I told them I’d go down there the next morning, hop on a bike of my own and give riding a shot. But I never did. When they’d come in after a ride, out of breath and glistening with sweat but smiling wide, my eyes would immediately find the floor. My mom and sister had poked a hole in my little plan: I couldn’t pull the immigrant card anymore. That hadn’t held my mom or sister back, even after years as strict pedestrians. When they found a chance to finally learn the art of cycling for good, they’d jumped at it. Me? I felt ashamed as I sunk into the couch in our hotel room, scowling at nothing in particular.

So, once again, the thought of putting the wheels in motion was pushed to the back of my mind. Even though I walked everywhere at college, many students rode their bikes to class through campus, which lay in the heart of an otherwise unexciting Delaware town. I regularly passed by racks piled with the things on my way to my dorm. But the strange feeling I’d had when I spotted the old bike tucked into the bushes on my street didn’t come. These bikes had nothing to do with me. My outlook on riding became a me vs. my classmates situation, and the “me” part, I told myself, was just fine seeing the campus with my feet planted firmly on the ground.

This didn’t last. I began telling the “them,” the bike riders, too much. I let slip to too many people that I never learned how to ride. It was only a matter of time before they turned on me: “You have to learn!” they said. “We’ll teach you!” they pressed on. My friends on the newspaper staff were the most eager. They not only thought that I should learn, but insisted I write about it and publish it for our loyal readership. Eventually, they wore me down. “I’m going to do it, just you wait!” I told them, ready to prove myself. I wasn’t eight years old anymore, and that meant I had no reason to be afraid to try. It was time to grab life by the handlebars.

But when the day came and I was standing in a dining hall parking lot, a helmet dangling from my wrist, I panicked. I had been all talk. Eight-year-old me was looking out onto the crunchy gravel, nervously pulling at her mess of curly hair and kicking the ground with her Keds. I dreaded the thought of making painful contact this time, too.

I had just decided to make a run for it when my instructor arrived in the lot. No getting out of the lesson now. I forced a huge smile, which probably conveyed more terror than it did enthusiasm, and snapped on my helmet. The motion, one that long-time bikers likely thought nothing of, felt alien to me. The entire experience did, and I hadn’t even gotten on the bike. Just holding it upright, my fingers brushing over the unfamiliar ridged surface of the handlebars, felt surreal. This wasn’t me, it was them.

My teacher instructed me to mount the bike and kick the right pedal up to mid-height, parallel to the ground. He said when I’m ready, I should start pedaling forward with my right foot, then immediately press my left foot into the other pedal and keep on moving.

I was already in way over my helmet-clad head. I couldn’t keep my balance long enough to get even two or three rotations in. When I pedaled with my right foot, I started to lean to that side, and I couldn’t apply the same amount of force on the left side in time. I stopped and started and stopped and started, my feet flying to the ground every time I felt I was about to hit the pavement. My arms grew sore from clutching the handlebars, and the helmet strap underneath my neck felt tighter.

This was the farthest I’d ever gotten in any attempt to learn how to ride a bike. But don’t get too excited: I was ready to give up anyway. To put it plainly, riding a bike was hard. And I was bad it. Why should I keep trying? It wasn’t going to work—again.

But then, after dozens of false starts and some wobbly, awkward pedaling, I managed to coast for half a minute on my own. It was a thrilling feeling, the kind that gives you tunnel vision, but in a good way. My feet were pumping rhythmically, my core stabilizing the rest of me on the bike, and all I had to do was look ahead.

Of course, before I knew it, I felt myself tensing up. My brain took charge over my muscles, and I became aware of every tiny motion, each small adjustment my shoulders or hips made to keep my balance. My body tilted to the side, taking the bike with it, and my feet found the concrete again. I leaned the bike against a chain-link fence and took a long look at it. It looked different—it no longer seemed like an enemy on wheels. Suddenly, I felt silly about the years I’d spent lying, to myself and others, about a bike—a bike. Whatever shame I’d carried about my past failed attempts had disappeared, and I felt relieved.

To almost everyone I know, biking feels easy and effortless. That’s why the “just like riding a bike” idiom exists. But unlike me, they kept riding for years. They took an opportunity that, when you’re not eight years old anymore, you wish you’d conquered when you had the chance. So when I get on a bike again—and I will, promise—it won’t be easy or effortless. But I won’t feel dread, get scared or tense up. Because after this many attempts, giving up has gotten old—and so have any excuses.

The only thing left to do is start pedaling.