Pedal to the Mettle: Learning to Ride a Bike… As an Adult

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Bill Clinton. Kelly Ripa. Jack Tien-Dana: Three venerable people who didn’t learned how to ride a bike until adulthood. While it’s easy for you — the rugged yet cosmopolitan Men’s Journal reader who knows how to establish proper drafting position within a peloton — to scoff at the idea of a grown person who can’t bike, there are more of us than you might think. According to a 2013 YouGov poll, 5.8% of American adults know not how, which is approximately 28 million people, or roughly three-and-a-half New York Cities.

Unlike Bill Clinton, my ineptness in this area didn’t stem from a broken leg and childhood fear of falling; rather, I was done in by apathy. Sure, my parents tried to teach me in the carpeted hallway outside our apartment, the closest park or the bike-path alongside the Joe DiMaggio Highway, but these lessons were foiled, and ultimately abandoned, when I toppled like some stupid Confederate statue and disliked it and lacked both the requisite coordination to stay upright and the [extremely Malcolm Gladwell voice here] grit to remount that cursed dandy-horse. So I didn’t.

Over time, this hidden shame became less shameful and more of a simple fact of life: The sun rises in the east; Jupiter is made of wood. Jack can’t ride a bike. My two-wheeled immobility became a perverse badge of honor, a knockout fun-fact for tedious summer camp and school orientations. It was a micro-rebellion, a secret spark of iconoclasm in a regular-degular life.

Stoking the flames of my biking-is-lame fire was the fact that my dad transformed into an avid cyclist during a full-blow and sad midlife crisis; one could say that he was trying to ride away from growing feelings of obsolescence, but that’s super cliche and oh too true, so I won’t. Point is: dads are uncool. Dads in full-body lycra costumes that cling to misshapen beer-guts like moss on a rock? Uncooler. My dad in that outfit, paired with goofy clip-on shoes that clippety-clopped like a harras of Clydesdales when he walked down the sidewalk? Uncoolest. If men live their lives in fear that one day they’ll turn into their father, there is good reason why.

While my attempts to rationalize a failure to do a thing that precocious four-year-olds can do were exhaustive, my motivation to finally learn how to ride was simple: I thought it would be a good story. The quest for #content began Saturday morning on Roosevelt Island, the former site of an insane asylum that’s been converted into a quiet, anodyne Olive Garden of a neighborhood, where (among other places) Bike New York offers free two-hour lessons for adults and mature teens on weekend mornings. The instructors — a smile-y woman named Cecilia, and Jon, a barrel-chested man with the clear, deep voice of a gong — matched the 20 of us to height-appropriate, pedal-less bikes and led us to a basketball court with clean, white cloth nets and aluminum blue and orange backboards donated by the kind men and women at Amalgamated Bank.

Here, they said, we would glide.

Whereas training wheels teach the easier motion of pedalling, gliding — straddling the pedal-less bike, pushing off with two feet, and riding forward until the bike stops or feels unstable — aims to help someone find his or her balance. Once we proved to Cecilia and Jon that we had become one with the bicycle in body and soul (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist), they would attach our pedals. Accordingly, we tottered counterclockwise around the perimeter of the court to win their approval. Or, at least the other 19 people did — I accidentally splintered off into the middle and carved a smaller concentric oval, seldom venturing inside of the three-point lines. About 30 minutes into the lesson, the first pedals were handed out; I got mine roughly 15 minutes later. Shortly afterward, I left the basketball court and rode along the bike-path on the east side of the island. Without falling! It was nice. People were happy. I’m hesitant to say I can 100% ride a bike — going uphill and downhill scares me; people can parallel park RVs in the time it takes me turn right — but I can’t not ride one, which has to count for something.

Nevertheless, there’s no denying how silly the class must look. No matter how you slice it, there’s something ridiculous about 20 adults white-knuckling the handlebars of pedal-less bikes as they inch their way around a basketball court. I mean, even two guys playing Frisbee on a nearby field would periodically look over and laugh, and those squids were unironically shouting “Dude, toss me the disc,” so it’s not exactly like they had a leg to stand on.

Ultimately, mocking novice adult cyclists (i.e. me) is overly cynical and wrong-headed. There is something wonderful and rare about 20 people giving up their Saturday mornings to voluntarily embarrass themselves in front of each other simply because they want to learn something new. Too often, life is oriented around maintaining a sense of detached cool. Adult bike riding lessons are a reminder that self-improvement is, by its very nature, scary and hard and uncomfortable — until you attempt it and it isn’t.

It would be disingenuous to say that learning to bike has changed my life, but it’s certainly changed the way I look at life. For some people, a bike is an instrument of agency and freedom, a means of adventure, a catalyst that enables the roving life they want to lead. I’m not one of them. To me, a bike is just a form of transportation — a cheap, eco-friendly one to be sure, but also a tiring one that does a real number on my taint.

Nonetheless, in the course of a single weekend morning, I found a different kind of freedom, one that came not from the actual biking, but the process. It’s easy to chronicle the march to adulthood in a series of steps, and learning to bike is usually one of the earliest of these milestones. On this morning, I was freed from the insecurity of missing a milestone. Freed from not knowing and not trying and not doing. Freed from staying in place.