Learning to bike at 43
It’s not too uncommon for urban kids to grow up with some kind of seemingly heinous gap in their outdoor activity skillset: not knowing how to climb a tree, swim, or ride a bike, for example. I concede that my parents vaguely tried to get me biking, but I never ventured beyond my cul-de-sac into the traffic-choked streets. Now, as an adult living near a vast system of coastal redwood trails, I confess that this bothered me like a tiny, relentless pebble in my shoe. I kind of wanted to ride a bike, but then again, as a trail runner, I had plenty of outdoor time and good, dirty fun. Hours and hours and hours and hours… until I got injured.
After a couple of weeks, still unable to run and feeling the pain of my injury, I was desperate to get back outside. I thought, If I could bike, I could totally visit my favorite spots already! And so began the process of gathering my courage.
“Maybe biking’s just not your thing,” a fellow trail lover suggested. But, how can I declare that it’s “not my thing” if I’m not even good enough at it to have fun? I grew up thinking running wasn’t my thing, and since then I’ve run two marathons and put away thousands of trail miles. And I really stunk at running for a couple of years. I even quit once. And now, it’s an indelible part of my identity. If I learn how to bike and still don’t like it, I’ll let myself quit.
Being a late-onset trail runner, I already had some tried-and-true motivational strategies. While I folded laundry, I watched mountain biking videos on Youtube. I started following middle-aged lady bikers on Instagram. I developed a mindset of this being normal, fun, and achievable. I visualized riding with my family and friends. All that remained was to get on a bike, which I anticipated with full bravado and confidence.
Until my husband drove away to retrieve a bike for me. As the minutes ticked by, my confidence left me like air out of a punctured tire, leaving me just as deflated and … floppy. My mind started spinning out: Who will be there? Who will see me? How will I look? Why am I thinking so much about other people? I should just forget it. I don’t need to know how to bike. I can just keep running. But I can’t run!
There was nothing to do but feel the fear and forge ahead.
As I stood with the bike between my legs, facing an empty forest road, my terror level was at “student driver merging onto a four-lane freeway.” I began my incessant self-talk, which I spoke out loud so as to be more persuasive: You got this. Look where you want to go. Relax (that never really panned out, but there’s always next time). Look where you want to go. This concentrated everything–the balance, the steering, the pedaling, the breathing–into one simple task: the task that was right in front of me.
Every half mile, I’d take a break to shake my hands out (due to the death grip I had on the handlebars), roll my shoulders back, and calm the heck down. To be completely honest, I had the urge to cry. I was uptight, very scared, and doing this anyway. If I felt that crying would have helped me get this done, I’d go ahead and spill a few therapeutic tears, but I told myself it’s not a big deal. Hang in there and give it time, I said (out loud).
As soon as we turned around for the last half of this four-mile ride, I was faster, more confident, and more consistent. I even experienced a couple of moments of fun, when the fear kind of drifted away like a receding wave. Feeling the sun on my face and the sweat on my skin, I relished the warmth radiating from within. It had been a very long time since I’d gotten sweaty, gotten my heart rate up, and had a “moving” experience in the great outdoors. It was a gift to stop and notice the butterflies and flowers, enjoy the smell of wood and plants, and feel the cool breeze on my skin.
When we got back to the parking area, I looked at my watch and laughed. Just over 4 miles in an hour. I run faster than that, when I’m running. That’s what it’s like to learn something new. It’s so hard, and it can be scary and embarrassing and frustrating and exhausting. But it’s also rewarding and invigorating and empowering. And next time I’ll do better. And better after that. If I look where I want to go, that’s where I’ll end up.
Four rides later, and I’m still pedaling.