Bike Issue 2016
UNTIL EARLIER this month, I had not ridden a bike in at least 10 years, but probably closer to 15.
Before I explain that, let me say I enthusiastically support everyone who rides bikes—it’s a cheap, efficient way to commute, helps the environment, decongests our roads, gets hot bods fit. My beef has never been with you, Portland cyclists (but please wear a helmet). It’s with bikes themselves. I’m afraid of heights, and balance has never been a strong suit. Sometimes, if I’m distracted while standing, I just fall over. My mom has advised me on multiple occasions not to go on hikes with sheer drops, since if anyone were to plummet to their death, it’d probably be me.
So I look at bicycles and I see gravity’s hellhounds.
As a child, I avoided them for a long time. Sure, I had a purple trike that I’d ride to the top of a hill and then fly down, feeling like the subject of an AC/DC song—but it never tempted me to make a foray into the world of two wheels.
Then at some point my dad decided that all kids needed to learn how to ride a bike. I resisted, but one weekend he promised to take me on my very first camping trip if and only if I learned how to ride.
I was furious, sobbing as I pedaled back and forth, struggling to simultaneously balance and propel myself forward. I finally got the hang of it, went camping, and very likely never biked again. (My memory of this is foggy, but I’m confident in my grudge-holding abilities, especially when it comes to bikes.)
But dad wasn’t done. He lovingly forced a bike back into my life when I moved to Portland for college. It was a gold beach cruiser, and I reluctantly dragged it, unridden, from the dorms to my first house, where it lived in the garage for a couple of years.
When the time came to graduate, I tried to sell it for cheap on Craigslist. But no one in Oregon really wants a gold beach cruiser with one speed, so I wound up putting it next to my mailbox with a “free” sign. (My house’s new tenants later informed me that it was hauled away in the garbage truck. To this day, guilt about the cruiser weighs on my conscience with unshakeable weight.)
For all of these reasons, I was extremely reluctant to let my boss, Wm. Steven Humphrey, re-teach me not only how to ride a bike, but how to love riding a bike. He insisted. [Note from Steve: I have successfully taught two children how to ride a bike—so how hard could it be to teach an adult? Right?]
THE MORNING after my roommate and her friends threw an all-night glitter unicorn party (sigh) on a recent weekend, Steve picked me up and we headed to the park. Despite grouchiness and strong reservations, I’d found relative peace with the situation.
We set up at the top of a gently sloping grassy knoll—me looking like a little French boy in my only pair of tennis shoes—and Steve started me on a pedal-less bike. [Steve: The bike didn’t come pedal-less... I took the pedals off. If you want to try it, watch a YouTube instructional video so you don’t accidentally eff up the cranks forever! Anyway, the idea was to improvise an adult version of a kid’s Skuut balance bike. Genius.] I was to sit and coast down the hill, using my feet as brakes if I lost control. Steve advised me to breathe, and to pick a spot about 30 feet ahead, rather than looking down.
Happily, the spot I fixated on was a heated league baseball game where the players bumped Pitbull’s “Fireball” between plays. “We gon’ boogie oogie oogie, jiggle, wiggle and dance/Like a roof on fire,” Mr. Worldwide promised as I rolled down the hill. It was shaky, and difficult to control the direction of the wildly wiggling front wheel. [Steve: NEVER steer with your hands. Steer with your shoulders. If you start your turn from the shoulder, the movement is much more controlled, and you’ll have a natural lean to take you into the curve.]
I was discouraged by how ridiculous I must have seemed, but I looked at this dumb bike—this minion of gravity—and I thought, “Fuck you, bike. I’m a fireball.”
We repeated the exercise on the pavement before agreeing that it was time to try pedals. This part was nerve-racking—something about having to keep my eyes forward while pushing my feet in a circle terrified me. On the first try, Steve held onto the handles before releasing me like a flailing dove. But I did it! I rode without falling.
There was a brief bit of peril when we tackled curves. Steve had instructed me to lower my shoulder in the direction I wanted to go [see above]—an easy-enough task, but I was so focused on it that I almost ran into a pole.
Eventually I was riding around the park, hopefully looking somewhat normal. Steve joined, and we biked over to the parking lot at Fred Meyer Headquarters, where we went over speed bumps like badasses.
I had been very ready to look like a goof, so certain that I’d fall. But the most pleasant surprise of this entire outing was that falling is actually pretty hard to do. Once you surrender yourself to the possibilities, biking is great.
We decided to do a lap around the neighborhood and it was lovely—the sun was shining, the wind was doing its thing. I’ll admit that when we came to a four-way stop I freaked out. It’s hard to learn how to kick off and get momentum after being completely stationary. But of the entire experience, crossing that intersection was the most challenging moment. And I did it.
I’m honestly not sure where my relationship with bikes goes from here. I don’t hate them anymore; heck, I don’t even fear them. But I also don’t think I’ll be biking downtown to work anytime soon. I can definitely picture myself riding down a path with lots of wildflowers and shit on a hot summer day, though.
But no matter what, I can now say I finally know how to ride a bike—just like Pitbull, “I saw, I came, I conquered.” [Steve: FIREBALL!]