This article by Clem Bastow was originally published on The Age.
In a city like Melbourne, tell people you don’t drive and these days you’ll barely raise an eyebrow. “Ahh,” they’ll say, “fair enough, public transport is great, and who wants to be stuck in traffic every day, anyway?”
Tell them, on the other hand, that you don’t ride a bike, and you’ll be met with bafflement. Tell them you don’t ride a bike because you can’t ride one, and the bafflement will turn to something approaching horror.
Our city is, after all, so increasingly bike-friendly that not to ride seems downright un-Melburnian. Sometimes the horrified party will gently touch your arm, as though something terrible must have happened to bring about this sad state of affairs. Riding a bike is, after all, just like riding a bike.
The sum total of my riding experience prior to this year comprised two short, pointless sessions. The first, at the age of four, involved being plonked on a visiting BMX, and speeding about 25 metres along our street before crashing into a daisy bush. The second was a brief ride along the beach on an ancient lowrider in 2001, a bucolic cruise brought to a screaming halt when I realised I’d have to ride down a hill to return to our campsite.
From that point on, it wasn’t so much fear that stopped me from getting back on my bike as it was the fear that I was too old to learn. (Well, that, and the fear of plunging headfirst on to the bitumen.) This grinding worry was so rusted-on that “being the loser who can’t ride a bike” became a regular leitmotif of my anxiety dreams.
Having moved in late 2016 to a house just far enough away from the tram to be irritating, and with a local bus company whose timetable might best be described as “experimental”, it fell to 2017 to be the year I would learn to ride.
A brief scoot around the internet revealed that “adult learners” were common enough that many councils and riding clubs offered learn-to-ride classes for those of us celebrating the tenth or twentieth anniversary of our 18th birthdays.
My new bike was delivered inside a giant cardboard box and my bike-mad brother insisted we put it together immediately. By “we”, obviously I mean he put it together while I meekly stood by holding scraps of bubble wrap and tape and saying things like “What’s that?” while pointing at the gears.
My initial “lessons” were comical. I cursed my parents for not forcing me back out of the daisy bush and on to that BMX. I wailed things like “How do I slow down?!” A cool teenager walked past and shot me a look so withering I nearly cried. I wanted Rufus to emerge from Bill & Ted’s time machine and declare, “She does get better.”
It may be a while before I’m whipping around town running errands, or even just until pedalling is second nature enough that turning to check behind me doesn’t bring the bike to a complete halt, but I’ve at least defeated my embarrassment.
There’s something exhilarating about pushing through shame and fear barriers to wobble proudly around on my “vintage” bike that I’m sure has “yes, I’m learning” written all over it (I’ve considered wearing L-plates just to beat sneering onlookers to the punchline).
It’s true, I envy the seemingly crash-proof limbs and fearlessness of the toddlers I see hurtling around on their Christmas tricycles, but learning to ride as an adult has its own strange charm.
Is it “just like riding a bike”, though? Well, I’m afraid I wouldn’t know. Ask me again this time next year.