Since moving to San Francisco, I’ve become a relatively bike-y person. Before I moved here with only two suitcases, I had the chance to look over all my worldly possessions, and the only ones that evoked any kind of emotion in me were my bike, my yoga mat, and my laptop. (In fact, the others made so little of an impression that I even managed to throw out my passport!)
Not surprisingly, the three possessions that I am most intimate with here are my bike, my yoga mat and my laptop. I use them every single day, in roughly the same order: bike, laptop, bike, yoga mat, bike, laptop. However, of all those three possessions, the bike is the most foreign to me.
I’ve had it for over two years now, but when the person who made it for me first gave it to me one night in Brooklyn, I was completely resistant. Actually, I was terrified. I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was about nine, and in those 15 years, I’d managed to accrue quite a bit anxiety about many things, the most pressing of which appeared to be a fear of taking my feet off the ground.
I could not, for the life of me, “take off” or “land.” I was convinced, first of all, that the bike was inherently unstable and that because it was handmade, it was unreliable and might break apart at any minute. On that first night, I almost cried, the bike’s maker was deeply hurt and I put it away praying that we could forget about it forever.
But we didn’t. Some nights we would go out in the cul-de-sac and he would practice track stands and skid stops on his fixed gear and I would practice “take off.” When I finally mastered “take off” I moved on to “landing” (I’d ride 5 ft before lurching into an uneasy stop.) When I got a passing grade in “take off” and “landing” I started practicing turning, because I was convinced that if I rotated the front tire, the whole bike would completely tip over.
After a few summer nights like that, we gave up trying to bike together. I moved to a new apartment and sometimes rode it around the park. I was too afraid to ride two blocks on the street to get to the park, and would walk along the sidewalk, wishing I were invisible.
Then, the bike’s maker and I parted ways. I’d moved to yet another apartment and I had to go pick up my bike at the old place. I rode it home through the park and then I convinced myself to ride it through the streets of Park Slope to my house. The proverbial wheels were in motion, albeit very slowly.
After that, I let some other guy convince me to do a 25-mile bike ride through the Bronx–rather hysterically warning him that I was going to have trouble starting and stopping. I delivered as promised. (when he saw me with my bike in SF a month ago, he was beyond incredulous, although confident enough to start freely mocking me.) But I survived–both the bike ride and the guy.
A month later the bike’s maker came back to replace my handle bars, promising that the new ones would make things feel more balanced. The new guy agreed. I insisted that the seat was too high–if I could just keep one foot on the ground while I was pushing off, I wouldn’t be so afraid to get rolling. All the changes were incorporated, and things started to change.
A year later, by the time I successfully rolled down Carroll St with one hand on the handle bars and the other easily gripping a coffee cup, neither of them were speaking to me. “You would be so proud,” I repeated in my head, to no one. “If only you could see me now!” Although no one was watching, I kept going.
Four days before I left Brooklyn for good, I met a girl on the way out of a party at 2am as we were both unlocking our bikes. When we were half-way down the block, I somehow explained, “my ex-boyfriend made it for me.”
“My ex-boyfriend made mine for me!” We laughed. We started talking. When we got to Grand Army Plaza, we decided to keep going–over the Brooklyn Bridge. I didn’t want to tell her about my starting and starting problems, and magically, they seemed to fade. “Bike ride to Manhattan” was on my bucket list before moving, and she rode behind me taking pictures the whole way, promising to immortalize my last weekend in the City.
Three days later, I took my bike to her ex-boyfriend’s bike shop and signed some papers. He broke down my bike and put it in a box bound for California.
Here, I found a bike collective (of course) where I could come in for $5 bucks and try to figure out how to rebuild my bike myself. I stood by helplessly until various members came by and helped me to reconstruct the bike piece by piece. When I left, I had much less faith in the bike’s stability than I’d had when it was first made, but much more faith in my ability to ride it anyway.
I started biking as an actual mode of transportation. I started biking part-way to work. I learned to get in the left lane to make left turns. I learned to guide myself through the narrow space between two cars. I learned that if you want to have enough leverage to ride a single-speed bike though San Francisco, you can’t keep the seat abnormally low.
One day, about a week and a half ago, I agreed to go bike riding with another guy, and I let him raise my seat. He ended up breaking my back break in the process and when he left the garage to get the tool he thought would fix it, I barely managed to hold back the tears. I wiped my eyes as he returned and watched without breathing as he got things almost back to normal. I smiled and thanked him. When I finally rode away, all I could think about was how much easier it was to get up the hills with my raised seat.
However, while riding is a more enjoyable, functional experience, “take off” and “landing” have become quite difficult again. After all this time, I just haven’t accepted that if you want to start moving, you have to take both feet off the ground. And of course, every time I try, freeze and fail, it gets harder to try again.
But riding my bike isn’t really an option anymore — it’ s part of my day. This morning, I noticed as I was riding to work that the fear has escalated, and that the riding has deteriorated. I’ve decided my whole bike is “off-balance.” (It’s not.) I’ve developed a strange routine of stopping and starting that often involves dismounting, regrouping and compulsively rotating the pedal into the “perfect” position (finding it often takes 3-4 false starts.)
Today, I was paused at a red light thinking about what a total and complete failure I was and marveling sardonically at how long I’d managed to ride for so long without ever gaining competence. Then, as I was gliding away (finally) after multiple attempts to launch, it occurred to me, “I’m still getting there. Suck as I might, this bike is still taking me where I need to go.”
Furthermore, there are lots of fluid, wonderful moments on the bike when I am not struggling. There always have been–even on those first difficult nights in Brooklyn two years ago. The only trouble occurs when I’m stopped a red light, but the riding is perfectly fine. Still, for some reason, I measure progress in remaining glitches rather accumulated achievements. This is how we’re hard-wired: to take the good for granted and attack the bad with frenzy and determination. But it doesn’t always serve us.
Hours later, I was in the bathroom at work. I looked in the mirror at my drained cheeks, messy hair, and increasingly too-tight pants. I thought about tasks that were yet to be done, the people who were mad at me for reasons I didn’t understand and the fact that the towel dispenser is always broken. I unconsciously lifted my fingers to locate a pimple forming on my chin and added up my troubles in my head, concluding out loud: “my life could not be worse.”
The utter stupidity of that statement registered immediately. Not only I am not in any kind of real bad shape, I also laughed a lot today, had some pleasant phone calls, some good luck, gorgeous weather and used a great laptop. My day, like my bike ride, was not so bad when I thought about it in terms of progressions not impediments–the bumps were nothing more than hard-to-manage red lights. And while I may consistently humiliate myself at cross walks, I’ve actually figured out a way to manage things so I don’t fall on my face. The difficulties are there, the pauses are inevitable. It’s only when they bring us to a grinding halt that they become a problem.
Later, after yoga class, my teacher had me standing in a half-lotus tree pose with my arms above my head. He hurled his sweatshirt into my stomach. I reached down to catch it, lost my balance, nearly toppled and fumbled my way down to the ground.
“No!” He cried. “Don’t fall and sh*t! You’re not supposed to fall. I throw things at you, and you just stay there and keep focused.”
“Don’t fall and sh*t?” I laughed. “Overhead in yoga…. But it’s going to be my new mantra.”
When the sweatshirt makes me fall, it becomes a story about a sweatshirt. When the sweatshirt hits my body and slips to the ground, it’s a story about tree pose. When I look back on this story of my biking career, it sounds like a series of failings and fumbles. But the net gain is that I learned to ride a bike. I may still be scared and I may not be totally competent, but I am less scared and more competent.
In real life, where falling is figurative, our response to bumps in the rode literally determines our perception of long-term success.
Bottom line: Don’t fall and sh*t.