Learning How to Ride a Bike as an Adult After Letting Go of Fear

2022-08-13 20:45:58 By : Ms. Chris Ye

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Her mother’s what-ifs kept her from learning to ride a bike as a child. After a dose of challenges as an adult, one writer decided she could handle accepting the risks for the rewards.

Remember joyful childhood days spent flying around on bikes, roller skates, or surfboards, and pounding the pavement during hours of double Dutch, basketball, or tennis? This summer, get inspired to get up, get out, and have fun with our series Move Your Body, in which women share stories of channeling their inner child by diving into an activity they loved or yearned to learn as a kid.

I live in an outdoorsy California town, and I started noticing more bicyclists than ever before. It created a deep longing to try riding again myself. Relearning to ride a bike at age 48 felt like a soul-fulfilling hail Mary. In my mind, the odds were high that I would fail. But the risk of doing nothing, and languishing, was even greater. Staying still, and not trying something new, meant remaining unhappy with the status quo. I decided that drawing on skills that I’d once learned as a child might trick my brain from acting like an adult caregiver to a more playful version of myself.

Dan, my husband of 18 years, had been sucked into a vortex of depression and anxiety that led to a nine-day stay in a locked psychiatric facility. The recovery was exhausting for both of us. I’d spent the past six months in an almost perpetual state of hypervigilance. We were still figuring out how to be around each other. I wanted my joy back. I wanted my balance. But I’d learned there were some things that couldn’t be willed back into place.

My anxious mom never let me ride when I was a kid. She grew up in New York City in the 1940s, where bicycling felt like a death-defying act. Under pressure from my dad, she let me learn on a red Schwinn that came with training wheels and a flower basket. I took the bike on the sidewalk up and down North Blaney Avenue in Cupertino, riding between two stop signs because I wasn’t allowed to cross the street. But it was a skill my mom diligently ignored, squashing any hopes of bi-pedal independence. When I outgrew my Schwinn, I was never offered a replacement.

I’ve spent more than 40 years of my life watching others perform the simple task of hopping on and off a bike to get to their destination. I assumed I’d always be the one left behind, that my fear would always be greater than my courage. I wanted, more than anything, to reverse that equation.

It took me more than a month of online shopping for a light, foldable bike. It needed to be transportable because I wanted the option of popping it into the trunk and driving it to a bike path, rather than riding in traffic. I found something within my budget—a red model Zizzo Urbano with a kickstand, that looked like a futuristic version of my childhood Schwinn—and sent the link to Dan.

“Hell, yes,” he said, as soon as he saw it. “I’m buying this for you right now.”

It arrived in time for Mother’s Day, a week before my birthday. I eyed the package suspiciously every time I passed it in the foyer. On Mother’s Day, Dan unboxed it and put it together while I did yoga in our bedroom. By the time I said “Namaste,” he’d taken it for a spin around the block, and was grinning when he wheeled it inside. It had been a while since I’d seen him look so unguarded.

“Why don’t you ride it out in the front?” he asked.

“I don’t want anyone to see me,” I said. As usual, I wanted to hide my struggles.

Instead, I took the bike out to a cramped concrete area in the back of my house, where it was awkward to negotiate, but semi-private. I lowered the seat so that my feet could comfortably touch the ground. I raised the seat again. It didn’t feel right. But for this to work, I needed to accept the uncomfortable. I put my feet on the ground and used them to scoot forward. Then I finally started to pedal, going back and forth over the same small section of concrete for half an hour, my hands cramping from gripping the brakes too hard. At one point, I lost my balance, stopping myself against the outside wall of the garage with my elbow. It immediately burned, and I thought, Mom was right; this is too dangerous.

My daughter came outside, saw the bike, and hopped on without shoes or a helmet. “This is fun,” she declared. “Can Daddy and I take a ride?” He rolled his bike out of the garage, and they headed out into the street. I let them go, hoping that I’d be able to join them one day. I was happy they were having much-needed time together, but I also felt the echo of all the bike rides I’d been excluded from in my youth.

The next day, Dan took me to the church parking lot down the street, where he’d taught my daughter to ride. I realized that I needed him to watch me to feel safe. It was a role reversal from how things had been between us for months, where I was highly attuned to his slightest change in mood, looking for any sign that I’d need to take him back to the hospital.

I had a few moments of anxiety as the bike wobbled or I braked too suddenly. My brain was focusing on one thing: not falling. But I continued, pedaling around the empty space of the parking lot, Dan cheering me on, running behind me to keep up. While I was riding, two little girls passed me by. One was probably 4 and still had training wheels. She looked fearless in her pink unicorn helmet. A doll was riding on the bike’s baby seat. I envied both their speed and their fearlessness. But I was starting to gain confidence. Mostly, I felt exhilarated. In the days that followed, I started to relax a little on the bike. I remembered that there are worse things than tipping over. When my mom didn’t let me ride when I was a kid, this was the most important lesson I’d missed: We can only learn our own resilience by the obstacles we face.

I pushed myself to go a little further with each ride. I felt energized. And yes, still somewhat afraid. One evening, about a little over a week after I started riding again, Dan met me on the path by a nearby yacht harbor. He’d taken the bike on the streets, while I’d walked. He handed me his helmet. I positioned myself on the bike. Arcade Fire’s “Lighting 1” was playing in my mind. I had just heard the single for the first time, and the lyrics “We can make it if you don’t quit on me, I won’t quit on you, don’t quit on me” were becoming a powerful personal anthem. I started pedaling and just kept going—past the dog walkers and the other bicyclists, over a speed bump that barely slowed me down. A great blue heron flew overhead. By the time I stopped, I turned around and Dan was off in the distance. “That was the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike,” I said, beaming when he caught up. “I only stopped because I didn’t want to leave you behind.”

Experts say we hold childhood traumas in our bodies. But I discovered we also hold the joys. Sitting on my bike, I felt a lightness and a long-lost sense of freedom that made me laugh with its unexpectedness. When I glanced over at my husband, I saw that he was right there smiling, beside me.

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