Getting Back on the Bike: Basic Lessons From a New Rider
By Katie Hawkins
Soon the sun will be shining, and gas prices will keep on rising. That bike you bought years ago — because you thought you would try to save some money and maybe lose a few “lbs” but never touched it — will be calling your name from the garage. You may be thinking to yourself, “I haven’t ridden a bicycle since I got my braces off,” or, “How am I supposed to make it through the Starbucks drive-thru on this thing?” Then, after all the excuses run through your head, you’ll remember how terrible rush hour traffic really is and how badly that guy smelled sitting next to you on the bus. You’ll realize ... it’s time.
Last summer I found myself an internship in downtown Seattle. After moving up from Olympia, Wash., I had become accustomed to driving around cyclists, but never thought I would ever find reason enough to be the one out in the rain wearing a bright yellow jacket and spandex. Well, after attempting to make it to Pioneer Square by automobile in a reasonable amount of time, then trying to find parking without paying an arm and a leg (this was an unpaid gig, after all) — when that didn’t work, I endeavored to rely on the bus schedule. At that point I realized I needed to take matters into my own hands. I was going to have to ride a bike for the first time since grade school, in Seattle.
Luckily, a family friend had an old 1983 Schwinn Le Tour Luxe that she rode three times before stashing it away. To help me out, she brought it out from her basement and dusted it off. She was glad that someone could get some use out of it. Apparently it was in beautiful shape — the gears all worked, the tires were still durable, and the handlebar tape was as good as new. I, of course, had no idea, and relied on my friendly editors at Bicycle Paper to give me the scoop. It was perfect for me to get started, now all I had to do was find my balance, brush up on road etiquette, and gear up.
Piece of cake...
People always say that once you’ve learned how to ride a bike, you never forget. Well, you may not completely forget, but you can experience some memory lapses. It definitely took me awhile to get the hang of it again, and the hilly little village of Wallingford isn’t the best place to try and remember. It took a good hour of riding around the neighborhood — taking breaks, of course, if any neighbors happened to be walking by or 5-year-olds suddenly whizzed by on two wheels like it was nothing. Soon after, it was time to try picking up the pace and getting out with others, minus the traffic. A ride on the Burke-Gilman Trail was just the ticket — nothing like having jerseyed commuters speeding by to boost the confidence, but I survived, and believed that I was ready to tackle the streets.
The first thing I learned was why cyclists wear bike shorts. A twenty-minute ride was all I needed to give me a weekend of problems. It was a real pain in the butt. I was at the bike shop the next day to get the proper attire.
The following week I learned two important lessons in the same day. Number one is to steer clear of train tracks. You can cross them at a perpendicular angle and be fine, but after the tumble I took, I decided to avoid them altogether. These days, don’t be surprised if after falling no one around stops to help or ask if you are alright, but simply continue about their business as if someone hadn’t just completely wiped out right in front of them at a crosswalk. The next lesson was that an old bike should be tuned up before taking it out on the town. On my way home from the internship office I attempted to tackle Sunnyside Road, a hill that feels like it’s at a 45-degree angle for three blocks. My only slightly greased chain and nearly 30-year-old drivetrain weren’t up to the challenge, as the derailleur suddenly snapped off, getting jammed in my spokes as I attempted to shift into the lowest gear. Even the bike shop employees were impressed by how I managed that one.
Though that incident set me back a few days, I realized it was beneficial to have my bike tuned up by professionals before taking it back into the city. I was confident I would be incident free from then on.
Not so fast. Soon after picking up the repaired Schwinn, I made another huge mistake — focusing on cyclists in front of me rather than looking for obstacles in my path. Complacent in following another commuter one day on my way home, I failed to notice that the ramp to get back onto the sidewalk was not directly in front of me. I hit the curb head-on and subsequently flew off the bike, luckily landing on a small strip of grass. Of course, the first thing I did was check to see if anyone saw me (which wouldn’t matter anyway, since they would just pretend it never happened), then ensured the bike was OK. It was. Myself? I started to curse the bike gods!
I eventually dusted myself off and got back on, determined, because honestly, anything was better than attempting to drive and park in downtown Seattle or being hindered by the bus schedule. But that wasn’t the end of it. Throughout the next few months I got a bungee cord stuck in my cogs, got caught wearing my helmet backwards (I still insist it was a fashion statement), and almost rode onto a freeway on-ramp. Motivated by my riding, my parents even attempted to bring their bikes over the pass for our family vacation to the coast, but my dad’s self-welded bike rack broke while driving down Highway 12, sending their 10-speeds flying all over the road — bad luck must run in the family. So what did we do? We rented bikes once we got to our destination and had a great time.
Making it through all of that, I still feel great about being one less contributor to automobile emissions, spending a few less dollars on gasoline and parking spaces, and getting in some exercise on my way to and from work. It was worth the numerous fumbles, and now I won’t have to relearn those lessons the hard way. Remember, even if you fall off the bike — or if the bicycle falls off the rack — you just have to get back on and keep on going.