You Don’t Have to Be a Lifelong Biker to Start Biking

I think that a fairly common misconception among cyclists and non-cyclists alike is that people who are “into biking” have always been that way or have consistently had bikes in their day-to-day lives. It can be pretty daunting to think about biking as transportation if you don’t know the first thing about bikes and everyone who does seems to have been biking forever.

Luckily for the uninitiated, you absolutely don’t have to have a history with cycling in order to dive in and try it. I offer myself up as an example. I haven’t always been into riding bikes. In fact, until I went all-in five years ago, my track record with bikes was unusually poor. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but throughout my childhood and well into my 20s, I found the simple act of riding a bike to be terrifying. I’m uncoordinated, physically timid, proportioned like a zaftig octopus, intimidated by traffic and generally scared moving at speeds beyond a brisk walking pace. With that in mind, here’s a brief history of Jo on a bike:

I am five and I have just received my first bike. It has training wheels. I happily pedal it up and down our flat, quiet block, but I have to get off and push it up the “hill” on the adjacent street (this hill rises maybe three feet over a 100-foot stretch of road). One day, while riding next to my (walking) mum on the way to the schoolyard near our house, I come to a moderately steep section of path next to the bank of a creek. In what will become a typical, almost trademark move over the next 20 years of physical activity, I freeze in terror, remove my feet from the pedals so that they’re just dangling in the air, and pitch myself into the creek, bike and all. I wind up with a cool-looking scar on the bridge of my nose and a full-fledged fear of biking. Away goes the bike.

I’m in college, I work nights at our campus newspaper and usually end up walking a mile or so home through a slightly unsavory part of town at 3am by myself, which isn’t ideal. There is a spare bike kicking around my boyfriend’s apartment, so I think I’ll try using it for that commute. I manage to wobble the bike over to the paper using flat, paved paths, but I have absolutely zero biking skills so I have to get off and walk it whenever there are people around or I come to a turn that’s more than 45 degrees. On the way home, I ambitiously decide to take a shortcut across a path that consists of paving stones set in tanbark. I crash almost immediately, limp home and return the bike the next day.

I am on vacation with my parents in Uganda (we are pretty cool) and I decide to have a wander around town one afternoon. I see a little shop that’s renting out bikes for some ridiculously low fee, the equivalent of pennies an hour. I imagine myself as an effortlessly chic world citizen cruising around foreign streets with the wind in my hair and a benevolent, wise smile around my eyes. I shell out the pennies and rent the bike, which turns out to be something of a rust bucket, but I assume that will just add to the charm. I throw a leg over the bike and wobble off down the street, surprised at how much coordination riding seems to require. After about a block I decide to get off the street onto an adjacent path. Having practically zero experience whatsoever with bicycling as an adult, I take the four-inch curb at maybe a five degree angle, assuming the bike will somehow just hop up over it. Due to basic laws of physics and common sense, the bike does not just hop over it. Bike and I both clatter to the rough dirt and are immediately surrounded by Ugandan children with facial expressions ranging from mild concern to unrestrained delight. I shuffle back to the shop less than three minutes after I’d left and swear off biking for a while.

Showing off some raspberries after biting it in Uganda. Photo by Kevin Copley.

And seriously, that’s it. Until I suddenly started biking everywhere, everyday at age 25 (which I’ll write about in an upcoming post), my history with bikes was essentially three attempts, three failures. So if you’re thinking that you’ve already missed the boat because you didn’t grow up biking, think again.


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