By Beth Moulton
I'm afraid to lift my feet. They say once you know how to ride a bike you never forget, but they don't say what to do if you're sitting in the driveway on your bike but you're afraid to lift your feet off of the ground. I thought I was prepared. At the bike store I didn't let them sell me a bike with gears and handbrakes because I didn't want to have to think too hard about riding.
"It's easy," the teenaged salesperson said. "You just squeeze the handbrake when you want to stop."
"No, that's OK. I don't want to have to learn anything new. I learned to stop a bike by peddling backwards, and I learned to ride uphill by peddling harder. That's the kind of bike I want."
"They're called cruisers," he said. We only have two models. Most people just use them for the shore."
I had a choice between blue or sparkly pink with streamers. Not wanting to make too much of a spectacle of myself, I chose the blue. I am over fifty years old; it was my first brand new bike, ever. I picked up a helmet and was ready to go.
When I first learned to ride there were no such things as bike helmets, and if there had been, we would not have worn them. We learned to ride by falling off, first in the yard (harder to peddle but easier on the landing) and later the street. We lived on a dead-end street, so the only people who drove down there were the people who lived there. Our parents did not run behind us holding the seat; their contribution was over when they gave us the bike. After that we were on our own.
At the end of the block the blacktop just ended, with an abrupt drop off to gravel. The Nasielski's lived there, and Mrs. Nasielski was always ready with a bottle of peroxide for whatever kid took a header into the gravel. Peroxide bubbles as it floats dirt out of a wound, and it doesn't sting much, either. We lived further up the street and my mom used Merthiolate for any cuts and scrapes. Liquid fire. If you got hurt near our house you kept it to yourself because Merthiolate hurt more than most injuries. They don't even make that stuff anymore.
We rode a lot, the banana seat and sissy bar bikes. Not a handbrake or gears on any of them. Most were hand-me-downs, some from within the family, others from kids on the block who had outgrown them. Sometimes while speeding down the street the chains would just fall off, dumping us in a heap in the gravel at the Nasielski's. Still, we were never afraid to pick our feet up off the ground and ride again.
So now I'm sitting on my brand new bike, wearing the new bike helmet, in a driveway that belongs to me. I should be able to pick up by feet and just ride. It's not like I have to learn anything new; this should be easy. There is a bike path just down the road; if I can get there I can ride for miles on smooth blacktop that doesn't turn to gravel. I look at my feet. I lift one, and place it on a pedal. I mentally command the other foot to lift and place itself on the other pedal, just inches above it. My foot does not obey. I am afraid to fall off.
Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. I've acquired a few "falling down" injuries, an ankle held together with plates and screws and an orthopedic surgeon whose best advice is "whatever you do, don't fall down." But still, as a child I fell off bikes dozens of times and never acquired more than scrapes and cuts. I would climb back on without a second thought and ride again, sometimes while still dripping blood. People older than me, people with replacement parts, ride bikes all the time. Are they less fearful or perhaps more foolish? Do they have more optimistic orthopedic surgeons?
Which would be more painful? To fall off the bike? Or to climb off and wheel it safely back to the shed? Sure, if I put the bike back in the shed I can avoid the impact of my knees and elbows against the street. But I'll also miss that flying feeling that happens only when the surface I'm riding on that seemed perfectly safe all of a sudden drops away and leaves me suspended, if only for a few seconds, in midair. I haven't felt that way in a long time.
Maybe it's worth risking a little blood to feel that feeling again.