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What happens when a grownup learns to ride a bike?

The student

I pushed the bicycle down the driveway and parked it on the street. I gripped its handles, sat on the seat, looked straight ahead, planted my feet.

Then, I froze.

"Great. What do I do?"

My dad shook his head. "You ride it," he said.

"How?" I asked.

"You just ride it!"

Alas, I have one word for my first try to ride a bike in adulthood.

FAIL.

What happened? Am I not just an older version of the Arleen who'd pit her bike against her brother's? Would I need to revert to the ways of the Arleen of the '90s to be able to ride again? You know, wear brightly colored culottes and pretend my bike was a school bus, or something.

But there, I sat. Twenty-three years old, and I had lost the skill everyone says you can't lose.

The failed attempt left two options: Take up my friend Dalia on her offer to teach me, or get an adult tricycle.

No offense to tricycles, but Dalia and I met up at Lettuce Lake Park for a lesson. She brought the bike.

At first, I was horrified. What if I fall? What if I don't catch on? And where are the training wheels?

I sat down and grabbed the handles. While Dalia held onto my seat, we exchanged the understanding that her hand would never come so close to my tush again, and that it need only be there until I let her let go.

I started to pedal. She told me to sit up straight. I told her not to let go. She told me to look straight ahead. I told her not to let go.

I pedaled wobbly for a while, and I don't remember if I was down with it, but as we rounded a curve in the path, Dalia let go.

"I'm a bicyclist! I'm a bicyclist!" I said. But then I stopped.

"I got nervous," I said. "I thought I heard a bike coming fast!"

We laughed. I did hear a bike. It was mine.

So I gripped its handles, sat on the seat, looked straight ahead and planted my feet.

Then, I pedaled.

— Arleen Spenceley aspenceley@tampabay.com

The teacher

I don't know why I was so gung-ho about teaching Arleen to ride a bike. I guess I figured that if something is easy for me to do, then it must be easy to teach.

Not so. Most things that come naturally are difficult to explain.

Still, it would be worth the trouble. A bicycle represents freedom. As a kid, my purple bike with white streamers served as transportation to friends' houses. Today, early morning rides keep me healthy, both physically and mentally. For a year I even biked to work, freeing myself from traffic.

Arleen deserved to taste freedom. I would be her Harriet Tubman.

I showed up at Lettuce Lake Park with no plan whatsoever. My husband had taken off my front tire so the bike would fit in my car, and I couldn't remember how to reattach it. The photographer, Luis Santana, had to do it for me. Not a good start.

I handed Arleen a helmet. She asked me if she'd put on it properly.

"Move it back," I told her. "That way if you fall and hit your head, you won't get brain damage."

We both winced.

I should've Googled this, I thought. To stall, I had Arleen walk the bicycle from the parking lot to a nearby paved path so she could "become one with the bike." (Yes, those were my actual words.) I used that short walk to come up with my strategy: patience. It wasn't so much that I could teach Arleen to ride a bike, but if I offered enough encouragement and kept her steady while she figured out what to do, then she could teach herself.

That's exactly what happened.

Just as Arleen was getting the hang of it, a boy who couldn't have been older than 6 sped by on his own set of wheels. Show-off.

Next came the joggers, strollers and squirrels. Every time something crossed Arleen's path, she lost her balance.

As Arleen's posture improved, so did her ability to stay upright. And the faster she pedaled, the less wobbly she got. She really was becoming one with the bike. After about 30 minutes, she was riding so fast that I couldn't keep up. So I taught her to use the hand brakes — the last bike she'd ridden had a foot brake.

The cool thing about our lesson is that I'm sure no one in the park guessed what we were doing. Perhaps they thought we were testing some new gear or doing a photo shoot for Bike Magazine. But a grown woman learning to ride a bicycle? Too obvious.

— Dalia Colón dcolon@tampabay.com

What happens when a grownup learns to ride a bike? 05/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 28, 2009 12:59pm]

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