Before I came to Arlington, I was a non-cyclist.
Not that I never tried to learn. I learnt as a child, and refuting the saying, like a shit elephant, I FORGOT.
Inexplicably, every boyfriend I have ever had has tried to teach me. Tumbles were met with stomped-on helmets and fist shaking. One such fool - generous and patient - tried to teach me how to turn by laying his jacket on the ground:
‘So when you get to the jacket, turn left! Don’t worry, you won’t go over it!’
I went over it.
Next obstacle: a carton of juice.
‘So when you get to the carton, turn LEFT! Nono, you won’t go over it this time.’
In want of a better obstacle, the jacket again.
Sticky, juicy, wheely jacket.
There’s no way to avoid the embarrassment of having to admit that you can’t ride a bike.
However, rather than be presented as cycle-incompetent, I consider myself to be a champion of perambulation. I can go at a fair old lick when needs be, but nothing beats a good amble. Ambling ranks among the greatest pleasures in life. Keeping tremendous company with Pottering and Poking About. These activities are united by their shared emphasis on leisure-curiosity (there should be a word for this — there probably is one in German) and their mutual demand for a gentler pace than that afforded to us by our two-wheeled friend. That said, this is really my ideal mode of transportation. So noble.
Slow and steady wins the race.
This doesn’t apply in your traditional race format, if said race is between someone on foot and someone on a bike. BUT if the race is a contest to see who can listen to the most uplifting songs/instructional tapes on their iPod, have the best catch-up phone calls with family members, or scare the bejeezus out of the least drivers, then pedestrians, kiss your guns, take a bow and do a victory lap at a walking pace.
It may also be worth noting, that when on foot, there are very few happenings that can place me in physical jeopardy. On a bicycle, however, I am subject to the whim of the elements (and the less whim-related, but no less arbitrarily cruel, bumps on the road) AND my fellow creatures of the road, in a way that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Toddlers and dogs, though you’re the least likely to be reading this blog, you are the main culprits, so take note.
When I’m cruising in the foot-mobile, if someone cuts in front of me, I barely need to break my stroll. On a bicycle, however, it’s a whole world of panic-braking and deals with god. You might not guess it from my triumphant riding gait, but beneath my cool helmet & knee-elbow-ankle-wrist-padded exterior, I’m still a little anxious about the whole business.
Though this blog may seem part pathetic memoir/part diatribe, I really started it in order to recount how I actually LEARNT to ride. So I’m going to change gear (for want of a less shaming ‘turnaround’ term) and tell you about that as well.
It’s easy to be a pedestrian in London, but everyone knows that America favours the driver. Boston is pretty good in this respect – there is a great public transport setup, but I’ve yet to meet anyone like myself, who can’t drive. And there are times when the old Strolls Royce just doesn’t cut it in this town.
The house where I’m living is slap bang on a bike path. It couldn’t be closer, and it can take you all around town, even to the next town over. So with my pride tucked into my knee-pads, I booked myself a lesson at the Bicycle Riding School in the neighbouring town of Somerville.
The lesson was wonderful, but also quite peculiar. It was one on one, with a really nice lady, called Susan, who used to be very rich, but spent all her money travelling to Africa over the years to work fighting female circumcision, and on peaceful protesting (it’s strange that I even know that, given the context of our encounter). Every time I set off on the bike, she said:
‘Look ahead! Look towards the glorious future!’
This I liked a LOT.
Susan lives in an all vegetarian commune, in a huge house in Somerville, and I was asking her about it at the end of the lesson, and she started off by saying how great it was (they all cook each other dinners and so on), but then she started reflecting on the problems they have - dish washing, someone having a carnivore boyfriend (!) who wanted to cook SIX hamburgers (!!!) one person had a troubled childhood, so didn’t want to do communal eating, because of bad associations with mealtimes… standard bike lesson chitchat.. and then, most unexpectedly, she told me that her mother said, when she (susan) was about 35 that she’d spent all her energy on this household, instead of having a family of her own. Yowza. Did she think it was worth it? She did not know. Did I? I sagely pointed out that she probably wouldn’t have been able to do all her good work in Africa if she’d had a family in tow. It’s hard to say anything sagely when only your eyes aren’t protectively clothed. But she seemed to accept this and we parted on good terms. A successful bicycle lesson all round.
Next: BICYCLE SCHOOL GRADUATION!
Sadly, there was no hi-vis gown or mortarboard helmet BUT there was a brilliant picnic, and a 40-minute ride with eight other beginner cyclists. During this epic odyssey-on-wheels, I really felt like part of a group of very brave, intrepid people. I was rolling along with people who were willing to do something a bit embarrassing, and a bit scary – maybe for fun, or for someone they loved (two people in my group were joined for the graduation ride by their partners, who couldn’t have been more excited and proud to be going on their first cycle together - seriously heart warming stuff) or just to prove something to themselves.
Oh and I also got a certificate!
I do stand by my love of walking – I will amble the good amble again and again – but I am thrilled to have done it, to have really challenged myself, with a fantastic result (five year olds the world over probably are sharing my elation at this very moment).
This is an extract from an email I sent a few days ago:
I just got back from my second TRIUMPHANT (sort of) cycle ride. By which I mean, I cycled for about 10 minutes up and down the cycle path, but am too scared to overtake anyone so I have to stop every time I get near anyone. So it’s a slow process, but a surprisingly satisfying one. I don’t know whether this is a Boston thing, or a cycling thing, but when cyclists overtake, they shout ‘on your left!’ so you know they’re there. Which I find more frightening than the approach itself. AND they don’t all do it, so it’s a flawed system in many ways.
HA Katya-from-the-past! How little you knew then!
This just in: Deborah bought me a really great headlamp so now I can cycle at NIGHT!
This REALLY just in: Nighttime cycling is very scary - not only was it pitch black (apart from my headlamp, which evidently made me seem very sexy to moths everywhere) but I had to be on the look out for wandering skunks! Did I sing Funkytown to myself to the word Skunkytown? Yes, yes I did.