Can I tell you a secret? I don’t know how to ride a bike.
Somehow I just never learned when I was a kid, and then I managed to quietly avoid it, living in a serenely bike-free universe until…well, until I decided that there was a bike-shaped hole in my life.
The main impetus for this prevailing feeling is that I live a mere three miles from where I work, but it takes me an hour to get in every morning on public transportation. (Admittedly this is because I utterly refuse to take a route through Bank station, because it’s built kind of like this. (If you’re too lazy to click on the link, it’s an illustration of Dante’s Inferno. Which genuinely isn’t that different from this actual old cutaway map of Bank/Monument.) Surely, surely there must be a better way.
But the thing about trying to learn to cycle as an adult is, it’s just one of those things that everybody is supposed to already know. Like reading, or long division. If you say, “I’ve decided to learn book-binding,” (or cabinet-making, or how to grow tomatoes) everyone coos and says what a wonderful thing it is to take up a new hobby. If you say, “I’ve decided to learn to ride a bike,” everyone looks at you with a mixture of pity and encouragement, like you should probably know better but they’re not going to try to stop you.
It was thus with a spirit of humility that I presented myself to the cycling instructor.
What followed is too embarrassing to recount in detail. Instead, I want you to picture a very adorable if maladroit baby giraffe. One that’s just a few hours old and doesn’t quite know where to put all its extremely gangly limbs yet. This baby giraffe is still confused about why it has such a long neck and how best to place such an apparatus whilst gambolling about the savannah, as required. Now picture this baby giraffe, with attendant appendages, attempting to balance itself on a Boris bike. I shall allow you to take it from there.
One of the wonderful things about learning something as a grownup, especially something that you ‘should’ have learned at an earlier age, is the opportunity to recapture all the sensations of attaining a skill for the first time. All the frustrations and fears, all the gritted teeth and held breath until at last that first glimpse of what it might be like to succeed. And with a skill so basic as riding a bike (the act from which the very axiom of something easy to learn and hard to forget is taken), there is the added feeling of genuinely being like a child again: you can’t build on your previous knowledge or apply expertise you’ve learned in other areas. You just have to go back to basics and fall down sometimes.
Actually that’s not entirely fair: the cycling instructor’s first tips were “Try to feel it in your hips more,” as I struggled for balance, further saying that it’s the muscles in your stomach, hips and thighs that keep you in balance. Well, all of this sounds very familiar to someone who started belly dancing eleven years ago. Other things to bear in mind: remain relaxed, or else you’ll be too tense to do it properly. Also don’t clench your arms. That just looks weird (and makes you fall over.)
And finally, above all, don’t use 1st gear on a Boris bike. Ever.
Well, I won’t exactly be going for the Tour de France anytime soon. In fact, I may even have to revise my original ambition of getting up to scratch to cycle into work. Plenty of more confident bikers than I have told me they’d be scared to ride in London. But still, I made it about 200 feet. Which is 200 feet better than I could do before.