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Shifting Gears

[Cross-posted from Vox.]

I live in a city where people make good use of bicycles. Granted, this is Toronto, not Copenhagen or Amsterdam or Bejing where the bicycle rules. But, on the scale of things in North America, Toronto is one of
the more bike-friendly cities. There is a bike culture … and I have longed to be a small part of it. I cannot give up my four wheels, especially now since my work takes me out of the city easily three times a week. But I have watched cyclists with envy, quietly going about the city in an independent, self-sufficient and often graceful manner.

As a kid, I practically lived on my bike. It was my major mode of transport from about the age of eight until I left home for university. My friends lived up and down the road of the farming community I grew up in, and there was a conservation area with a pool that we all congregated at daily – this was about a 20 minute bike ride from home. Who knows what my Mom thought of me taking off for hours at a time. My friends and I also rode our bikes for play, pretending they were horses, and trying to get them to be mountain bikes or
cross-country bikes before such things really existed. So much of my childhood involved taking my bike entirely for granted.

My ex and I bought bikes – this is about 10 years ago. They looked good, these bikes, or at least mine did. It was green (of course) and it had a basket on the front. It was the MOST uncomfortable bike on the
planet. I would stare at it, in frustration and pain, knowing that just lowering my butt onto the seat would cause me to wince. Being in such utter pain in my nether regions caused me to be paranoid about all the
other things I need to pay attention to in the big city … motorists, car doors opening, motorists, pedestrians, children, motorists, car doors, dogs, motorists … the paranoia came from having so much of my attention focused on the pain that I feared that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the stuff that could actually kill me. I think I rode that bike no more than three or four times before retiring the idea completely. I convinced myself that my body just wasn’t built for biking.

T bought a bike a few weeks ago. This was HUGE for her. She didn’t learn to ride as a child and is teaching herself as an adult. I admire her chutzpah. There is so much we take for granted about bike riding as just knowledge one has acquired along the way … how to move the pedal so you can put your foot on it to start out … how to balance … how to steer …how to stand up going over bumps … how to speed to get through uncertain bits of the road. For T, this is like learning Swahili at age 50 – it all feels very counter-intuitive to her. She had originally thought she’d buy a trike – one of those contraptions that has three wheels and a basket sort of thing out back but the man in the store convinced her that she was too young for that and that she could indeed learn to ride a decent bike. He sold her a sturdy bike with training wheels. And a helmet. The training wheels are VERY loud and she is getting pretty tired of them, I think, but she is also not quite sure she is ready to have them raised. The whole balance thing is a mystery to her. She slows down before speed bumps, which makes pedaling over them harder. She starts to yell out, and slow down,when she sees that she is coming up on a hill or a turn, uncertain of what to do or how to trust the machine beneath her. However, in the moments between being scared and uncertain, she admits that she really likes riding her bike. In some place within, she is having fun. With practice, this will all get easier for her, I think.

I watch all this in admiration and think to myself … maybe I could do this again if I had the right bike. So, I did it – I bought a bike! It was on a whim and a tad reckless, really – but the moon and stars must have been in alignment because I bought exactly the perfect bike for me. I’m totally smitten. T and I went out for four hours – my first lengthy bike ride since I was about 17, I think. My butt hurt a little bit by the end, I admit, but absolutely nothing like it once did. I was ready to go out for another four hours the next day, which is a
complete switch from how things were 10 years ago. We started in the Beaches, on the bike path, heading west to Ashbridge’s, then carried on to the Leslie St. Spit where we stopped to eat the lunch we packed.
Then we headed back. This would normally have taken about, oh, an hour maybe? But with T in learning mode … the pace proceeds much more slowly. This is actually fine with me as I was on my own learning
curve, getting re-acquainted with the brakes, gears, bike etiquette, traffic protocols, etc.

I loved being out on a bike. LOVED it. Didn’t matter to me in the slightest that we were going slow. I just loved the feeling of it again. T tells me I look like I was born to be on a bicycle, which says to me that my body remembers what it once knew so well. I really do think it is like learning a language – that there is a window of time when we learn things monumentally easily as children and then that window closes before we are about 10, I think. One of the reasons I hesitated to buy a bike has to do with my weight. I said I’d do it when I’d lost a bit more and that maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much. I’m glad I didn’t wait, and I’ve proved to myself that my body is capable of more than I give it credit for. Yesterday, T bought a bike rack for the back of her car so we can take our bikes to a wider range of bike paths. For now, we are looking for paths that are flat-ish and not too busy, although T did admirably well navigating the Beaches path with all the long-weekend pedestrian traffic. We are open to suggestions from those with more cycling experience in this city!

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