Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
I’m 26 and I can’t ride a bike, so I’m starting at step one.
Jason Horowitz waves and flashes a big smile when we meet up at a metro station in Arlington, Virginia. He’s agreed to take on a challenge that, for me, has felt impossible my whole life. On this sunny afternoon, I’m finally learning how to ride a bike.
The contradiction has never been lost on me. At CityLab, we’re biking enthusiasts. We write about the health and environmental benefits of exchanging steering wheels for handlebars. We’ve covered the latest in cycling infrastructure and bike share programs. Many staff members are avid riders. And yet among them, hiding in plain sight, is a 26-year-old who could barely get her feet on the pedals.
Though I know I’m not alone: roughly 6 percent of Americans don’t know how to bike. Those who do usually pick up the skill as kids, but I missed that part of childhood. By the time I was old enough to ride, our family of five had moved from a single-family home with a giant driveway to a tiny two-bedroom condo. We left behind the bike that would have been mine once my brother outgrew it, and my parents focused all their energy on running our family restaurant.
Horowitz assures me, though, that it’s never too late to learn. He’s a certified cycling instructor who runs D.C. Cycling Sensei. For the last four years, he’s been teaching children and adults as part of the Washington Area Bicycling Association (WABA). I still had my doubts, and as I wave back at him, a sense of dread comes over me: I’m going to be the one who breaks his spirit, aren’t I?
The few times my friends tried teaching me, they lost patience. I couldn’t find my balance even though I did exactly what they said: left foot on the ground, push down on the right pedal, and lean forward. Before I could find that second pedal, though, I was already tipping over. When I miraculously did get both feet up, I didn’t go far before putting them back down. At some point, I hopped off and gave up. The fear of falling and the frustration of failure got to me.
Still, that pang of embarrassment and incompetence—not to mention the jealousy as I watch others cruise down the street on one of the city’s Capital Bikeshare bikes—lingers.
Horowitz and I duck into a near-empty parking garage to escape the summer-like heat. Just minutes into our lesson, he pulls out a wrench and removes the pedals from the bike he’s brought with him. “You’ll have to earn them,” he tells me before instructing me to glide back and forth across the garage on my now pedal-less bike, with my feet off the ground. Easy enough, though I’m a bit wobbly. Seven-year-old me would have loved this, but right now, I’m just glad no one else is around.
It’s a method that many cycling instructors use on their new riders, says Horowitz, adding that when kids start with training wheels, it’s actually harder for them to balance on a two-wheeler. The extra wheels don’t do anything to instill confidence in the physics of bikes. This exercise is supposed to chip away at that very fear that’s kept me from getting on a bike. And so far, it’s working.
With a high-five, Horowitz says I’m ready for pedals—one at a time. When I earn my last pedal, he instructs me to push down with the right foot and find that left pedal. My first attempt doesn’t go well, as I instinctively look down, and the front wheels veer furiously to the right. Horowitz nonchalantly reminds me to keep my eyes up—in fact, he does this every time I forget—and sends me off on my merry way again. Eventually all this will become second nature, he assures me.
An hour and a half in, I manage to minimize the wobbling and I feel triumphant as I ride around the garage, sometimes getting just a little too close to a concrete pillar. (Still need to work on that steering.) Maybe it’s the heat, but I feel my face flush with embarrassment as a man enters the garage with his young daughter. She’s learning how to bike, too, but it quickly becomes apparent that she could easily ride circles around me.
But no time for comparisons. Now that I have the balancing down, Horowitz has raised the bike seat so that I’d be on my tippy toes. This is how tall most bikes will be when I start seriously riding, he says. He teaches me the “tripod” method for mounting a bike, in which I would be standing over the seat with my right foot on the pedal and my left leg planted on the ground at an angle. The bike would be already tipped toward the left—what now? As soon as I get the wheels rolling, though, the bike should be upright again. Balancing is suddenly tricky again, and without realizing it, I have a death grip on those handlebars.
This is the last test—the one that decides if the impossible will become the possible, if biking will really be second nature to me. The first few attempts, I admit, are nonstarters, and that frustration from those failed attempts with my friends comes creeping back. Horowitz reminds me to stand up at an angle, and I really listen this time. I try again and to my giddy surprise, I’m up and making those same circles around the garage. (I even get an ad-hoc lesson on urban cycling when the teens driving a Land Rover just a little too fast decide they would also make circles around the same garage. Thanks, dudes.)
I’ve always blamed my inability to ride a bike on my lack of balance. But it turns out that with the right method—and the kind of patience that I’m certain only a biking instructor can have—excitement overtook that fear of falling pretty quickly. What really held me back, I realized, were self-doubt and the certainty that I was just part of the exception when it comes to cycling culture.
Though I’m just riding in circles, I can see why cyclists say biking is liberating. It’s partly thrilling as I (carefully) slip between the few parked cars, and partly relaxing as the bike glides smoothly over the roughness of the pavement. I just had to clear those internal thoughts and focus on the only thing that matters: whatever is right in front of me.