Pedal, pedal, pedal, plonk.
I looked up from the ground, the lime green body of the NiceRide I’d rented moments before splayed on top of me. I willed myself to stand up before any passersby saw. It was a mid-morning on a sunny Friday in early July, and few people were out and about in this quiet corner of Linden Hills. But the shock of embarrassment hit just as hard the pavement against my right hip.
At 32 years old, I was teaching myself to ride a bike.
Now, please believe me when I say I once knew how to ride. I have very vivid memories of learning in the parking lot behind my parents’ apartment in Farsta, Sweden. I even called my mom to confirm that my neurons weren’t deceiving me.
“Oh, Maggie, you were so proud of yourself,” she said wistfully, remembering the day she pulled off my training wheels. “You were four, in the prettiest dress, bangs blowing in the breeze as you rode circles around us. Why?”
Well, I’m going to teach myself how to ride …
“What are you talking about?” I could practically hear her eyes narrow as her disapproving tone reached through the phone line. “You know how to ride a bike. That’s why they say, ‘It’s just like riding a bike.’ You never forget.”
Except, what if riding a bike is not “like riding a bike” at all? What if, in my case, the more apt cliché is “use it or lose it”?
I was never an avid cyclist. Sure, I learned to ride in Sweden, and it was a decent way to get around after we moved to New Jersey, at least until my friends and I started driving.
But as a grown-up, I went on to live in cities where I could easily get by on foot and public transportation. Peddling up and down the hills of northern California’s Bay Area seemed like an unnecessarily sweaty affair, and riding in New York, London, and Paris seemed practically suicidal. Working as a reporter in Washington, D.C. — where I not only covered car-bike collisions but even had to create a horrifying digital map chronicling cyclist deaths in the region — all but sealed my bike-less fate.
In these cities, I didn’t even have to deal with the question of knowing how to ride. I chose not to ride in order to ward off premature death and armpit stains. I could cite my map o’ bike terrors if anyone tried to argue my position.
Until I moved to Minneapolis.
I arrived in the Twin Cities in October 2013, and felt immediately bombarded by pro-biking propaganda. Miles of well-kept trails, bike lanes and the bike-commuter haven that is the Greenway kept cyclists safe. The beauty of the Grand Rounds spoke to my nature-seeking soul. Thriving cycling communities in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, plus events like Open Streets and Art Crank, appealed to my sense of wanting to belong in my new home.
And not only did it seem like every single person in the Cities was on two wheels, it felt like everyone was willing to teach me to ride. (Minnesota nice, indeed.)
More than 15 years after hanging up my helmet, the pressure was on to get back in the saddle. That’s not to say I didn’t resist. I made it through two winters and one summer without succumbing to the siren song of the cycle. I smiled politely at offers of help and tucked away bits of advice for “future” use. The most memorable, if unhelpful, tip: Walk your bike to the top of a steep hill. Ride it as fast as you can to the bottom. You’ll learn pretty quick.
To be honest, I was scared. Scared of falling, scared of getting hit by a car, scared of getting knocked over by a pedestrian, scared of wheeling off-path and tumbling into a lake.
But mostly, I was scared I had forgotten how to ride — by the prospect of having lost an essential first-world life skill. What did forgetting something so basic mean? It seemed a question worth ignoring as long as possible. Forever seemed about right.
But this year, something changed. As I watched the Cities thaw and the fair-weather cyclists come out of hibernation, I felt an overwhelming desire to join them. The fear wasn’t gone, but it wasn’t standing in my way. So what if I’d forgotten? I shrugged bravely. I would re-learn.
And so, last month, I walked down to the NiceRide station at the corner of Upton and Sheridan, boldly paid $15 for a month-long membership, clipped on my helmet, and pushed off with high hopes and low expectations.
Pedal, pedal, pedal, plonk.
I considered returning the bike and calling it a day. I was, after all, within feet of the rental station. But I gave myself a pep talk — You fell. You’re fine. No one saw. You’re fine. Don’t overthink this. You’re so fine — and tried again.
I wobbled, but this time stayed upright. I practiced using my hand brakes and stopped for another pep talk — You didn’t fall, yay! But you might again, so don’t get cocky. Either way, you’re still super fine.
I spent 90 minutes teetering around Linden Hills, avoiding traffic and talking to myself. I wouldn’t say I felt secure on the bike. It didn’t feel like second-nature the way it once had, but it felt fine. Fun at times, even. I returned the bike with a smile on my face and the promise to myself that I’d keep trying.
When I woke up the next day, I hesitated. I wasn’t convinced that I could do it again. But each day I did, testing new routes and biking my way around town. I bounced from rental station to rental station, joining the throngs who pedaled around the lakes. The bike provided me with increased speed and a slight elevation boost, rendering every sight unfamiliar and every ride an adventure.
Atop a bicycle, my newest home feels like new again.