I did get on a bike for about 15 minutes at a family Y camp weekend six or seven years ago. I walked away wondering if I could stand ever getting bike on a bike seat again because my rear end hurt so bad from my weight being concentrated on one tiny little seat. Despite misgivings, and having lost about 100 pounds since then, I drove to Liberty State Park in Jersey City yesterday and rode for half an hour. I’m glad to report that my butt was fine this time, I enjoyed the ride and I also learned a couple of interesting truths.
First of all, it is definitely the case that a person never forgets how to ride a bicycle – even a slim-wheeled road bike with the kind of handles you have to lean over to grasp hold of. But you have to be really brave to take the step of launching yourself forward into gravity balancing mode and relying on the mechanics of biking. Before I got moving, I almost fell over a bunch of times. Then I gave myself a stern talking to. I said, “You’ve done this zillions of times before. You know that once you get the bike going the forward movement will help you balance. If you’re too fat and out of shape to stay on the bike you’ll find that out pretty quickly and then you can go home with at least the accomplishment of having found this out under your belt.
Before you get to go home, though, you have to try to ride this bike. That’s what you committed to do today, it’s something you’ve thought about doing for about 10 years, you really want to get back in the bike riding habit and there’s no other way to get there except by actually riding; you desperately need more exercise and to launch into a more physically active lifestyle, and biking may be the key to all this so you really need to give it a shot. On the plus side, there’s a reasonably good chance that you’re going to be able to ride now, since you’ve ridden so many times before, even though that was many years ago. Basically, you just have to worry about falling over before you can get the happy forward motion going, and then how you’re going to hop off the seat to get your legs on the ground before the bike stops moving when you want to stop.” This pep talk helped, although I did ask myself why I hadn’t had the foresight to wear pants on this ride just in case I did end up falling over and scraping my flesh along the ground. I reminded myself that if that happened I probably wouldn’t be going fast enough to do any serious damage. I was a bundle of all kinds of enthusiastic optimism.
I adjusted the pedals so I could push down easily on one of them, pushed down firmly and lo and behold, Good Lord, there I was riding a bike all by myself!
I next discovered that when riding a bike configured with lean-over handlebars, steering is a challenge because your weight tends to be forward on the handlebars. If you’re leaning too hard on them your own weight makes it difficult to change direction. I backed onto the seat a bit so my weight was distributed more evenly between handles and seat, and then steering was easier. Easier, that is, not easy. I spent my half hour ride shouting out to people walking on the path in front of me to please move to one side because, “I don’t know what I’m doing. First bike ride in 30 years!” (Close enough to truth.)
I wobbled when I tried to direct the bike right or left, found it impossible to make tight turns because doing so required that I slow down too much to stay balanced; and when I went up any incline with a grade of more than 10% I pretty much lost control of my steering altogether. Apparently, the effort of cycling harder competed with my ability to keep my hands steady on the handlebars. That wasn’t fun.
Cross-country biker John Sowell had cautioned me to bring a sweater because the air tends to be cool next to the waterfront. Great advice because it was cool, but then I had the curious sensation of my face and legs being coolish while sweating under my sweatshirt from exertion.
I found out that biking leaning over the handlebars gives arms a workout as well as legs, and after dismounting my legs wobbled like they do after I’ve ridden a horse (another activity I haven’t tried for several decades). And, I learned that I really need a bike rack: some cool army guys and a volunteer for the fund-raising walk taking place in the park lifted my bike in and out of the car for me, but I can’t count on help like that always being available. I definitely didn’t have the strength to lift my bike into the back of the car when I was finished riding.
I discovered that I like riding a heck of a lot more than I like walking, and also discovered that while it must be nice to experience the surrounding world from the open-air perspective of biking, it’s going to be a while until I feel secure enough to look at anything besides the ground directly in front of me when I ride. I now understand why many lady bikers prefer not to bike alongside vehicular traffic. I can’t imagine doing any of what I did yesterday next to a moving line of cars, and surviving. It happens to be really difficult to find off-road flattish bike paths in northern New Jersey, though.
All good take-aways for my first independent bike foray. Most importantly, I had a good time and am eager to get back into the saddle again.