The morning of my Bike New York Adult Learn to Ride lesson in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx it was thirty-seven degrees and I was feeling jumpy and cold as I entered the yard, tugging my pants up and jacket firmly down. My yoga pants, I realized, were starting to lose their stretch.
When I approached the bike station, an avuncular man named Ross asked us to sign a waiver and try on helmets. A man in dreadlocks named Clyde sized us up for bikes.
More people came, some in pairs. “Bernard is riding,” a blond woman said, smiling at her companion, a cheerful Asian man in a fuzzy brown zip-up jacket. His friend gave him a squeeze, saying, “I’m the moral support.”
Helmets and name tags on, our group of fifteen straddled our black and orange Schwinns, looking similarly ill at ease. We were all over the map in age and ethnicity, but there was no question we belonged together.
“How’s everyone doing?” Clyde asked, scooting on his bicycle in front of us. “Apart from nervous?” We all tittered, shifted our balance from one foot to the other.
“You’ll notice your bike is missing something,” he said, pointing down.“That’s right—we took off the pedals.You’re going to scoot with your feet.” He demonstrated, pushing the ground away with one foot and then the other, the bike coasting along. “As you get comfortable with your balance, coast for longer.” He leaned his head back serenely, looking like Brian Boitano, skating with the stars.
“Now”—he sat straight up—“if you want to slow down, you will not do it like Fred Flintstone. Never skid with your feet!” We imagined prehistoric dirt flying. “Squeeze your hand brakes very gently! These are good brakes, they will slow you down very quickly. You do not have to grab them.” He deepened his voice ominously. “Bad things happen when you grab the brakes.”
I squeezed the hand brakes gently. Such a foreign concept. My last bike had foot brakes; the car had a foot brake; if I wanted to slow down while running, I slow down my feet. How was I going to remember to use my hands to slow down?
Clyde stopped and pointed to his hands on the handlebars, his butt on the seat, and his feet on the invisible pedals. “If you are in contact in these three places, you are on the bike,” he said emphatically. “You do not need to look down to check if you’re on the bike. What happens if I look down?” He looked down; you could see if he were moving he’d pitch head over handlebars in the next frame. “That’s right—it wouldn’t be pretty, folks. Where you look is where you go, so keep your eyes up. When I point to you, you will kick the stand back and go. You’ll be like ‘AAAAAAAAHHHH!’” Clyde screamed. “That’s okay. Give each other plenty of room.” He indicated for us to go in a big circle around the yard.
Everyone squirmed. It was a Gentlemen, start your engines moment, except none of us wanted to turn the key.
“Okay, Pink Pants!” Clyde pointed at a lady in pink sweatpants. “Go!” She pushed off. The next lady had forgotten where her kick- stand was. A third and fourth were sent on their way while she searched. Then it was my turn, and I pushed off. Almost immediately I wanted to brake. The bike was flying! Every pit in the surface of the yard felt like it was going to catapult me off my seat. But my feet were hardly leaving the ground. I looked around and everyone had the same look of intense worry or concentration as they shuffled around the yard on their bikes, barely moving.
“It’s so weird,” I muttered. “It feels like we’re going fast, but we’re not at all.” We looked more like old people pushing walkers in an outdoor exercise period.
It was actually hard work, pushing our bodies around the yard. After a few laps, the complaining started. “I’m out of breath,” one woman said, stopping to rest.
“My butt hurts,” I said, stopping alongside her, “and my pants are falling down.”
“Your butt hurts?” Bernard called from across the way. He must have been lip-reading from that distance. His formerly cheerful face was contorted in a grimace. “My hips are ON FIRE!” he howled. His voice got louder as he got closer to us. “I’m so TIRED!” He actually looked like he was breaking a sweat in the freezing cold. “I’m in PAIN! And we haven’t even done anything yet! It’s been TEN MINUTES!” His voice faded in volume, but not in anguish, as he passed by, asking the question on everyone’s minds: “What’s going to happen when we have to PEDAL?”
A woman, whose name tag shouted KAT in big block letters, was standing still, straddling her bike. As I pushed by her, she confided in an undertone, “I don’t know how to turn. Every time I try, I start to fall over.”
“I only know how to turn left,” I said. I was gathering speed, coasting between strides, trying not to crash into anyone. So was everyone else: We were starting to look less like geriatrics and more like circus clowns.
“Red Jacket!” Clyde called. “Hello! You with the red jacket!” I looked down at my red jacket.
“Do you mean me?” I asked, coasting by him in my never-ending left turn. I was too scared to use the hand brakes, too good a student to use my feet to stop.
“Yes, you,” Clyde said. “I think we have our first candidate for pedals. You feel ready?”
“Well, as long as I don’t have to turn right,” I called back. Or brake.
* * *
Find out what happens when Patty, Bernard, and the rest of their Adult Learn to Ride class get pedals – the words “Look out!” come into play (along with some great big smiles) – in Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave available everywhere books are sold. Check back here every month to read about her progress as she trains for the TD Five Boro Bike Tour, follow her on Twitter @PattyChangAnker, and see what else she’s up to on her blog, Facing Forty Upside Down.