The Pain, Shame, and Joy of Learning How to Ride a Bike as a Grown Man
It's a story I'd hear over and over again, each time as horrifying as the last, every time I wondered why I couldn't balance on two wheels, give myself a push, and pedal to nowhere. When my mom was a kid, she was balancing and pushing and pedaling—the complicated and thoughtless series of motions we call riding a bike—and spun out of control into the rusty back fender of a car.
The handlebar jammed straight into her appendix.
Didn't burst, though. Worse. She sat around in pain for five days until it burst. Then came the trip to the hospital, the doctor who asked if she could walk five feet across the room (nope!), amnesia, surgery, the works. Bikes? Well, bikes were now bad. No more bikes. 30 years later, it became my mom's mission—aside from breaking me from the Chicken Nugget Diet—to make sure her children would never, ever, learn how to ride a bike. End of story. If you ever forgot why, well, let my mom tell you about the time a bike detonated her appendix from the outside in.
So, I never learned how to ride a bike. I had a great childhood, don't get me wrong. But there was no riding with Billy and Bobby and Jack around the block, no skinned knees, no bumps and bruises, no helmet hair. When I saw E.T., the bike riding inspired more wonder than the idea of eating Reese's Pieces with an alien. Any unsupervised trouble I wanted to get into, I'd have to wait until I got my license. If you really think about it, it's the most freedom a kid could have: Riding away on a bike.
It’s the most freedom a kid could have: Riding away on a bike.
But it really wasn't that much of a problem back then. I was more embarrassed about wearing those nasty mouth gum bands (if you know, you know) than I was about not knowing how to ride a bike. Not until my twenties. You ever try dating with the knowledge buried deep inside that you can't ride a fucking bike? Because it'll come out. I promise. And when it does, you will—in your date's eyes—metamorphize into the wimpiest, most flat-footed, training-wheeled manchild they've ever seen. "WOW," they'll say. "YOU CAN'T RIDE A BIKE?!" Hahaha. Yeah. You finish your drink. It's funny at first, until they realize a future with you is a future where their bike is merely a means to escape from you.
Dark! I know. I was just about convinced that I had to buy a My Little Pony tricycle at Target and force myself to learn if I ever wanted a girlfriend, until last October. I was trolling around Hinge, when I matched with yet another bike-heavy profile. (Anecdotal fact: 90 percent of Hinge profiles involve bikes.) Corinne. She had a big, smiley picture with her bike. Cute, sure, but I was fucked. My Dark Secret came out three messages in. I made a terrible joke about how if she saw someone on the street, crumbling into a pathetic ball trying to teach himself how to ride a bike, then it was me.
Apparently, Corinne saw my problem as a personal challenge. We're going on a year now. It was nothing to be embarrassed of! Just, uh—if you can't ride a bike—she's gonna make damn sure you will know how to ride a bike. I don't know how to say this in a she-will-read-this-and-not-hate-me way, but Corinne is... determined. But aside from a comment here, there, or literally any time we were outside and Corinne saw a bike, I managed to avoid her cycling boot camp. Too snowy today! Too hot! Headache! Hemorrhoids!
Until The Trip.
For the love of god.
'Want to learn how to ride a bike now?' 'No."'
The week before Memorial Day, Corinne and I drove 11 hours south, from Pennsylvania, to West Virginia, to Virginia, to North Carolina, to South Carolina, to spend a week with her parents. It was the first time I'd been to the South, slept in the same house as a girlfriend's parents for more than a night, and—I'd come to find out—assist in the construction of a backyard shed so goddamn big that it could double as a guest house. Got there on a Sunday. The building of Papa Corinne's ark, this unholy shed, happened that Thursday. Imagine building an IKEA bed frame, only, like, it's so big that you have to unload the pieces from a semi-truck. After unloading the truck, my job was to hold the walls up while Papa Corinne drilled them into place. That day, I met a new friend: Southern humidity. After hours, and hours (and hours), we had everything up but the roof.
Sweaty, sticky, legs shot, arms even worse off, I took five minutes alone by the garage to drink some water. Just standing there. Minding my own damn business. Recovering. I heard a clink... clink... clink... coming from inside the garage. I know that sound. No. For the love of God. No.
'I’m staring at her bike, wondering approximately how many days, hours, or minutes away I was to being single again.'
It's Corinne. Wheeling out a bike.
"Want to learn how to ride a bike now?"
"I'm, you know, a little tired from holding up the walls of the small house your dad ordered to sit in the back of his big house."
Five minutes later, Corinne's on my left, Papa Corinne's on my right, and I'm staring at her bike, wondering approximately how many days, hours, or minutes away I was to being single again. At the time, I was dumb enough to think that Corinne's dad would be the one who had mercy on me—a beat-to-shit, nervous mess who would just really appreciate spending the rest of the day watching House Hunters next to the A/C. Wouldn't you know it, Corinne's father is a lot like Corinne. Sweet. Kind. Patient. But, you know, you will learn how to ride this bike, now, and there is no version of this day that will lead to you not learning how to ride this bike.
There's a dirt trail in back of the family's house, with enough trees on either side to form a half-canopy. It's about 10 feet wide. Read: Narrow enough for me to uphold my family legacy, spin out of control, and jam the handlebar straight into my appendix. Only with the help of a mossy tree, not a rusty car. This is what I was thinking as my instructors propped my helpless, clumsy body on top of a bike that felt like it was 15 feet tall. That was the game plan. Corinne and her dad would, quite literally, hold up either side of my body to keep me balanced, while I crawled back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth again, on this trail, Corinne and her dad firing simultaneous, but entirely different instructions, in both ears.
"Don't look at the ground!"
"Watch out for the stump!"
"Don't think too hard!"
You ever feel unattractive? Try having your girlfriend's dad prop your dead weight, saying, "Look ahead, look ahead!" as you keep running into the same fucking stump in the middle of this trail. There are few things more emasculating in this world. That's another promise. After about an hour, I graduated from being handled like a helpless moron on two wheels, to riding along this trail with my teachers jogging along either side of me. You'd think I'd be proud of this, but the lack of a safety net only inspired more fear. Every time I thought about the stump, I'd run into it. Every time I thought about how mortifying it would be if I rode right into Corinne's dad, I ran right into Corinne's dad.
Every time I thought about how mortifying it would be if I rode right into Corinne's dad, I ran right into Corinne's dad.
Biking, I was starting to learn, was the absence of thought. If I pedaled my ass off, looked straight forward, and somehow managed to bat away the idea of how ridiculous I looked—and how I'd never get the hang of what I was so desperate to learn—I'd make it a few feet without teeter-tottering. It's something you can only really grasp as an adult, one with an anxious and overthinking adult brain, but riding a bike is a small miracle. A human body? On two wheels? Going 15 miles an hour? Doesn't make a lick of sense. The tires are about an inch in width, for god's sake. If you learned as a kid, I'm sure it was beautiful when you sped down your driveway with no one holding you at the hips. But rarely, I bet, do you still think of that miracle, or the feeling of the first—to get it, to understand it, to live it—when every part of your body moves how it's supposed to, even when your mind drifts away.
Night was coming. I was sweating so much that my shirt had turned another color. My brain felt like it was cooking under the helmet, the anxiety of don't fall, don't fall for hours and hours. My teachers were sweet, kind, and patient—and sweating even more than I was, having run cumulative miles alongside me—but there's only so many times they could say that I could do it. This night wouldn't end if I couldn't balance on two wheels, give myself a push, and pedal to nowhere.
I kicked hard off the dirt and wobbled down the trail, a little faster this time, a little sturdier, don't hit that stump, into the trees and out of sight. I kept going until I couldn't hear them anymore, no look forwards or you got its or keep pedalings. When I saw the road, I gripped the brake, put my foot down, turned around, and kicked again, harder than the last time. Knee up, knee down, pedaling down the trail, to the next tree, past the stump. The trees cleared, and there they were: Corinne's mom, cheering me along, and her dad, shouting that, dear god, I have it now. In the middle of them, there's Corinne, filming the whole thing with a big smile on her face, the same one as the first time I saw her.
As for my mom? A few weeks later, Corinne showed her the video, my big smile and a two-wheeled miracle. She laughed, shook her head, and thanked Corinne for her service.
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This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.