Falling terrified me. In my mind a warped reel played over and over featuring bloodied scrapes, broken bones, chipped teeth. I was afraid of the control I would need over the vehicle and the inevitable result if I lost control.
There’s a reason why an enduring idiom is, “it’s like riding a bike!” It is a skill that returns to you quickly and one for which the basics become second nature once learned. I did not think I would ever be able to learn it.
The bike was purchased especially for me. The handlebars sported sparkly tassels on each side that gave off a beautiful glimmer in the sun. The seat was hot pink - my favorite color - and especially soft. I liked sitting on the bike in the driveway with the kickstand down and my feet firmly planted on the ground. I would reach out and flick the plastic tassels and delight in the kaleidoscope of colors that resulted. I even wore my helmet when I did that. And I hated the helmet. My grandmother tried helping me get it on a few times and inadvertently pinched my skin in the process. That feeling was almost awful enough for me to hide the helmet and risk an accident where my head would split like a melon on the pavement for all the neighborhood to see. (My father’s charming description of what would happen if I didn’t wear my helmet did not help any of my fears).
I loved riding, too. I just wanted to keep the training wheels. The plastic training wheels became rutted and dirty and still I clung to that lifeline. Each attempt at removal met resistance. My dad would saunter outside, screwdriver in hand, and remove the wheels one at a time. I stood nearby, my little heart pounding at what were undoubtedly dangerously high levels for a child. I stared at the stripped bike with wide eyes. In an instant, it turned from an accessory I quite liked into the equivalent of a fire breathing dragon I had to tame. Powerlessness overcame me.
“You know, I could do this when I was half your age,” my dad told me. “In fact, I never even had training wheels. We didn’t have them back then.” The tears rolled down my cheeks until my dad begrudgingly put the training wheels on again. “At least you’re pretty when you cry,” he’d grumble. “That might get you somewhere someday.”
Some weekends I valiantly attempted a ride without training wheels. To be fair, I always had a grownup holding onto the handlebars and back of my seat, but I did attempt. They would coach me to keep pedaling and to keep my handlebars straight. I did as told, but the thought they would soon remove their hands and leave me on my own left me cold. As soon as they removed support I gripped the breaks with all my might and stopped with such force the bike would tip over and force them to catch me.
Most weekends of kindergarten were passed this way. The kid from across the street learned in no time. I suppose having four older siblings might have had something to do with that. One weekend I heard my parents talking to his mom. They must’ve thought I was out of earshot, but I heard them.
“What did you do to get him to learn?” My mom begged to know, desperate for the elusive knowledge she lacked.
Our neighbor shrugged. “I didn’t,” was all she said. Both my parents stared at me. I could feel the disappointment from yards away. Determined to show them, I tried to speed off after the neighbor’s kids. They were too far away to hear my calls and I couldn’t catch up due to the training wheels.
Kindergarten came and went and still I held fast to my training wheels. I rode as fast as I could with the training wheels. I rode all around the neighborhood and my mind filled with stories. Never having had an imaginary friend, I created one now. Of course, I was too old for true imaginary friends so part of the fantasy was if I had had an imaginary friend at the proper age, how cool it would’ve been. At this time, I was quite busy with my job as a spy. No one in the neighborhood knew as much as I. I was invaluable. No one knew as much as I did, especially not the grown ups. My missions included riding around the neighborhood in circles. I was the fastest thing on four wheels.
Each weekend remained the same. My father, off from work, was determined to get me to ride without training wheels. One Friday night he even came home from work and dragged my bike to the curb and threw it down. My mother yelled at him then. I wasn’t able to hear it all, but there was something said about buying a new bike. While they fought I walked out to the curb and dragged my bike back up to the house.
By the end of first grade I could still count on one hand the number of times I attempted to ride without training wheels. I hated the helmet less since I could get it on myself, but I still wanted the stability of the extra wheels. More kids I knew from school started riding through the neighborhood, parents or older siblings in tow. I stuck fiercely to my imaginary imaginary friend and my work as a spy. I also had no older siblings to ride with so I was limited to riding in circles. For the most part, no one except my parents bothered me about the training wheels.
Second grade remained more of the same. I felt confident - with my training wheels. My father no longer tried taking me out for rides on the weekend, but I could get the bike out myself. Now older, my mother permitted me to ride one more street over. A small increase, but at the time, it seemed comparable to being told another whole country belonged to me. My younger sister began kindergarten that year. She also began riding a bike. This delighted my father. He adjusted my bike to suit her, removing the tassels and repainting the frame. The changes were okay until he removed the training wheels. I cried. My sister rode in circles around the neighborhood and I rejected the idea of riding.
Once second grade finished I figured I would never ride. I wanted my training wheels and could not have them. I barely touched the bike that had once been purchased for me and tried my best to put it out of my mind.
That summer we took a trip to visit good friends of my parents’. They had met through work years earlier and I became friendly with their oldest daughter. Every time we visited them we spent time outside. We hiked, roller bladed, swam in questionable lakes. The daughter who was my friend wanted to ride bikes. She had gotten a new bike for her birthday and was excited to show it off.
Her bike seemed huge when compared to the small one I was used to. She rode around in circles. After a while, she offered to let me try the bike. Terror gripped me. The bike had no training wheels. I told her I didn’t want to risk messing up her new bike. At this, she went and brought out another bike, her old bike. This bike did not have training wheels either. I gulped. I did not want to tell my friend I couldn’t ride without training wheels. We would be going into third grade in the fall.
With nearly overwhelming trepidation, I took the second bike. I watched my friend closely and tried to mimic her movements. The bike without training wheels wobbled beneath me. I held my breath and tried to steady it. A few minutes later I found myself pedalling around in circles, no training wheels in sight. Equal parts shock and elation filled me. I was riding.
My friend and I rode for what seemed like forever before our parents came out to check on us. Surprise came over my parents’ faces.This was a day none of us saw coming. This was the day I finally learned how to ride a bike.