Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/5/2016 (2233 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As it turns out, riding a bike really is just like riding a bike.
There’s science behind that, of course. Riding a bike is actually a lot like using a fork or tying your shoes — it’s a procedural memory, or a muscle memory. When I think of muscle memories, I don’t think of them as being stored in my brain. I think of them as being imprinted in my fingers, or my hands, or my feet. Procedural memories are why we know how to do things without really thinking about them.
Here is a very small list of things that I used to do very well but now don’t do any more: play the piano and ride a bike. Procedural memory says I still know how to do both. Somewhere, filed neatly away in my brain, is the fingering for all those Chopin nocturnes I memorized, the product of attending piano lessons every Wednesday night for my entire grade school career, as well as the ability to not only balance on a bicycle but make it go. I am mistrustful of procedural memories.
I haven’t sat at a piano since I quit lessons when I was 18. It’s been even longer for the bicycle. I hadn’t been on a bike since I was 13. Until this week, that is. I went out and bought a bicycle.
The simple revelation was this: I really missed riding a bike. As soon as the weather warmed up, my street became the site of many wobbly two-wheel lessons and much crying. "Julia, you’re doing it! You’re riding a bike! OK, Julia, get up. You’re fine." A couple of hours later and those little kids would zip around, no problem. I figure if a five year old can handle riding a bike, then surely a 31-year-old can.
I used to love riding my bike. But I was always sort of afraid of it, too. I had training wheels on my Easter egg-hued Huffy for too long. "They're not even touching the ground anymore!" my dad would protest. I insisted on keeping them. They were security. I remember the day they came off. I turned my head to inform my dad that he could probably let go now, and was astonished to see he was still standing in front of our house. I had successfully ridden to the end of the block. I celebrated this triumph by screaming and riding directly into a stop sign.
Once I had gotten the balancing act down and was allowed to travel beyond the two fire hydrants my parents could see from our front step, the sense of freedom was intoxicating. The wind rustled through the neon pink ribbons on my handlebars — which were, admittedly, sartorially incongruous with my horn, which was shaped like Slimer from Ghostbusters. I rode fast, but I was never a "look ma, no hands" kid.
I rode my bike without incident until Grade 8. It was the spring of 1999 and the school was hosting a Pan Am Games-themed field day. I was competing in a cycling race. I'm what you could call an aggressively competitive person, and was in it to win it — until I swerved to narrowly miss a BFI bin. My bike skidded out from underneath me. I took the left handlebar to my groin and had a deep, rock-filled road rash on my right arm from wrist to elbow, the scar from which only faded a couple of years ago. Save for a couple dozen spinning classes, I haven't been on bike since.
Getting back in the saddle, so to speak, was intimidating. I don't know anything about bikes, and cyclists, it turns out, have a lot of opinions. Do I want a single-speed bike or one with gears? What size of helmet do I need for my enormous head? Do I have to become a person who wears windbreakers?
"I'm guessing you'll be using this to go pick up a bottle of wine, or for getting to a friend's house," said the incredibly perceptive bike salesman. I chose a pretty vanilla-coloured bike with a cognac-coloured seat. "You want to take it for a test drive?" he asked. No. No I did not. But reader, I did. The bike wobbled like a colt finding its legs, and I barely stifled a low baying sound. "You, um, you might to have pedal a bit faster," the salesman said gently. It wasn't a total nightmare, so I bought the bike.
By that evening, I was cruising around my neighbourhood, the same neighbourhood where I learned how to ride a bike. I felt the smoothness of the tires on the pavement, the dappled evening sun on my face. I felt relieved when the ride concluded without incident, but I also didn't want it to end. Perhaps having faith in your muscle memory comes down to confidence. I don't have that yet. I figure that'll come when I'm no longer afraid to remove my hands from the handlebars to signal.
Why do we stop doing things we love? Maybe we outgrow them, or we just love them less. Maybe they begin to frustrate us or challenge us in ways we didn't agree to. Maybe they hurt us or betrayed us, and we're afraid to try doing them again.
I'm happy I got back on my bike. Who knows? Maybe one day I'll get a piano.