… unless in the event of a post-apocalyptic scenario, I’ve lost the car keys (or the car) and a bike is the nearest mode of transport; in which case I would probably be headed on a zigzag down a perfectly straight road, denting every parked car on both sides of the street.
Being able to ride a bike was, unfortunately, one of those things that got either forgotten or forbidden at some point of time during my childhood. I have memories of Mom chastising me for being clumsy (which I was) and, as a result, being eventually declared unfit to operate any machinery on two wheels. Younger sis didn’t get to cycle, either. There was no bicycle in the house. There were no drawbacks then as we lived in the suburbs of a big city where school was too far (and the roads too treacherous) to cycle to anyway, and you could get to any place you wanted by car.
I attended university in the UK in a campus with ample fields and rolling hills, but managed perfectly fine without a bike – I was happy walking all the distances and, after all, there was the campus hopper bus. “Do you need access to the bicycle shed?” the Hall Secretary would ask every semester. “Nope,” I would smile – one less burden, hah!
Then younger sis got accepted to college in the US, and quickly discovered from the literature and pre-registration packs that one couldn’t survive in the vast grounds of her university without a bike. And so we had our first bicycle. Sis took it to a nearby park and managed to teach herself to sort of balance on two wheels just before she left for the States. Sis has lived in California for more than 10 years now, where there are infinitely more opportunities for bike excursions, rendering cycling pretty much second nature.
But of course cycling is pretty much second nature, to a significant majority of the world’s adult population.
So yours truly decided, at the ripe old age then of 33, that I had been missing out on the joys of riding. I set a goal of learning to bike before the next visit that I had planned to the US, with the aim of trying out some of the cycle trails at the national parks and, well, just to do something different. If most people can do it, it can’t be that difficult to learn to cycle, right?
Not because I fell a lot – in fact I hardly fell, as I quickly developed the ability to instantly hop off the bike seat in fear if I felt I was losing my balance – I just couldn’t find a proper place for a grown person to learn to ride a bicycle. The kids at my condo would learn on the condo grounds. Fellow residents were conscientious drivers and would take care to stay within a safe distance of a child on a bike. However, drivers probably don’t exactly expect to have to steer clear of an adult on a bike.
So, not wishing to get myself or my neighbours into trouble, I identified a quiet field within 15 minutes’ driving distance, and took the bike there. A field is an excellent place to learn to balance. There was sufficient traction, and you didn’t need to be so afraid of falling since it was soft ground rather than hard asphalt you would be landing on if you did. All in all, it helped with the confidence of starting to push off and eventually, staying on the seat and not hopping off at the first feeling of imbalance. The field was a Godsend.
… right until the Makcik* who was standing guard at the nearby public restrooms noticed what I was doing, and yelled from her station,
“Ehhh! Awak tak pernah naik basikal? Ha ha haaaa!!”
[“Oh my goodness, you’ve never ridden a bike? <peals of laughter>”]
I swear she was close to rolling on the grass laughing. I flashed a weak smile and pretended to ignore her as she indulged in further bouts of incredulous laughter. We’ll see, Makcik, we’ll see!
I returned to the field over three weekends. Of course Makcik recognized me; she was practically anticipating my arrival with utmost glee. For her, I was great entertainment at the end of a mundane week. I can’t say she eventually decided to give me some tips or helped me in any way – none of that. I have never heaved a bigger sigh of relief as when I finally managed to ride with reasonable control and dismount confidently without running away and letting the bike fall. Makcik applauded and cheered. I gave the thumbs-up and was glad to be out of there.
My next challenge was to ride on asphalt without the perceived security of the grass. After managing to control the bike in a straight line and over some wide turns (on the lanes next to the field, still within line of sight of Makcik), I decided to stop going to the field and start riding on the roads around my place. It would be more convenient – there would be no need to spend time fixing the bike harness on the back of the car, I would just need to get my bike from the shed, hop on, and ride away.
I had only ridden on flat terrain prior to that outing, and I promptly realized that a whole new set of leg muscles had to be fired up to tackle the somewhat undulating terrain of my neighbourhood. I was labouring at the slightest incline, and ended up wheeling the bike. I scrapped my plans of riding around the neighbourhood, and instead, headed towards a wide-laned cul-de-sac of new houses that looked quiet enough for me to have some practice without encountering too many vehicles. I was still quite apprehensive of moving traffic. My initial wide circles at the end of the cul-de-sac was going well, until I decided to start riding a little further up the road beyond, past where a gleaming SUV was parked outside one of the houses.
Maybe beginner cyclists have an affinity for the very things they try to avoid – in this case, the SUV. I was conscious of being over-cautious as I approached the section of the road where I would pass it. I panicked as I found myself heading in a tangent seemingly towards the parked vehicle, and decided I had to stop the bike to avoid losing control. I braked, and instinctively stuck out an open palm towards the direction of the SUV to prop myself away from it in the event I got too near. It was all fine, actually – I had braked neatly and in time, the bike didn’t fall or touch the car at all… but there was a rather loud thud as my palm came in contact with the side of the SUV.
Out of nowhere, two security guards came running out of the house yelling in pidgin Malay,
“OI!! Apa you buat? You punya basikal tada brek ah?”
[“Oi! What are you doing? Doesn’t your bike have brakes?”]
“Ada… ada… sorry, sorry…” I said sheepishly, planning my escape.
I pedalled away as nonchalantly as I could. I saw, from the corner of my eye, the guards inspecting the side of the car, peering closely at the surface at various angles in the sunlight, to see what damage I had done. Obviously they thought I had collided with the SUV and that they would be in trouble if a dent appeared on their master’s car on their watch.
I haven’t hopped on a bicycle since the SUV encounter. In Yosemite, I ended up doing yet another walking trail instead of a cycle trail. It all suddenly seemed too daunting.
So when I say I’ll be signing up for the Powerman duathlon in October, don’t be shocked – I’m just a runner in a relay team. Someone else is doing the cycling!
*Makcik (Malay Language): Literally, aunt. Also used as a polite term of address for a middle-aged or elderly woman (not necessarily a relative).