Riding a Bike

by wombatony

It’s just like riding a bike.

That’s a saying that they use, implying that the action to which they are applying the statement is easy to pick up once you’ve learned it. A skill that never really goes away. A relatively easy action.

The people that say it? I doubt they’ve ridden a bike in a while. Because it turns out that riding a bike is not really “like riding a bike.”

A few years ago, my annual attempt at losing some weight involved a bicycle. It had been maybe a decade since I had ridden one. Not really sure where my old bike went. How does one lose a bike? Blame it on the six places I moved to and from in the ten years after college.

I went to Target, making the initial investment of a new bike, a tire pump, and bike lock. Skipped the spandex, thank you very much. Came home, checked the tires, and jumped on without much thought.

I mean, it’s just like riding a bike, right?

Okay, balance was off a bit there.

The first problem was just getting on the bike long enough to find the pedal. Even with one foot on the ground, butt on the seat, the bike wasn’t terribly sturdy. But I finally got up on that thing and made a solid pedal forward. The tires wobbled and rubbed against the brake pads as I made it partway down my driveway.

I got off the bike and went inside to find a wrench. Spent the next half hour loosening the brakes, tightening the lugnuts that attached the wheel to the bike, and doing a general once-over on the rest of the bike. Things I rarely had to do in my youth. After much work, I was able to get back up and take the new toy for a spin.

This time I made it past the driveway and even partway down the block. It was wobbly. Oh, I suppose it would be more accurate to say I was the wobbly one. Every time I slowed, which was much more often than I remembered, I had to get not one, but both, feet on the ground to stop from falling over. My top speed could not have been much more than that of a brisk walk. The wind that had once blown in my face was now still.

I did finally make it out of my neighborhood, and in fact pedaled my way around town on a moderately regular basis that summer. Even trudged the hour-long ride to work a couple of times. But even after I got those over those initial hiccups, the youthful freedom and exhilaration that once came from riding a bike was gone. Riding a bike became a chore. And this was not just because I now had the ability to drive a car to my destination much faster and simpler. It was also because the mechanics were different.

The seat was nowhere near as comfortable as I remember it. There was often a numbness in my nether regions that I promise did not exist at the age of ten or fifteen. Sometimes in the middle of a ride I would get off the bike just to feel if my testicles were still attached.  Also, the coasting was gone. Even though I was on flat ground, I could not pedal a few times and then coast, as I used to do. Standing up on the bike, something I used to do to go faster, now became a necessity just to move. And to protect my junk. But then my back would hurt if I stood too long. The tires also had to be pumped and tightened with frightening regularity. I would not leave my house for a bike ride without a wrench in my backpack.

Hence it was NOT “just like riding a bike.”

I know most, if not all, of these changes came from the fact that my body was different than the boyish body that used to ride. My two hundred and, let’s say, thirty pounds put additional pressure on the frame and the tires. But I’m pretty sure that even if I could go back to the one ninety or so I was at the end of college, the last time I biked with any sort of regularity, I don’t think the original physics would return. Because I wear my weight like a forty year old man now.

Another pithy saying might be more apt: You can never go back.

I’ve run into this phenomenon again recently with the arrival of my daughter. My wife and I took her to the park and I attempted to take her on the swing. How hard can a swing be, right? No shifting of gears or complicated chains to deal with. Basic physics. Why, I was completely ready to officially change the saying to “it’s just like swinging a swing.” Except it wasn’t. It was exactly like riding a bike.

I sat down in the swing with my baby on my lap. My feet were on the ground, thankfully, because that strip of leather was wriggling and writhing underneath me. Adult girth was again making battle with muscle memory. My wife suggested I wrap my arms around the chain ropes, and although I initially rolled my eyes (“Come on, I think I have enough body control to lean against this swing”), it wasn’t long before I took her advice. Some semblance of stability had been attained, so I walked a couple steps forward, a couple steps back, and said “wee” to the unimpressed baby.

Then came the big test. I walked myself back as far as I could while keeping my butt on the rubber strap and arms around the chains. This was farther back than I could go as a ten year old. Woo-hoo. Score one for the grown-up body.  I let go and lurched through the air, acutely aware of the downward pressure I was placing on not only the swing and the chain, but the entire steel swing set.

I went forward, then back, and was beginning to lose momentum. It was at this point that I looked down at my legs, sitting there awkwardly beneath my daughter. I looked up at my wife standing in front of me, and asked a question that third grade might have travelled through time to make the third grade me cry.

“Wait, do I kick my feet out going forward or backward?”

How the hell could I forget something like that? Isn’t it nature? The basic physics that a three-year old knows intuitively?

What’s worse is that I still don’t know. There was no way I was going to try with a baby on my lap and the entire structure threatening to come down upon us both. I’m pretty sure you kick out while going forward and tuck your legs in while going back. But while sitting here with my laptop in front of me, that seems like it would counteract the force of the swing. I mean, you don’t step forward with the same foot that you’re throwing with, right?
“Remember when you used to swing as high as you could and then leap off?” the crying third grader just screamed back at me.

I have a feeling I’m in store for a lot of moments like this as I raise my first child. Forget riding a bike. Life is more akin to driving a car. Except it’s the opposite. Objects in the rear view mirror are farther away than they appear.

In the first week of my baby’s life, I found myself, like most new parents, trying desperately to get her to sleep. Rocking her, cradling her, putting a pacifier in her mouth. Nothing was going the trick, so I thought I’d sing her a lullaby. I went with the basic lullaby that I think is required by law to be on every mobile. I think it’s called “Lullaby and Good Night,” but it’s basically two short notes of the same pitch, followed by a longer note about half an octave higher. Except I had no idea what the words were. The best I could come up with were “Go to sleep, go to sleep, won’t you please go to sleep now.” Probably not the most soothing words a newborn has ever been sung. I switched to “Too Rah Loo Rah Loo Rah,” but only knew the part that was on an episode of “Cheers” once.

I see more of this coming. What about those nursery rhymes that exist in every elementary school? Do they still sing “Down by the old mill stream?” Right now, the only rhymes I remember from my youth start with “I like big butts and I cannot lie, you other brothers can’t deny.”

My future third grade daughter has joined in the crying of the past third grade me. But that’s parenting, right?

The few things I can actually remember from childhood have probably changed, too. She’s getting closer to sitting up now and we’re helping her by putting her in the right sitting position. The words “Indian style” were barely out of my mouth before I realized that can’t be proper any more.

My wife shook her head.

“Sorry, Native American style?” I was reminded of the time I had to tell my grandma that calling Brazil nuts “Black people toes” didn’t make it any less racist.

“They call it criss-cross applesauce now,” my wife informed me.

What the-? I know they had to come up with something, but really? I’m sure Daniel Snyder’s taking notes. Now taking the field, your 2016 Washington Criss-Cross Applesauces!

So there’s going to be some growing pains. Some things I’ll figure out as I go along. Turns out I don’t need to know any lullabies, my daughter is perfectly fine falling asleep to Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful.”

And if my daughter is the only first grader whistling Blues Traveler harmonica solos while the rest of her class sings “Rock a Bye Baby” and “Three Blind Mice” (two TOTALLY morbid kid’s songs), I’m okay with that.

Because raising a child’s just like riding a bike. It’s constantly changing. And there’s probably  gonna be a skinned knee or two along the way.

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