Thursday, May 22, 2014

The One Who Taught Us


It's always interesting, when reading books that have nothing to do with cycling what so ever, to come across such passages, casually thrown in. The world of bicycles permeates the text suddenly and then, just as abruptly, it is abandoned. It was, after all, only a snippet. A literary device. Usually a means of conjuring up a childhood memory, replete with symbolism.

Oddly enough I've stumbled upon these types of narratives in several completely different books I've recently read. Each time the passage had to do with learning how to ride a bike - or, more precisely, with the person who taught the author how to do so.

This makes me wonder whether most people - whether they go on to be cyclists in their adult lives or not - have such a memory, and similarly to these authors, feel the incident to be somehow pivotal to their life story. Is it an important memory, the kind of which we have a very vivid sensory recollection? Does it serve to illustrate either the character of the teacher, or the relationship between them and the fledgling cyclist? Furthermore, are there specific persons who tend to play this role in our lives? When I surveyed my friends, grandfathers and uncles made repeat appearances.

Reading and listening to the stories of others, I realise I may be an anomaly. No one taught me how to ride a bicycle. I figured it out myself, on a borrowed bike, alone, in a city park. New York City in springtime. Saturday afternoon. Cherry blossoms. Orthodox Jews strolling. Children's squeals in Spanish from the swings and monkey bars. And me, apart from it all, a clumsy curious child with messy hair, wearing something stripey, made of a terrycloth fabric. I do have a vivid memory of it, and in particular, of the moment I went from pushing off and coasting for several seconds at a time, to knowing, with a breathtaking certainty, that I could keep the bike in motion indefinitely and, aglow with this knowledge, planting my feet on the pedals. This moment went hand in hand with the awareness that no one was there to witness it, to congratulate or encourage, like I'd seen the minders of other children do. But it wasn't a sad feeling. To know that this unbelievable thing I'd just done was my secret only added a layer of depth to the magic.

In retrospect it would have been nice to share a special bond with a family member or older friend through the act of being taught how to cycle. But being my own teacher, however clumsily and haphazardly, makes for a nice memory as well.

PS: text excerpt from Birchwood by John Banville.

43 comments:

  1. I remember beginning to teach myself to ride behind the house where lived till I was 6, I was probably 4 1/2 or 5 since I have tons of memories of riding in that yard after. I'd been scolded for messing around with that bike and forbidden to touch it till a GROWN-UP could teach me to ride it. Stupid grown-ups never had time to make sure we all had 2 socks and underpants on at any given time so to hell with waiting for that.

    I don't remember how that bike stopped being my sisters and became mine but by the time we moved when I was 6 it was firmly in my possession in all it's hard plastic tired, step-through glory. There were 6 of us and learning to ride a bike was one of the things that changed us from being one of the "little kids" that had to live inside the limits of the yard, to trustees free to roam and forage outside the range of the Wardens hearing and vision.

    The only thing that could have prevented me from becoming a hopeless cyclist in that situation would have been if one of the GROWNUPS would have ever spent $5 for a new tire for the mini-bike that none of us ever actually got a ride on before it got stolen around the time I was 7. I'm probably lucky they never did.

    Spindizzy

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  2. "The Dan Milligan cycled tremendously towards the Church of St Theresa of the Little Flowers...
    ...Away down a lumpy road he pedalled, his right trouser leg being substantially chewed to pulp in the chain...
    (Spike Milligan: 'Puckoon').
    Brilliant.

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    1. I thought it was spike milligan

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  3. Granda Gotkin would ring a bell if one had ever read it before, I got nuthin"...

    Spindizzy

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  4. I'm thinking it's from John Banville's Birchwood -- but would have to use Google to be sure.

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    1. Yes. I delayed approving your comment to see if anyone else would know, but looks like my reading list is pretty obscure!

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  5. I can tell you it's a wonderful feeling, as well, to have taught someone to ride. I taught my children, and love that I was able to teach someone to fly upon the earth.

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    1. At the age of 15 I taught a 5 year old girl whom I babysat. Didn't think anything of it at the time to be honest, probably too young to appreciate it.

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    2. Teaching my stepdaughter to ride is a very special notch in my parenting belt. And I enjoyed HER teaching ME to snowboard too :-)

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  6. That's nothing but pre-tv product placement, a facile literary construct designed to summon common emotions.

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  7. I think learning to ride a bike is a rite of passage in our culture, between early and middle childhood. It grants children some of their first independence. So the grandfather or uncle is the mentor through the initiation. Learning to ride a bike is such a central, symbolic experience that of course it creates a strong bond with the mentor.

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  8. i don't remember learning to ride, although I do have a memory of realizing that I didn't know how to ride. It was at a friend's birthday party in 1st grade and he had gotten a bike and was zooming up and down the block. I think he told me to grab his old bike and ride it, but I probably feigned disinterest because I realized I didn't know how but didn't want to admit it.

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  9. Like you, my learning happened alone at the end of my street when I was about six and borrowed my brothers bike. I remember colors and smells but nothing magical about riding the bike for the first time....It was uneventful. Years later when I was given my first bike as a fifth grader I remember looking at it proudly and getting special pleasure out of being able to travel with friends and the freedom to venture alone. It was the being alone and using my imagination which really made it memorable. This was 1963. Those pleasures and feelings remain as I pedal through adulthood. I still feel like a kid.

    Btw, I really like the new, tiny, coasting bikes I see around where there are no pedals, just wheels and kids sit straddle and propel themselves with their feet. Eventually they discover they can balance on just the two wheels. The teach themselves and it's fun. Great idea!

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  10. I got a little bicycle from sears, it was white with some blue and red decals and training wheels when I was 3. Then I was 3 or 4 my dad took me out on some paved trails without the training wheels. He pushed me along, we went to a park area where I liked to visit the rocks(I thought rocks were alive back then) and a few pushes and I was off. I think it was spring, it was definitely green! I was so happy. I always remember that, because my dad was laughing too and he's always been a grump. I am glad my parents took the time to teach me so young. I was then off and away around the neighbourhood, exploring, playing, dawn to dusk.
    I find it hard to believe that some people do not learn until much later. My husband learned around 8 and he's a hard core cyclist. He tried to get his kids to learn so he wouldn't have to cart them around in the carrier or trail a bike forever, but they flat out refused. They were young teens before they figured it out.

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  11. 52 years ago seems like yesterday. My oldest brother holding the saddle and yelling don't stop peddling! I rode the entire day. The training wheels and adjustable wrench laying on the porch steps. A green 20" Columbia. Been riding ever since with the same feeling of joy.

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  12. How old were you when this happened?

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    1. You were let out alone in NYC at the age of 10? Was this in the 90s?

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    2. To a limited degree, yeah. I didn't take the subway, but I could play in the neighbourhood. The building where we lived was right outside the little park. It was 1990.

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  13. I taught myself to ride on a borrowed bike too, on the neighbourhood footpath aged 6. It was a great feeling to get that first glide on the bike. It was also the time I had my first and only fall off a bike, just a minor bump. I wanted a bike of my own from that day, and had to wait another 4 years till my tenth birthday to get one. I've still got that bike and ride it all the time now, after years of it sitting in the garage.

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  14. In my childhood mind, you graduated to "Big Kid" status once you learned to ride a bike, swim and skate. My brother and I taught ourselves to ride a second-hand 20-inch bike by coasting down our sloped driveway. I remember feeling elated when I started turning the pedals. Initially I stopped by dragging my feet on the ground. But my oldest brother did me a huge favor by showing me how to use the coaster brake. Swimming had to wait until we took lessons, and I remember getting roller skates for Christmas one year.

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    1. I learned how to swim before I learned how to ride a bike, maybe at age 6. I remember my mother thinking this would be a difficult task requiring many many lessons… but I got it on the first try and swam away while she was still explaining about how floating works. Skating is much harder for me though and I still can't do it properly. Guess I am not quite ready for big kid status.

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  15. My father "taught" me how to ride by aiming me down the driveway and giving a gentle shove. Would have been nice if he'd told me about the brakes first, though. I don't recall how I finally did learn to ride, but he must have taught me more comprehensively after that; there was no one else.

    I taught my son how to ride when he was three years old. Took a couple of days of running alongside him holding his collar then sneakily letting go so that he was riding free for a while before noticing I wasn't holding on any more.

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  16. I was a ripe eight years old before I learned. Our neighbor Dee Dee was a couple years older, and she taught me and my friend Butch (he was five at the time) in my back yard. She pushed us down the slightly sloping hill, assuring us that if (when) we fell, the grass would cushion the blow. That was a great day. And I like the story of how you learned. Thanks for sharing!

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  17. I vividly remember learning to ride a bike. I was almost 5 years old. My father took me into the street in front of our house. He held the saddle and right away I took off on my own!

    What happened next, I don't remember. But I was told by my Mom some 40 years later that I called out over my shoulder to my dad, "I don't need you anymore!"

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  18. Bike swim and skate... Growing up in Miami Beach we couldn't avoid learning to swim. Believe it or not Iearned to skate at a tiny rink at the Fountainbleau Hotel shown in the opening scenes of the James Bond film Goldfinger. My childhood coincided with the great American bike boom of the early 70s. From my earliest memories I can recall my parents both had bikes, a green Raleigh and a baby blue Schwinn, but I don't recall them riding very much. At age 5 my grandfather took off my training wheels and gave me a big push and I immediately rode into the bushes and fell over. I got right back on where I have stayed more or less for 44 years. That was a red sears bike, but I quickly got a blue sting ray soon thereafter to take my only serious spill in all these years. My dad stitched up my chin and I was back on my bike the next day. With younger brothers pining for it, I passed that Sting Ray down within a year or so to get an orange Raleigh Chopper which I rode until the dawn of the Japanese 10 speed craze in the late 70s. A metallic deep red Kobe, the best bike I ever owned, took me from 13 well into adulthood simply because I could never find another bike that I liked better and I was tall for 13, but only grew a few inches after that. I rode my bike to school every day until like most other kids of the era, my friends and I began driving. The Schwinn Sting Ray, The Raleigh Chopper and the Kobe all sat in my parents basement until my mom's death and I found out they were all sold at a garage sale when I was a thousand miles away. Bicycle memories dominate my recollection of my childhood and although I have found many fine examples of the Sting Ray and Raleigh Chopper since, I have yet to stumble across that exact Kobe since then. Unfortunately Kobe led a short lived chaotic existence importing Japanese bikes of various manufacturers and its difficult to get much reliable info on them. I know that other brands sold models under their own names that were exactly the same as the Kobe, but I still have never found one exactly alike.

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  19. Learning with instinct, teacher or both of them : it’s a question. I’ve read something about mirroring neurons which can help self-study.
    Recently I’ve experienced counterlock while I was speeding along a curve downhill : in that case instinct is useless.
    L.

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  20. I have fond fragments of memory of learning to ride with my dad on a bright blue 16" Schwinn on the dead-end street across from our house.

    This post also reminds me of the man who taught me how to be a *cyclist* as opposed to just riding a bike. And a bunch about life, too. Bobby Mac you were gone too soon.

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  21. My husband did not have a good memory of trying to learn to ride so he still doesn't. Back then there was no lowering the seat and taking the pedals off to learn. He tried the hard way, scrapping a car and hurling into some bushes. His Mom rang the doorbell to notify the owner of the car of what had happened. Meanwhile, the car owner's dog got up on the table and ate her steak dinner while she was at the door.

    I have memories of trying to ride a used repainted Schwinn Co-Ed my Dad had purchased to give me for Christmas. It was too tall for me but we didn't have much money back then. I was in first grade. I thought by going fast you would gain balance. Next thing I knew I was crashing into a brick building. Training wheels helped after that.

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  22. I think it's remarkable how many people, while telling the story of learning to ride a bike, mention that that's when they had their first and only real fall. REALLY?

    Maybe I still haven't REALLY learned how to ride a bike because I still fall off pretty much ALL THE TIME. Like every 4 or 5 months I'm going over the bars on my cross bike on the first lap of a race I think I'm about to do pretty well in, or the rear wheel get's looser than expected in gravel on a tight downhill and I end up sliding in a cloud of dust in the Barcalounger position for 20 yards or whatever.
    It's sort of funny I guess. I don't seem to ever get hurt and I'm certainly not the only rider falling down around here but so many people seem to NEVER eject. I just looped out my townie bike doing wheelies a week ago and tore the seat of my pants just the littlest tiny bit.

    While I was never great at any of it, I've raced BMX, Mountainbikes, done a little bit of Trials back when it was part of the regular MTB thing in the 80s and of course the normal Cat 4 road racing and time trialing every third middle aged white guy seems to have done, and didn't suck in any significant way except my pronounced sloth and lack of speed. But you could buy a nice refrigerator with what I've spent on grips and handlebar tape since 1977. And you guys just don't fall off anymore?

    Maybe it's time to pull the cranks off, lower the seat all the way and go find an empty parking lot to paddle around.

    Spindizzy

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    1. Some cyclists I know fall off their bikes constantly (and like you, seem to enjoy it??), and some never do. One of life's mysteries.

      Me, I had my one and only memorable crash at the age of 12. Finally I had convinced my parents that I knew how to ride a bike and could be entrusted with one of my own (they did not believe me that I already learned how to ride, and since I had no bike I couldn't even demonstrate). But anyway, finally they bought me a bike. A MTB-esque type thing from the local hardware store, cheapest available. At this point we lived in suburban New England and, tires pumped, I pedaled happily down our sleepy street. I did not get far before a boy, also on his bicycle, appeared and pedaled alongside.

      He: "Wanna bike together?"
      Me: "Okay!"
      He: "Kay, follow me!"

      He picks up the pace and I ride along. We roll down the street and turn the corner. Then he transitions from the road onto the sidewalk, jumping the high curb. Taking him literally, I follow along. Only I don't know how to jump curbs and ride into it at full speed. Next ting I know, my chin and hands and knee are scraping the ground and the heavy bike is lying on top of me. The boy says "Oh shit!" and rides away, worried I'll get him in trouble. So I lie there, disoriented, god knows how long, until an elderly neighbour woman comes out and helps me up. "Tsk you shouldn't be riding bikes dearie, you're a girl!"

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    2. So you're finally admitting you crashed on your hands and lived to type the tale.

      Oh no.

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    3. Maybe its the different styles of biking that account for the frequent mishaps. CX, BMX, competitive road racing is probably a bit riskier than riding an upright 3 speed even in the big city. My biggest road hazard is drunk tourists stepping into the street drink in hand with their back to traffic thinking the whole French Quarter is a pedestrian mall. We have had at least 3 baseball bat attacks on cyclists on a new path that rolls by historic multimillion dollar mansions and upscale restaurants on Esplanade, but they haven't caught up to me yet. I still fear drunk tourists more than baseball bat wielding thugs looking for entertainment.

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  23. My parents went on a spree at the Western Auto. Cruisers all, there was a navy blue one for my sister, mom's in white sported a headlight and mine was red. Showing it off to older boys across the street was how I learned to ride it. Ottway Chalkley is remembered for this gift of confidence. alone. He held me upright, running along side at first, then letting go to let me ride on, believing he was still there.

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  24. My dad tried to teach me when I was eight or so. I remember putting the bike in the car and driving to the cemetery. I also remember that after several sessions I still couldn't do it and one day we just put the bike away and I didn't ride one for two decades. It's not like I'd have been able to ride around the neighborhood anyway.

    Then I got on a bike at 28 and after fifteen minutes of wobbling (no falling) I was good to go. It's possible that I had some muscle memory from childhood, but I think it's more likely that I just reached the right age for it. I was a delayed walker, I guess I was a delayed cyclist as well!

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  25. My dad taught me pretty much as described in the above passage. Me on my baby blue Schwinn Pixie, with a banana seat and streamers, dad with a hand on my shoulder running along beside me until he finally let go. And I did ok on that first try! I crashed, but not bad enough to not want to try again. My first real crash came later while on a ride with my dad (an every evening thing during the summer). We we riding along and I somehow became fascinated with watching my feet go up and down, and not at all paying attention to the road in front of me. There was a car parked by the curb ahead of me, and as my dad tells it, he kept looking at me, looking at the car growing closer, looking at me still watching my feet, looking back at the car and wondering if I was going to look up. I didn't. I ran right into the back of that parked car. Dad never warned me. I've never really gotten a straight answer as to why he didn't, except that he was curious to see what I would do! The car was fine, and my bike was fine. I had a skinned up knee and was fine. My dad was laughing and before I knew it I was laughing too. We hoped back on our bikes and kept on with our ride.

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  26. Whenever I think of childhood, bikes are there - my father rode a bike and taught all his children to ride; I remember him running beside me on my new bike, steadying me, then letting go. I could 'ride' but hadn't mastered the brakes so dad had to run faster than ever to catch up and prevent a fall. Summer, in particular, we rode our bikes, along the river tracks, through the streets, wherever childhood adventures took us. My father made a bike rack for all our bikes, we still talk about his little brown box which contained puncture repair tools and patches - the most boring and dreaded thing was having our bike tubes repaired because whoever the unfortunate rider was, he/she had to stand there beside dad while he fixed the 'flat', bringing him a bucket of water which he placed the tube in to find the leak, which he marked with some sort of chalk before patching. I ride in the same area now and all these years later, when I ride near a peppercorn tree, the scent takes me right back to childhood summers.

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  27. You may be an anomaly, but so am I. I learned to ride as an adult. And I don't mean I "relearned" to ride as an adult, I mean I learned to ride as an adult without having learned as a child. A friend attempted to teach me on a bike that was in retrospect, obviously too big for me. She failed. Then I took a class for women learning to ride bikes, and was dismayed to find myself the slowest learner. It was a flashback to being in remedial gym. Then my brother attempted to teach me. It turns out you can actually forget how to ride a bike, or at least I can.

    I finally really learned by myself with no one watching me or judging me. I'm the only one with the patience for my slow progress. But I finally got the hang of balancing on the grass and then on the pavement. I'm still working on picking up basic skills to this day, due to being a very fearful person when it comes to somewhat dangerous physical activities.

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    1. I admire such perseverance - and despite being fearful you continue to learn. People can learn skills as adults which they never managed as children.

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    2. Thanks. It's been tough but I think it's worth it.

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  28. Thanks for this inspiration! Very nice! 'Fact, you prompted my own feeble attempt at addressing this very subject.

    http://hagillette.blogspot.com/2014/05/how-we-learned.html

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  29. Fisk Ellington Rutledge IIIMay 31, 2014 at 11:24 AM

    I learned to ride a bike when I was 6. It was a Western Auto bike with the headlight in the top tube. This is circa 1960. My Dad said, "No training wheels. Hate the sight of them." We went to a dirt road behind our house and Dad ran behind the bike holding me up as I pedaled. He would say, "I'm letting go now." I'd pedal furiously and do just fine until I tried to steer. Then I'd go down. Then we'd do it again. And again. I remember being obsessed with succeeding. After an hour or so, I was doing OK. I've loved bikes ever since.

    This was a pivotal event. I have an unusually vivid memory of that day, and many of the other days when I would wander around our town on the bike alone or with several pals. When I was 9 I got a three-speed Raleigh Roadster. Today I have an old Bianchi Volpe (1986) that has evolved into a fully-equipped commuter/touring bike. I recently bought a Pashley Roadster Sovereign that has resulted in an intense materialist high. That thing is a huge success. At my advanced age, the riding position is perfect. I'll never get rid of the Bianchi though. I'm thinking of hanging it on the wall.

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  30. I know I'm late to this post but I have such a great memory to share. I don't remember how I learned to ride a bike, just that I always loved it. But about seven years ago I bought an old adult "trike" on CL and had it fixed up for my 70-year old mom. It was a surprise and she squealed with excitement when she saw it. She hadn't been on a bike in three or four decades -- or longer. She was so excited and scared at the same time, and had a hard time steering. So I jogged up and down the street, guiding her steering before she remembered how to. Then off she went through the neighborhood.

    All these posts made me realize how special that probably was for her, remembering that childhood excitement. Special for me to. Thanks!

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