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.