I have been thinking a lot about aptitude.

It began last year, when I was asked to teach knitting to groups of community residents. Having worked as an academic instructor in a past life, I felt fairly comfortable taking on the task. I set a curriculum, with a plan to cover a series of basic skills within a specific time frame. I imagined beginning each session by demonstrating a new technique, which we would then all practice and master as a group.

What I soon discovered however, was that even in small groups, the ability to pick up these skills differed so dramatically from one person to the next it was impractical to hold the classes in the manner I had envisioned. What one person mastered intuitively before I’d finish explaining it, another would be unable to replicate even after repeated physical demonstrations.

After that, I altered the format of my teaching to be less class-like, and more like personalised sessions held in a group setting. I spent more time with each student individually, and accepted that everyone would learn on their own timeline - only marveling, now and again, at the difference in the rate at which this happened. All the students started from scratch. All were equally enthusiastic; all genuinely tried their best. And yet, by the end of the programme, some would whiz past my originally envisioned Basic Skills curriculum and become full fledged knitters, while others would still struggle with holding their tools correctly.

I was witnessing the phenomenon of aptitude. And it was only when confronted with it so directly, that it truly sunk in what a huge role it plays in any activity involving skill - including, of course, cycling.

In contrast to my aptitude for the fibre arts, it is fair to say that my aptitude for cycling is poor. Now in my 9th year of riding a bicycle as an adult, I am only starting to approach the level of handling skills that most cyclists I know attain within their first 6 months of riding. That is pretty poor indeed. And it's not as unusual as some might think.

On a regular basis, I receive correspondence from cyclists frustrated by their lack of 'progress.' They love cycling, but just aren't getting 'good' at it, no matter how hard they try. The folks at the bike shop look at them strangely, when they say how long they've been cycling yet ask for the saddle to be lowered. Their friends have moved on to do challenging rides without them. Will they ever improve? Should they just admit defeat and call it quits? Sadly, I suspect that many do.

As a cycling culture, we tend to classify cyclists on a scale ranging from Beginners to Experienced. The assumption there, is that what stands between a person having poor mastery of cycling skills and excellent mastery of cycling skills, are experience and practice.

In reality, that is often not the case. There exist dedicated cyclists with decades of experience, and poor cycling skills. Likewise, new cyclists can become proficient at these same skills within a very short time span.

That there is no allowance for aptitude in our narrative of cycling is problematic.

When the experiences of those who do not adhere to the practice = mastery formula are undermined or dismissed - be it in bike shops, on bicycling forums, in the comment sections of cycling blogs, or in casual conversation  - a disservice is done not only to those people. A disservice is done to the concept of cycling in of itself - by smoothing away its nuanced contours, and simplifying it into something more rigid and bullish, less multifaceted and full of possibilities, than it really is.

Because if we think abut it... The very fact that those of us who aren't 'good' at cycling still love it, and want to do it, and are able to do it, is fascinating, and wonderful, and a testament to what an engaging, beautiful, versatile activity riding a bicycle is.

Oftentimes my poor aptitude for cycling has made me feel like an outsider in the very culture and industry I was writing about. It has not, however, deterred me from persisting with cycling, enjoying cycling, and sharing my experiences of cycling with others.

My hope is that over time we can find a way to reframe our narrative of cycling to be more reflective of, and sensitive to, the wide range of aptitudes that exist among us. And that all those who ride a bicycle - in any way at all - feel free to enjoy it on their own terms.


  1. First, welcome back, Velouria.

    Your essay on aptitude for cycling has me thinking not so much about cycling ability- the basic skills of bike handling and situational awareness in traffic or in a paceline, etc- but of mechanical aptitude when it comes to bike maintenance. i've known people with years of cycling experience and good riding skills whom i would never trust with tools anywhere near a bike (as well as good mechanics who can barely keep their balance on a bike!)
    Some years ago, i gave classes in basic bike maintenance, and my experience was very much like your own -and my wife's- in running a knitting class. Not everyone can master skills that we've taken for granted or forgotten about our own struggles with learning them. What we learn from this is empathy and patience- the lessons we are taught by those students.

    1. Indeed, welcome back. Your bike handling aptitude may not be at the level of the naturals, but your writing and photography (my gosh! the new header) are out the roof.

      Fear my aptitude issues are on par with Mike W's. I am a constant and eager student of bike mechanics. I read and watch videos. I have the best tools money can buy (my stand somewhat less so owing to my cramped space). And yet, I still manage more often than not to make bone headed gaffes.

      Case in point: Bored to tears on the just passed xmas I decided changing the front brake cable hanger on my city bike made sense. Simple enough task with a threaded headset - no? One wrench on the lower nut while you loosen the top nut and voila. Except that I somehow managed to lose my grip on the lower nut thus thrusting the wrench into the top tube leaving a nasty gash in the lovely paint job.

      Fortunately I live near one of the better bike shops in Chicago if not the Midwestern United States. Hope they don't laugh too much at my continued incompetence.

    2. Left out the word 'experience' after Mike W's. My apologies for any confusion.

  2. So happy to be reading your writing once again. Thank you for countinuing to inspire, entertain, educate and inform. Lovely Bicycle really speaks to the heart of bicycling. All the Best!

  3. I loved reading this, thank you for writing it. I found it hard to believe in my own love of cycling for a long time because I felt like I needed to become competent in the mechanical realm to prove somehow that I was a truly enthusiastic cyclist. I feel that this is a commonly held perception of a lot of new cyclists, and women in particular. I've let go of that anxiety only recently, and I'm just happy I learned how to change my own tire, lol. :)

  4. Though I've never formally been an educator in a scholastic setting, I have worked as a company trainer for employees. Dealing with adults who are trying to learn a new skill can be quite an interesting experience! Being able to adapt to different learning styles as an educator, instructor, or demonstrator is imperative, I believe. That, and having patience to re-demonstrate a particular task repeatedly. It's definitely helpful when learners/participants actually want to learn whatever the skill or task may be.

    Although the act of riding a bicycle seems simple, I don't think this necessarily equates to easy learning for everyone and not every person will acquire the same level of skill, no matter how much effort or time is invested. It does not mean, however, that the act cannot be enjoyed. I would never want to discourage anyone from trying to become better at a task, and that includes cycling. What "mastery" of cycling is to one person may be very different for another, just as what is acceptable behavior on a bike may be different from one individual to the next.

    I have known many instructors who, in my opinion, seemed inept an incapable of teaching a subject matter; however, to others they were perceived as excellent educators. Perhaps some of it is perception, past experiences, learning/teaching styles, personalities, or any number of other possibilities. Eventually though, the student has to branch out and try what is being taught in order to test practical know-how and test the limits. As a learner, we may return to seek additional information or advice from an instructor, but it's difficult to replace real world experiences. Of course, those experiences will shape our own perceptions and thoughts about a particular subject, but then a good instructor knows that it's all part of the education process.

    We all have our own aptitude. I have interest in mechanical workings personally, but for the life of me, no matter how many times a task is explained, I could (and often do) fail repeatedly. It's as though the information just falls directly out of my head as soon as it's given. I learn mildly better being hands on with a task in these situations, but it's still not ideal. On the other side though, I could make a batch of cookies blindfolded and quickly picked up baking at an early age, even with the ability to improvise ingredients. I am a miserable orator, but can write a fairly powerful sentiment if I truly desire. I'm a horrible decision maker, yet I think I am pretty good at seeing an issue from multiple viewpoints.

    The thing is, we will each be called upon at some point to use a skill we are not particularly comfortable utilizing, no matter how much experience or time we've spent trying to become better at or with it. When it comes to riding a bicycle, fortunately there are many ways in which to ride and we can each find equipment and a style that is suited to our own needs, wants, and ability -- and there's always room to test the boundaries along the way.

  5. Thank you for returning. You were sorely missed

  6. Hmmm... now I'm sitting here wondering if I'm any good as a cyclist or not. Come to think of it, I have absolutely no idea what that even means. I know I suck at climbing hills - thankfully CatMan doesn't mind waiting at the top of a big climb for me to catch up. Perhaps having a suitable biking partner is the key.

    I had to laugh at the comments about bike maintenance. I've learned to do much of my own, and for me it's not necessarily a matter of skill - it's a matter of calming my emotions. Just contemplating attempting to replace a part or adjust my derailleur sorta makes me want to puke. I'm just always convinced that I will hopelessly mess it up and my bike will be ruined. This has yet to happen, but the fear is always there.

    Anyhow welcome back. I too have missed your writing.

    p.s. I couldn't knit if my life depended on it!

    1. CatMan! Has to be one of the best husbandine internet knicknames ever

  7. Welcome back! Weirdly, I have the exact opposite experience- I mastered adult bicycling and mechanics quite quickly (I decided I wanted to build a bicycle from a frame and a pile of parts... So I did- even making some makeshift tools in the process) but I've yet to manage anything more difficult than a scarf with needs in my hands.

    You really hit the nail on the head at the end though- what really matters is enjoying the experience and being proud of what you've accomplished! For all my love of bicycling, the sloppy scarf keeps me just as warm!

  8. Welcome back, Velouria! I missed your writing over the past several months. I am thankful for the automated blog feeds on other bike blogs (Annie Bikes), for without them, I wouldn't have noticed your recent posts!

    To the topic of this post: what is meant by "good" cycling skills here? You mention handling skills; can you elaborate on what you mean, beyond the basics of balancing/riding/braking on a bike without falling over?

    I would call myself an experienced cyclist, having biked daily for transportation for the last five years, in all sorts of weather, in cities and in the 'burbs. I have no idea how to quantify my handling "skills" as I genuinely don't know what skills are available beyond the basics. Mechnically speaking, I am largely unskilled. I am not a bike mechanic and I do not want to be one. I can swap tires, patch tubes, clean+ lube chains, and replace brake pads. I've even swapped pedals one time. I have no desire to dig in to my bottom bracket (again), nor do I want to clean + pack wheel hubs. I don't want to build wheels, nor frames, nor route cables. I'll leave that to the guys at my local shop. I'm happy with where I am in terms of mechanical skills and handling skills; the latter, if for nothing else than sheer ignorance.

  9. It's so good to have you back! This was such a joy to read. I've recently started running more, and (as I already knew) my level of aptitude at this is very, very low. I can run for a bit without much training, but I'm extremely slow. I still enjoy running, but it's a bit discouraging if you go in a group and everyone just takes off, or - as happened to me at a recent fun run - people you suspect to be about twice your age zoom right past you. I will never be a "good" runner, no matter how much or hard I train (I've tried this in the past and the result was a very sore hip), so I just have to suck it up. But it's hard, so I completely hear you when you say you've found it difficult in the cycling community at times.

  10. Glad you're back & I hope you are well. I once had a Computer science (programming) teacher whose class I failed a couple times and finally "passed" with a D! (stubborn & determined). She & I just did not "connect". Since I was not used to making anything less then a B (without really trying); it really made me question myself. A couple years latter I took another Computer Programming class (much more difficult too!) and made an A!!! This sort of disconnect is very frustrating experience for both teacher and student. I kind of held a lot of animosity towards this teacher for many years until I realized that she did not know much more about the subject she was teaching than many of her students; Computers and programing were still a fairly new in schools at the time (1978) and administrators were just glad to have students "getting their feet wet" in a school where many Kids parents worked for IBM or TI (but, not mine).

    I have similar hurdles with my children; things that seem obvious to me seem lost on them (and vice-versa).

    Everyone has their strengths, do what you enjoy.


  11. I taught an adult education course completely unrelated to knitting or cycling and found the learning gap between students to be exactly as you describe.

    Glad to see you're back.


  12. Where I run up against cycling culture is the apparent assumption among other cyclists that I should "train" and that I want to get "faster". I ride quite a lot in good weather, more than some I know, less in bad weather and have no particular desire to get faster or better. I just ride, for the joy of it.
    In my job home delivering propane I have on occasion had interaction with furnace repairmen who have been to trade school and yet seem to have no mechanical skill, failing to recognize things that I see right away as a novice. Aptitude, or lack of, is definitely a real thing.

  13. Welcome back. Aptitude(s) is probably not just one thing, but it any realm it probably falls out of the equation if we're chasing our own objectives. As someone once said, "we're all doing it right."

    Wait, that was you....

    Welcome back.

  14. So happy to see you back in this space. My bike aptitude is great on a city bike, but ask me to ride a diamond frame road bike, I would not be able to even get on it. I am not sure I can ride a bike that is not a step through frame. My enthusiasm for fixing bikes and for knitting has waxed and waned over the years... I am ok at both, but do neither right now.

  15. I think I'm a terrible cyclist because despite having ridden a bike most days since the mid '60s, I'm rubbish at speed. And hills. At the merest hint of an incline I'm off and walking and when I'm not walking I'm stopping to admire the view as I get higher and higher. I sometimes wonder if my bike rides are walking with a bit of cycling thrown in.That's just how I cycle and its a lifelong love. Rubbish cyclist!

  16. So glad to see you back here, I have sorely missed your posts:)

  17. Two thoughts come to mind. One is that over the past few months, I have visited your archives several times and found gems I had forgotten I'd read already, or remembered and relished reading again. Your posts on riding for transportation, dressing for the bike commute (in rain, hot weather, cold weather, etc.), and on choosing a bicycle have been so useful to me. Often I wondered if you were taking time off from this blog to turn it into a book! (I, for one, would love that.) The bloggers at "Let's Go Ride a Bike" decided to take down their site, and I'm disappointed, because some of their advice on similar topics can't be found anywhere else, and whenever people who are new to bike commuting or thinking about doing it ask me for advice, I give them a list of posts to read from you and others that I've found to be — inspiring, but not unattainable — role models.

    My second thought is about the subject of this post, aptitude — but also — self-compassion. We all have things we're so good at, we can barely comprehend how others could fail at them. We also all have weak spots, and it's important to be OK with that. The worst kind of people are the unconsciously incompetent, overconfident blowhards who make the rest of us feel ashamed of our ineptitude while they blithely make idiotic mistakes (especially when their mistakes harm others). Personally, I find I'm competent on a bike and in knitting, but I know what my weak areas are (e.g., speed, counting) so I don't expect to excel in those areas — self-compassion. I also must admit to doing beginner yoga poses even though I've been doing it for 20 years. Keep breathing — why the hell not?


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