5 lessons I learnt from learning how to ride a bike at age 36

Photo by Flo Karr on Unsplash

I am a die-hard fan of the ‘you can do anything at any age’ mantra. Yet there was one skill where I was failing my own daily affirmation : cycling. Like any other child, I was also gifted a bicycle, but I was also often sick. Time flew, I became an adult and it totally slipped my mind that maybe I was missing on an important skill. I had another attempt at learning when I signed up for a free training program by Transport for London in my twenties, but I started traveling and face it, it was not a pressing matter.

Fast forward a decade later, I find myself in Montreal. I saw people cycling all summer, sometimes making plans around cycling around the city and beyond. I thought I was missing out, so I decided that I was going to ride a bicycle before the season ends. Today, I rode on the road for the first time for about 30 mins with zero falls or close calls. A success story with many little failures. Here are my top 5 lessons:

1.Learn in your own style, do not copy people

I learn the basics with a professional but after that I was practicing on my own. I tried to get friends to accompany me, but I realised they were far too advanced, and I needed my own space. I needed time to figure out my own blocks and triggers. I noticed early on that I would not be able to one-hour long practices as my body felt drained quickly. The fatigue came from trying to balance the bike, pedalling and the intense focus required as my body was still adapting.

So, I started doing small fifteen minutes practice but increased the frequency. By so doing, I was tricking my own mental to get used to the new environment quickly. I saw YouTube videos where people were learning in five mins and I guess it comes more naturally to certain people. But that is ok, we can all have different learning styles. The outcome is what matters.

2. The world loves people who try

I have gotten support from places I least expected: strangers. And me being me, I also made a friend in the process. In fact, we went for brunch right after my first ride and we are meeting again soon. And yeah, we just met today when she took a video of me on the bicycle!

Last week on my pen-ultimate try on the grass before the big day, and a woman stopped to help me get a good start. She stayed with me for a while, giving me a few tips while watching my movements. On another occasion, where I was progressing well but was still kind of zig zagging around, a woman told her kid: look, that lady is learning! The little kid looked at me with awe, I will never forget that.

Yet another occasion, where I was practicing coasting and braking, I smiled after a smooth braking and I exchanged glances with a dad walking with his kid where he gave me a supportive smile. It was almost like he acknowledged what I was feeling.

3. Physical pain is real, but it is worth it

As an adult learning a physical skill, I was always scared of the repercussions of falling. What if I break a bone, what if I crash into a car and suffer serious injuries? As a kid, we suffer for bruises by crying for a bit, then we heal and start again.

As adults, the physical pain can be traumatic. On one of my practices, which was a badly timed one as I just finished a 24 hour fast, I slipped while I was getting off the bicycle and it fell over me. I had back pain for a week with some difficulty in walking. It took me a few weeks to resume practice because of the pain I experienced. You do not necessarily need to suffer as part of the process, but even if you do, take time to heal and start over.

4. Minimise the unfamiliar variables to maximise success

While the above sub-title sounds like a complicated mathematics equation, it simply means you need to narrow down the unfamiliar items in your surroundings. When I started my practice, I had too many unfamiliar variables to create a comfortable environment. The bicycle was new, the city was fairly new (after all I have only been here a year and walking is not exactly the same skill!).

I was going at random hours whenever I would have some free time. It was too scary, and I had too many things to think about. Perhaps that is why I took an entire summer to properly get over the fear. I then stuck to one place in the old port where I practiced and went three to four times a week after work. I gained familiarity over the bicycle by simply using it often. The only variable became the act of pedalling itself, which I could then give my full attention to.

5. It is 99% overcoming fear and 1% practice

I could have repeated the practice over a thousand times but if I did not get over the fear of taking my other leg off the floor and push forward, I would be in my own version of the movie Groundhog Day. The first ten tries were extremely frustrating as I felt as I was doing the same motions with no success. I looked at other people, but they made it seem so effortless.

I knew I would not give up, but it felt like it might take more than one summer as I realised it was more mental than physical. I was scared of making a fool of myself, I was scared of falling, I was scared of dying! What to do? Afterall, I am human, and we are irrational. But I invested too much already to quit, so I just kept going.

What helped was the self-awareness on my triggers, so I worked on those as well. I talked to myself a lot during the practices but above all I never berated myself for failing. As someone told me yesterday, failure is underrated. Learn how to overcome your fear/fears and you are setting yourself on the path to success.

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