I’ve been keeping a horrible secret for many years: I don’t know how to ride a bike.
I used to ride one all over my neighborhood as a kid, but at age eleven, after a minor wipeout, I walked away from my bike and never looked back — and eventually I forgot how to ride. I sometimes imagine that my purple BMX remains overturned in that alley, rear wheel still spinning endlessly throughout the ensuing decades.
This was a particularly difficult secret to keep in the Twin Cities, where I’ve lived for more than a decade. It’s a place where, in my experience, essentially everyone bikes. Biking is such a part of life here that it’s just assumed that everyone does it. There’s often talk of gear, of trails, of days spent out and about on two wheels. Whenever it came up, I’d quietly ghost off to the other room.
Because: I was afraid. I was a nervous child, and grew up to become a paranoid adult. I feared the vulnerability intrinsic to being up on a bike. They didn’t look safe, or sturdy. I feared pretty much the entire deal: being out among cars, being out among other humans, with the knowledge that gravity has a 100 percent victory rate over all challengers.
But my thinking changed a few years ago. After record-setting heat waves in the U.S. and the environmental reportage that followed, I became convinced that even here in Minnesota there are a finite number of summers left to enjoy outside.
I decided it was time to grow up, get over my fear, and learn how to ride a bike (again.) I was in my mid 30s, and it felt long overdue.
Because: it’s so beautiful here. The Twin Cities has the country’s most celebrated park system, its urban lakes, and the best urban bike paths in the country. I would be an idiot not to get out and experience it all.
I also wanted to join the conversations, to be a part of the bike culture. I wanted to be more active, to rock the one-cuffed-pant-leg fashion statement, to have that distinct pleasure of replying to a friend’s text with “about to jump on my bike, be there soon.”
In other words, I wanted to be like pretty much everyone else I knew.
Coming of Age
I asked for guidance from a neighbor who fixes up bikes and works at a nonprofit helping extend bike access to traditionally underrepresented communities. We walked over to our local shop and he guided me through the process.
We checked out cruisers, mountain bikes, roadsters, fixed gears . . . all of which still means nothing to me because I can’t tell the difference between any of them. I ended up buying the first one we looked at. When asked what kind of bike I own, I just blurt out, as if I’m five years old, It has wheels!
Walking it out the front door felt like the bar mitzvah I never had, and I thought Today, I am a man.
On the way home I biked a bit and my neighbor helped me get my balance. The pedals felt unnatural under my feet; so did being higher off the ground. I was vulnerable up there. It turned out learning to ride a bike is in fact nothing like learning to ride a bike: I had to relearn everything.
We slowly made our way back to our street while he patiently explained basic traffic laws. He advised me to take it easy and always be mindful. It felt oddly paternal of him. He’s eight years younger than me.
Taking to the Road
I stepped into this new world cautiously, going for the occasional quick ride through my South Minneapolis neighborhood. I biked to breweries, to bookstores, to coffee, to lunch.
Initially, I didn’t feel secure at all. I would hiss at cars to make sure they were aware of my presence. My hands gripped the handlebars too tightly and would fall asleep. I was tempted to buy a custom, neon vest emblazoned with the words “Student Driver In Training — Be Nice, Go Around.” I kept my head down and stared at my front tire, ever diligent in case of cracks in the pavement or twigs or garbage or squirrels.
I’d look up ahead on the bike path and spot two people riding parallel to each other, coming towards me, chatting and laughing. I’d think, How am I supposed to pass when you’re taking up the entire lane? That’s so irresponsible and dangerous. What kind of sociopaths are you?
Eventually I got more comfortable, and my bike became an extension of myself. At first I mounted it with hesitation and a lot of wobbling, a baby bird tripping out of the nest. Soon I got better at it, and in a month or so perfected a little sweeping move where you step over the bike, slide it forward, lock your butt down on the seat, and just take off.
I began to look up from the ground and actually take in my surroundings. I started to bike with other people — my husband, our friends — and came to love the motion of the bike, the scenery passing by, and fits of light conversation. Chatting with people in the context of a bike ride was pleasant and new; I’d unknowingly become one of those sociopaths I initially feared.
City in Diorama
Some of the things I’ve noticed while biking might seem obvious. I embrace that. It’s all been part of the joys of pushing myself to try new things as an adult.
You see parts of your city that are otherwise inaccessible. Corners of parks come alive, as does the skyline as you skim along it on a new path. You inevitably track down streets you’ve never been on as you’re forced to try alternate routes to the ones you took by car or bus. New neighborhoods and houses sprout up like flowers, and I catch myself chanting I could live here, I could live here as I discover each one.
The city gains a third dimension: when you’re in a vehicle, your environment is restricted to the frame of a window. On your bike, the world has no boundaries, and constantly changes and skews as you move through it.
Your front tire will slice through pavement, fallen leaves, cobblestones, dirt, bricks. You’ll roll over someone’s lost homework. Discarded soy sauce packets will pop and spray.
The first time I biked while intoxicated (don’t do it — it’s dangerous and only fun for about 30 seconds) I felt like I had quantum leaped into someone else’s body who happened to be on a bike: So I guess I’m currently sailing down a sunny street? When did this start? Whose life did I jump into this time?
Biking through residential neighborhoods, the soundtrack of strangers’ lives manifests like a trail of ribbons. Sometimes it’s hip-hop from another cyclist’s portable radio. Sometimes it’s a bluegrass band playing in a backyard: the strains of music bounce between the houses and into the street, and you only hear it for about fifty yards before it disappears again.
You also encounter less pleasant things: cable news commentary blaring on a TV through an open window. A domestic argument. Sirens. You might see a fellow biker passed out on the side of the trail, still on his bike but flat on the ground. (I checked, he mumbled that he was fine.)
You’ll sail through gentle clouds of smoke: cannabis, cigarettes, and clove, the latter of which I’d completely forgotten existed.
One morning I was biking along the Midtown Greenway and passed through a makeshift community of tents. Hundreds of people had camped out for the night and were cooking breakfast on camping stoves . . . the scent of freshly brewed coffee, maple syrup, and smoked fish wafted along the path. At first I assumed society had totally collapsed while I’d been out on my bike, and I was now witnessing its slow rebirth. (Turns out I’d unwittingly ridden through an annual, 24-hour urban bike event.)
On another day, I spotted literary icon Marlon James, who was also out biking, and I had the ridiculous, daydreamy thought, Cool, he’s a fellow biker. We would totally be friends.
And in biking through parts of the Cities I was already familiar with, I saw them from fresh perspectives. As my fear melted away, another feeling rose up: a deeper connection to this place. A connection that was more tactile, more immediate.
I felt utterly embarrassed that it had taken me so long.
Ten Speed Brain
A wonderful thing about biking: it’s a smartphone-free experience. (Yes, some people text and bike; I do not understand those people at all.) There are very few of those left to us. This forces contemplation. On a bike, you are both hyper-aware of your environment while simultaneously living in your own head.
Exercise is known to increase brain activity and creative energy. While out on my bike, I’ll feel writer’s block melt away; random facts will bubble to the surface of my mind that I had thought were forever dissolved from my memory. Lyrics from obscure songs will snap into focus.
When I come home after a long ride, I feel smarter, more focused. I feel like I’ve become a better version of myself, if only temporarily.
Biking was something I was utterly afraid of. Once I gave it a try, I became addicted and started to make excuses to get back to those two wheels. My weekends changed. My life became more full.
As fall turns into winter, and I put my bike into the basement for storage, I’m putting a part of myself on pause.
The culture of biking surrounded me here, but I was completely detached from it. I thought I could live like that indefinitely. But while the process of becoming an adult involves learning new things about yourself and the world, it also involves learning that you are totally wrong.
There can be a profound joy in that.
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