Learning to cycle

Learning to cycleLearning to cycle

Amsterdam is very bicycle-friendly. There are dedicated lanes, plenty of parking and traffic rules that favour the cyclists. That also makes it the worst place to learn cycling. Let’s start from buying a bicycle - the shopkeepers assume you know exactly what you are looking for and cannot offer much advice. The one or two other customers we tried asking for help gave us a hurt, offended look - as if we had asked them to teach us how to use toilet paper.

The wife and I ultimately settled on a foldable bike that would allow her feet to reach the ground (in a city where you are shorter than 9.5 out of 10 people, it’s a tall order) and would allow the seat to be raised for me to pedal comfortably.

The wife used to cycle years ago and once she found her rhythm, my evening cycling tutorials began. Every other day the wife would come to the station to pick me up, get me a coffee and a croissant from the station Albert Heijn and take me straight to the empty lane behind our building for our 30-minute cycling sessions.

I had tried learning cycling in Delhi years ago. Though my parents supported me every time I tried to learn cycling, they never egged me on the same way they would to finish my school homework. After a couple of falls my heart wasn’t in it either. I suspect the parents were only too relieved once their bespectacled, disaster-prone son discovered computers and started spending more and more time in geekier pursuits.

Here in Amsterdam curious neighbours looked at me trying to acquire a skill as basic to them as using a knife and a fork and wondered which rock I was living under. They regaled us with tales of how their children, after a few months with their scooter (essentially a bicycle without the pedals - a must-have toy in the Netherlands), picked up a bicycle one fine day and were merrily pedalling away just like that. They tried to demonstrate what they thought was a sound technique for beginners (never having been in that situation since they were 3 years old), and even went so far as to declare our bicycle difficult” to start learning on.

The wife, however, never lost patience with me. The lane behind our building has a slight incline - enough to allow me to tumble down without pedalling but not steep enough to let the bicycle speed out of control. There were days when I would struggle to go down a few feet and there were days when I would roll down without touching the ground with my feet for a long stretch. Once, I lost my balance and fell hard. Fortunately, with a cycle this low, all I got was a bruised knee and a slightly sprained wrist. In the past, I would’ve given up at this point. Part stubbornness, part encouragement from the wife and I was back at it in two days.

This morning I woke up from a dream in which I was cycling along the sea in Marken (we had spent a day walking there just yesterday). Something in my mind had clicked. When we went out to the street today I could suddenly pedal without losing balance for long stretches. The wife had always said that it’s a very liberating feeling to be able to propel yourself so fast. I understood today exactly what she meant.

It’s early days yet. The bicycle still feels like it has a mind of its own. I can barely cycle a few meters without wobbling and putting my feet down, but I think the foundations have been laid. All I need to do now is to put in the hours it takes for a new physical skill to become second nature.

I must pass on the advice I got from various sources - at least the parts that worked for me:

  1. Get a bicycle that doesn’t intimidate you when you walk it along with you.

  2. Get a bicycle with adjustable seat. If both your feet touch the ground and your knees are bending a little it’s ok. You can raise it when it’s time to pedal.

  3. Don’t pedal from the word go. Find a slight incline from where you can gently roll down. It helps you get a feel of the bicycle and get your balance right. Look straight. Don’t look at your feet.

  4. When you can roll long stretches without falling or having your feet touch the ground, move to a flat ground and try pedalling there. Raise the seat a little now. Push the cycle with one foot and once it picks up a little speed, pedal. Again, remember to look straight ahead.

  5. Give it a few days. Take it 30-40 minutes at a time. The mind is a wonderful thing. It eventually clicks one day.

July 31, 2011