There must be a reason why there's a cliché about it. Your body is never supposed to forget how to do it, but I was terrified to get on a bike again.
Last time I rode I was hurtling down a hill clutching the brakes to no avail. Within seconds, I and the jalopy of a mountain bike I'd rented for a few pesos were flying off a three-plank "bridge" and heading for the rocky creek below. That was, oh, about a decade ago.
Haven't really been on a bicycle since. Not so much because of the traumatic experience of hobbling around South America on crutches and a leg cast, but because, if that could happen to me on a quiet mountain path, how the hell would I survive cycling in Toronto?
Anyone who refuses to bike in the city knows what I'm talking about. Flung-open car doors, sudden tight turns and seemingly intoxicated drivers weaving in and out on jammed, pot-holed streets are far more treacherous than any weekend jaunt through the countryside. There are just too many wild cards, too few drivers paying attention. Plus kamikaze sleet-or-snow cyclists give the pedestrian classes the impression that you need nerves of steel and a death wish to jump on a bike.
Still, as an environmentalist, not having a two-wheeler was starting to get embarrassing. Every spring I'd swear I'd buy one, and every gorgeous summer's day I'd still be trudging underground, snarling over the cramped conditions and ripening odours as the earth whizzed by overhead.
Until the beautiful sunny day I found myself across the street from a bike shop. I knew what had to be done, but still I clung to my boyfriend like a wet cat stuck in a tree, whimpering as we approached. My shins and thighs are already bruised up and down from walking into walls and furniture. Did I really have the coordination and balance to stay upright and watch my blind spot at the same time?
Then I saw it a shiny blue cruiser complete with a white, cushy bar stool-style seat and handles as wide as a Harley's. It was perfect, right down to the white-and-blue-walled tires. All that was missing were rear-view mirrors and streamers. I felt like I'd died and landed on Pimp My Bicycle.
But I hesitated. How practical could a one-speeder be? Maybe I should get a more utilitarian bike one that wouldn't wind me on a 10-degree incline. I started eyeing up a sensible model in a muted shade of maroon.
Then the first rule to getting a cyclephobe like me onto a bike was voiced. #1: "You'll ride the fun one more."
Within minutes I was hitting the streets with glee, inspired by a sense of freedom I hadn't felt since I was five. (Streamers, spokey-dokes and a squishy rubber horn in the shape of a toucan or a banana would augment this sensation. Humming, whistling or singing while you ride also helps.)
But there are a few more rules than just looking cool that one needs to follow before they can get over their fear of cycling in the big, bad city.
Rule #2: Form a bike gang.
I made sure I had an escort on my way to work the first few days. Think of it as big people's training wheels. But if you have friends or co-workers going the same way in the morning (especially ones who can show you how to fix a bike chain or, better yet, do it for you), why not ride together? Matching jackets and tattoos boost the camaraderie and send effective "back off" vibes to motorists but aren't essential.
Rule #3: Better to bike in a skirt and heels than not to bike at all.
Not into showing up at the office in spandex and a do-smushing helmet? You're not alone. The prospect of signing up for an extreme makeover, cyclist's edition, keeps many fashionistas, Bay Streeters and basic urban cyclephobes in bumper-to-bumper traffic or cramped, sweaty buses. Flip-flops are generally a bad idea because they can fly off, but everything else is fair game. If old Italian men can bike around in three piece suits and top hats, you can ride in a breezy skirt. (Worried about flashing your undies to the world? Wear yoga or bike shorts underneath.)
Rule #4: Be a fair-weather friend.
The sight of cyclists with frostbitten fingers riding in sheets of cold rain is impressive, but also distressing. How the hell can you recruit new riders with that kind of imaging? I've openly declared myself a fair-weather cyclist. Forcing yourself to ride in the rain or winter before you're mentally ready for it can turn you off cycling forever. And no one wants that.
Rule# 5: Hit the books.
Sure, it's kind of dorky, but considering that I don't wear a helmet and I roll through stop signs, I figured I should stop in at one of the city's Cycling Ambassador teach-ins to offset my bad habits. Guess I was the only person in Toronto willing to stand in the rain and watch demonstrations on how to hoist your wheels onto the new bike racks available on certain bus routes and get tips on navigating around oversized trucks.
All you hardcores might scoff, but it's the only place we bike wimps can ask seemingly obvious, inane questions like "What's the safest way to turn left at a busy intersection?" without feeling like morons. If you've never been on a bike before or have nightmares about riding beyond your side street, these guys have workshops for you. They even have women-only classes (www.city.toronto.on.ca/cycling/canbike/)
I ride nearly every day now (except when it's raining, of course; see rule #4). And any back pain I had in the beginning has subsided thanks to all the tips I was given on how to carry the thing upstairs ergonomically or lift it onto a wall-mounted rack. I still weave like a drunk driver sometimes, and I'm slightly phobic about streetcar tracks. But I think once I have my chrome-plated rear-views installed I'll feel much better.