“It’s just like riding a bike!” With a quick nod and a dismissive hand gesture, this is society’s way of telling us we are “good to go,” that whatever we might be struggling with is doable. And almost everybody hears the breezy little saying the same way.
“Oh, OK then, I got this!” Easy peasy. Piece o’ cake. Not to worry.
Not me. While I have come to understand the gist of the sentiment, I’ve never been able to make a simple translation. I’ve always added my own mental side note: “Easy for almost everybody. A bit of extra work—and maybe some blood, sweat and tears—for me.”
I got my first tricycle when I was five. It was a rugged red and chrome beauty nothing like the plastic Power Wheels of today. My dad brought it home one afternoon, plopped it in the driveway, and said, “There ya go! Have fun.” And, boy, was I planning to…just like Billy next door, and Cindy who lived down by the school and got to race around on the pavement to her heart’s content. I hopped on, ready to ride, but didn’t budge. Unable to push the pedals a full revolution, I just sat there, a coiled ball of “big girl” determination, hoping and grunting, and going nowhere.
The trike went back to the hardware store the next day, and that’s the first time I think it dawned on me I really wasn’t like almost everybody. Oh, I’m sure I knew, deep down, long before. But having no real relativity, no Billys or Cindys in my field of vision yet, I naively went along at my own pace. As a baby, how could I know that dragging orthopedic gear behind me wasn’t the developmental benchmark kind of crawling Dr. Spock had my mother anticipating? And what yardstick could have told me the long expanse between the sofa and my next handhold on the bookshelf was something most toddlers had already walked with brazen confidence?
I was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy. Just a touch. Not enough, thank God, to leave me in a wheelchair or visibly crippled as the diagnosis often implies. But enough to leave me unsteady on my feet, better on one leg than the other, and longing for Keds instead of “special” shoes. In the days before mainstreaming, it was enough to sideline me every track and field day, to leave me in the bleachers where no one needed to wait for me to catch up, or tell me my two-foot flailing leap across the dirt didn’t qualify as a long jump.
I remember feeling like I’d never take off under my own steam, ditch the training wheels and the worrisome looks, and just fly like the wind. Eventually, though, not so long after my stationary trike trauma, off I went speeding across the school yard on just two wheels, my grandpa doing the “no hands” wave behind me. To this day, with many miles of victory and defeat at my back, the Olympic moment when the pavement rushed beneath me—of seeing my orange tiger handlebar streamers fluttering with every determined push of my pedals—still stands out as my personal best.
“Ramblin’ Rose to Papa Bear. Come in Papa Bear!” Many years later, I was calling from the Oquossoc Grocery, so pleased with myself I used our walkie talkie “handles” to report back home to Tom. I couldn’t use my walkie talkie, I told him, since I was way out of range. I’d just biked 13 miles into town and, after a sandwich and the satisfaction of watching cars go by as I sat at a picnic table drying my sweat-soaked bike helmet hair in the summer sun, I’d make the return trip.
So began my Ramblin’ Rose years when, in my late thirties, I finally figured out ways to use “favorite” and “exercise” in the same sentence. I had two: snorkeling and mountain biking. The first felt so free and graceful I wanted to grow a mermaid tail, but required a plane ticket to the tropics. The second felt gnarly and gritty, never floaty, but was right in my back yard. So, most days, biking was a no-brainer. Using the legs God gave me to propel myself through the mountain biking mecca of western Maine was a matter of natural selection more than natural ability. And, most days, it was better for my body than other choices such as aerobics, especially my metatarsals and menisci, which barely survived my attempts to join the Jane Fonda craze. It certainly was better for my ego, safety, and sanity than skiing. And running? Well that, or my form of it, was something I rarely attempted—reserved primarily for snake sightings and general admission into a U2 concert.
Hard as I tried, though, practice never made biking smooth going. It wasn’t something I returned to effortlessly 20 years after parking the old Schwinn five-speed I used as a teenager when I couldn’t get a ride somewhere. Getting back on the seat took guts, gumption, and overcoming the agony of letting my daughters see that, for their mom, the old “just like riding a bike” saying wasn’t true. Any sort of fluidity in motion required a finely tweaked head start and attention to detail en-route: 1) Carefully swing my “bad” leg up (and especially over) the bike frame and hop on. 2 ) Get my “good” foot cranking. 3) Throw my other one onto the opposite pedal. 4) Hang on, pedal like crazy, and enjoy the ride. 4) When done, dismount without keeling over (See step 1). Thankfully, my mastery was rewarded with many, many family bike trips, even more solo excursions, and surprisingly few dumps or crashes. I celebrated turning 40 with a 40-mile round trip ride to Rangeley and back with Helen, then 13, proudly setting the pace. And, by age 45, I even managed to look my personal best in the black Spandex bike shorts and red rose emblazoned jacket Tom bought for that birthday.
Not long into my 50s though, things changed. I let my bike gather more garage dust than road dirt. I traded my daily rides for walks, and took my biking indoors to the gym. I began to suffer more and more from what a healing friend compassionately called “gravitational insecurity.” Age, loss of flexibility, and being thrown off center by life’s hazards left me more finicky than ever about how I chose to “get out there” without getting hurt. I stayed in shape, wearing out more than a few pair of sneakers and, occasionally, strapping on snow shoes. But I longed for the freedom of the open road, the exhilaration of pushing myself past my own backyard.
“Trust me. I got you and I’m not letting go till you feel safe again,” Tom promised this summer. I was on my bike again for the first time in so long I needed him to hold onto my seat and follow me up the driveway like my grandpa did 50 years ago. Eventually I did let him let go. And I did get the hang of the whole pedaling and balancing thing enough for us to take a short ride together. But I was shaking when I got back home, so unsteady that I found the excursion more terrifying than invigorating. “Yeah, right…just like riding a bicycle,” I muttered and hobbled off, leaving it in the driveway. At 57, I was learning the difference between blindly attempting what I should be able to do with my slight disability, and how far I could safely push myself toward what I genuinely wanted to do. Still, retreating to my Adirondack chair for the rest of the afternoon, I felt my limitations closing in on me.
I went back to walking and waiting for my next snorkel vacation. I told myself I’d just have to be OK with enjoying life in prime biking country on foot. And then, just as August gave way to the clear, crisp perfection of September in Maine, I had a knowing so strong it woke me from my trance. “But I want to ride a bike!” I said. “I really, really do!” I wanted to claim the trail on my own terms, and I wasn’t ready to pack it in and park myself on an ATV like so many of my rural neighbors. But what, exactly, did that look like? How could I regain the joy of grinding up the gravel, of gliding past woods and water, while nurturing myself and my needs? I Googled “adult mountain bike training wheels” without much success. I scrolled through online pictures of three-wheelers more suited to retirement communities than God’s country. Then I decided to swallow my pride over “giving up on myself” and ask Tom what he thought.
He didn’t laugh or even smirk and, in the blink of an eye, had me looking at the answer. It was a recumbent tricycle, a Sun EZ-3 AX to be exact, and he knew this because his traditional bike was bothering his lower back and straining his wrists and he wanted one too! The trikes would take a little getting used to, pedaling from a different angle and all, but they couldn’t fall over and would keep our legs and core in great shape while we laid back and enjoyed the scenery. A few weeks and a trip down the mountain later, and our twin Sun EZ-3 AX recumbent trikes waited side-by-side in the driveway.
“Sweet ride,” Becky said. She’d been my other biking buddy since way back, and was glad to see me ready to roll again. And I was ready, or so I thought, as I sat down and attempted to take off. But I only made it a couple tire spins up the driveway before the reptilian part of my brain stopped me short. “Woah….definitely not just like riding a bike,” I realized, attempting to regain my old center of gravity and gain some ground with my new age set of wheels. “I can’t!” I said, trying not to notice the disappointment on Tom’s face as he sat watching. Even though flipping the trike was technically nearly impossible, every fiber in my being swore I was going to fall over and never get up!
But Becky, bless her, wasn’t about to let me slump back to my Adirondack chair in defeat. An Outward Bound instructor, she is gifted with helping others dig deep, push through pain, and discover their core strengths. “You’re not going to fall over, Mom, you can’t!” she yelled in her tough love voice, hip-checking my handle bars and fender over and over till she convinced me. Then she helped me practice how to pedal, how to turn, how to stop and start. And, finally, I was off, leaving her in a puff of road dust, squinting behind me.
As it turned out, learning to ride my second tricycle was no more second nature for me than trying to ride my first. But as I heard my daughter’s victory whoop fading in the distance and sped off to catch up with my Papa Bear, I knew it was worth every ounce of extra effort. No, I certainly was not like almost everybody, rambling along at my own pace on my new Sun EZ-3 AX, the road wide open in front of me.