First Real Bike Ride When You’re Not Five

The touchscreen in front of me insists I’m from Azerbaijan. My best friend and I are standing in front of a column and trying to rent a city bike for me. Scores of them are standing there in the sunshine, waiting. It’s a beautiful summer day. Opportunities to just feed coins in to a slot if you want to get something are becoming fewer and fewer. I have to register an account with the bike company and I get increasingly foul-mouthed as the country list won’t budge. We try to download the app on our phones. After several attempts with three different devices in this digital age it works. The app then tells you what to do. There’s another touchscreen on the bike. Where? I locate it between the wheels, hidden underneath a metal lid with the bike number on it. After another series of pushing buttons, starting again, tugging on the lock the bike is finally mine.

It’s heavy, but this is somehow reassuring. Having asked most of my friends to push their bikes, I feel confident with this phase of the journey. We take a wide, shaded path, the tall leafy trees of the Hamburg Stadtpark meeting overhead. Everything is green and wonderful and the slightly grainy terrain underfoot immediately reminds me of my recent cycling course.

“The time has come, the walrus said.” With my first attempt to get on it feels like I’m trying to climb the Empire State Building, so we lower the saddle. To be on the safe side I let a few cyclists and walkers pass, and then off I go! The still present issue is getting both feet on the pedals and starting to cycle in time, but that works out quicker than I expected. Otherwise I just brake and try again. When I do get going, the beginning is sometimes still a bit wavy, but the width of the paths around us is perfect, and with me keeping a lookout for senior citizens, bike enthusiasts, dogs and children I feel confident.

The park with its almost 150 hectares is the best training ground for the first real bike ride outside of my course and my friend’s triumphant “You’re doing it!” makes the whole experience all the more enjoyable. We occasionally ride side by side and she warns me about upcoming turns. I make every curve, even if it doesn’t really feel like I know what I’m doing, but the (hopefully) elegant turns do wonders for my self-esteem. We can even chat, only I look straight ahead while doing it and keep a very firm grip on the handlebar.

This afternoon trip brings several profound discoveries with it. For example, even the smallest incline that you wouldn’t notice walking becomes immediately apparent when you’re on a bike. Duh. I sweat as I pedal harder, feeling like the wheels are sticking to the ground, and a few minutes later I’m amazed at the speed with which the bike is rolling along without me doing much. “We’re going very slightly downhill!” my friend calls. I can’t see it, but I can definitely feel it. Can I brake, can I brake?! Yes, I can brake! Gentle braking, slowing down in time, check! Successfully passing other people, check!


Learning to Cycle When You’re Not Five – Graduation Day

The death grip on the handlebar has relaxed, though it’ll be a while before “Look, Ma, no hands!” I arrive at the familiar football field one last time and we’re instructed to ride around, practicing braking and getting off the bike. “We will cycle a bit on the street before heading in to the park, and since there will be people and other cyclists around, I want you to brake, get off and push the bike if you feel unsure.” After two or three wobbly starts I shoot off, gathering speed, inwardly crowing about getting my left foot down on the pedal in time and pedaling successfully. The wind suddenly picks up and I make another small discovery – what it’s like to cycle against it and why my cycling friends notice in particular if it’s windy outside. I stop for a break, and my instructor comes up to me, laughing, asking if she can hop on and have me take her around.

But it’s time! We file out on the street, me at the very front. Our instructor is excited. “One behind the other! Go!” She jumps on her bike beside me and pedals off. I touch my handlebar…and the world changes.

The leaves on the trees around us are intensely, vividly green and the trunks are standout dark against the background of houses and streets. Fences, lampposts and trash cans pop out like obstacles in a videogame. The bike path stretches on narrowly ahead. Every slope, however small, seems to move. Traffic gathers in noise like a tidal wave and every cyclist passing us looks like he or she knows exactly how I feel. Everything is louder.

The training ground was a dream. This is the real world and I don’t know what’s coming.

With sweaty palms I mount my bike, make a few wobbly turns and get off. There was room to regroup and straighten out on the football field, but not here. You immeditely become much more attuned to risks. I push the bike until we come to the park entrance, and then I get on again. Green fields covered in dandelions are on both sides, with trees further away. But the ground is similar to the one we had during training, so I feel more at ease. We cycle in a group, keeping a good distance from each other. I brake a few more times.

I’ve had two falls during my training, and the third adventure comes my way. I approach a loop in the road, and at the knot of the loop is a very large tree with leafy, low-hanging branches. I see some other participants going around the end further from a small fence. I’m cycling towards the fence. The path width between it and the tree is just enough for me to pass through, and I think I can do it since I’m still cycling. Coming out from under the branches, I see an old man standing there with his two dogs. I realize a little too late that I won’t be able to cycle past him after all, as my bike steers towards him, but my fingers don’t find the brake. In a few seconds there was some uncoordinated wobbling from me, braking/ getting off and stopping just short of catching one of the dogs with my bike. I didn’t get its tail or paws, nor hit it, but that was so close! The owner immediately starts shouting at me and complaining about all these people not knowing how to cycle. I apologize sincerely, saying I hope I didn’t hurt the dog. “If you did, he would have BITTEN you!” With that I mumble an apology again and carefully push my bike away, with him shouting at me to get on and go on.

We make a circle to get back and this time I’m doubly careful. I make it back to the park exit without incident and brake so nicely that I give myself a mental pat on the shoulder. My instructor slaps me lightly on the butt as she passes. Ultimate sign that I “passed”.

The bikes are locked away in the shed and we have cake and coffee to celebrate. The sugar does me good.


Learning to Cycle When You’re Not Five – Lesson 6

I’ve started looking at cyclists on the street with different eyes. Each one that passes sets off questions in my head. How did they learn to cycle? Where did they get their bike? How long did it take before they were confident enough to cycle on the street? Do they ever have sore muscles? How does it feel for them to be on a bike? A (clearly unhinged) man cycles past me, wildly shouting obscenities at the top of his lungs. But I guess he feels comfortable, as his cycling is disturbingly at variance with his chaotic behaviour. Three little kids decked out in helmets pass in orderly duckling fashion, following their mother, their bikes just skimming her knees. However, among teenagers, scooters seem be in these days, though their models are much slimmer than the ones we practiced on.

I still remember the first exercises on those scooters. Two weeks ago I couldn’t imagine riding a bike and now I pedal along the familiar football field like it’s just something I do. Starting is a little tricky and I have to stop a few times, but I discover it’s because I don’t speed up properly before putting my left foot on the pedal. So I give myself some more time, practice getting the other foot on the pedal in time, et voila. Cycling in a straight line is easier today, as is making curves closer to the corners of the field. But I have to watch the distance between me and the other participants. Timely steering is a work in progress, though now using the handlebar feels more in sync with my movements. I create a small obstacle course for myself, cycling around a few orange cones. I barely avoid riding in to one, but I do knock it over. After yesterday’s fall I take care cycling around the small goalposts, and I successfully brake in time in front of some bushes.

“Keep pedaling, and then let it roll, pedal, roll, always changing,” my instructor calls out, so off I go. The rolling part feels short at first, but lengthens with repeated attempts. It’s amazing how once I’ve gotten a feel for a bigger bike, I don’t want to get off it, even if I can go on the smaller one too. There are only a few big ones to go around, and they are in popular demand today, so some wait and switch when the others take a break.

I barely look at my feet on the pedals, I just feel them, and while things in my direct line of vision, like people, the other participants and occasional obstacles or a stray bike left on the field (put it away!) are what attract my attention, I do look up. I see how green the trees already are, what the houses in the distance look like, all while being propelled forward with movement underneath me.

My instructor suggests another exercise, namely cycling off, raising myself off from the saddle and balancing. “Of course you can do it!” she says encouragingly. But my lower body refuses to part with gravity and I safely finish the last few rounds, seated.


Learning to Cycle When You’re Not Five – Lesson 5

Here’s a funny thing. On the scooter it was hard for me to go in circles, whereas straight lines happened with a satisfying whoosh. On the bike I seem to start circling without even doing much, when I’m trying hard to follow an arrow.

I cycle off. My muscles are a bit sore. Getting on and off the bike, not to mention braking, still doesn’t feel as elegant as what I see our instructor doing, but I keep repeating the process and I also put my other foot on the pedal quicker. It’s reassuring that the bike does not tip and I seem to have a feeling for my own balance. At the same time, wobbling does happen at the stage of pushing off, and I stop or literally put my foot down at the right moment.

After a while my instructor approaches me with a bigger bike! “You’re past the small bike, try this one, it’ll be more comfortable”, and it is! I pedal around for ages, also because the soreness in various involved body parts becomes apparent the moment you get off the saddle. But this is definitely the highlight of the session.

Half the football field is taken up by little kids training. While our instructor sits down and just lets us joyfully cycle around as much as and however we want, in contrast one of the football moms is yelling at the children like a drill sergeant. An ambulance suddenly pulls up right along the field and stops near the young athletes. Our instructor jumps up. “What happened? My women, are any of my women hurt?!” No, we assure her, we’re fine (it’s a course for women, by the way), but it seems one of the children got hurt. I hope it wasn’t because of their apoplectic trainer.

“That’s not fair,” says one of the earlobe-grabbing women from lesson 4 furiously as I mount and cycle past her. “How are those who don’t have long legs supposed to do it?” Um, get a smaller bike? Dude, stop judging my limbs.

I cycle and cycle and cycle, even executing a maneuver around a small yellow cone lying on the ground. I speed up a little too close to a bench, but brake just in time. The instructor shouts my name and I cycle back to her, feeling cool that I really do have the option of not walking across the field. After a break I have to practice what we also did with the scooters before – fix your gaze on a point, for example a tree or a lamppost, and cycle towards it, all the while not taking your eyes off it. No looking down at the bike when you get on and no checking the pedals or handlebar while you cycle. This seems to work, though I do end up cycling further away from my chosen staring objects, in a curve.

After I come back from a break, someone took my bike, so I carefully get on another one which turns out to have a wobbly handlebar.¬† After a while I can’t quite steer and fall despite braking. Lesson learned.

We have half an hour left and I go off for a last round. There’s a light breeze and the kids’ training is done, so we have the grounds to ourselves and I feel the air pat my cheek as I fly by. “Very good!” my instructor shouts, and I laugh. “Well, aren’t you the superstar,” calls the leg-judging lady when I give her a wider berth.

Yep, that’s me.


Learning to Cycle When You’re Not Five – Lesson 4

We warm up with our trusty scooter friends. My body seems to be doing things without my brain switching on. Zoooom! They are still dirty from our last muddy escapades and I can’t help feeling a bit badass.

Our instructor calls us over to the shed and says to get a bike. It sounds like the most matter-of-fact request in the world and my mind manages to stay blissfully blank, a state that’s carried me very nicely through the last lessons. Some of the participants are sceptical about the smaller and lower bikes we’re supposed to take. “Everyone gets a low one first and we practice. You may get a bigger one later, it’s better for tall women”, she looks at me, “Like you.” Noted. I’m relieved about the smaller bikes, because at this point the prospect of mounting a big one feels akin to climbing a very tall tree.

We practice standing next to the bikes and balancing with one foot on the pedal. The difference to the scooters is immediately felt – we’re all wobbling around and getting used to the shift in height. Maybe it’s like moving from a pony to a horse, though I’ve only ridden at fairs, so I can’t compare. We transfer most of the exercises from last week with the scooters to the bike. This also needs some getting used to. Plus, we’re forbidden to sit down on the saddle, when it’s so temptingly close. My instructor reminds me of the first very basic rule about lightly tipping your bike towards you before you put your foot on a pedal, and I immediately realize what she meant about every one of our previous exercises being important.

My pedals only seem to be in the way at first and within minutes my jeans are dirty again. I can also tell exactly where I will have bruises later on. The instructor¬† checks that I’m not doing anything wrong and loosens the left pedal so that it hangs sideways. She also suggests placing my left leg a bit further away from the bike. After that I do better. I feel quite clumsy, but gradually the old joy of picking up speed returns, though coordinating my feet around the new position is challenging.

We push the bikes around, following a line or attempting to. The old favourite with making snake lines around coloured circles on the ground returns, both with a foot on the bike and off. From what I can tell my snake is either drunk or very old, but at least it’s definitely a snake. We also take off, trying to repeat the exercise of “writing” with your left foot in the air, and this time I am actually able to make a V. We stop for two breaks in-between and the conversation actually turns to bikes. The two ladies I’ve been avoiding converge on the girl I’m chatting to and start asking her about her earrings. What’s more, they actually grab her earlobes without asking. She says it’s OK, but this freaks me out slightly and I take care to continue with my avoidance tactics, since I need my ears to hear what our instructor is saying.

I push off and extend my left leg for a bit, holding the position. “Great,” says the instructor, “Now do it again a couple of times, but extend your leg behind you.” I speed up repeatedly and go all prima ballerina on the bike. “Fantastic!” shouts my instructor. I’ve achieved the “fantastic” level! I’m the teacher’s pet! I’m unstoppable! I’m… falling…

I lost my balance slightly, my bike started to tip, and I basically side-squatted with it, still somehow getting my feet off in time and folding myself on the ground. Falls should be mastered too. No bruises or scratches, so I dust myself off and continue.

The next exercise needs to be practiced until we have it down pat. We’re supposed to speed up and bend the left leg on the level of the left pedal. I did this several times, though it felt like I was holding up my leg for very short intervals. I stop for a minute, when my instructor comes up and says, “You can cycle now.”


She readjusts my left pedal and shows me the different gears. I’m told to go, and I do. What happens next is completely unexpected and surreal. One moment I’m gathering speed, raising and bending my left leg and putting my left foot down on the pedal.

And the next I’m cycling. I’m cycling around the football field and I’m not tipping to the side or wobbling. I. Am. Cycling.