My first bike was named Terry. As most of the bikes I’ve had, other people had it before me, and while its name stayed the same (no one ever found out who came up with that name in the first place), every time it was passed on to another kid, it had even more scratches and bits of rust where the white varnish had chipped off. Before me, seven other kids had already learned to ride a bike on it, and it’s a miracle that it hadn’t fallen apart yet. (I would be the second last child to have it before that happened.)
I loved cycling around our neighbourhood. As I got older and my bikes grew as fast as I did, I slowly explored more areas, often together with friends. Sometimes we’d drive through the forest and up the hill, buy apples at a farm, or pick flowers, which I’d take home in the little basket on the bike. In my teenage years, I would do long day trips of up to 80-120 kilometres per day, either by myself, with friends, or family.
Many years later, after moving to the city, I found a beautiful old bike in a thrift shop that I loved so much. I rode my bike to the office every day, used it to run errands, get to friends’ places, or meet people in the park and lie in the sun next to it. For a long, long time, cycling was a big, very important part of my life.
Until a few years ago, when I had a bike accident. It was bad, and I ended up being hospitalised. But I was also incredibly lucky: I only had a few (albeit bad-looking) scratches and a major shock to recover from. I would be back on the saddle in no time.
At least that’s what I thought.
A couple of days after my discharge from the hospital, I had to pick up my bike at the police station. It turned out that the bike was really broken, and, as became clear much later, irreparably so. I had to carry it because the wheels didn’t turn anymore. I cried all the way home, because seeing this pile of what had turned into just metal garbage made me realise how lucky I had been.
When I picked up the bike, a police officer advised me to get back to riding a bike basically immediately, “because if you don’t do it now, you never may.”
I didn’t do it. I even got a cheap bike a few weeks later. But I was so scared. There was just nothing I could’ve done differently to prevent the accident. And that frightened me. This whole event became a reminder that being careful only gets you so far. That’s life, but that’s also messed up.
I rode the replacement bike a few times around the neighbourhood, and took it to the park twice. But I had lost all confidence and trust in myself, and cycling stressed me out so much: I was in a mode of hyper-awareness and extreme nervousness, hands right on my breaks and the bell, ready to stand on the breaks at any given moment. Any scenario that even remotely resembled the accident scenario freaked me out. As soon as I got on the bike, my heart was racing. By the time I’d get to my destination, I was a wreck.
But then, I also kept thinking about cycling. I missed the days of getting around easily without depending on public transport, missed getting to parks and places that take forever to walk to, missed bike trips in nature outside of the city, I missed the exercise and the general awesomeness that cycling is.
Friends and partners encouraged me to take cycling back up, and sometimes I’d even go on short rides with them, but only on quiet roads, and never by myself. And even that stopped at some point.
Cycling had always been such an important part of my life. Now, my bike got downgraded to an accessory for my apartment.
A couple of months ago, a friend who knew about the accident, and how much I kept thinking about it, very carefully suggested to take me on bike tours – just super short trips with no rush, to get food, ice cream, or coffee (finding appealing destination to add an incentive for me would be part of the plan). I liked the idea (and I loved even just the fact that they had thought about how they could help me). And it got me thinking again.
A week later, I dragged my bike out of a corner in my flat and back into the corridor. Another week later, I did my first short bike ride in over a year. I was nervous all the way and relieved when I got to my destination 15 minutes later. But I was also happy about trying it. A few weeks and short rides later, I decided to try and do one bike tour per week – still only super short ones, in quieter areas with little traffic where I feel comfortable. But I hoped that the increased frequency and some small, positive experiences would help wash the scare away.
Today, I had a lazy day. In the evening, I saw the sun shining from inside my apartment, and felt like I could use some time outside. I went on a short bike trip, and it was pretty nice for a bike ride: I saw the sun, I smelled the lilac and the blossoming chestnut trees, and saw the lake in late afternoon sunlight. I probably walked half the trip, but I felt really relaxed when I was on my way home. Then, as I was almost back, a car cut me off at a crossroads (they were turning right, I was going straight ahead), and I’m trying not to let that get to me too much. I’m trying to remember the sunlight. But it’s a process.
Right now, this is all I got. This is not a glorious inspirational “here’s how I overcame this frightening thing” piece. I’m still scared, and likely always will be, and it will take a long time for me to rebuild some confidence and trust in myself. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to that fundamental feeling of being okay with things again. I’m not sure when or if I’ll feel more comfortable again on my bike, and whether I’ll find the great joy it always brought me again. Sometimes, the thought of having lost that joy saddens me very much. But all of this, and all these feelings that I’m having around it, is also okay.
The dream would be to get to a point where I can take longer tours, maybe to a lake in summer, or to the great ice cream place at the outskirts of the city, or even ride my bike to work again every day. But none of this is going to happen anytime soon, and maybe never at all. Right now, I’m back to where I was by the time I had Terry: slowly, carefully increasing distances. Again.
It’s a ride, but at least I’m on my way.
Along this way, I understood that the phrase “it’s like riding a bike” is technically true sometimes, but also just very wrong. But most importantly, I learned something big about accepting my boundaries. I learned that I can also keep figuring out where my boundaries are, understand if they change over time, and work with these changes (and my stubbornness), while constantly watching out for myself. And then there’s the last thing I learned: always, always, always wear a helmet.