I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, June 10, 2012

My first bike

From Retro Raleighs
When I was very young, maybe eight or ten, my dad came home from one of his TDY (temporary duty) overseas trips with a shiny black English Racer bicycle for me. It looked a lot like this one, as I remember. Nobody else had a three-speed bike with brakes on the handlebars; all my friends' bikes had coaster brakes and only one speed. I was terrified of it.

I've since learned (after doing a little research on line) that the Raleigh English Racer was built in Nottingham, England beginning in the 1930s. I found a cool website called "Retro Raleighs" and found the picture from Raleigh's 1951 catalog. The bike was too big for me and had the bar across the top, so it was a boy's bike rather than a girl's. I've actually only owned one bike that didn't have that stabilizing bar. It also didn't have the carrier bag in the back, that I remember anyway. When I looked at the picture in full size, I was amazed to find that the bike was pricey, costing £13 even back then! (That would have been about $600 in today's dollars.)

The bike stayed outside propped up against our house in California for a long time before ever being used. Every once in awhile my father would take me out and sit me on the seat to see if my feet reached the pedals. I remember scrunching up my leg so it wouldn't get anywhere near the pedal so I wouldn't be forced to learn how to ride it. Owning and riding a bicycle was nowhere near as common in my world back then. Today, a ten-year-old child has probably had a bike for years.

Daddy would try to encourage me to give it a try, and I loved my dad so much that I wanted to please him, but this was beyond scary. "How does it stay up?" I asked. When he explained the concept to me, it sounded like magic, not logical at all. I don't remember if he tried to ride it (the size disparity makes me dubious) to show me how it all worked, but I was sure there was a trick I didn't know about, and I kept my distance.

Then one day, I was looking at the bike, I don't know what made me finally decide to try it, but I propped it up next to the house and got on. My feet touched the pedals just fine; I was no longer given that excuse. I sat there, propped against the house and imagined myself going down the street for a long time before I finally worked up enough courage to try moving it. But curiosity and a kid can surmount many an obstacle.

Even though I have lived almost seventy years and have been on the planet for more than 25,000 days, that day stands out in my memory, bright and vivid. I learned through trial and error, and many spills, to ride that bike. It was exhilarating and empowering. Nobody was helping me, and I remember learning to keep it upright before I learned to stop it with the brakes, and I ran smack into a telephone pole. Fortunately neither of us were hurt very badly, but I remember that crossbar hit really hard in my private parts. I was sore for days, but I never told anybody about it until today, afraid that if I told my parents they might take my bike away from me! Plus it was a silly mistake, once I learned to coordinate riding AND stopping. Necessity is the mother of invention.

By the end of the day, I was riding the bike as if I had known how all along, and I only came in because the sun went down. I was in love. The magic of the bike staying upright thrilled me, and it still does to this day. The old saying about never forgetting how to ride a bike once you've learned is true, I find. Just last week I purchased a used bike and took it down to the local bike shop for a tuneup. I rode it to the bus stop (less than a mile) and put it on the bike rack at the front of the bus. I've watched people do this for years, but it was my first time. I made a couple of mistakes and was nervous, but the bus driver was helpfully shouting instructions out the door as he watched me attempt to secure the bike. A total of three bikes can be placed on the bus.

As I sat on the bus, proud of myself and holding my bike helmet in my hands, I realized that I have come full circle in my bicycling journey. The young girl who learned to love her English Racer, and the senior citizen who wheeled her newest purchase into the bike shop six decades later, are both proud bicycle riders. There might be yet another bike purchase in my future, if I catch the bug and find a community of riders that entices me into buying a fancy-schmancy bike with all the bells and whistles. I was a bit shocked at the price of the fancy bikes in the shop: well over $4,000!

In my years as a bike rider, I have used a bike to commute to work, went without a car for years and only used a bike, and have ridden my bike from Boulder to San Francisco (in 1974). I've replaced many a flat tire and knew enough to keep my bike in good working order. I've forgotten all that, but I guess I'll learn again. Bikes get flats and need regular maintenance. If you see a white-haired lady wrestling with her bike by the side of the road one of these days, you might stop and see if you can give her a hand. She may be old but she's willing to learn. And re-learn.


Mel said...

I can't begin to explain why your post made me cry, except that it flooded me with memories of my Dad teaching me to ride my first bike. How safe I felt with him holding on and how he knew just when to let go and let me fly on my own. It is a mystery how vivid some days can remain across decades, isn't it? I rode my bike all over town as a kid, since we lived on the outskirts and I needed to get to the library!

6 years ago, I went back east to visit my family, and we spent the day at a lovely cypress filled park that offered free bike rentals and miles of trails. I got on that bike very like your first and pedaled 40 years back in time. I felt like a kid for the first time in ages and wondered why I ever stopped riding bikes. I bought one when I got home and since then, riding the bike trails in Illinois has been one of my favorite things to do, and one of the hardest things about this surgery - no bike for 2 months. But August will be here before I know it, right?

Our Dad's gift to their daughters resonates through the years. Thanks for sharing your bike story and I wish you endless joyful journeys pedaling where ever your heart takes you. Let the next adventure begin!

Rubye Jack said...

One day in San Francisco I was in a bike shop and wondering what it was about those over $4,000 bikes that made them so costly. Well, the guy suggested I take one for a ride and I quickly understood how much better those bikes are made. If only I could afford one. Ha.

Anonymous said...

I rode a bike when I was a kid, borrowed from a neighbor. That ended when I fell and hurt my private parts! Ouch! A couple of years ago, I got on my daughter's bike and banged into a parked car. That was the only way I could stop. Lol. No harm to either of us, though. Oh, your post brought back memories!

Sandi said...

Hi DJan!

Love this post! What fond memories it brought back to me of my first bike! I was in third grade, and it was so big to me. (Fortunately a girls bike, so the bar wasn't an obstacle!) My patient dad ran up and down our street with me until I got the hang of it, then I promptly crashed it into the neighbor's mailbox! I remember crying because I dented the super cool head lamp. Oh how I loved that bike! The wind in my hair! We had a vacant lot at the end of our road we kids called, "Up, Down and Around" not a very creative name, but about 30 of us wore serious ruts into that corner lot with our bikes over the years!

Congratulations on your recent purchase. Enjoy many years of "green" traveling on the highways and bi-ways of beautiful Bellingham!

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

25 years ago I traded a quilt rack for my sister-in-law's bicycle. The bike is still in the garage, never used. I don't like the style anyway, but one day I may go to a bike shop and see whether something suits me. I love your adventuresome spirit!

CrazyCris said...

I remember once having a fall on a bike with that crossbar and hurting myself in the same way... since then I've avoided them like the plague!!! Only "girls'" bikes for me please! ;o)

Congratulations on the purchase and your new adventure! I hope the weather lets you use it as much as possible!

Gigi said...

This post has hit home with a bunch of us, I see. It brought back a few memories for me as well....I also had an unfortunate mishap with a stabilizing bar; at the time I thought I ruptured something!

Arkansas Patti said...

Ride lady ride. Oh how I miss biking. Florida flatlands were biking paradise. These Ozarks are good training for the Tour de France.

Linda Myers said...

What a fabulous post! Boulder to San Francisco? I am impressed, as usual!

June said...

Oh I used to love my 3-speed. I think I spent years traveling back and forth across the village and down country roads. I have a fancier bike in the cellar here. Maybe I should follow your example and get it tuned up and see if I can still do it!

Red said...

So you've had an affair with bikes all your life! I think you'll find that technology has improved and you won't have as many problems as before. I can make about 4000 km on one set of tires. Cables last about the same. chains go about 10000 km so you don't have to worry for awhile unless you're going to ride 5000-6000km a summer.
For awhile I thought you were going to tell us the next step was a motor cycle!

Sally Wessely said...

I loved reading this post. It brought back so many memories for me. Yet, while reading this, I realized I never have had a bike of my own. I think my parents just didn't see the need. This was not my philosophy at all for my children.

Anyway, somehow, I learned to ride a bike using a bike that belonged to someone in the neighborhood. It was small and I could stop by putting my feet on the ground. That greatly added to my feeling of security as I learned to ride. No one came along side of me. I just decided I was going to learn to ride. It seems that my friends cheered me on and gave me tips.

Not long after learning to ride, I tried riding my brother's bike. I tried to stop by jumping down on the ground, and you know how that turned out. I too suffered a painful injury, just as you did.

I have been looking at bikes and thinking of buying one. I have never learned to ride one with hand brakes. I have no idea if I could ride a bike again, or if I would be able to learn the hand brakes. I would love to try again. Let's see where this desire takes me.

#1Nana said...

My first bike was also a Raleigh. My parents, being English, never considered anything else. I, however, lusted after the Schwin that all my friends had. Great post. I love riding my bike too.

Jess said...

I recently got back into riding after many years off the bike. I got a folding bike, which has proven really useful. I have been overestimating my capacity to ride, and often I ride out only to find that I am too tired to ride back in. So I have been making use of the bike bus rack too (or when those are full, I can take my bike on the bus).

justme_alive said...


Rita said...

I have no idea what kind of bike our one and only bike was. My folks got it used and it never had any maintenance. The chain was so dirty that you had to stand up to pedal and get it to move at all. One speed and had to back pedal to slow down and jump off to stop (luckily it was a girl's bike). We learned on our own. Well, I was oldest and learned on my own and then helped my brother and sister. It was such a horrible bike to ride that we all usually preferred walking wherever we wanted to go.

When I was married to Dagan's dad (his brother owned a bike shop) he came home with these racing bikes with skinny tires, curved handlebars that I could barely reach (they had to move the brakes for me), and these metal things you put your toes into on the pedals. And it was a boy's bike with the bar (so I know about that pain, too) and too tall for me. I never could get the hang of that bike. Hit a small patch of sand and you'd slide! He finally traded it in for me--for a girls bike, with a normal seat, regular pedals, regular handle bars, fenders, and wider tires with some grip to them. I rode that thing for many years--with little Dagan behind me in his bike seat. :):)

Right now, I have a mountain bike I hardly had a chance to ride hanging in the garage that I just can't bring myself to give away or sell. Losing my bike would be like accepting that I will never, ever get better, you know? Just can't bear to do it. ;) I loved to ride my bike!

It is something you never lose the love you had for that magic of the wind gently blowing your hair back. Freedom! Enjoy, Djan!! Enjoy!!

Dianne said...

I can picture the little girl asking how does it stay up
I love that you taught yourself to ride!, the accomplishment is sweeter

Dee said...

Dear DJan, what a wonderful posting! It makes my innards light up with glee! Like others who have commented, it made me remember my first bike.

Dad and Mom gave it to me for Christmas in maybe 1946. I would have been ten. But the gift was simply a piece of paper that said I was # such and such on the list that the store had promised bikes to. It was just after the war and bicycle makers needed time to fill all the orders.

We lived out in the country and mom and dad taught me to use the bike on our rutted driveway. I got to ride my blue bicycle three miles to school and back several times a year. That was a little dangerous because the road was heavily traveled with no shoulders but both my parents wanted me to be brave. No sissy!

Because of the asthma, I had to always do the school roundtrip on a Friday so that I could sleep the entire weekend and rest up. Oh, the memories you have brought back. Thank you.


Donna B. said...

You never cease to amaze me! I say again, YOU ARE SUPER WOMAN! You bring back memories of my first bike. I have no clue what brand it was...but it was red. I think I was 12. My girlfriend Kathy and I rode all over the place...(even to some places we were not allowed to go). We even started a club called Helping Hands where we would look under lost and found in the newspaper so we could help people find what they had lost...I don't even remember if we ever found anything, but we sure had fun doing it.

One time with my friend Linda, we stopped at a gas station because my tire was low. I learned NEVER to use the air gun for car tires on a bicycle after it exploded and blew out my tire and knocked me back on my fanny!

I loved the freedom and the feeling of "flying" when we would ride into the wind...

Later, in my late 20's I was riding in my bikini...another lesson learned when a dog trotted out in front of me and I swerved to miss it and fell, sliding down the black top taking off layers of skin on my shoulders, hips arms and legs.... OW!

I also remember when I first learned to balance my bike and my Dad standing with his hands on his hips, smiling and looking so proud...

Happy memories DJan...thanks

Stella Jones said...

Ah a nice trip down memory lane. I had one of those bicycles too. Mine was the ladies version and it was mauve and pink. I got it for my 11th birthday and yes it was a Raleigh. Of course, living so near to where they were made and with a Raleigh shop in my home town, I could have my pick. I remember loving it too and the faster I could go down the hill by my house, the happier I was. Naturally I fell off it a few times, notably in someone's front garden and I got lots of cuts and bruises, but I did enjoy it, I really did. Thanks for jogging my memory.

Linda Reeder said...

Ah, I see I missed this one. Now I know about the bike. Is there anything you can't do?

Cycling Specialists said...

Your write-up is one of those happy memories that can be associated with bikes! A tearful way to understand how bikes can make an impact on one's life. A truly awesome post!