All Fall Down
Cycling Today, August 1998
The introductions were brutal: pavement, face. Face, pavement. My maiden voyage on my new bike and already I was imitating roadkill. I picked myself up off the London street so briefly my bed and took inventory. Hands: mutilated but still serviceable, after minor curbside surgery to remove my new rock collection from my palms. [Mental note: buy cycling gloves.] Thumbs: still opposable. Knees: in shock. Elbows: not on speaking terms. Pride really goeth after a fall.
How could this have happened? I was practically born on a bike, had glided effortlessly thousands of miles around the Ohio town where I grew up, delivering papers, racing to school, pedalling away the years between training wheels and four wheels.
At sixteen everything had changed. I’d sold my last bike and bought my first car, picking up speed for adulthood. Never looked back. Later I moved to New York, trading country life for city life and my wheels for a subway train token. Cars were for the insane, bikes the suicidal. I managed to get knocked down by both. It really was safer under ground.
After a while I found myself married, as you might, and living in London, as you might: pleasant, quiet, safe London (everything’s relative). What is it, 500 square miles? (Wild guess.) Can’t walk it all. Couldn’t master the learning curve necessary to read a bus schedule. Using the underground made me feel like a worm, popping out of the subterranean depths now and then for a crawling tour.
It was time to dust off an old friend, bring it wobbling into today’s sunlight. “How about,” I tried to mention casually to my wife one spring day, “I get a bike.”
“A bike?” she asked, at odds with the idea. As a girl she’d taught herself to ride in a straight line, but not to turn. Not a handicap: she’d just get off and point it in a new direction whenever she fancied.
“You’ll be riding it in London?” she queried.
“London?” She was still waiting for the punch-line.
And so it went, for probably a much shorter time than I remember, until she accepted my proposal with one caveat. “You’ll wear a helmet?”
What to buy?
The bike shops were filled with mountain bikes. My memory was filled with skinny-tired road bikes. London is filled with… interesting terrain. I bought a hybrid. Then rode home, fifteen miles through the city, nervous but enthralled, helmet strapped faithfully tight under my chin. Fortunately my eventual appearance on our doorstep was proof to my wife of my basic competence.
It was the next day that I kissed pavement. I’d been attempting to steer between a line of parked cars and a bus, become unnerved by the narrowness of my moving path, started ricocheting from one side to the next, and finally landed in front of a moving but alertly manned car. It stopped long enough to alow me to flee the scene of my embarrassment.
Soon enough I was a regular commuter from our home on the outskirts of London into the city center, and grew fondly accustomed to my route: even the hills, the choke points, and the endless road construction. I loved zipping past the miles of backed-up traffic. I seemed to be the only one having a rush hour out there.
Eventually I talked my wife back onto two wheels. Alas, she’d never find dodging the blindly opened car doors, lurching buses or the occasional sweetly zombified pedestrian to be a stimulating prelude to her work day. In one short weekend she bought her own bike and finally mastered the art of turning.
A few years later I ditched the helmet
See also Back to school