Becoming a Cyclist: Learning to Ride

The phrase “just like riding a bike” gets thrown around pretty freely in conversation and pop culture, carrying the implication that “riding a bike” is a simple task, taught once to children who never lose the skill. 

Growing up (sidenote–I carry more emotional bike baggage than I ever knew), there were two types of bicycles: bikes and mountain bikes. “Bikes” were gadget-free fixed-gear street-ready vehicles. To brake you simply pedaled backward; to ride uphill you simply hopped off and walked beside it. “Mountain bikes” had gears and knobby tires. I never owned a mountain bike ergo I never learned how to operate bike gears.

Above all else, learning to use the gears has been the most stressful part of my new life as a bicyclist. Asking experienced bike-riders for advice on how to learn, I regularly hit a wall: people do not understand the question. They’ve been doing it so long that shifting comes naturally, like correct subject-verb agreement, just like riding a bike.

Some compare it to driving a manual transmission car. I’ve driven stick since I was 15, and I even rode a 5-speed motorcycle for a time, but those experiences do not translate into understanding bicycle gears for me. When I think of downshifting a car into 1st gear, I think of the transmission working harder to go up hills. When others talk about downshifting on a bike, the word they use is “easier”–easier for the rider, not for the bike. All car gears are equally easy on the driver, so this terminology throws me off balance a dangerous proposition when on a bicycle). 

The Internet had me covered, of course, and after reading a couple posts and watching a couple videos, I got the gist of my 21-speed (really more like 14-speed) bike. Now I’ve been riding almost daily (during the good weather months) for over a year. I get from A to B without falling off, but I’m still not convinced I’m doing it right–I hear noises and feel the chain behave in ways that surely can’t be good. Even as a cyclist I have impostor syndrome; the sensation comes naturally to me. Just like riding a bike.