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).

All packed up and ready to ride.

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.

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