Seven Life Lessons I’ve Learned While Riding A Bike

elliott

ET and Elliot about to take off. From the movie “ET”

Riding a bike is a magical experience. No, I don’t have an ET-phone-home-and-then-fly-off-while-running-from-the-cops experience, but it is pretty great nonetheless. You see, riding a bike reminds me of being about six years old.

I’m not sure what riding a bike means to a kid from the city, but to a farm kid, it boils down to one word: freedom and adventure. Which, I guess, is two words, but then, math was never my strong suit.

I’ve been spending a significant amount of time on a bike this year. Not only is it good exercise, as I get ever older and more crotchety, but it is also a fantastic way of getting around and seeing the city.

Plus it costs me exactly 0$ in gas. Which is good, because I’m currently on a fixed income.

Every time I get on a bike, I forget how much I love it. And even though I go at a slow pace, I always feel the rush of absolute freedom. Wind in my hair. Road rushing by beneath my feet.

Although rushing may be pushing it.

Riding a bike has reminded me of a lot of life lessons that I’ve learned. In case you are ever having trouble sleeping, I thought I’d pass on a few of my observations. Here goes:

1) Learning to ride is painful. I don’t know if you remember learning to ride. I do. My friend Marc brought his bike over – the coolest bike I’ve ever seen, by the way. Green. Ape hanger handlebars. Balloon tires. “Sissy” bar on the back.

At least, that’s how I remember it. 

Anyway, he came over and said it’s time to learn to ride a bike. Which is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. We went out to the end of our driveway, where it met the grid road that went by our farm.

Marc held his bike and said “Climb on”. Once I was in the seat, he yelled “I’m going to push you. Keep the handlebars straight.”

And he began to push me. Faster and faster. I think I remember the sonic boom as we broke the sound barrier.

I … was … flying!

Then Marc let go, and I fell over. He had some helpful advice for me. “You’ve got to turn the pedals, you moron. And if you start to fall over, lean that way a little.”

He always had encouraging words like that.

We tried again. Failure.

“Quit falling over, you idiot.”

We tried again. And again. And again. And then, by a miracle, I made it to the grass of our front yard before falling over. And then, a little further. And further.

And – suddenly – I was riding.

All at the cost of ripped jeans, skinned knees, and maybe more than a few tears.

But … from then on, I could ride!

I repeated this same, age old method with my own sons. I can still vividly see my son Zac, pedaling for all he was worth, crash straight into the hedge in our backyard. Coming out, all scratched up. A few tears in his eyes.

“Let’s go again.”

I don’t know what a bike means to a city kid, but to a country boy, it means freedom. The entire world was at my disposal. I could explore abandoned farm houses. I could go to my friend Marc’s place in a flash. Or to my cousin’s. Or even all the way into town.

Freedom. That’s the payoff for learning to ride a bike.

But … It comes with pain.

The first time you do anything, you suck at it. Yes you do. Your parents just never told you that you did. You sat down with a guitar. You sat down at the drums. You sat down at the piano. And you made the most horrific racket. You can’t even imagine it, but it is burned into your parent’s brains.

So, you sucked.

Common “wisdom” these days seems to say “Well, I tried it once, and now I suck. I think I’ll just keep living in my parent’s basement.”

My question to you is this; Can you ride a bike? If so, how did you learn? Did you suck at first? Did you fall off, skin your knees – or your face – and try again?

What happened to you? Society told you that if you can’t do something – perfectly – the first time out, you are a failure.

And, sadly, you believed it. And when I say you, I really mean me.

I’m not the smartest guy. I learn things, but usually only the hard way. But I do know that falling off a bike is not failure. It’s part of the process. Like a scientific experiment.

Edison didn’t have 10,000 failures before he created the light bulb. He experimented 10,000 times until he got it.

Edison was a genius. If a genius can “fail” over and over, and history still considers him to be a genius, what about you?

No one is good at something the first time she does it. Keep at it, work through the discomfort, and you’ll be surprised at what you can do.

2) No one learns to ride a bike on his own. I had Marc. I don’t know who Marc had. Maybe an older sibling or a parent. But, everyone needs someone to help them learn.

We live in a society where we are not allowed to ask for help. “Be a self-made-man”, they say. Or woman, but hopefully women are smarter than men in this case. You must do it on your own.

So … Much … Bullshit.

There’s no such thing. Someone gave that self-made-person her first job. Someone helped you buy your first guitar. Someone gave you advice that made all the difference in your life. Someone picked you up when you fell off.

The self-made-man is a myth. But society still tries to get you to drink the Kool-Aid.

I’ve learned this (OK, sort of learned this. I’m still an idiot when it comes to this one.) the hard way. My way is to keep pushing myself, to do it all by myself. And I’ll go way too far, to the detriment of my health – mental, physical, and spiritual.

This catches up with you. Trust me.

So go ahead. Ask for help. You’ll discover that people want to help you. They just need to be asked.

Oh, and don’t wait until you’re in your late forties to do it. Life will be much better. Again, trust me on this one.

3) It’s fun to push a big gear. If you ride bikes (and if you don’t … Hey, Kijiji is there. Pick one up. Cheap. And get out there. You’ll remember how.), you know what I mean.

“I feel the need. The need for speed!”

You shift to your highest gear, and you are flying! I can’t think of a human powered way to go any faster. Skating, maybe, but probably not. Skiing depends on gravity, so that’s cheating.

The wind is in your hair. Your legs are pumping, along with your heart and lungs. Your eyes might even be tearing up from the excessive speed. It’s hard work, but …

Freedom! What a rush.

Sometimes, in your work or personal life, you need to push a big gear.
You’ve got a big project at work. With a deadline. A looming deadline is a great motivator. It causes you to gather all of your energy, talent, and drive into getting it done.

And it means that you have to get out of your comfort zone. You might have to put in long hours. You might be working harder than you thought you could. You might miss meals.

It can be downright uncomfortable. And our society has a pretty low opinion of uncomfortable.

And you have to be vigilant. When you are pushing a big gear, there’s no time for error. Where are the vehicles? Stop lights? Signs? At high rates of speed, even an innocent patch of gravel can bring you crashing down.

But, at the same time, speed brings its own rush. The discovery that you do have what it takes. That you can work hard. And, of course, the thrill of meeting that deadline.

Freedom! What a rush.

Yep, it’s good to push a big gear, but you can only do it for so long. And then ...

4) You need to gear down. You can’t push a big gear all the time. Oh, you think you can. When you are young, healthy, and fit, everything is possible. You can work like a mad woman. Gear down? You’ll do that when you are old.

Listen to the voice that has learned the hard way. You will have to gear down. And it is better to do it on your own terms than to have your body or mind force you to do it.

Big gears are fun. Hard work, but fun. But they can only be used for a short period of time. The problem, of course, is that society doesn’t agree.

Be all you can be! You can do anything you put your mind to!

And there is some truth to that. You can work way harder than you think you can. Just look at my parents’ generation, and you’ll see just how much capacity human beings have for hard work.

I learned how to work hard, but I couldn’t hold a candle to that older generation. Not that I’d want to, because candles are hot and waxy.

But, there will come a day when you can’t push as hard as you used to. If you haven’t learned to gear down earlier, it can come as a shock. A life changing, self examining shock.

Sometimes our employers are not helpful. They see the short term effort you are capable of and expect that level on a daily basis. But … you wouldn’t ask the world’s fastest human, Usain Bolt, who ran a world record best at the equivalent of nearly 45km/h, to run a marathon at that speed. Would you?

Nor would you ask Dennis Kimetto, who blazed his way to a marathon world record of 2:02:57 to run the 100 metres. (By the way, a marathon is 42.2kms. I think you can do the math!)

You can go hard, but only for short spurts. You can go long, but at a reduced speed. You can do both, but only for very brief moments.

Sometimes you need to gear down.

When you push too hard, something suffers. Maybe it’s time with the people you love. Pushing a big gear causes you to neglect other areas of your life. Maybe it’s your health. You can’t keep pushing without your health – eventually – giving out.

My friends, learn to gear down. It doesn’t mean you are weak if you need time to recover. Pro athletes spend more time recovering and eating properly than training.

When you are on a bike, pushing a big gear gets you on your way to your destination faster. But, a small gear keeps you moving towards the destination, too.

Learn to gear up and down as you need to.

5) Quit comparing yourself to other riders. I’m not a teenager. Yes, I know that this is a shock. When I was a teenager (and twenty something, and thirty and …), I was constantly comparing myself to others. Am I faster? (That answer was always no, by the way) Am I smarter? (Modesty prevents me from answering that one) Am I stronger? Better looking?

There are moments when someone passes me while I’m riding. OK, many moments. And I’d be lying if there wasn’t an urge in me, deep down, that wants to keep up. To stand up and pedal. To push a big gear.

But, I’m learning.

You see, I’m not the healthiest bear out there. Or the youngest. And I am far from the fittest. So what would I be “proving” by challenging someone to a race? That I’m old and out of shape? That’s pretty much been established.

I can, however, push myself to be better than I was yesterday.

This was put to the test a few weeks ago. I was pedaling along, and I got passed. Not by an individual, but by a group of twenty-somethings. Women, if you must know.

Now, there are some tell-tale signs of serious riders. Number one, unless you are off road, they have a serious road bike. Like the kind that you need financing to purchase. Five of these flashed by me.

I was on Matt’s mountain bike.

Number two, they have the type of pedals where your shoes clip in.

I was wearing old sandals.

And lastly, they have the garb. Aerodynamic helmet. Some sort of eye protection. Fingerless gloves. Aerodynamic shirt. Bike shorts. And everything is man made and shape hugging. All lycra and polyester, or whatever.

I had no helmet, no eyewear, a pair of board shorts and a ratty old tank top.

And the aforementioned sandals.

Plus, they were all wearing team shirts. Like I said, serious riders.

If I would have geared up and hunkered down, I probably could have kept up with them for … who am I kidding? Not a chance. Not now, and probably not when I was a twenty something guy, either.

And, if you must know, I was pushing hard. For me. I wanted to beat my time from the previous week. MY time.

And so, I just kept on my pace, sat back, and, briefly but thoroughly, enjoyed the view. Nothing wrong with my eyesight, by the way.

Those mythical Jones’s, the ones we used to try to keep up with, are just as messed up as you. And, and this will be a shock to your ego, they could give a fiddler’s fiduciary about you. You are not even on their radar.

That’s right. The people you so want to impress haven’t given you one, single, solitary thought. Don’t get caught up comparing yourself with other people.

The only one you can do anything about is you.

6) Be aware of your surroundings. When you are sharing the road with motorized vehicles, it is a good idea to keep this in mind; in the right or in the wrong, you lose. Every time.

“But I was in the bike lane. He should have stopped for me.” Have your hand on the brake, my friend, and your head on the proverbial swivel.

An old pastor once said to me “You can be right. But you can be dead right.”

It would be great if people obeyed the traffic laws. If people in cars shared the road with bikes. If we treated others the way we would like to be treated.

My experience hasn’t proven those sentiments to be true.

So, you need to be aware of your surroundings. All of them. What’s the road like? Is it wet? Does the driver have a yield sign? If so, will he yield?

There’s not much satisfaction in being in the right, if you are on your way to the emergency room.

In life, people won’t always look out for you, either. Sadly, we are all human. And self-centred. And selfish.

People will happily take advantage of you. They’ll gossip about you and back stab you at work. They’ll figuratively – and literally – try to run you off the road.

Be aware of your surroundings and the people you surround yourself with. Or with whom, if you want to go all 10th Grade English on me.

7) Accept help. OK, this is a continuation of number 2. But hey, it’s important.

The other month, I was on one of the off-road trails by the river. And I forgot rule number 6. A tree had fallen and was laying across the trail at about head height. I ducked to get under it, but I wasn’t watching the trail, which took a steep dip at the same time.

I flew over the handlebars. Fortunately, I kept it together enough to do a Starsky and Hutch roll. My shoulder and arm were scraped up, but I was in one piece.

“Dude! That was awesome! Are you OK?”

Two dudes had witnessed my spill and were speeding over towards me.

“Take it easy, man,” said one.

I’ll check your wheels,” said the other.

“Thanks, but I’m OK,” I groaned.

One dude tried changing the gears on my bike. “They’re messed, man,” he said. Or words to that effect. “I’ll get my tools.” 

He grabbed a small bag from his bike and tinkered. Pretty soon, I was on my way.

“Thanks,” I said. And the idiot in me said “What do I owe you?”

“No worries, man. We riders gotta look out for each other.”

There are people who care about you. They will help you. But we are so damned stubborn sometimes that we won’t accept help. And by we, I mean I am so damned stubborn.

Oh, I’m fine. No, I don’t need help. No, I think my arm – and the corresponding pain in what used to be my collar bone – is just fine. Thank you very much.

Let people help. Good people abound. Find them and trust that they have your best interests at heart. They make life a lot better.

8) Keep enough juice in the tank to get home. I live at one of the highest elevations in the city of Saskatoon. Granted, that’s not saying a lot. Sort of like “Look. Here’s a flat spot. Over here is another flat spot, but it’s a little higher than the other flat spot.”

I live at the flat spot that is slightly higher than the others.

But, when you are as out-of-shape as I am, it makes a difference. So I always have to make sure I don’t go so far that I need to call home to get picked up. Because, after all, I’m a self-made man, and I don’t want the Jones’s to see me hauling my bike out of my car.

It’s easy to get so excited about whatever that we forget we need to have enough energy to get home. Because home is where the important relationships are. And if you are not budgeting your time and energy, your home life – your relationships, family, friends, etc. – is the place that suffers.

Budgeting just enough time and energy is no good, either. What good is it if you are so tired when you get home that you can’t really be with the people who are the most important to you?

This is a pretty important one. Don’t spend all of your energy at work, in the gym, in front of a console, or out doing whatever it is you enjoy. Prioritize the things that are really important.

There is an old saying that goes something like this:

 “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go in a group.”

There are probably other things I’ve learned on the seat of a bike. For example, when you ride, you’ll experience pain in at least two places: your neck, and your butt. Consider those valuable training for life, as you will bump into people who will give you pains in both of those areas.

But that’s probably good for now. Life isn’t easy. Nor was it meant to be. In fact, sometimes it is downright hard. And painful.

Stay the course. Keep going. Don’t let the word “failure” creep into your vocabulary. Use “experiment” or something else instead. Don’t let society set the rules for you.

The only way to learn to ride a bike – or to do anything in life that is worthwhile doing – is to fall down, get up, cry if you need to, dust yourself off, and try again.

Oh yeah. And get out of your parents’ basement. They love you, but they’re tired of seeing you. Plus, you smell.

*By the way, you will notice that I gave you 8 musings instead of 7. Think of this as a bonus. You’re welcome. Plus, as mentioned, math was never my strong suit.