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Look Ma I Can't Ride
August 10, 2012 9:42 AM   Subscribe

The transportation reporter for the New York Times, Scott Flegenheimer, outs himself. “Hey, one boss said to another after my ill-advised confession. Did you know our transportation reporter can’t ride a bike? He knew then, of course, and now you do, too. I cannot ride a bike." He is not alone. Adult bicycling lessons are offered everywhere.
posted by Xurando (42 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
The good thing is that once you learn, you never forget.

It's just like...um...
posted by mule98J at 9:45 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


the very first time i tried riding a bike i smashed my face into a lightpole. i have no idea how i persisted after that, but boy is it cool knowing how to ride a bike.
posted by facetious at 9:50 AM on August 10, 2012


I can ride a bike but it's still pretty intimidating in the city. That was my problem with cycling in NYC; I'd bike for recreation on the dedicated bike paths on the weekend but never commute to work during the week.
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:50 AM on August 10, 2012


The idea that somebody can't ride a bike is very strange to me. Everybody here in the Netherlands knows how to ride a bike. It's part of the culture.
posted by Pendragon at 9:52 AM on August 10, 2012


2bucksplus: Dunno when you left NYC, but you can actually get pretty far these days using very safe/chill facilities like the First & Second Ave protected bike lanes and their southerly connections, the Prospect Park West bike lane, the Kent Ave bike path, the Broadway bike lane, Central/Prospect Parks, the West Side bike path, the Williamsburg Bride path, and so on. There are gaps, but nervous cyclists can dismount & walk.

My girlfriend started biking in January & confidently rides all over the city at this point; the protected bike facilities were a great place for her to get more comfortable with urban riding. We do certainly need a lot more of them, though.
posted by akgerber at 9:59 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not from New York, but I seem to remember reading a lot of folks living in the city don't know how to drive (or at least don't have a license) because they never needed one.

(Or maybe I'm thinking of San Francisco.)

Anyhow, I guess I'm less surprised at this than at, say, someone from the burbs not knowing. Or indeed, The Netherlands. :)
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:59 AM on August 10, 2012


Being an adult that can't ride a bike is as weird as being an adult that can't swim.
posted by Keith Talent at 10:05 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I broke my leg on a bike when I was 11 and gave it up completely. I only really learned to ride about two years ago, because I wanted to cut my car commute out at least a few days per week.

It is terrifying to learn to ride a bike as an adult. Two skinny wheels! The world whizzing by at dizzying speed! When you learn as a kid, you have no idea of your own mortality, but as a 35 year old adult I am constantly aware that I could be killed at any second for reasons beyond my control. (Or just because of my own inexperience and inattention.) I'm not terrified every second anymore, but I still get a thrill or two of fear most days during my 9-mile-commute. I still don't understand how anyone, ever could take even one hand off the handlebars. IMMINENT DEATH.
posted by something something at 10:10 AM on August 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


When I was learning to ride a bike, I hit something and did a header over the bars, and thereafter refused to ride. I tried again briefly when I was 12 and stopped when the neighborhood kids were laughing at me. I finally decided I was going to learn, darnit, when I was 19 and working as a counselor at a summer camp for poor kids in Connecticut.

I got on that bike and started riding, and I'll tell you there's nothing for motivation quite like being 19 and having dozens of 8-12 year olds laughing at you. Over a decade later, I'm a dedicated rider and I've raced on the road and in a velodrome. Thanks, kids.
posted by The Michael The at 10:11 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


A few months ago I rode a bike for the first time in years. (I learned relatively late but not as an adult - I was maybe 10 or 11. I'm 28 now.)

I was delighted to discover that riding a bike is just like riding a bike.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:11 AM on August 10, 2012


I didn't ride a bike for years and years. And I had never ridden anywhere but country roads. But I found myself alone in Finland last year and I ended up borrowing a bike to get around. I looked like a damn fool at first, but it came back pretty naturally, and pretty soon I was tooling around Oulu like I had been doing it my whole life. I'm still scared to ride in American cities; they just aren't built for bike riders.
posted by peacrow at 10:13 AM on August 10, 2012


I would say there's riding a bike, and then there's riding a bike in urban traffic in a city like NYC or Chicago. it's driving a Corolla through the suburbs vs driving midpack at 195mph in a NASCAR race.
posted by ninjew at 10:15 AM on August 10, 2012


ninjew: "it's driving a Corolla through the suburbs vs driving midpack at 195mph in a NASCAR race."

Maybe more like driving midpack in a NASCAR race but on a motorcycle instead of in a stock car.
posted by radcopter at 10:18 AM on August 10, 2012


We recently had a company picnic. There was a woman there with her children. She wouldn't let them anywhere near the water because she didn't know how to swim. I can't imagine anything more terrifying than the idea of one of your children in distress and you'd have to rely on the kindness of strangers or watch them drown.

I also have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of not being able to swim. My father can't so I know some people can't get it (he's tried to learn many times), but I was born a fish.

I wonder how many other common tasks there are where a goodly portion of the populace knows how to do it, but some people just have never learned.

I grew up in an era of no bike helmets and used bicycles that would never pass safety requirements. Crashing was expected. We rode over makeshift ramps and convinced our fellow kids to lay on the over side so we could "jump them." On at least one occasion I crashed hard enough to black out and came to walking.

I still question how I survived childhood. I swam a flooded culvert with little clearance on either side. If it had been blocked at all I would have died, and the current was too fast to back out once you decided to go. I once decided to float down the Mississippi on an ice flow. When it got about 10 feet from shore I decided I'd made a bad choice and decided I needed to be back on land. Yeah, that was cold. I jumped a train that had stopped in the country and was amazed they can get going that fast that quick and had to jump back off going a decent clip. My landing wasn't like anything in the movies. I skateboarded down hills other kids wouldn't take their bikes down (I didn't do this successfully mind you). I've failed at free form climbing of cliffs (thankfully early enough). I've been in car crashes where the car rolled in the days when no one wore seat belts, fired off fireworks in my hands (who needs a bottle for that bottle rocket and what good is a roman candle if you can't aim that thing?), fallen out of trees, rappelled down walls, been kicked by cows, knocked down by a bull, and fallen off galloping horses, and done things with gunpowder and gasoline that would for sure be illegal these days. Much of the above was due to a penchant for alcohol. Oh, the fond memories of childhood. Often there was the loss of hair or broken bones or the losing of consciousness and scabs the size of an open hand, but I survived, I lived, dare I say I thrived?

In short, good on you, Mr. Flegenheimer, for learning to ride a bike. If you've never jumped out of an airplane, or been involved in the piloting of a glider, or used scuba gear, well, I haven't either. I would love to add to the above list. Get in touch. Get in touch. We'll do something stupid together.

Christopher
posted by cjorgensen at 10:42 AM on August 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


potential bike riders: You will fall off. You will fall down. It's the law.
posted by mule98J at 10:43 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not from New York, but I seem to remember reading a lot of folks living in the city don't know how to drive (or at least don't have a license) because they never needed one.


Yeah, that's about right. I grew up in NY. I didn't get my license until shortly before my 21st birthday, and only then because I knew there was a pretty high likelihood that I would be moving away in the next couple of years. My mother didn't learn until she was in her 40s.
posted by deadmessenger at 10:44 AM on August 10, 2012


Oddly, today's LATimes has a story by an adult learning to swim for the first time. Is today "mastering modes of transportation I should have mastered in childhood day" or something?
posted by yoink at 10:44 AM on August 10, 2012


My father grew up in NYC and learned to drive when he was 35. He's still terrible at it. Neither of his parents ever drove even once.
posted by nevercalm at 10:53 AM on August 10, 2012


Keith Talent:
Being an adult that can't ride a bike is as weird as being an adult that can't swim.
Fo sho. Also, what is it with the Irish and not being able to swim? And is that thing about Arran jumpers true?

P.S. All right Keith - you seen Trish recently?
posted by ZipRibbons at 10:58 AM on August 10, 2012


I can't ride a bike. We were really poor when I was the age most kids get bikes, and by the time I was grown I was just too embarrassed to admit it. It's something I've always wanted to do, but at 46, it seems kind of late now.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 11:11 AM on August 10, 2012


I guess this is a good time to try rewriting my begin to cycle instructions..

Stand beside the bike, hands on handlebar grips. Put the far leg on its correct peddle (you are on the left, then left leg on left peddle, you are on the right then right leg on right peddle). Your legs will now be crossed. Put most of your weight on the peddle, and begin to push/kick with the free foot. Gently at first, and then building up to go as fast as you can for several laps of a running track or parking lot.

This teaches the basics of steering for balance very effectively. Straddling the bike is either way too easy (if the seat is too low), or quite hard (if the seat is at the correct height for real cycling).

That's just the steering for balance part though. Actually cycling effectively/safely is a much bigger topic.


mule98J: potential bike riders: You will fall off. You will fall down. It's the law.

Absolutely! You will fall a several times in your first year, and once or twice in your second year. If you aren't pushing yourself (training hard, winter riding, whatever else), you probably won't ever fall again. Falls are mostly harmless though. Hit a curb cut at the wrong angle, bike doesn't come with you, you fall. Minor scrapes and bruises, no big deal.
posted by Chuckles at 11:24 AM on August 10, 2012


I "helped" my son learn to ride a bike by bending the training wheels so he'd be tilted at a ridiculous angle when he rode. He got annoyed by it, so learned to balance instead. Mission accomplished.

I "helped" my daughter learn to ride a bike the same way, but she just happily rolled along, leaning sideways at a 40-degree angle, smiling the whole way. I gave up.
posted by davejay at 11:24 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Being an adult that can't ride a bike is as weird as being an adult that can't swim.

Hi, non-biking adult here. I really wish I could ride a bike, but here's why it never happened: timid clumsy kid + nervous parents who can't ride bikes themselves = me. (Although they insisted I learn to swim well enough to not drown.)

My parents grew up in NYC in the days when a bike was sort of useless - the subway can get you anywhere, and there were no bike lanes. In fact, bikes were only for rich kids; lower-class kids tore around the neighborhood on roller skates, according to Mom.

I was a clumsy kid with no sense of balance and a tendency to fall down in ways guaranteed to produce blood and wails, and I was clearly a disaster waiting to happen on two wheels. I can see why my parents didn't bother getting me a kiddie bike, but not being able to ride is one of my biggest regrets. I'm still a total klutz, timid, and fall badly so I'm afraid to learn, but I make do with a trike. It's better than nothing but trikes are bulky and the infrastructure just isn't set up for them (can't bring 'em on trains or buses, they don't fit well in bike racks, etc). I wish I could get a normal sense of balance surgically implanted, but until then it's 3 wheels for me. Sigh.
posted by Quietgal at 11:31 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Never learned to ride a bike. I only regretted it once, when it got me not-laid.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:48 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Quietgal, I'm not convinced sense of balance has much of anything to do with riding a bike. And this is coming from someone who has terrible balance, learned to ride at age 33, and is extremely risk-averse in general (example: I will never ski). When I was first learning to ride (on my neighborhood's tennis courts! flat and safe!) my husband kept repeating over and over and over that simple physics meant that, as long as I kept pedaling, it was virtually impossible for me to tip over. I did not believe him. I made him put the seat down as low as possible so I could touch the ground with both feet at the same time. I felt as if I was going to crash into things and skid along the ground and have horrific injuries. But it never happened. It has been a miracle to me that it's actually true - if I pedal at a consistent rate, I actually feel safer the faster I go. As long as nothing jumps out in front of me. Which I am sort of still scared will happen.

but the point is: you're capable of riding a bike, just by nature of the laws of physics. If I am, you are! I know this is all probably hilarious to the 97% of you who have ridden since you were little kids, but admit it: It's kind of scary when you think about it. 20 mph and nothing between your knees and pavement but air?
posted by something something at 11:51 AM on August 10, 2012


Yikes, those trikes are more expensive than bikes.
posted by Xurando at 11:53 AM on August 10, 2012


I have no athletic ability whatsoever and was always a bit of a scardey-cat when it comes to physically dangerous situations, and yet I learned to ride a bike and swim without much trouble. I fell down a few times, no big deal. I've always been confused by people who can't do these things.

I am also a very confident driver, map-reader, and public-transport-rider, so if you need any help getting around, I'm your man. I have no intention of ever going scuba diving or hang-gliding, though, and skiing terrifies me.
posted by breakin' the law at 11:54 AM on August 10, 2012


I quit riding when I was about 17, and then took it up again when I was 33. It totally comes back. I now play "keirin" with traffic.

Interestingly, my father never learned to drive, or ride a bike, and he swims abysmally.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:57 AM on August 10, 2012


Also, what is it with the Irish and not being able to swim? And is that thing about Arran jumpers true?

What? I think you're thinking of some anecdote about fishermen on islands off the west coast a hundred years ago, who said that there was no point learning as a) it was a bit cold to swim recreationally b) if their boat was torn apart when they were at sea, they were a goner either way.

I'm from a seaside town, so we spent every day during the summer swimming, learned about rip tides in school aged 6 etc., but I'm pretty sure swimming lessons were a standard part of the curriculum for inlanders too.
posted by kersplunk at 12:08 PM on August 10, 2012


I would say there's riding a bike, and then there's riding a bike in urban traffic in a city like NYC or Chicago.

Oh yes. I used to happily bike all over Seattle when I lived there. And I do bike in NYC, but it's in the west side bike path or other safe areas. NYC drivers freak me out. I've been meaning to sign up for one of Bike NYC's city riding skills classes, but it seems that there are no more scheduled until next summer.
posted by lyra4 at 12:11 PM on August 10, 2012


The good thing is that once you learn, you never forget.

It's just like...um...


...an elephant?
posted by beau jackson at 12:17 PM on August 10, 2012


> you're capable of riding a bike

Thanks for the kind words of encouragement, something something. In the back of my mind I keep thinking I ought to give it a try but stuff always comes up that enables me to chicken out. Plus I bought one of those über-expensive trikes so I should use it, right?

I commuted on it for a while and a co-worker was intrigued by it; when I finally confessed that I can't ride a regular bike he exclaimed "Oh! I thought you were an elitist!" So that's my new story: I'm not lame, I'm elitist.
posted by Quietgal at 1:09 PM on August 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


When you learn as a kid, you have no idea of your own mortality, but as a 35 year old adult I am constantly aware that I could be killed at any second for reasons beyond my control.

I was a highly wimpy non-daredevil kid, and even my mild-mannered childhood biking behaviors make me blanch in retrospect. Can't count the times I: got rides on people's handlebars (well into my teens), was one of three or four kids piled onto a single banana seat, rode standing on the rear wheel axle behind the biker, did a flying sidesaddle dismount, rode through the whole neighborhood no-handed including around corners, oh and our big, big favorite -- gang of kids riding in the dark in the thick cloud of ungodly toxic fog right behind the municipal mosquito-spraying truck.

Whereas now when I ride the Swan Swan Hummingbird sedately a few miles down the bike trail, I'm like, Helmet? Check. Emergency burner phone? Check. Flare gun in case I fall over, break my femur, can't reach the phone, and can't drag myself far enough to be in earshot of a human . . . . . .
posted by FelliniBlank at 2:43 PM on August 10, 2012



We recently had a company picnic. There was a woman there with her children. She wouldn't let them anywhere near the water because she didn't know how to swim. I can't imagine anything more terrifying than the idea of one of your children in distress and you'd have to rely on the kindness of strangers or watch them drown.


And parents who can't swim generally raise kids who can't swim. It's a big problem with African American children. Their grandparents were kept out of the pools and beaches, and now too many of the grandkids can't swim either.
posted by ocschwar at 2:58 PM on August 10, 2012


Nobody in my central London-based family can ride. When I was in my 30's I bought a bike and kind-of learned to ride, but soon realized that it's insanely dangerous for an adult to ride a bike badly in a dense urban area. Drivers assume that adults can ride well and give them inches of margin, pedestrians get grumpy at adults on the pavement, etc. I calculated that the odds of me getting flattened by a bus before getting good at riding were much too high for this to be worth sticking with.
posted by w0mbat at 4:29 PM on August 10, 2012


I can't ride a bike (and if I can swim is questionable at best), and why would I want to learn how to ride a bike at my age?
Have you looked in any cycling posts here? It's deadly on the roads.
posted by Mezentian at 4:39 PM on August 10, 2012


Yeah, all those cops clotheslining people riding by and whatnot....
posted by kaibutsu at 4:53 PM on August 10, 2012


Probably half of the people I know never go near a body of water (and this in a state where you're never more that a few miles from one). There's no reason why they would need to know how to swim as some fundamental life skill.

What's weird is that our local community pool, where I swim laps when my univ. pool is closed, is half-empty much of the time and almost a ghost town on weekends. Jesus, when I was a kid, you had to drag me bodily out of the park district pool. Most kids spent as much time there in the summer as they could manage, whether or not they could swim.

I guess more people have their own pools, or central air, or inertia or something now. I do see kids going there for lessons in the mornings sometimes, though.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:59 PM on August 10, 2012


I have to say I'm not really surprised that the NYC's transportation reporter can't ride a bike, given their coverage of cycling issues, but maybe that's just because I read StreetsBlog too much. The guy won me over by describing how he bailed off a bike in front of transportation commissioner Jeanette Sadik-Khan (previously), though, and I really enjoyed this bit of reportage:

"You know I love you and think you’re great," my mother said in a recent interview. "You never really did well with the turning."
posted by whir at 6:25 PM on August 10, 2012


> And parents who can't swim generally raise kids who can't swim.

Or do the opposite and make damn sure their kids are at the Y as soon as it's permitted.
posted by desuetude at 11:25 PM on August 10, 2012




> And parents who can't swim generally raise kids who can't swim.

Or do the opposite and make damn sure their kids are at the Y as soon as it's permitted.


Not enough, though. It is hard to take this step when you know that's the day your kid discovers that you're fallible.

Hence this move by the Boys and Girls Club of Boston. New members are required to take a swim class or pass a swim test.
posted by ocschwar at 7:43 AM on August 11, 2012


I often have fun with the horrified looks I get when I explain to people that I failed my cycling proficiency test in school. For those of you outside the UK, this is something you take in primary school after a week cycling around the playground. Nobody fails. Except me. We were told it was 'the first step on a path that will end with you learning to drive', and I took this to heart and never learned to drive.

After I failed my dad decided to teach me how to cycle around corners. I had, I guess, 'known' how to cycle for years, in the sense that I could and can make a bicycle move in one direction by pedaling it. However, I think my parents assumed that if they took me to enough parks and gave me enough time, I would eventually learn to control the thing. Well, that failed to happen. After I failed the test, according to my parents, the teachers told them that if the cardboard boxes they used had been real objects, I would have cycled into the paths of a lorry, two cars and a woman with a pushchair. So my dad spent all the weekends of one summer taking me out on the pavement and teaching me how you steer a bike. When he describes that time now, there's a sort of pain in his eyes; he says there was one corner, flanked by hedges, where he just watched me cycle straight into the hedge over and over and over.

I still can't ride the damned things.
posted by Acheman at 1:11 PM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


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