Learning to ride a bike is one of my earliest – and sweetest – memories. I can recall pedalling like mad up Fernwood Crescent, my dad running behind me; and I’ll never forget that moment when he let go of my little green bike and I realized that I was sailing solo.
To me, there was nothing better than being on my bike. I loved pedalling as hard as I could – till I was absolutely breathless – then coasting effortlessly and feeling the wind in my hair (this was long before the cultural obsession with bike helmets). When I fell – which I inevitably did – I got back on my bike, wearing the scrapes on my knees and elbows like trophies.
As a small child, my best friends were the two twin boys who lived two doors down (Robbie and Davey! I wonder where they are now?), and the three of us practically lived outside on our bikes. Once I was in grade school, I would bike the mile or so there and back, to the neighbourhood ‘Mac’s’ for candy and to swimming lessons at the local pool. My best friend Kellie “doubled” me on her handlebars, till we giggled too much and crashed on the pavement.
As I grew, there was always a bike my size crammed into our backyard shed (the advantage of being the youngest of four kids). But as I grew older, I became a bit more selective about my ride. In junior high, I diligently saved my meagre earnings from babysitting and delivering flyers until I had all $450 to buy myself a ‘Norco Bigfoot’ mountain bike. I trained hard for distances and hills, then spent two consecutive summers biking from Jasper to Banff with a camp group (my sporty uncle Menno at the helm). By then, I’d also saved for a cyclometer to track speed and distance, and I would carefully start to brake when I hit about 70 km/h on the mountain descents (the boys were always braver and would max out closer to 90 km/h).
Of course, the ascents were a lot slower, especially in the Rockies. It was important to start off in low gear and gradually switch gears when you had built up enough momentum; changing gears too abruptly could cause the chain to jam up or fall off the chain ring. That meant a full stop and a pause to put the chain back on the sprocket before continuing to ride; not a big deal, but a real break in momentum.
With the arrival of fall this year I find myself, unexpectedly, at the bottom of a metaphoric hill. Summer was an incredible rush; there was no pedalling, only coasting down that mountainside. But I’ve whipped past the holidays now…past the much-anticipated, action-packed family trips, the lazy days at the beach and the countless ice-cream cones. It was wonderful, but at the end of it I was excited to get home and gear up for the new school year.
But the day my two girls headed back to school – my youngest daughter off to full days in Grade 1 – something changed. Here was my moment; finally the time had arrived for me to take my writing and my own goals to the next level and yet I suddenly felt stuck.
That day, the chain fell off my gearshift. I came home after dropping off the kids to an empty house, trying to ignore the deafening silence. My five-year-old shadow didn’t need me right now; she wasn’t there to help make chocolate-chip cookies or work on a craft. She was growing up and moving on. I felt aimless and lost; I washed a dish. I ironed a shirt. Now what? I made a cup of coffee and snuggled with the cat, who promptly started biting me. Hard. I yelled at him, took my coffee into bed and cried.
I held that bike chain in my hand for a couple of days, suddenly drowning in the doubt that I could put it back on the gear shift, let alone start pedalling again. What if I blew out a tire or wiped out? Was I even on the right path? Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a cyclist after all; perhaps I should just lay the bike down and walk down a different road.
I’m not second guessing any more, thanks to girlfriends, to a sister who spent her entire lunch hour offering long-distance advice, and to a husband who understands me, possibly better than I understand myself (I should give some credit to wine and shawarma sandwiches, too).
The ride may seem like a solitary path at times, but I know that if I call out there are always other cyclists along the path to help. And during those moments when the chain falls off – at the very bottom of a hill – I just need to pause, take a deep breath and put it back on.
If I’m quiet enough, I can even hear that avid little cyclist – with her fly-away, white-blonde hair and eyes sparkling with adventure – whispering in my ear, “Just start out in low gear and work your way up. You know how to do it; you always have.”