Conjurer of Possibility
“Beyond simply being a quintessential part of childhood, the bicycle is an enduring conjurer of possibility.”
I’m dismounting at the base of a huge dune, trying to ignore the wobbly feeling in my legs when my husband slips me a furtive wink.
“You did it.” He’s referring to the bike ride we’ve just completed. I shrug, striving for cool nonchalance. Truthfully, though, I feel like doing a happy dance.
Friends are already tugging a bright blanket from one of the knapsacks. Contents in the other sacks will provide all that’s necessary for a beachside picnic.
Two years of being imperviously bolted to the floor on a spin bike at our local YMCA hadn’t prepared me for the rigors of an actual ride. The tranquil personas of countless riders I’d watched for weeks were, now, neither.
With a sigh of relief and frisson of amazement, I survey the new panorama of sea and sky before us. The pier, previously a distant apparition only visible on the clearest of days, is right in front of me. It confirms my conviction that beyond simply being a quintessential part of childhood, the bicycle is an enduring conjurer of possibility.
Sea birds skitter at the tide mark as my thoughts drift back to an earlier time, watching the older kids whiz and glide down our neighborhood hill, feeling an all-consuming desire to ride a bike of my own. Alas, I learned the hard way that for some of us, the wait can be lengthy.
I received my first bike the year I turned nine; it was a Super Cycle Mustang with a metallic, kelly-green paint job. It had a banana seat jazzed up with butterflies and flower-power daisies. Iridescent streamers dangled from the high-rise handlebars. I loved it with my whole heart. Unfortunately, it was easier to do this from afar, because learning to ride it was a whole different story.
I was too embarrassed to ask my mom for help (who did that?), but my friends were becoming impatient with me. Their refrain of, “Come on, it’s easy!” echoed in the cool spring air. I felt much as I did in math class when everybody got the answer right except me, and I was left wondering how the heck they’d done it. It wasn’t great, but even that humiliation couldn’t take the shine off my beloved bicycle.
My friends sailed regally, and sometimes without hands, no less, around the block, as I valiantly tried to remain upright on Patti Mooney’s driveway, the only paved one on our street.
Many scabs later, I still failed to launch, quite spectacularly, when her older sister came to the rescue, or at least, she attempted to. Probably sick of watching me wipe out through the window, she held on and guided with saintly patience until I got going. I lost count of the times my face was planted in her mom’s holly bush the minute she’d let go. Neither my precious bike nor that prized shrub ever looked the same afterward — and I still couldn’t ride.
Once she sported scuffs and scrapes to match my own, my proud steed was no longer flamingly gallant. That bike had the constitution of a mechanical bull and went through untold horrors with me as her inept and delusional owner. Put simply, and to quote a favorite book, “It was the best of times, and the worst of times.”
My frustration knew no bounds, and my confidence surely took a kicking. It seemed, the harder I tried to ride my bike, the more the skill eluded me. When my much younger brother hopped on and gleefully pedaled circles around me, it was the ultimate insult. Soon, he was racing my friends around the block with our trusty mutt, Dusty, running joyfully alongside him.
I wish I could say there were no tears; that would be a bald-faced lie. I was miserable but refused to raise my tattered white flag in surrender.
One day in early June (I still remember), a girlfriend informed me everyone would ride to her camp on a lake the following weekend and didn’t I want to go? I couldn’t begin to imagine such freedom or such bliss. Our own cycling road trip all that way? Really? It was a powerful incentive.
I don’t know how or why, but I sat on the blasted thing, pushed off as I’d tried to do a million times before, and miraculously stayed upright. The euphoria was immediate and all-consuming. I did my fair share of delighted whooping, but no more than the loyal pals who’d waited, too, for this momentous day to finally arrive.
That trip was the first of many leisurely excursions, and it was, indeed, every bit as wonderful as I’d always dreamed it would be.
Inevitably, four-wheeled vehicles replaced two as symbols of freedom and independence in our lives. Years later, I watched my children discover the joys of cycling, thankfully much earlier and with far less angst than I did. Our experiences always involved them riding ahead and circling back to check in as their dad, and I walked sedately behind. Strangely, it never occurred to me to start up again.
After retirement, winter sojourns in Florida provided the impetus that inspired me. Wistfully watching hordes of seniors on two wheels filled me with envy and longing reminiscent of my childhood. But it had been decades since I’d last graced a bicycle seat, banana, or otherwise.
The desire nudged when I’d take my first walk of the day; the sun had barely risen, and meet people sailing along in peaceful contentment, leaving tire tracks alongside my footprints in the sand. Those sturdy, pastel bicycles created a serene picture as riders navigated the level shore along the water’s edge in the early morning light.
Though I’d heard the ability to ride is never forgotten, I wondered if it was true. I was filled with trepidation and a familiar sense of yearning.
When we took visitors to the beach during our second season in Florida, they, too, were captivated by the sight of people pedaling along. I’m not sure exactly who said, “We’ll have to rent bikes!” but the collective response was so enthusiastic I knew my days of hedging were over.
The next morning, I tried to act blasé, but it was with an unsettling sense of deja vu that I watched them slip onto padded seats and start with no visible effort or hesitation. Well acquainted with my timidity, my husband looked askance at me before giving an encouraging nod.
I was nervous and off-balance, aware of a sickening lurch in my stomach when it was time to launch. Could I make an excuse of some kind? Watching the four bodies ahead convinced me I didn’t want to be that kid on the sidelines again. After some stern self-talk and initial shaky strokes, I felt the smooth motion of the wheels kick in beneath me and the warm wind on my face. Soon, my husband was alongside, giving me a thumbs-up as we followed the others to our picnic site at the pier.
When the reds and yellows of the beach rug flash against the sky, I’m euphoric in a very specific way for the second time in my life. Maybe, it will be possible to experience the pleasure of two-wheeled transit again. The sense of accomplishment is immediate and complete; it fills me with new optimism and anticipation.
I must confess, though, it’s reassuring to know I’m venturing out in a zone free of Mrs. Mooney’s prized holly bushes!