Growing up, my sister was always two steps ahead of me. She went to school before me, started wearing makeup before me, went on her first date before me, and always, always graduated to a new bike before me.
When I was learning to walk, Kathy, 21 months my senior, was riding a bright red tricycle. It had two small wheels on the back and one big wheel in front with a mud flap fender. The handles were red with long red and white tassels hanging down.
I wobbled and strutted like a newborn colt around the driveway with my saggy diaper, while she traveled up and down, exploring the exciting world farther outside our back door. I had recently discovered my two feet and was too preoccupied picking up stones my mother told me not to touch, anyway. I was completely present and focused on seeing their colors, feeling their shapes and jagged edges with my chubby fingers. I had little concern for anyone else, and it would be months before I discovered the power of wheels.
My introduction to cycling came on my first birthday in the form of a toddler’s scooter. It had four wheels, high handlebars, and no pedals. With my feet on the ground, I pushed myself around the living room, fascinated with my newfound mobility, and bumping into furniture everywhere I went.
When I was four, my sister got her first banana seat bike, and I received her hand-me-down tricycle. I went from four wheels to three, sat higher off the ground, and could go faster now that my feet were on pedals instead of the ground.
I was the typical little sister, always wanting to tag along and do everything with my older sister. I also wanted her bike. Or, at least, one that was the same size.
My sister was my first friend and playmate. I didn’t see us as different. In my mind, we were equal. If she got a new, bigger bike, I thought I should get one too. Often, I had to wait till I was older, or taller, or better skilled. That made me envious.
There were times when I caught up, and it seemed like we were on the same level or ability. When I graduated to a new set of wheels, our bikes would be the same size for a short time, and if I pedaled fast enough, I could keep up. Then, there were the times when she graduated to the next bike ahead of me. We had tricycles together, and then she got the banana seat bike. A year later, I got the banana seat bike, and we were equal again. Then, one day, she had a ten-speed bicycle.
And I was racing to catch up again.
I wasn’t just the little sister in our household. I was also the youngest and smallest in my neighborhood. In the evening after supper, many of the kids would be outside, riding their bicycles up and down the street. They all had ten speeds. I still had my little kid bike, the one with the banana seat. I longed to be part of the gang, to be accepted. As my sister rushed out the door to join the other kids, I was right on her heels. I tried so hard, but my little legs and my bike with one gear could not keep up with my sister, or our neighborhood friends, all of whom had longer legs and more gears.
I was eleven when I got my first ten-speed. That was the bike that would make my sister and I equal for our pre-teen and teenage years. With my new “big-kid” bike, I was no longer trying to catch up. I could keep up. I didn’t have to wish to be bigger, stronger, faster. I was bigger, stronger, faster. I was no longer the little sister. I was just “sister.”
I loved exactly where I was in life, and the bike I was riding. My sister and I laughed and raced and talked about boys while cycling countless miles. Those summer rides bound us together as we embraced the independence our bicycles provided.
Looking back, it was never a competition between sisters. It was never a race. She had been alive for 21 months longer than me. She had more experience and knowledge. Her legs were longer and faster. Her brain was more developed. She earned every new level she achieved before me.
So did I. I caught up when it was time, and when I was ready. After all, I had a great example to follow.
Now, in my forties, I still love riding my bike. I’ve owned several since that first red and white ten-speed, including a mountain bike, a hybrid bicycle, three eleven-speeds, and the latest: a fat-tire bike.
I’ve ridden with people who had varying abilities and owned bikes of all sizes and price ranges. Sometimes, I’m in the lead, charging up a hill, while others are trying to catch me. Other times, I’m following riders who are faster, stronger, better skilled, or more willing to take bigger risks.
Whenever I find myself trying to catch up, I think of my role as a little sister, and I remember the best parts of riding a bike: being present and carefree, enjoying the outdoors, exploring new places, feeling the wind in my hair, and appreciating the company of friends. It’s in these moments that I realize I no longer need to keep up. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.