Just Like Riding a Bike

The old expression, “Just like Riding a Bike,” is often used to describe something that comes second nature and should be easy to do. It implies that we know everything about an activity and can take off where we left off. That couldn’t be farther from the truth when it actually comes to “driving” a bike — we can always learn more and continuously improve our skills.

As a kid I loved zipping around on my bike and was very proud when I saved up enough money to buy twin newspaper baskets, which made me an entrepreneur.  In college I was fearless, easily navigating 4” bike trails through the woods from the dorm to class.  For a long time after that, I put didn’t spend any time on a bike.  A couple of years ago I purchased an Electra Townie bicycle to renew my bike riding habit and improve my fitness.  For the most part, the bike sat comfortably parked in the garage.  At the beginning of this year I finally followed through and dropped 30 pounds by using a treadmill, which also prompted me to dust off the bike and begin riding.  Portions of the Cross Seminole Trail run near my house and I began to take advantage of the fun of short rides.

All went well until I ventured off to another part of the “trail” — really a sidewalk— and experienced my first crash.  An approach to a narrow bridge over a creek consisted of a 90 degree left turn, immediately followed by a 90 degree right turn — after a downhill approach.  I was going too fast and smacked into the sturdy guardrail, reinjuring a shoulder that I had just rehabbed from a torn rotator cuff.  My garage door opener flew out of my basket and into the creek, but I stayed upright, though frustrated and discouraged.  An acquaintance put me in touch with Mighk Wilson as a result of that incident and I began to follow the work that he was doing to improve bike safety.

After reviewing the information on the Cycling Savvy Course, I decided to invest some time and energy into the program to improve my skills and give myself more confidence.  Friday evening was the classroom session.  Even though I am 59 years old, I was nervous as I entered the room and wondered if I was “out of my league.”  Everyone made me feel welcome and included — from the instructors to my fellow classmates.  I quickly learned that the group consisted of a variety of ages and skill levels and immediately began to relax.

Right out of the gate, Mighk and Keri opened our eyes to several myths about bike riding and the new vision for safe and effective two wheeled transportation, which applies equally well to both the novice and the daily urban bike commuter.  They supported their case with extremely well prepared videos and animations to demonstrate each aspect of this “technical” portion of the program.  As a trainer myself, I could clearly see that they had found a way to break through to the adult learner.  My classmates and I were not only being informed, but were being challenged to rethink what we knew about cycling.  It was exhilarating to realize that we were being empowered to “lead the dance” out on the road.

I arrived a few minutes before the designated start time on the Saturday morning.  I had checked my tire pressure the night before, so I was very surprised to discover that I have a flat tire when I removed my bike from the car rack.  One of my classmates, Randy — a UCF professor — immediately sprang into action and patched the flat but it didn’t hold.  Mighk kindly loaned me a tube to use and informed me that the inner band on the wheel had deteriorated and was allowing the end of one of the spokes to pierce the tube.  I followed his advice and promptly folded up a dollar bill to cover the errant piece of metal.  Although slightly embarrassed that I’d held up the group for a few minutes, I felt a sense of camaraderie with both my trainers and classmates.  They weren’t going to leave anyone behind.  This was going to be fun.

And fun it was!  Though not always easy.  The three hour bike handling skills took place in a large open parking lot.  Each drill was carefully designed to improve our comfort, confidence, and command over our “vehicle” — our bikes.  Snail races, using gears for quick acceleration, super slow  tight turns, balancing after stopping, shoulder checks, and evasive snap drills led to high speed turns and emergency stops.  The “building blocks” all came together by the end of the morning, with each of us now possessing a “tool bag” of essential bike-handling skills.

We had ridden several miles criss-crossing that parking lot and next on the agenda was lunch.  Only one thing was standing between us and a tasty burrito — navigating down Maguire and turning right onto Colonial Drive, crossing three lanes of traffic and executing a left-hand turn onto Primrose Ave.  ARE YOU CRAZY ?????   Between the faith that we’d placed in our instructors and the new found confidence that we had in our individual ability, the class ventured out and successfully and flawlessly completed that first “feature” as a group.  Collectively, we realized, “We can do this!”  As with many of the other specific tasks that we would face throughout the afternoon, our trainers mapped out the plan with colorful chalk on the pavement, explained both the hazards and the best approach that would ensure ease and safety.  Getting the first exercise under our belt, followed by a collective “high five” was a glorious moment.

The afternoon was spent analyzing and facing down several other features.  This experiential form of training was perfect for adult learners.  We weren’t being lectured to.  We weren’t being given some meaningless test.  We were part of the learning process and the success of each individual in the class was just as important to us as our own small victories.  We rode together between exercises, but were given the opportunity to personally experience each feature on our own.  From riding through a round-a-bout to learning the proper way to cross diagonal railroad tracks, to seamlessly controlling the center lane on Princeton to avoid the I-4 on-ramp, to navigating the fearsome Ivanhoe Interchange (not once, not twice, but three times), each exercise brought us a new level of confidence.

After making our way through the construction near the new Arena, we had to cross the bridge over I-4 on Anderson.  That climb was a challenge, I downshifted so far that there was only one gear left — my internal “Little Engine That Could” — but I made it to the top and was rewarded with a swift ride down the other side.  I learned a lot about my bike that day too — after cresting that hill, Keri rode up next to me and said, “Yeah, your Townie is great for stopping, no so much for climbing” and then told me she was proud of me for toughing out that hill.  At that point of the day, my competence and confidence were soaring — I wasn’t going to fall behind my classmates in any way.

It dawned on me that I was riding side by side with him just a shoulder width apart and tracking exactly one wheel length behind the rider in front of me — and I was perfectly relaxed, comfortable and having a blast.

One of the reasons I took the Cycling Savvy Course was that I had begun to feel uncomfortable riding on sidewalks to get to the trail in my area.  I learned that there were plenty of good reasons to feel that way — uneven and broken sections of sidewalk, the need to steer around pedestrians and other bikes, the possibility of a wheel getting caught between the sidewalk and deeply edged grass which could lead to a fall and the higher risk of being hit by a car.  I had feared that my balance was an issue.  By going through the course, I had plenty of opportunities to disprove that assumption and build my skills.  As we were riding in a group at the end of the day, I was carrying on a great conversation with one of my classmates, Harry, about cruises that we had taken.  It dawned on me that I was riding side by side with him just a shoulder width apart and tracking exactly one wheel length behind the rider in front of me — and I was perfectly relaxed, comfortable and having a blast.  This program helped me to realize the freedom and fun that comes with being in command of your own bike.  I was a kid again!

Since the class, I have ventured out to the trail several times — now comfortably doing 10 mile routes without breaking a sweat.  I participated in my 1st “First Friday” night ride with several of the Commute Orlando and Cycling Savvy group — a fun, social way to spend an hour or so, and a way to share the message that bikes can co-exist with cars on the road.  This weekend I will be headed out for a Holiday Light ride — what better way to see the decorations?  I’ve begun to set new goals as well.  After hearing about people taking 500 mile bike trips, I’ve begun logging my miles with “500” as my first target.  I might reach it by only pedaling 10 miles at a time, but I’ll get there — with a smile on my face.

The support and inspiration that Mighk and Keri have provided has been tremendous.  She definitely “had my back” while we were riding the final leg back to the parking lot during the class.  While riding along, I felt my wedding ring slip off my finger.  Using a skill that I had learned that morning, I turned around in the saddle and told her that my ring had fallen off.  She said, “I know, I just rode over it.”  She promptly went back and retrieved the now “flattened” ring.  If she hadn’t trapped it under her wheel, it might have rolled off into a gutter.  Nice save!  More significantly, I mentioned to Keri that I was looking for a better way to get to a portion of the trail in my area.  She came up to Lake Mary and helped me evaluate several options and then rode the route with me — capturing it all on a video.  She wrote a fantastic article about that experience, which can be viewed here.

I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the beginning of 2010. I have learned that active bicycling has been proven to reduce some symptoms.

One last little detail that I would like to share is the fact that I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the beginning of 2010.  At this point, my primary symptoms are a “resting tremor” in my left hand and leg which is being effectively managed with a low dose of medication.  I am very much aware of changes to my system and how they may affect my ability to live my life.  I have learned that active bicycling has been proven to reduce some symptoms.  I love my bike.  I love the freedom that I feel when I am riding it.  One of my strengths, according to a survey that I recently took, is “Positivity.”  I am confident that I can take on this “unknown challenge.”  To me, it’s just another “feature” to be mapped out and “ridden” through.  With the new skills that I’ve learned through the Cycling Savvy experience, I will be a safe rider for a very long time.  Michael J. Fox, as a spokesperson for PD, naturally is one of my heroes these days.  While traveling through the Atlanta airport recently I saw a billboard with his photo and the message “Out Fox Parkinson’s.”  That’s my plan too.  I close this post with a link a video he produced — “What is Optimism?”

Also published on CyclingSavvy.org

22 replies
  1. Tom Armstrong
    Tom Armstrong says:

    Man, what a GREAT essay! Thanks tons for writing it! Thanks to the Commute Orlando folks for putting it out here!

    One of the things I really enjoy about working with folks returning to cycling is the enthusiasm they show–much like yours!

    I’m fond of telling folks that bicycling is a bit like that old Bob Seger song, “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.” “You can come back, baby, ’cause CYCLING never forgets!”

    I’m always quick to point out, though, that as you discovered, there is far more to cycling than simply balancing the bike for a trip around the block. It’s worth learning, for the reasons you have discovered and mentioned in your essay.

    • John Alexander
      John Alexander says:

      Hi Tom, Thanks for your kind note. The program provided a terrific foundation. I know that I will need to practice the skills on a regular basis in order to become really comfortable. Group rides are a great way to do just that. It was good to learn that there are always options – whether it be the route that one chooses, or simply pulling over to avoid an unsafe situation. There are still a lot of crazy drivers out there, so being aware and observant will be critical for safety.

    • John Alexander
      John Alexander says:

      Hi Tom, Saw a reference to kilts on your blog page. Are you active in the Scottish Heritage movement? I am the current President of the Clan MacAlister Society. I’ve already convinced the Commute Orlando / Cycling Savvy group to plan a ride to the Central Florida Highland Games which will be held in Winter Springs, FL on January 15 & 16, 2011. I’ll have a tent set up there to share information on genealogy, Scottish history, and travel to Scotland.

  2. Allen "Chuck". Alexander
    Allen "Chuck". Alexander says:

    Great article, John. I really admire you for going the extra mile and really LEARNING how to ride your bike. I doubt that I’d even WALK the I-4 interchange, let alone ride it on a bike. You are a real inspiration! Keep up the good work. Great article
    Your brother Chuck

    • John Alexander
      John Alexander says:

      Chuck, I feel much safer riding my bike across that interchange than walking it. Thanks for your ongoing support. Congratulations on your speedy recovery from your heart operation. Glad that you now have more energy. Maybe bike riding’s not for you, but keep up your rehab and be healthy and happy! You are one fantastic brother! Love, John

  3. Robin Frisella
    Robin Frisella says:

    As a cyclist who carries quite a few extra pounds, I had a very similar experience when I took a “pre-Cycling Savvy” course that had Keri and Lisa as two of the instructors. I had a very similar and empowering experience to yours, John. Thanks for reminding me of that feeling, and for re-inspiring me!

    • John Alexander
      John Alexander says:

      Hi Robin, Thanks for leading the way and for helping to serve as a “test case” for the development of Cycling Savvy. Mighk, Keri, and Lisa have done a fantastic job designing a program that is generating such positive improvement – not only in bike skills, but in people’s attitudes!

  4. LisaB
    LisaB says:

    Thank you for sharing the story of your journey. I love your positive spirit and can-do attitude. And your brother is right: You are an inspiration!


    • John Alexander
      John Alexander says:

      Looking forward to spending more “road time” with you and the group. I see from Robin’s message that you had a hand in developing Cycling Savvy – well done!

  5. Brad Kuhn
    Brad Kuhn says:

    Welcome to the wonderful, and wide open, world of safe cycling. My fiancee, Darlyn Finch, and I both took the Cycling Savvy class and it changed our lives. I was a confessed “gutter bunny” and Darlyn was a sidewalk rider. Now I commute comfortably, from Ocoee to downtown Orlando, controlling the curb lane, and Darlyn is strictly a street rider now. Best to you! be sure to register on our website, http://www.bikewalkcentralflorida.org and help make Central Florida a more walkable, bikeable place to live!

    • John Alexander
      John Alexander says:

      Thanks, Brad – Everyone’s encouragement through the Cycling Savvy program and beyond has meant a great deal to me. Congratulations on improving your own skills and making your commute more enjoyable. I gladly signed up for “Bike Walk Central Florida” – keep up the good work!

    • John Alexander
      John Alexander says:

      Hi danc, I appreciate you posting a note. Keeping moving is what it’s all about. Followed your link and it appears that you are from northeast Texas. Our family helped found Bonham, TX many years ago. Ever been there?

      • danc
        danc says:

        Hi John, ChipSeal is a sad example of a legally operating cycling being forced off the road. Never been to Bonham, TX. Thank again for your story and reply.

        Best, DanC

    • John Alexander
      John Alexander says:

      Hi John, I sincerely appreciate your comments. The Cycling Savvy program has been well designed and produces results. I hope to help advance the awareness of the program in my own small way. I’ve invited Mighk and Keri to present the program to CHART (The Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers) at a meeting in February. On the one hand, I want to demonstrate a program that is solid from an instructional design standpoint, and truly changes behavior (a take away that these hospitality trainers should model for their own programs). In addition, I want to plant the seed that they make their organizations aware of this type of training and consider making it available to their employees. The restaurant industry is the largest private sector employer in the country with over 13 million employees. Many of those workers ride bikes to work – either by choice or financial necessity. They often need to ride back and forth to work at any time of day, but often late at night. To protect this valuable “human resource”, restaurant companies (and other employers) should consider providing them with the skills to make that commute safely. Cycling Savvy could be just the program to bridge that gap between the current situation (no training – many incidents and injuries) to a safe and healthy workforce.

  6. Roger Barr
    Roger Barr says:

    Great article, makes me want to get the bike out if only there wasn’t 2ft of snow outside. Maybe we could go a run on the bikes next time you visit Scotland, as well as climbing your first MUNRO.

    • John Alexander
      John Alexander says:

      Roger, I wonder if “bike driving” on the left hand side of the road is just as confusing as using a trying to drive a car over there. I’ll have to get in some more hill climbing practice before venturing over to Scotland. Thanks for the invitation!

  7. Lisa Heggeness
    Lisa Heggeness says:

    I am so proud of you, my friend! Biking at 59 (not to mention the PD)does perhaps require some relearning of skills, or strengthening some you already intuitively knew. Thanks for sharing your adventures…and 30 pounds is no small thing either!

    • John Alexander
      John Alexander says:

      Lisa Beth, Thanks for your note. Looking forward to riding with you sometime. If we combine biking with wine tasting, perhaps your husband, John, would be willing to serve as our “road crew” in case we find too many outstanding varietals to try 🙂 Just like “Friends don’t let friends drink bad wine”, “Friends don’t let friends drink and bike ride”!

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