By MARCUS MITCHELL
Head Copy Editor
It’s as easy as learning to ride a bike. I’ve heard that phrase countless times in my life. I heard it when my parents taught me how to swim in our backyard pool and again at age 17 when my dad took me to an empty parking lot so I could learn how to drive. After they said it, they would follow up with a chuckle and a smirk. They knew that phrase was meaningless to me. Now at age 20, I can swim with no problem and drive as well as anyone. But those words still haunt me to this day. Because no matter how easily I learn something new, I still can’t ride a bike.
But now, in my graduating year of college, I was determined to finally scratch that off my bucket list. It was time to cast out my demons and finally master a two-wheeler. But I knew I couldn’t do this by myself and needed help. I needed a teacher, but luckily I knew just the man to ask. The same man who tried to teach me when I was nine years old.
“Well, it’s about time,” my dad said when I told him of my plan. He had just picked me up from UT and we were heading back to my hometown of Eustis. With his dark skin and towering figure, my dad looks more like a boxing coach than a bike instructor. But regardless, I knew there was no one I trusted more when it was time to ride. In the two-hour drive we mapped out my lesson. We would do it in the grass so I wouldn’t hurt myself, and we would do it on one of the few days my dad had off from work. With our game plan set, we pulled into my neighborhood. Greeted with a rusted “Dead End” sign and a pothole, I’m home.
With my suitcase and a basket full of laundry, I walk in the house. As if on cue, my mom comes from the kitchen, a banana in one hand and a water bottle in the other. Her normally pale skin is flushed red and she tells me about how she just came from run and the details of her new diet. I tell her about my plans to learn how to ride a bike and she hits me with a comment that sends a quick shiver down my spine.
“Well I’m sure it will end up better than the last time you tried.” I just laugh it off and head to get a shower before bed. In the shower I can’t help but recall what happened when I last gripped handlebars.
I was nine years old and my dad had decided my brother and I were going to learn how to ride a bike. My brother Chase, six at the time, got one for Christmas that year so my dad thought it was the perfect time for us to learn. He brought out my mom’s old bike from the garage and took us to the middle of our front yard. It was the only bike that we had, so we would have to take turns. I was first.
With my dad’s urgency to get the show on the road, I sat down on the bike. He put his hand on my back and I looked back and told him not to let go until I gave permission. I watched enough television to know he would let go, but I trusted him nonetheless. Next thing I know, we are off and I started to pedal forward. I was crossing the yard and was focused on my feet sticking to the pedals. “There you go,” my dad yells from yards behind me and it dawns on me that he took his hand off my back and I was on my own. My support was gone and I felt myself falling toward the ground. My thin body lands in a large bed of stinging nettles, their pins pricking me as I try to get out from under the bike. I start to itch at my exposed skin and my dad takes me to the bathroom and lets me soak in hot water to soothe my growing rashes. With tears in my eyes and exaggerated scratching, I beg him to never make me get on a bike again until finally he promises.
Flash forward 11 years and I’m standing frozen in memory in the same bathtub where I begged never to ride again. My skin starts to itch from the recollection and I wash harder than normal and question my decision to learn how to ride. Did I really need to know how to do this? Why was I doing this? Could I do this? My previous ambition was replaced with nervousness and I went to bed that night with only one thought on my mind. That this wasn’t going to be easy.
During the time between that night and the first lesson, my nerves began to fizzle out. My dad was still on board with teaching me and the time finally came. But first, my dad led me to go get the bike we would be using.
I walked into my garage, though I couldn’t really call it a garage as the only thing parked there was an old elliptical exercise machine. My dad said the bike was in the back and he led the way through a garage that even a hoarder would be nervous about. After stepping over a garbage bag of old clothes that never got donated, we reached what looked like a junkyard.
“Your mom’s bike should be under that suitcase” my dad said, pointing to an old floral suitcase in the corner of the garage. Chase’s Mongoose’s handlebars poked out from under a pile of clothes and a mountain bike that I won in an elementary school speech contest rested nearby. Neither have been ridden in years.
Finally, I removed the suitcase and tossed it on some totes of Christmas decorations. With some yanking and pulling, my mom’s old, sky blue bicycle presented itself. It was sleek with a wide seat and hadn’t been used in at least a decade, not since it had me pinned on the ground. My mom learned how to ride on it, which was an 18th birthday gift back in 1988, and now 27 years later it would teach me.
Like a jockey leading a horse, I carefully guided the bicycle out from the garage and to the backyard. The grass was freshly cut and there was just enough room to ride around. My mom joined us at this point and informed me that her phone only had 40 percent battery left, so we would have to be quick. It was about five in the afternoon and darkness was going to reach us whether I learned in time or not.
I put my leg over the bike and claim my seat. I’m uncomfortable, but my dad tells me where to put my feet for a good push off. He puts his hand on my back and I’m ready. This is finally it. I’m going to tackle my life’s biggest failure and do this. With my heart in my stomach and my hands shaking against the torn rubber of the handlebars, I push off. And I go nowhere.
“The tires are a little flat and you’re too heavy to go anywhere in the grass,” my dad says and I get off the bike. He pumps up the tires a bit and tells me to follow him to the road. I walk past our driveway and up an incline to where my dad is stationed in the middle of our street. I climb onto the bike again, this time already knowing where my feet go and I prepare for my takeoff. I realize the stakes are a little higher on the jagged pavement but I’m still raring to go. My dad puts his hand on my seat to keep me up and I push off and start to pedal. Immediately I start to lean to the left and I brake.
I’m much more unbalanced than I realize and after a few more failed attempts I grow frustrated with myself. It’s all in my head and the fear of falling is weighing heavily on me, a fear that I didn’t have when I was nine. At least ten more tries pass and I still can’t help but lean to a side. I sit and look up at the sky trying to get out of my own head and into an empty mindset. My mom keeps telling me how she learned and Chase has now gotten his old bike out and is riding it around. I just close my eyes and get my bearings. It’s dark and I smack at my skin as the mosquitos make their presence known.
A hand lands on my shoulder and my dad leans over in front of me. “It’s all in your head. But you know that. You are always in your own head. Let’s do this,” he says. I protest that I can’t stay balanced and he puts one hand on my shoulder and another on the bike and just says “pedal”. He pushes me forward and I start to pedal, his arms keeping me steady and the bike from leaning. I pedal faster and I still feel him pushing me, this time he isn’t letting go. I’ve pedaled with his hand on my shoulder for a few yards and he runs with me as I pedal faster and faster. I hear him start to struggle and I wonder what he hasn’t let go and then it hits me.
“I’m ready for you to let go,” I say. I feel his weight leave my shoulder and his support leave my bike. I wobble slightly and his release but I barrel forward, my eyes focused on the asphalt in front of me. All I hear is the sound of the spokes whizzing through the wind and I feel weightless on the bike. It’s dark and I’m by myself on a scrap of metal in the middle of a street that will tear the skin off my body should I fall. I don’t know where I’m going to end up and it’s scary and my heart feels like it’s going to jump out of my chest. But I keep pedaling in the darkness, knowing that if I fall I have people to pick me up and get me back on the bike. But I don’t care about falling right now. I felt alive and I just keep going forward.